Shelby: Final Thoughts

I’m about to go to sleep. I’m writing this from a restaurant in Boulder, there’s a hot bowl of soup in front of me. Steam rising in wisps off the top, noodles floating. Across the table, Dan’s fidgeting nervously, he also ordered a cup of soup. We’ve been through a lot. But I think the worst is behind us. I’m in a stupor, really- a trance, if you could call it that. A transitional period.

You know the type. You’ve been in bed for around seven minutes- six, maybe, but you’re not counting- and all of a sudden you realize that you were tripping off an enormous cliff, getting electrocuted, you were on train tracks and didn’t hear the sound the engine made- and your heart skips a beat and you bolt straight up, awoken before you had a chance to really sink deeper. My whole life has been like that. Always nervous, on the edge, never comfortable. Never complacent.

It’s disturbing to consider that none of us are really born with any intrinsic attributes. They develop in us, gradually. We’re only a product of our environment, and every action we take, every thought we have- is in a causal relationship with our surroundings. I don’t know how much stock you can put in that, but it seems to be the case for me at least. Haven’t broken the cycle.


Mom told me that worrying was normal. She told me that it was normal to experience issues in clarity, errors in perception. I had inherited her trauma, she said. I could tell, when she told me that, that she didn’t like it any more than I did. She knew before I started experiencing the nightmares that I would inevitably be gripped by the throttling psychosis which had, for most of her adult life, plagued her. On most nights I would experience acute insomnia, waiting for the hat man to appear. He never did.

My grades slipped, though. I took remedial classes, one hot summer was spent catching up. I could tell Mom really wanted the best for me. Dad had died when I was too young to remember him. He disappeared in Boise, the body was never found. Growing up, I remember the unsold AST products lying around the house. The vacant boxes, as vacant as his legal status. Mom held out hope, I feel. That he would walk through the front door sometime, recount wild tales of adventure across the country, but like the Hat Man, he never made his presence known.

I comforted Mom whenever she had nightmares. They were never of the Hat Man, she said. She said this was probably because he knew that if she saw him again she would do everything in her power to wrap her hands around his throat and kill him. After what had happened in her coma, she said, she had come to recognize what a malevolent force he was. Pure and indisputable evil, grimacing from beneath the trenchcoat. I took her stories seriously.

I aged and found solace in the old AST manuals and components, which only fueled my obsession with technology and the ways in which it can assist modern life. Eventually I graduated from the outdated AST software which gathered dust in our closet to a Linux system in the computer lab at school. Took a lot of courses. I feel this was to counteract the chaos that I felt was consuming my day-to-day routine. Numbers don’t lie, code is infallible. A sacred text of sorts.

Disillusionment and nihilism were what I turned to in 8th and 9th grade. I decided that if I didn’t care about the Hat Man, he couldn’t hurt me. During this time I remember carrying on long e-mail exchanges with Uncle Kevin, who lived halfway across the country. He told me about Mom’s coma, what she had told him growing up, and like that. Kevin was cool as a cucumber, indifferent to all that took place around him. I guess some of that indifference wore off on me.

I asked Kevin about what Dad had been like, and he said he didn’t see Steve much, but that he was a very decent and upstanding kind of guy. The kind of guy who doesn’t like getting involved in other people’s problems but does whatever he can to help out if push comes to shove. And the long nighttime e-mail exchanges with Kevin sort of molded an image of my father in my head. My parents had been young when they met in 1996, but I think he was good for Mom. Knew how to console her, help her through everything. Drove her to therapy appointments.

It was my 13th birthday in 2009 and Uncle Kevin showed up, brought me a special keyboard with decals on it. I think he designed them himself, by painting nail polish on all the keys and then scratching it off to create really intricate patterns. Matter of fact, I kept it and used it up until tonight. Now it’s just ash, like everything else in the archival building.

I remember the faces of some of my friends from school- the few who didn’t treat me like some sort of outcast freak- Mom, and Kevin, all gathered around the cake, their faces lit up, and all of them singing in unison. I remember being happy, feeling genuine delight, and as the song approached a fever pitch, the thing opened the door behind them- silently, without so much as a whisper. It slid effortlessly over the shag carpet, arms sprawling, jaws open wide, nearing us- and as it did I let out a scream I didn’t even know my lungs were capable of producing, an ear-piercing wail, and knocked the cake in the direction of the creature. Before the cake could impact it, it vanished into nothing.

My friends were shocked and disturbed, one of them pulled her cellphone out and called for her parents to pick her up, the others just stood in the corner in abject contemplation while I paced around the mess of frosting I had created. It’s a wonder I didn’t light the room on fire. Mom and Kevin rushed over to me, put their arms around me, told me it wasn’t my fault, that they would clean it up. After that I went up to my room and fell asleep to the barely audible sibling dialogue below.

In the morning, Kevin came in and hugged me, told me that he and Mom had both been through a lot and that maybe I was seeing what Mom had seen. He asked me if the thing I had seen was wearing a hat. Yes, I said. It was wearing a kind of hat. At least, I thought it was.

But then I told him about the arms, all eight of them, and Kevin told me he didn’t remember anything like that in her account of the night she had gotten lost in the fake neighborhood. The hat man, according to her, was mostly like a human. Then again, it made sense to him that since I was her daughter, the hat man might try to come after me. Might try to hurt me to torture Mom even more.

“Has Opal ever told you about what she saw in her coma?” he asked. She never had. “I’ll tell you, then. She didn’t want me to. But you’re 13 now, and I think you can handle the story. It is real. As real as her first encounter, anyway. I teased her about it sometimes. Don’t do what I did. Sis is real sick. She needs clarity and order.”

“What happened?” Kevin took a deep breath, as if the memory was hard to recover. He carried a little bit of trauma with him, too, even though by his own admission he had never suffered from sleep problems of any kind. His job was miserable and being so far away from his immediate family did take a sort of toll on him, he always felt like a stranger who didn’t belong. I guess that was what made me identify so strongly with him. By now I was well indoctrinated into my Gothic phase. I had bought fifty shades of eyeliner I never used.

