I'm writing this letter to describe the pain and suffering of myself and my friends; to describe the injustices and terror we were unwittingly subjected to. I don't know if anyone will ever read this letter; certainly I doubt that you, my dear friend, will ever receive it. More than likely it will be intercepted; but perhaps those who intercept it may read it, and I may by some chance touch a nerve of humanity buried somewhere in that inhumane hive. If there be even a glimmer of hope that these injustices are overturned and the truth be told, then I will try it.
Since I can't say with any certainty who will finally read this letter, I will tell the story in full, as I understand and experienced it. You may ask for proof; I have none. You may accuse me of lying; I have no defense. What I describe I freely admit is bizarre and improbable, perhaps even impossible. I can't even say for sure that I am actually writing this letter at all. There may be no interception, because there very well may be no letter. But if by some chance this letter is read, I beg of you to take its contents to heart. As long as this secret remains, we will never be free.
My name is Albert Menclave. I was a manager at the Gilead Trust Bank before the incident. I don't work now; I can't, not with my nerves. The money is no substitute; my life can't be bought. I write from behind perpetually closed blinds, from behind a phone that never rings, from behind a wall that I cannot bear to look past, lest I find myself again in the terror. I have lost my job, my friends, my family. The only compensation that can repay this is exposure of the truth. My silence cannot be purchased.
This story does not begin with me, not with my 8-6 days, my townhouse, or my dog. It does not even begin on the day two masked men robbed the bank and shot my lead teller, Angela, believing that she was hiding money in her till. I feared I would never get over that day, but somehow I did. I felt guilty about hiding under my desk, leaving Angela and the other tellers to deal with the robbers on their own. But I got over it. But this, I can't get over it. I don't feel guilty. I feel scared; I feel angry.
This story begins with my good friends, the Raroff's. Mr. and Mrs. Raroff. The happiest couple on Earth, you would swear. More correctly, this story begins with James Raroff, my good buddy since the 6th grade. I always knew James as a stable, reliable, trustworthy guy. As far as I know, he never cheated on his wife, never stole, never even lied on his taxes. As far as I know. So when the phone rang at the bank, and James's wife Mary told me she couldn't find him, I was immediately worried.
"His office called me," she sounded concerned but not hysterical. James was also a financial man; he worked as an accountant at a large CPA firm in downtown. "He had several important client meetings today, but he hasn't showed up. They called his cell phone, and there was no answer. He was supposed to be there three hours ago!"
"Ok," I said for my own benefit more than hers, "When did you last see him?"
"This morning. We ate breakfast. Everything seemed fine. He told me he had some important client meetings today, and so he had me look his suit over and even use the lint roller on it, even though I swear it was spotless." I can tell she's losing her cool.
"Listen, call the police and file a missing..."
"I did call!" she cries out, "They said they can't accept a report until he's been missing 24 hours! They said there were no accidents, and that he's not arrested or in jail. So where is he?"
"Mary, I don't know, but we'll find him. I promise you, we will find him."
Now before you go thinking this is just an episode of Without a Trace, I'll say that he showed up, apparently unharmed, at home around lunchtime. Mary later told me he was quiet, unusually quiet, and wouldn't tell her where he was, other than to assure her he wasn't having an affair. By itself, this event was concerning but not critical. But is was part of a pattern. Mary admitted to me that James had been a little distant lately. Then he went missing. A week later, he disappeared again. He became more and more reclusive. Mary finally gave up trying to extract information from this shell of a husband, a man who sat watching TV like a zombie, while his pride and joy garden died and his clients angerly called about missed meetings. He was a man on the way down, like an alcoholic, except he never drank.
I came over on Sunday. The bank is closed Sundays, so I never work then. Mary invited me in.
"Thanks so much for coming, I hope James will talk to you." She escorted me into the living room of a upscale house. The wood floor shone and didn't so much as issue a squeak as we walked across it. James sat, as she described, watching the TV, which blared a football game. James didn't like football.
"James, buddy," I said as I dropped onto the couch next to him, "It's me, James. Hey, you seem kind of down lately. Anything I can do?"
To be frank, I expected him to snap out of it right then and there. I hadn't really seen the full extent of his condition. He continued staring. "I can't stay here," he muttered.
"What?" I asked.
"I can't stay here. I have to go."
"Go? Where? Listen, James, we need to talk about what's going on. Mary is very concerned, and so am I, and, hell, your work is getting a little pissed off. You could lose your job."
"It doesn't matter," he said, "It's all the same. I have to go," a new air of urgency. His eyes flashed to a window. Outside, a gentle breeze rippled through young fir trees. "They're here," he whispered, glancing now to another window, this one a picture view of his once-thriving garden. In the bright sunlight, it was clear there was no one in the yard. "It's not safe here," he said.
So he left. He packed a few things and went to his parent's house outside of town. His parents had been realtors when they were working, and had done quite well at it I might add. They were now retired, and lived on a modest estate with a few horses on a hill overlooking the town. His parents were concerned about his behavior, but being good and loving parents they of course didn't turn him away when he showed up, bags in hand, asking to stay for a while. He offered Mary no explanation. We sat, her and I, in their kitchen while she cried and asked over and over again, "What did I do? What did I do to him?" I had no answer, of course.
