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The Cat and the Fox

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It didn’t begin like this. John doesn’t dream of exotic things. Not usually. His imagination is far more mundane than that. Most of his dreams are  memories and experiences that he relives from an out-of-body perspective. Whereas most normal people might lie awake at night with their what ifs and their if onlys circling around and around in their thoughts, for John this happens in his dreams. He dreams of the war, and of the friends he lost there. He dreams of childhood fights with his sister. And once, he even dreamt of the time he lost the phone number of the gorgeous lady he’d been chatting up all night at a bar, because some light-fingered pillock had pinched his wallet on the way home.

He doesn’t dream about strange beasts and foreign lands he’s never stepped foot in.

But some time between when his head hit the pillow and now, something changed in the air of his flat, warping the imagery into a strange juxtaposition of East and West. It teases at the edge of his consciousness; a dark, spicy aroma that he can’t quite describe to himself. Something distinctly Oriental, whatever that means— like the inside of a Chinese restaurant, or the general atmosphere of London’s Soho district. It paints over his lingering dream in broad strokes, hanging paper lanterns across grey skies, and crumpling double-decker buses into the shape of goggle-eyed dragons that dance along the roads, undulating to the quiet rhythm of a string quartet.

Wait… What? There’s music now, too? …Oh.

Here I am again, then.

Peeling open his eyes, John isn’t surprised to find himself somewhere very different. 'Here' is definitely not his flat. Everything is tinted in soft, shifting hues of orange and red. It’s warm here too, like dozing in front of a crackling fireplace. Cosy. It feels very intimate. Or it might do, under different circumstances. If he was here willingly, perhaps, with that girl whose number he’d lost before.

But it’s never his choice to come here. He just seems to wake up here sometimes, with no recollection of how it happened.

His eyes adjust after a few minutes, details sharpening into focus. He’s sprawled across a velvety sofa, his head propped against the plush armrest in an awkward position. His neck aches in protest when he shifts. This is always where he finds himself, as if he’d plopped himself down for a quick sit and fallen asleep by accident, slumping over like a sack of potatoes. That, or someone else dumped him here while he slept. And realistically, it’s probably the latter.

That’s not a creepy thought at all.

Groggily, he sits up and moves to rub the sleep from his eyes, but his hand grazes the edge of something foreign near his face. There’s a moment of confusion, but then he remembers this part of it, too.

He reaches with a cautious hand and feels it there, splayed over his nose and across his eyes: a solid, bulky mask, its surface speckled and rough against his fingertips, but soft-edged, as if lined with fur or feathers. And on the inside, he can feel the press of brushed metal and smooth plastic against his sun-worn skin. There are flecks of glitter clinging to his fingers when he pulls them away, sparkling at him in the dim light when he twists his hand.

The weight and sturdiness of the mask’s face suggest a porcelain make. But its arms, reaching around the back of his skull and locking together there, are definitely metal. It’s uncomfortably tight. He fumbles around the back at the clasp for a few minutes, before giving up with a frustrated sigh. Not like he really expected it to come loose this time; it never does. But he wishes it at least didn't dig into his skin so much.

He wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like this if he had any choice in the matter.

He scans the room as best he can through the cut oval eyeholes. It’s a dark place, but quite enormous. A sort of ballroom, the likes of which you’d find inside royal palaces or the homes of Hollywood actors, with a floor of reflective, polished marble, and a high ceiling decorated with silk drapes of gold and black that hang down in great swoops. They surround a grand crystal chandelier, set with burning white candles. More elegant candelabras line the walls on either side of the hall, their gentle flames multiplied inside a series of ornately framed mirrors.

Strings of little white and yellow LEDs wrap themselves over wide archways that lead off from the sides and back of the hall, and hundreds more of them dangle overhead, forming a forest of twinkling vines spanning across the ceiling from end to end. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough for whoever designed this place, angelic sculptures of cut glass stand guard in strategic locations to capture all the various little light sources and break them apart, scattering them across the floor like handfuls of diamonds.

The overall effect is stunning. It’s like someone bottled up an arm of the galaxy and released it into the room; John has never seen anything quite like it before. Then again, he doesn’t usually find himself in places like this. Up until recently, that is.

Above the central archway hangs a huge, pearly-faced clock. Its slender black arms reach for the third hour; morning or afternoon, John has no way of telling for sure, but it’s probably morning. He doesn’t tend to get a lot of sleep on the nights he finds himself here. Built into the opposite wall is a pair of sturdy metal double-doors, plain and windowless. There are no handles on them, and no gaps between the hinges or along the floor. They look airtight. It’s the only exit out of here but it’s locked right now. John knows this, because eventually the doors will buzz and open of their own accord. John leaves when the big doors let him leave, and not a moment sooner— he’s tried.

There are no windows in this hall, nor in any of the adjacent hallways or the rooms leading from them. No natural light enters the structure, giving him no objective indicator of the passage of time. His watch is always removed, which is usually the only thing he’s wearing besides the underwear he goes to bed in. There’s just the big clock on the wall, and that’s all he gets. But at least it’s something.

Unsettlingly, John is not alone here. Above an ever-present musical symphony (whose exact source he’s never quite been able to pinpoint) there are the distinct sounds of human activity. And if he peers into the dark corners, he can see them lurking there; groups of strange people, all hidden behind fancy masks just like his own.

They’re dressed much the same as him. Which is to say, not at all appropriately for such a grand venue. They look like they’ve been plucked straight from their beds, just like he was, and a fair few of them are completely naked, men and women alike. Maybe they arrived that way, but judging by the discarded articles of clothing scattered about the floor, it’s more likely that they stripped themselves sometime after the fact. By all outward appearances, they don’t seem to mind being here at all— in fact, you could say they’re making the most of it.