“Sis didn’t feel anything for a while,” he began. “She bottled it up. You know, tried going on. But then, one night- and keep in mind, I was young, so I don’t remember all that much- she passed out. Collapsed. And we were horrified. We thought she was going to die. She stayed like that for a week, and then two weeks, and after about a month they were actually considering pulling the plug. But out of nowhere, she just sat up. And she looked like she had been through a lot.”

“Sometimes we just spent hours on the couch and she would tell me about the places she had been in that state. She called it the between something. I would make a plate of chips and dip, and we would just spend all night with her going over what exactly had happened and I was kind of enthralled by the detail she gave in her observations of this place, how many characters she had put together. The ways in which they all connected. It was amazing. Your Mom’s a natural born storyteller.” I nodded. She had told me some of these things, often waxed philosophical while working out in the garden under the hot sun.

“But the main event,” he continued, “And what she claimed had made her wake up, was the Hat Man. He had found her somehow, locked onto her presence, and in the final week he made her coma even worse. Conjured up elaborate delusions where she would wake up and we would all be dead, or she would wake up and we would eat her alive, and he would expand time such that one minute in our state- that is to say, the waking state- was a year in her state. Finally, she had enough, and she became so accustomed to these manufactured delusions that she broke through them. She told me it was like breaking a sheet of plexiglass, that she came out on the other side and the Hat Man was standing there like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.” When Kevin said this he shivered a little and glanced at my Siouxsie poster. I could tell he really did believe every word he was saying.

“And she walked right up to him,” Kevin went on. “It wasn’t even difficult. She asked him about what he was, why he did this, what sort of sick pleasure he got from it. If it had been me, I wouldn’t have been nearly as strong as she was. But she says it was easy for her. Because fear is only created by the presence of the unknown, and after enough time being exposed to anything, the novelty wears off. By this point, according to her, the hat man was just some fucking bozo and she was, to put it lightly, pissed.”

“He said nothing. Just stood there in the pitch darkness, and she tried clawing at his face, kicking him in the shins. He didn’t feel any of it. Finally, he just evaporated into a kind of mist. She said that he wasn’t dead. He had escaped. And that’s what’s disturbed her ever since she woke, immediately after he just turned to dust- that maybe there is no way to really kill him, that after he’s done with one victim he’ll just move onto the next, and the next. No justice for him. No consequences.” Kevin had a really terrified quality in his voice here, as if the hat man was standing right outside my bedroom door and listening to us as we spoke. Something probably was. Probably that thing with the arms.

“Do you think what I saw tonight was the Hat Man?”

“No,” he said, with a tone of absolute certainty. “I’ve been thinking about it. It couldn’t be. If it was him, you would know it, and you WOULD have known instantly. There wouldn’t be any doubt in your mind. You did see something, though. Don’t run away from it like your mom did, Shelb. That might have been her error initially. Denial, suppression. Try to find out what it wants.” And with that he patted me on the knee, exhaled, and walked out of the room. That was the last time I saw him alive.


There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t consider the implications of these things being real, crossing over into my life, potentially apprehending me at any moment. Clearly, Mom believed in them. She didn’t want to talk about them, or it, or whatever you would call it, but she lived with the unspoken assertion that we had been under someone’s watchful eye ever since that strange day back in 1992.

I focused, though. I created a kind of hypervigilance to prevent slipping over onto their turf. I completed every assignment at school, studied so hard Mom decided to buy a coffee maker just so I could stay up late to finish work for extra credit. I became fixated on concrete terms, algebra and then calculus, determined that mathematics could be trusted, that one could never fail with an equation. In many ways, of course, I still believe that. They don’t exist beyond science. They just aren’t categorized yet.

The second time I saw one of them, I was more prepared. The initial shock had worn off, and while it had been a long time since the incident with the cake I still remembered it, albeit faintly. I had been sitting beneath the willow tree at the southern end of the high school campus, finishing some trigonometry problems. I remember that it had been around 5 P.M. one second and well past 9 P.M. the next. That can happen, sometimes, when you’re consumed by your work, you glance up and the sky is pitch dark and the crickets are chirping. Whether or not the distortion was entirely a product of my fevered brain, I can’t say. It could have been due to the thing’s presence.

I felt it, the indescribable feeling of every second being slightly off. I think I can describe it. Naturally, we’re rhythmic beings. You can tap a pencil, keep a beat on a drum kit, possess a reasonably good understanding of what a second entails. When you’re in close proximity with them, that all goes out the window, and you’re left without any sense of temporal orientation. As if the fluid in your ear which creates your sense of balance was drained and you collapsed in a heap.

I lowered my paper slowly, taking quick inhalations, all the blood draining from my face. I was somewhat nauseous, groggy, in an unpleasant altered state. Above me the willow towered, bending ever so slightly in the gentle evening breeze, and out on the soccer field the thing stood as tall and straight and as a flagpole, its face in the shadows despite the crackling yellow streetlamp above it.

Then, with no fanfare and no warning, it began moving toward me. And I sat on the plastic bench, leaning hard against it until it created a mark on my back, trying to disappear or to hide. It was slow, but I could not move. I couldn’t stand or run or walk. I was held spellbound by the creature, whose glowing red eyes stood out like twin pinwheels from beneath the folds of its massive trenchcoat. It began unfolding its arachnid limbs from beneath that intricate garment, producing a strange cracking with its joints.

“Hello,” it said.

I think I screamed after that, though the sound was distant and felt detached from my own vocal cords. I wonder if anyone heard me at that late hour, or if the thing had completely untethered me from my immediate surroundings. In response, it extended one probing feeler, which it placed onto my wrist, and I began taking sharp deep gasps again, crying a little. The end of its arm was coated in a kind of thick charcoal grease, interspersed with tiny little sensor hairs.

“Please,” it rasped in that voice of grit. “there is nothing to fear. let us walk and I will explain.” It regressed back, I guess to prove that it didn’t pose an imminent threat. I set aside the trigonometry papers, the pencil landed somewhere in the dust, and before I knew it I was walking alongside it, my shoes gliding effortlessly upon the artificial grass of the soccer field. We came up on the Eastern goal box.

How strange serendipity is, that I should meet the thing on a soccer field. The place where my mother had first crossed over- in fact, yes- it was the same soccer field.

It turned up towards the sky, paused for a moment. Communication was difficult for it, an ordeal only to be undertaken during special occasions such as this. It wasn’t going to eat me or kill me, I knew that now. It was completely benign.

“I apologize for my garb,” it said, holding its top right arm up toward its wide-brimmed hat and gesturing with its lower left arm at its coat. “We must wear these when we... enter your plane. They conceal our true nature. Unfortunately, you have confused us with someone else.” We both sat down then, underneath the grid shadow of the goal box, and I think far away I could hear the distant whistle of a freight train. I was still giddy, my heart beating profusely, wanting to ask the creature anything I could... because it had to know something.

“The Hat Man,” I settled on. “I thought you were the Hat Man.” I tried clarifying this point, tried elaborating on it, infusing it with some nuance, yet the thing seemed to understand what I had said entirely, and merely leaned back against the PVC frame of the box and let out a deep, strange sigh.

“We know of him,” it rumbled with something that sounded like anger. “He was like you once. Disillusioned. Tired. Convinced that all people were hypocrites and that all modes of thought were ineffective. He... transformed into what he is now. Became something more than human. We don't know as much as we would like to know. But we do know what happened to your mother. And the mark it left upon you.These things we know... all too well.” It shuddered slightly as it said that last bit. Had there been other people terrorized by that malignant entity? If it could cause even this grotesque interdimensional being to recoil in abhorrent disgust, then I had no doubt of the Hat Man’s potential to produce unnatural levels of fear in mere humans. What chance did I stand against him?

“It’s genetic, then,” I responded. “Trauma, passed down from generation to generation. Something like that. Why not ask my mother to fight him? She knows more about him than I do. I’ve never even seen him- I don’t think I have, anyway.” I was nervous, so I pulled a stick of spearmint gum from my front pocket and started chewing. It’s a nervous habit I still engage in to this day.

“no, you misunderstand,” it said. “we have no intention of you finding him. Such a meeting would be disastrous and unnecessary. I said only that I know minimal details about him. Nothing more.” Again it raised its feeler and inspected it closely. It seemed to be making a conscious effort to speak, as if communication- at least vocally- was an insurmountable struggle for it. It couldn’t very well adapt to our world.

“I want to meet the bastard,” I insisted. “You know more than you’re letting on. Don’t assume I’m stupid, I’m privy to your games. Tell me where he is and I’ll beat the living daylights out of him. If he’s been giving you problems, I’ll make him wish he never started his little campaign of fear.” In hindsight, this was too severe an approach, and if I had been lighter the thing may have revealed the Hat Man’s location or weaknesses to me. It could see, though, that I would be reckless and put the Hat Man’s suffering over my own safety and well being. And for whatever reason, it prioritized my safety.

“No,” it reiterated. “That is not why I am here. I need to tell you something of vital importance-” It held out one decayed paw and then its face was revealed in the soft glow of the lights in the apartment windows across the street- it was revolting. Something like human skin, but coated in phlegm, with thick beige pincers opening and closing where a mouth should have been- and tiny little eyes above its two normal eyes, closer together, over the bridge of its hideously angled nose...

I screamed, loud and clear, and it recoiled in shock at my unprovoked outburst.

“Get away,” I yelled, retreating to the bench and grabbing my backpack. “Just... get the fuck away. If you’re not going to help me, or help my mom, just go back to whatever pit you crawled out of. Please. Not tonight.” It sat there, apparently stunned, and I ran off in the other direction. I felt terrible, thinking about how offended it must have been. It probably knew it looked horrible. And I kept repeating, over and over in my head: Am I that focused on appearance? What’s wrong with me tonight?

It had been an amicable visit, even pleasant. Until it showed its face. I was convinced, thoroughly, that whatever it was it didn’t mean me any harm. It had wanted to espouse vital information to me, and I had rejected it of my own accord, and in all likelihood it was so polite that it would respect my desire to be left alone, and leave me alone to my own demise.

Dark thoughts, that’s what I had racing under the oaks and maples, nearly out of breath, somewhat nauseous from my abrupt return to normal linear time. Every twig snapping under my shoes caused me to snap back in apprehension. Images of maggots raced through my head, of something like maggots- little white worms on a dark background, wriggling and crawling, eating the substrate from which they were borne. Festering, multiplying. Disgusting.

I feel ill even now, thinking about that night. Almost done with the soup, trying not to dribble any on the keyboard. We attracted stares when we came in, of course- Dan still has that deep gash across his face, although the staff at Boulder Foothills did their best to bandage it up it’s probably going to stay with him for the rest of his life. Just like his knowledge that even now that we’ve been through a lot, and shared so much- so, so much over these past few years- I can’t become intimate with him. It’s just not who I am. And I think he respects that. Even if it will result in the days ahead for him being empty and pointless.

We’ve been through a lot, he and I, and it seems like the experience shouldn’t have been without meaning- that it should have ended with him folding his hands into mine and taking charge, a permanent resilient bond between us. But I took charge. Dan is still as weak and frail as he was the first day he started working at the Archive.

Arguably, I’ve been through more. That night. I was talking about that night. Racing home, mind was all cluttered, kept seeing things. Stoplights between blocks didn’t seem to work quite right, and for a few moments I wondered if I was starting to slip into the reality Mom had warned me of, the Hat Man’s domain, where every street led onto another equally unremarkable street and escape from his slithering talons was unattainable given that he was the architect of that domain. I had walked streets like those many times in dream. Her vivid descriptions were enough to make them fully realized inside my head.

I kept waiting for him to appear behind me, kept looking over my shoulder nervously. Nothing came of it. Just darkness, echoes in the wash, small jittery sounds. And then, a burst of cricket noise. As if the whole street came alive, swarms of the things all chirping in unison to blot out that wretched silence. I covered my ears and ran home, darted as fast as I could in the direction of my house.