They’re laughing, moving. Dancing, if you could call it that; their movements are slow and uncoordinated, as if drunk. And not just dancing, but touching. And not just laughing, but sighing, moaning together; this place seems to be host to one giant, never-ending orgy.

It had shocked him when he first realised what those sounds were, and even more when he’d seen proof of it with his own eyes. And if he happened to stray too close to one of them by accident, they would reach for him with obvious intentions— very obvious, if they happened to be male.

John has tried talking to them, but they seem far too gone to respond. Their pupils are blown wide, and they seem high out of their minds on some kind of drug, his best guess being Ecstasy. Whatever it is, though, John hasn’t seen any kind of paraphernalia here; no pills or baggies, no needles or cigarettes. It makes him wonder if their state is self-induced, or whether someone is keeping them drugged like this, passive and compliant. They don’t seem aware of themselves at all. It’s a little scary, and he wonders if he’s the only one who didn’t choose to be here. He isn’t enjoying the scene quite as much as the rest of them seem to be. This — whatever this is — really isn’t his ‘thing’.

But what worries him most about all this, is that when he wakes up back in his own bed he doesn’t remember being here at all. Not a single second of it. He never does, that is, not until he returns. Because here in this hall, he can recall every one of his visits right from when it first started happening. He remembers that first time with perfect clarity: how he’d snapped suddenly awake, senses on high alert in the unfamiliar environment. And then running and yelling, banging against the metal doors, confused and angry and frightened. He had no idea what was going on or where he was, and he’d truly thought he was about to be murdered.

Well, he’d been half-right about it, perhaps. And the next time it happened, he hadn't been so convinced he was about to die. So he’d allowed himself to explore the place a little further, but when the doors buzzed, he'd still pelted across the room at top speed in case they closed again.

After a while, John had started to feel like a rat trapped in a cage. Was somebody watching him? Was he expected to do something here? He never sees or hears from his captors, and nobody ever enters or leaves the hall during his stay. The other people here are useless. He’s tried shaking them by their shoulders, screaming at them to wake up, to tell him what’s going on, or ask what’s the matter with them, or who is doing this… But long since gave up trying. They’re virtually incapable of thought, let alone speech.

A few visits later, and he'd mostly gotten used to it. He accepted there was no telling when he’d return, and no way to prevent it happening again. Back home, he still doesn’t have a clue any of this is happening to him. Now it’s just a bizarre, generally harmless event, like a storm passing overhead; there’s nothing to be done but sit and wait it out.

And when he passes through those metal doors, he wakes back up in his own bed. Oblivious. It’s as if he never leaves at all, like this is just some crazy dream or a hallucination. It’s like something entirely separate, a reality disconnected from his waking world. That sounds crazy, and maybe it is? Maybe he’s going insane, or maybe there’s a carbon monoxide leak in his flat, slowly and invisibly poisoning him to death. Who the hell knows?

The whole thing has a distinctly otherworldly feel to it, as if this can’t be a real place. And admittedly he isn’t prepared to rule out the possibility. John isn’t an overly superstitious man, but he does think there may be more to life than what’s been discovered so far. He does think there might be some kind of God, and he’s seen enough weird, unexplainable events over his life to be fairly convinced of the existence of ghosts. Perhaps not exactly the classic idea of ghosts as dead people haunting the corporeal world, but just… something. Some ethereal effect that can cross through to the physical world, and mess with people’s perceptions.

Or it could just be a dream. But he’d remember at least some of it after waking, surely? No, it’s too real to be a dream. Too vivid, too nuanced. The music unfamiliar and beautiful, and definitely not a product of his own decidedly amelodic brain, unless he's a closeted musical genius. All the best composers in history were a bit touched in the head, weren't they?

But if it is a real place, then maybe he sleepwalks here? Except he's never known himself to sleepwalk. Not even as a child.

Oh, God. What if he's had a stroke? Or multiple strokes, even, and this is just his brain losing its grip on reality, unable to cope for the damage? That’s certainly one of his more depressing ideas; he doesn't linger on it for long, in case it’s true. He’d rather not know. As they say: ignorance is bliss.

In the end, this is all he knows for sure: that sometimes he goes to sleep in his flat, in his bed, on a day like any other day. And then sometimes he wakes up here, in this room, surrounded by these strange masked dancers murmuring nonsense and having endless, drugged-out sex with each other. And when he goes back home, he doesn’t remember it. Rinse and repeat.

It is real. This really happens to him. It’s not a dream or a hallucination… probably. Or… could he be hallucinating? But then, why can’t he remember anything about it back in the ‘real world'? Why do the memories vanish, and why do they come back as soon as he finds himself here again?

John loses himself in the usual circle of maddeningly unanswerable questions until, as the clock chimes five — morning then, not afternoon — the metal doors emit a loud buzz, swinging open of their own accord. And as John trots over to the exit, he glances back at the rest of them, wondering why they don’t leave too. Perplexed, but admitting he may never come to understand it, he steps through the doors and into the narrow corridor beyond.

 


 

 

John’s beside alarm blares at 6:30AM, startling him awake. He groans, pressing his nose harder into the pillow. His eyes ache, his head pounding. How can it be morning already?

He has an appointment with his therapist, Ella, today. They’ve been trying to figure out the source of his recent bouts of sleeplessness and headaches. So far, so useless. He only keeps going because at least it’s someone to talk to, even if she’ll insist on psychoanalysing everything he says.

Rolling onto his back, John presses his fingertips into the corners of his eyes.

God, it feels like I haven’t slept at all…