The windows were dark, and with my palms still held firmly over my ears I tiptoed to the front porch. The door was locked. This was unusual, Mom never locked the house while I was out. I was having convulsions, breathing pains, sharp jolts to my abdomen and lungs. I had gone too fast. Bugs still making that infernal dynne as if their lives depended on it. Why, there must have been thousands of them up in the trees, breeding and festering and multiplying-

No, I thought, gripping the railing, swaying over our delicate wicker chair. Not crickets. Didn’t sound like them at all, there was no real pattern, it was more like-

Like static. Like a TV set turned way up, to its maximum volume, with nothing on.

I couldn’t tell whether the effect was still present, that sickening sense of time-dilation. In a fugue of anxiety, I rushed around to the back door. It was as if the whole world was closing in on me. Objects became darker, the backyard was coated in shadow and secrecy and things were fading on and off as if someone was flipping a breaker.

It was quiet in the house, and the transition from the blurred bedlam of the outside world into the dusty solitude of the living room was jarring. You’ll probably only experience that sort of silence once in your life, the sort of silence which screams that something is wrong- out of place, out of order. That somewhere along the line the familiar has transformed into the unrecognizable.

My mother’s rigid effigy sat upright on the couch, facing the front window, as if she were looking out at the night. I knew as I emerged from the living room into the hall that she was dead, even before I could smell the stench of decay or feel her papery, lifeless fingers, gripping the armrests fervently. That pervasive silence- the sound of death- was all I needed to know that my mother was gone. No more than a silhouette against the curtains, cool breeze wafting in off the street.

Our TV was on.

I remember when we got it, around 2005. She had taken me to the electronics store. I remember distinctly looking around at all the new appliances, fascinated by the different ways in which information could be distributed- along wires, wirelessly, through fax machines and modems and HDMI ports. She had picked the TV off the shelf, told me that it wasn’t the newest model, that it didn’t have the most features, but that it was affordable and reliable and that we could watch pretty much anything on it.

It was an old model, on clearance if I remember, a cathode ray tube TV, the kind with the expansive projector in the back, the curved screen that creates the illusion of depth, the static particulate which clings to you if you get close enough, stretch your arm out and feel the tiny little electric blips hitting the glass at a rate well beyond what the human mind can imagine.

It was on, inexplicably, tossing static and shadows across the room. Warping, too, as if someone were dragging a magnet carelessly across its surface, trembling and shaking, lending the room a quality which signaled to me that it was no longer my home, that things I did not comprehend had made their nest here, burrowed in like a colony of termites, and that I was witness to the mere aftermath of some seismic battle which had been fought, and which my mother had been on the receiving end of.

She was pale, her eyes open, I remember her eyes most of all, they had glazed over and the light from the TV reflected dimly off them. Even in death, there was no rest for her, she would be subjected to the electrons and photons as they mindlessly made their way into her inactive brain. I tried closing her eyelids, but they remained stiff in place. She was staring into the long dark.

Switching the button on the front panel of the set accomplished nothing, the broadcast continued and little by little the distortion subsided, until it was quiet and I was left alone, crying and curled into a heap on the carpet, inspecting every strand of the rug as if it were a microcosm of the universe, gazing down every fragment of dust particulate as it wound its way lazily down onto the dull gray surfaces of this alien landscape I had stumbled into. Anechoic tears.

I knew then what had been done, and I still know what had been done. I tried lying to myself, insisting that she had some kind of accident, too much to drink or smoke, but she didn’t drink and didn’t smoke and she had been in perfect health, the prime of her life. The Hat Man was the only real explanation. I repeated those words breathlessly over and over again like some kind of ritualistic chant as my own muscles contracted, first in terror, then in anger, and finally, when it became clear to me that nothing could be done, that Mom was gone, into languid despair.

I remember very little of what happened next. I vaguely recall climbing the stairs, collapsing into bed, misery and fatigue regarding the state of the world I occupied, a desire to move somewhere where things made sense, where physical laws behaved as you would expect them to. Where everything could be categorized into neat little boxes. These boxes gradually transformed into binary, rootkits, algorithms. Carrying me down the electric river into a dull peaceless slumber.

I remember, too, the faint touch of a tendril, a hair, something standing over me and watching me. Reminding me that it wasn’t my place to be upset, that these things were beyond my control and I had to seize what was readily available to me without complaint, follow the path. That revenge would accomplish nothing, that in time all would be well. That nothing lasts forever.

Kevin, as I mentioned earlier, was dead by then, too. I don’t think the Hat Man had been involved, though he could have been. Records of Kevin’s death were vague and inconsistent in some places, however the general consensus was that he had been run over while trying to cross a highway and spent the last 10 days of his life hooked up to an IV drip in the hospital. He was still so young, so much in the prime of his life, that when I heard this it was difficult for me to fully accept.

In the end I decided to live with my grandma on Mom’s side. Her name was Andrea and I had seen her a few times every year, but she was reserved and getting on in age and hesitated to let me move in with her. She lived near the south of Denver, close to Cherry Creek Reservoir and the Tech Center, and it took me a while to adjust to my new school and the long commute downtown. She didn’t ever say much about Opal or anything like that, she seemed to be in denial of her own daughter’s existence.

Sometimes Grandma would act as if I was her daughter, and I wondered if she was playing around or going off the deep end. I wondered why she resented Mom so much, to the extent that she refused to talk about her over the dinner table. She was sullen, withdrawn, and didn’t interfere with what I did or where I went after school, provided I got good grades and worked hard.

She said even less about Grandpa, who according to her had made off to Las Vegas with half of their divorce money and was probably staying in expensive hotels and making out with prostitutes every night, although she had no proof of this and I was confident that maybe Grandpa was just living a quiet life in the Nevada desert in an RV or something, finally at peace from the intricacies and nuance of what had happened to the family.

I think my reaction to Mom’s death was less severe than it should have been. I brushed it off, still hung out at the Cherry Creek Mall every now and again, even if it meant taking the light rail, just so I could sit back and lean against the wooden pallets of my favorite bench in front of the fountain and listen to the water splashing and gurgling. It was an extremely hypnotic noise that I don’t think could be replicated anywhere, and helped take my mind off what went on every day. Somehow, it reminded me of a computer, a thinking machine.


Computers are much, much older than we assume. The Antikythera Mechanism is 2,200 years old. When it was first discovered, people couldn’t believe what it was, because they didn’t think the Greeks would have been able to build a machine that could think, calculate, sort out problems and equations. It forced the modern world to reconsider what we thought we knew about history, and in doing so initiated a sweeping paradigm shift. A recontextualization of the ancient.

If the Greeks were capable of building such a device, then who was to say that we were any more sophisticated, that we had really made any progress, that now was any different in any substantial ways from then? I thought about the millennia during which the mechanism had been subject to salt water, corroding beneath the waves, slowly decaying until it was buried in rock and lime deposits and other assorted oceanic rubble. The fountain kept running.

I found I liked the atmosphere of South Denver, noticed that there were a lot of nerds who were obsessed with computers as I was, and initially I figured I would join them for an internship at the Tech Center, maybe work my way up to one of the higher-level positions. I spent afternoons wandering the aisles of the tech store they have down there, gazing at all the connectors and hookups that were possible. All that potential. A hungry brain.

Grandma didn’t really understand the style or fashion I had fallen into, she felt the need to point out that my eyeliner was smudged or that my leggings were torn, as if these weren’t intentional decisions on my part. It was around 2015 by then and I was taking a gap year after graduating from high school. Still wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to make of myself. I knew, though, that the only way to be certain was to explore around Denver and feel the opportunity out. I was vividly aware, through some means, that when my destiny made itself clear I would know.

I fell into a sort of daily routine where I would wake up, head down to Cherry Creek Reservoir to watch the wide expanse of water and the dam at the far northern end, a massive stone monolith which curved around the rim like a barrier to the outside world. I wondered if, somewhere in those murky depths, there was a mechanism of unknown origin, ticking away slowly, counting the minutes and hours to my fate.

Sometimes I would take the bike path to the Mall, wind up there around 2 P.M., eat a belayed lunch at the food court, stuff myself with needless calories and off-brand garbage, then sit in front of the fountain for a few hours and lean back, staring upwards at the ceiling, the ornate lighting of the facility and the people wandering around aimlessly like a colony of insects on the balcony above. I became a fixture there so much that one or two times I received suspicious glances from Security, though since I wasn’t doing anything to anyone I wasn’t ever approached by them.

This was my real education, I realized. Sitting here, for hours at a time, contemplative and meditative, coerced into just the right headspace by the ambiance, the terrible pop songs played over the intercom, the trappings of commerce. And behind me the fountain sang out in a lush chorus, spoke to me in ways I don’t understand, even to this day. I’m not sure if they were behind it, speaking into it like a CB radio, or if it was an older and wiser entity than even they were. I’m inclined toward the latter.

I became aware that I had transformed, slowly, into a being without any real free will of my own, that I was a pawn on a grand chessboard, moved around like a rag doll on sedatives. Not that I cared. I had long since welcomed apathy as the brittle glass shield holding my sanity intact. As long as I refused to care about the world, the world ignored me and my activity.

Days became weeks, which gave way to months, and the process blurred. I learned how to slip into that peculiar state of time distortion, how to perceive time differently depending on mood or circumstance, and sometimes I would sit for hours without eating or sleeping on the edge of my bed in the upstairs room, staring straight ahead at the wall, testing my endurance.

I realized that I was an agent, an agent of a higher bureau, and that my behavior would appear abnormal to those outside the loop. I thought back to all the stories of secret societies I had heard. How much history was not only lost, but deliberately obfuscated, made confusing and impossible to parse by bored people like myself who wanted to keep secrets for kicks. The exclusivity of the position was the principle of the thing, even if at the end of the day the complexity of the organizations was wholly unnecessary.

“What are you going to do?” Grandma would ask at the dinner table, holding a forceful of mashed potatoes high, blowing the steam off the top. “I can’t take care of you forever. I don’t make enough, you know that. Going to run out of funds eventually. Choose something, honey.” I would lean back in my seat, clasp my arms behind my head.

“I will, Grandma,” I said. “Very soon, now. Very soon.” She could tell, by the way I said it, that I wasn’t sure what it would be, but that it would be something. I kept an eye out. Every day I increased my perception. I grew paranoid of every person who walked near me, every bulletin posted on the corkboard down at the computer lab, each memo sent and received. It was noisy down there, where you got to use free computers to code your own software, and the room was filled with the chatter of people moving and walking and conversing about intricate operating systems and browser interfaces and who knew what else. It was difficult in such an environment to let one’s guard down, even for a minute.

I should have guessed, on that day in 2017 when I bought an all-day regional ticket at Union Station to escape the searing pan of technological miasma I found myself in, that there was no escape from fate.

I remember waking up unusually early, around 6 A.M. when the sun was still cresting the horizon and the house felt cold and desolate. I normally slept in, so the feeling of the brisk morning air on my arms was enough to make me sit straight up and immediately walk downstairs where I proceeded to pour myself a bowl of cornflakes. I sat there, eating very slowly, mulling the idea over in my head. Yes. today is a good day to get out. Should go to Boulder, hike the Flatirons or something.

She caught me right before I left, her own face in an atrophied grimace. I had grabbed ten dollars from the bowl of spare change we kept near the door, said nothing to her, shut the screen, and fidgeted nervously with the money, stuffing it like a lunatic in the pocket of my jeans, well aware that this was more than a mere getaway.

The concourse at Union Station was massive- still is, by my reckoning- a grand testament to infrastructure, a wild chamber of echoes and escalators, with a perimeter of dark amber corridors sunlight cannot access. I had never seen it before then. I was giddy with the prospect of adventure and high on wanderlust, and immediately crammed the old 1 dollar bills into the slot at the ticket machine. The ticket popped out at the slot in the bottom, effortlessly. I inspected it, its silver lining to prevent counterfeiting, its sleek, polished design. The promise of something. Something else. Details remained scant.

I felt out of breath as the bus soared on the Denver-Boulder turnpike, glided into Church Ranch station and McCaslin station and all the rest, the roar of its engine beneath me, the highway like a ribbon on into the distance, to Boulder and the secluded opportunities therein. My lungs were crushed, I felt as if I were a passenger aboard the International Space Station as opposed to an unassuming rapid transit bus. Twice I felt the necessity to repress vomit. This was something.

And as that arid technicolor wonderland rose into view from the detritus of Broomfield and Louisville, I caught sight of the mountains and foothills and the vast open green spaces, the rivers and valleys, and way out on the plateau all the buildings that comprised the reclusive metropolis, made ethereal by the early morning haze, a landscape of miniatures.


I found the advertisement on the wall of the Dark Horse bar near the turnpike as it winds its way into town. I had walked there completely devoid of thought or intention. My feet becoming mere vessels, my mind a complete blank. It was as if someone was controlling my legs and arms, propelling me forward as a pilot propels a submarine through darkened waters and subnautical eddies. I wound up among the aroma of craft liquors and musky aftershave, blinked once and found myself amid the noontime chatter immediately preceding the raucous fervor of happy hour.

“Have anything?” I whirled around and spotted a waiter with a slick haircut and acne, he was holding a notepad. Must have caught me standing obliviously here, thought I was in a coma or something. Which I may as well have been. I stuttered and felt a lump forming in my throat.

“Not right now,” I said. “Let you know.” He gave me a strange look but turned around and walked into the kitchen. I had no money left, hadn’t prepared to eat. That was something else. Why wouldn’t I grab a little extra cash, on the off chance I went into a restaurant, unless I knew, somewhere in the indeterminate depths of my subconscious, that I wouldn’t need it?

I resumed my position, looking at the wall. Something about the decorative sensibilities of the place. I had never been there before, had never even been to Boulder, I don’t think. But the wall, something on the wall. I rounded the corner and found myself in the vast atrium of the place. Lots of decorations, ceiling and walls coated in kitschy ephemera, wagon wheels and mounted deer heads which stared out with glass eyes, and dusty sports pendants from before I was alive. Everywhere something to look at.

In the back of the room, one bulletin board. Like the one back home at the Tech center, composed of cork and thumbtacks, flyers and business cards hanging in an intricate arrangement, the arrangement one often finds in spontaneity, order out of infinite possibilities. A dataset, I told myself, steadying my nerves as I neared it. Collection of points on a grid. No need to get uptight. One foot in front of the other.

But you know. You know when your life is about to shift. Some people call it love at first sight, you catch his eye or her eye and you’re standing there, and five seconds ago everything in the world was exactly as it had been for who knows how long, and suddenly you’re on a collision course with destiny. You see her, or him, and realize that you can’t avoid the inevitable, you have to go over and talk to them, interact with them, can’t miss the opportunity, even if it turns out wrong you’ll have been better off for it, ultimately. That was the effect the bulletin board had.

I closed my eyes before any of the text or images on the board were discernible, stretched my arm out, gingerly touched the leaflets as if they were individual planchettes. Rifled through them. Going in completely blind. So many of them, left up there for weeks at a time. My fingers caught ahold of one paper which was thicker than the rest, carried a different weight to it. More substantive stock, one might say, or the ink was slightly raised, or maybe I was just in the mood. This was what it said:

Do you like old videos, songs, movies?
Would you like to be part of our mission to preserve history?
Join the Hypnagogic Archive today!
Flexible hours/schedule available.

I ripped the flyer off, stuck it into my pocket, and left. I found myself stranded far beyond the world I knew, Boulder is another world entirely when you get right down to it. Flatirons stood still in the distance, monoliths looming overhead. So close to the buildings, felt as if they’d fall right on top of me. I needed a phone. There was a phone number on the sheet, faded though legible. Maybe there was one downtown. I consulted maps and street signs, made my way slowly to the center of the action.

“Do you have a phone I could use?” I asked at the Municipal Building. The secretary was a middle-aged woman with business attire and her hair was starting to go gray, you could tell she was tired of her job and even less willing to put up with cloying demands from tourists. From where she sat, I must have appeared positively insipid.

“Right over there,” she gestured. “Fifteen minutes or less.” That would have been enough time, I reasoned. I don’t know why I assumed it would be. She gave me an odd shrug and resumed her work. Of course, being on drugs was nothing too far out of the range of possibilities here. I picked up the handset, jammed the buttons in frantically, struggled to lift the weight of the phone, I was so giddy with inexplicable anticipation.

“Hello,” came the voice from the other end. It was distant, though decidedly male.

“Hi,” I said, audibly nervous. Didn’t matter. “I saw your ad. Boulder. I don’t live here- I don’t think so. What I mean to say is, I want it. I want to do what you advertised.” I was breathing pretty loud, but the voice on the other end retained its composure. I could hear someone rifling through a stack of papers, the faint clatter of aluminum cans. Searching for something.

“Well, that’s good news,” came the reply. “Great news, in fact. We’re looking for people like you, people who are willing to take opportunities. It’ll require a lot of dedication on your part. I mean a lot. You won’t be paid at first, might not be paid at all depending on how much money comes in. This is strictly volunteer work, done out of your own passion and interest. Might earn you some pocket change, might not. You’ll need to understand that. But I think you can do it. Not sure why. Probably just the tone of your voice, your overall cadence.” His voice was comforting, soothing, drew you in like the chemical substrate on flypaper. It lent itself well to the kind of person I assumed he was. I formed a mental image in my head. Something about his hair.

“What do I need?” I asked, whispering in hushed tones. The lady at the desk was eyeing me.

“Just come up to Hygiene,” he said. “You know where that is, right?” I scrambled over to the desk, grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper from her mug, pressed the scrap against the wall and began scribbling madly as the voice on the other end described, in vivid detail, how to walk north from Boulder and then walk East along Hygiene Road. After around three minutes of these directions the line went dead.

I apologized to the woman at the desk, gingerly replaced her pen while retaining the scrap with the directions on it, told her I was new to town. She gave me a dismissive shrug and I left. I’d be in Hygiene by that evening, I reckoned. He said he’d still be there.

So I set out, with nothing but my own two feet to guide me- first along Highway 36 along Boulder’s main strip, out beyond Gateway Park’s distinct go-kart track, around the curve that heads out toward Lyons and Estes and the uncharted wilderness beyond. Walking North along 36 is a humbling experience, the foothills loom over you and you’re squeezed in by that grassy highlands terrain. I had no water, no food, but I knew it would be worth it in the end. Kept going.

I nearly missed Hygiene Road, it’s not the sort of street that particularly sticks out and by the time I was at it the sun was gone, obscured behind a mass of angry gray clouds to the West, which threatened to drench me. The East was beautiful, though, scarlet and amber for as far as the eye could see, that pristine Coloradan panorama with its intricate wooded glades, waterways and patches of farmland. Hygiene Road itself was beckoning to me. Look down here, it said. Only a few more miles.

I didn’t know quite what to think when I first saw it. It was a massive structure, old and gothic and with the trappings of some kind of warehouse, garage doors on the side. Located slightly east of the St. Vrain Creek, on the Northern side of the road, just as you start to spot Hygiene up ahead. The town is unassuming. The Archive- it sticks out like a sore thumb, a building that makes no sense and has no right to exist where it does, near those placid gurgling cottonwood-shaded waters and the quiet hum of tractors mowing away to the south. But there it is. There it was.

I should have turned around. No, said the voice in my head. They need a programmer, someone with expertise. Someone who knows her way around a computer. For a long while, as darkness set in and all the lights in Hygiene lit up like a candle in a Jack o’ lantern, I considered whether entry was advisable. I had told him to expect me. He would be expecting me. No sense in worrying, I told myself. Open up the screen door, main entrance unlocked. Quiet.

“Come in,” said a voice from somewhere in the stacks. “Don’t mind the mess. We’re not officially open to the public yet and we’ve had a lot of imports and exports these past few weeks. Just step over it.” I followed the sound, breathing in the dust. There’s a certain distinct scent to it, newspaper trimmings and old leather, and of course all that iron.

“Oh, this is fantastic,” he said, clapping once, emerging from behind a tower of Betamax. Shook my hand. “Shelby, right? You’re a little late, but that’s fine. C’mon, I’ll show you around.” He molded his fingers onto the small of my back, ushered me up a stairway onto the second floor, started opening and closing doors at random, peering inside. The place was terribly lit and I didn’t get a very good look at him. But there was that unruly sprig, bobbing up and down above his forehead. I remember that as the first thing that stuck out. As if no matter how much he combed his hair in the morning, treated his ugly vintage haircut with Brylcreem and conditioner, slicked it down with gusto, that one tiny strand eluded him and acted of its own accord.

“In here,” he proclaimed, motioning me into an expanse of debris, “This is- well, I don’t know what this is yet. Just got here, so it’s really as much to you as it is to me. The rest of the applicants will arrive soon. I’m pretty sure you’re the first.” Half-hearted smile between us, he steps out beneath a poorly insulated 50-watt bulb and I register, for the first time, his entire face- creases in a relatively young appearance, creases which he attempts ineffectively to suppress.

“You said this doesn’t pay anything?” I posited, running my fingers along the panels of a vacant bookshelf. He stops, pauses. His fingers extend one by one as if he’s heard something, stands bolt upright like a scarecrow. There’s something infectious about his movements, the way he slinks from one wall to the next with agility and fluidity.

“Well, I’m sure you need money,” came the dry response. “We can arrange that. Mostly the volunteer thing is for tax purposes. My accountant will take care of that, you’ll meet him later on. But if you need a car- like you said, you live in Denver- don’t worry. I think we’ll be able to take care of that, too. Anything you want, we can cover. Not as much as some other jobs- say, IT support in Boulder- but from speaking to you, just your voice- something about you- I have a feeling that wouldn’t really be up your alley anyway.” He races forward now, and I struggle to keep time with the frenetic pace he’s setting, rounding the corner into an adjacent hallway, where he spreads his greasy palm over an ornate wooden barrier.

“Check this.” He pushes it and it gives way to a catacomb of old computers- Amigas, Commodores, Tandys, ASTs. ASTs. I remember the ASTs from my childhood, looking through those catalogs- all those models, lost to time, gone because AST went bankrupt- all here, all the chips, arduino boards, mouses, keyboards- every model stacked upon itself, ready for operation, in pristine, otherworldly condition. All the coding experience I could ever want, computing so basic it would serve as a fundamental connection between myself and the technology I deal with, advanced hardware so complex it pushes the limit.

It’s too bad to think all that is gone now, blown away in cinders. But it had to be done. Little by little, over the duration of my time there, they ate at me, guided my hands and eyes in subtle ways. I barely noticed it at first. It was the brief sensation of not being inside your head, being somewhere else while your motor idles. You’re reading a book one second, you’re half a page away the next with no recollection of reading that half page. Haven’t been paying attention to the words, your eyes have just been scanning the text without comprehending it.

It was clever, I’ll give them that. For beings completely cut off from the world as we understand it, they have an inexplicable comprehension of how we operate, an ability to anticipate our next moves. Which is why, ultimately, I chose not to resist. To see where their will would lead me. And to get back at Ellis. Was it petty? Yes, unfathomably petty. But I hated him. I could see the malice in his eyes, the snide remarks he gave me and Dan. We weren’t people to him, we were tools.

I’m not about to defend what I’ve done to Dan, of course. I’ve given him a lifetime of scars in helping them. He’s the real victim here, not me, because he’s the only one who remains oblivious to the truth, genuinely thinks that Ellis was merely insane, and he’s really won nothing out of it. But he has survived, and I can only hope that inspires him in some small way, going forward.


The Archive was destined to fail from the moment I entered. There were few other applicants, we were understaffed and overmanaged, and above it all his constant unflinching iron grip, a dictator, a tyrant, a perfectionist. He noticed what I did to the files. Planted subtle malware in them, old worms that time forgot. Secret passcodes I discovered in the manuals. Floppy disks full of programs that could potentially erase the Archive overnight, kept in my pocket as a backup plan, if he ever crossed the line.

I think I intimidated him, he felt threatened by my presence, by my existence in his space. It was incompatible with his plan, I was a spontaneous element thrown into the cogs of his machine and he wasn’t prepared. I feel, though, that even without my participation, the Archive would have burned long and vibrantly within a short while.

Tonight, I got to witness firsthand the effects of an interdimensional conflict, the final hours of a long effort on their part. It was amazing. Dan had already started walking down the road, inhaling to clear his lungs of the smoke, and twice he called out to me from down the road to hurry up and join him, but I remained where I was, held spellbound by that roaring miasma of otherworldly life.

I’m Pandora, I realized. Opening the box, letting all the malice out. I hadn’t destroyed these ideas, I had rescued them from their captor, their oppressor. Now they were free, to explore the world however they saw fit, to grow and evolve of their own accord. Shapes and effigies rose from the massive blaze, shadows out of time and space, linear reality distorting around me. What a lovely feeling. What a gorgeous, bright autumnal evening it was.

There was a massive red thing, nearly indistinguishable from the flames that licked up its sides but which possessed a clear sentience, which rose and billowed out over the Archive’s blackened roof, before collapsing to the ground and moving slowly westward, in the direction of the mountains.

There was a bird, a bird unlike any I had ever seen here in Colorado, a massive prehistoric thing with a wingspan to rival a dragon’s, soaring from the carnage like a phoenix, red eyes and long, jagged teeth, extending its wings in jubilant celebration of its triumph over man. Tasting the delicious air with wretched joy, it circled and looped up there among the clouds before leaving a vaporous trail toward the cosmos.

There was a man clad in rags, unshaven and tired looking, who burst out of the second floor and leapt onto the field below, unaccustomed to the world around him, displaced through years of temporal distortion. A distortion initiated by a dangerous alteration of a pivotal genetic substance called Chromatin. He was not what he had been, not even close, yet he stretched his arms high, this contemporary Rip Van Winkle, and seemed to dart as fast as possible toward Lyons, staving off atrophy through an insane amount of energy consumption.

In all shapes and sizes, this nexus of phenomena surged and bubbled, flames coursing in unnatural green and purple hues, the scent from the burning VHS tapes and cassettes a once-in-a-lifetime treat for the olfactory nodes. Yes, I declared to the legions of forgotten things. I am pivotal now, a known part of history, an actor in a larger play. The press will refer to me as the Hygiene Arsonist. They surged forward in enthusiasm, a crowd of eyeless forms and outcasts, a festival of destruction and a celebration of impermanence. They all wanted out, and I encouraged them, eyes alight with the reflection of the building, which by now was little more than a few charred rafters.

The activity dissipated, the bonfire subsided to half of what it had been. The stragglers picked themselves up, still alight like marshmallow sticks they emanated in all points of the compass, a diaspora of bedlam. And then came the last spirit.

She was thin but happy, content at what her daughter had achieved, and she strode forward with admiration and pride. Her eyes, though long gone, were replaced by flickering silver dots, and her hair was as well-kept as the last time I had seen it, all that time ago, sitting on the couch. She had been exonerated of her torment and pain, her suffering, and now she was one of them- different, yet the same. Transformed through sublime alchemy.

“You did good.” She held my hands, which trembled at the sheer amount of energy that radiated from them. Gazed at me longingly, as if she wished she could have gone back and done things differently. Of course, she couldn’t. This was the present, the immediate here and now, and all we had were a few moments before the wind picked her up and carried her off to new adventures.

I was about to say something to her, ask her about her incorporeal form, about the Hat Man or about the Others and if she knew them, about how I fit into the world and where I was to go from here. But I didn’t. We stood, facing each other, for around three minutes, wordlessly conveying to each other more understanding and comprehension than words could allow. Behind her the entire site became a flat plateau of dust and trash, no traces of the building left.

And then the skies poured open, letting loose a torrent of liquid, massive raindrops falling onto both of us, running down us, feeding the ground, extinguishing the tiny remnants of smoke and flame. Thunder from up the canyon echoed and boomed, the entire St. Vrain valley open to the mercy of the lightning and the wind. She ascended upwards, silently, into the fury of a Cumulonimbus which swallowed her in an electric blaze, and I was left standing on Hygiene Road, in the same spot I had been five years earlier on that first day, which at the present seemed like nothing more than a vague dream.

Dan hurried over to me, pulled me forward, and we walked quickly amid the gathering darkness, the vanishing of the light. The storm was vivid, abrasive, yet it made us feel alive, and Dan’s wound was washed clean with the vigor of the rainwater. My own scars were cooled and tempered.


I’ve finished my soup, Dan has finished his. It’s time for both of us to leave. We’re not going together, we’ll be parting ways the moment we step out the door of the restaurant, and I think we both know that. I have no idea where either of us will be going from here. I know that Dan has suggested he might move back to Providence. He’s always felt out of his element in large environs. Claustrophilic, he says.

I don’t know where I’ll go now. I think I’ll always be moving around, displaced, uprooted, never content to settle or fall into routine. I live off spontaneity, off spur-of-the-moment decisions. My time here is in accordance with chaos, and they know that. They’ll keep an eye on me, to ensure I adhere to the principles of entropy, which I don’t mind one bit. I’m sick of computers.

You reading this right now- whoever you are, wherever you are- you’ll probably finish this, turn your computer off for the night, go to sleep and then forget about it. It’ll enter your mind occasionally, of course, but you won’t be thinking about it all the time, every day, for the rest of your life. I don’t have that luxury. It’s part of my life now, there will be no escape, even in dream. Especially not in dream.

I am a lone wanderer, and in the hours of the distant pulse I am summoned from one locale to the next, a weak signal traversing a frayed line. In the darkness I linger, in the corners of your eye I spend idle hours and in the cavernous pools of your subconscious I wade. I don’t know what I am anymore.