A few days later, Mary told me that James hadn't shown up for work at all since he left, nor had he apparently called any of his clients. The CPA firm told Mary that James' clients were being reassigned, and that if at some point in the future he was interested in working with them, he should submit an application. Maybe that's supposed to sound nicer than "You're fired." Mary finally got in touch with James at his parent's house and told him the news, but he didn't seem to care. Said he had to go. "Where," Mary sobbed to me over the phone, "the hell does he have to go? Apparently not home to me! Apparently not to work! Just what the hell is he doing?"
"I don't know," I assured her, "But we're going to find out. We're going to find out."
I care a lot about my friends. I'm loyal to a fault. But I even wonder if that wasn't the dumbest decision I have ever made.
Endless rows of houses. I'm walking down the street, I know where I'm going, I have my destination fixed. I ignore the houses, I don't pay any attention to them. I can vaguely tell they are not cookie-cutter houses; I see different colors and shapes, but no more. Yards? Can't say. Pets? Can't say. I don't see any people. There are no cars on street. I'm walking down the middle of the street, but there are no cars on the street. No cars parked on the curbs either. Driveways? Can't say.
My destination is ahead. I press on. I must find James. I know he is there. How do I know? Can't say. "James... James..." the name echoes down the empty streets. No one responds. The street dead-ends into the building. It is not as impressive as I expected. Was there a sign on it? Can't say. What color was it? Yellow, white, eggshell... Biege, tan? All I see is the door. The street goes through the door. I follow the street through the door and into the building.
The street is a hallway. Doors on either side. White lights. No people, still. I walk down the center of the hall. I know he is here. I will find him here. The hall opens to my left. A desk. A computer. A chair. What of the rest of the room? Can't say. I go to the computer and sit in the chair. Is it a hard chair or a soft chair? Can't say. The screen is blurry. I can't see what it says. I type "Raroff". Slowly. One letter at a time.
The screen changes. A list, a huge list, a long list. Blurry. What are the items? Can't say. The list scrolls. Stops. One item is clear. "$223,000,000" Two-hundred twenty-three million dollars. I move the cursor to select it.
The sound reverberates through the darkened room. I catch my breath, silent. In the shadows, a figure? A shape? It's too dark to tell. The moon is obscured behind clouds, or already set, or yet to rise. In silence I wait, tense, motionless. What was that click? The shadows seem to shift, change, morph. I take a breath, in - out, and reach over and hit the light.
Not like the first click. Just the simple click of the light's knob. A dull sixty watt bulb fills the room with a pale glow. My bedroom is small; my apartment is small. I live alone, and I'm alone now. Except for my now labored breathing, the room is empty.
I pull up at James' parent's house and park next to his car. They allow me in and say that they think James is here, but they haven't seen him for a few hours. "He might be up in his room," his aging mother gently suggests. I dutifully stomp up the stairs and arrival finally at the plain, light green door to James' room. Knock-knock. Silence.
"James?" I ask.
"I'm coming in," I followup. The door swings open easily; this room is not equipped with a lock. Inside, the room is surprisingly plain. A bed, with sheets tightly made. A desk, bare save for a computer, turned off. A simple wooden chair. A bookshelf, empty. A dresser. A thin layer of dust has accumulated on the furniture, giving the room a historic and empty look. I'm not sure James is actually staying here at all.
"James?" I peek into the other rooms upstairs; a library, the master bedroom, a second bathroom. I even check the closets. No sign of James. I search downstairs and still don't find him. Looking through a front window, I see his car still parked beside mine. Finally, I give up.
"When you see James," I tell his parents, "Please tell him I'm looking for him."
"Of course, dear," his mother responds sweetly.
I probably should have left well enough alone; but I'm the curious type and James is a good friend of mine. I came back to the house that evening, parked down the road so as not to arouse notice and approached the house under the cover of darkness. In my hands were a pair of high zoom binoculars, a pair my dad used to use when he hunted elk in the bush country. The light was on in James' room; the first sign of life there. I watched through the binoculars. James paced the room nervously, glancing around and frequently out the window. I felt a tingle on my spine, like he was looking straight at me, but I was shrouded in darkness and hidden in the bushes. I felt strange, really inappropriate; I was spying on my friend, and it felt like a breach of our close trust. Was this an act of betrayal?
Nevertheless, I kept watching. I knew, somehow, that something was very wrong. My friend, my good friend, was withdrawn and, it seemed, possibly in danger. What had him spooked? Finally, he went to the edge of his room, and opened his small closet. I couldn't see inside, from my vantage point, but I did clearly see him go into the closet. He walked into the closet and closed the door behind him.
I waited. I watched. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. The closet is tiny; not a walk-in at all but a shallow clothes-rack. I checked it earlier in the day, and found no clothes or anything else of interest in the closet. What could he be doing in there? After 20 minutes, I approach the house. My heart pounds in my chest. I'm unannounced, uninvited, and about to break into the house of my best friend's parents. What am I thinking?
I let myself in using a key under the mat. The key has always been under the mat. There's something about James' parents, something trusting, something from another time. Whatever that something is, it compels them to leave a key under the mat. This evening, I am thankful for it. I creep up the stairs, slow groaning and creeking through the inky darkness. It's much darker inside than out in the moonlight. Light shines from under James' door. I slink up to the door and wait.
I turn the knob.
The door swung open silently on well oiled hinges. Light flooded the hallway. The room stood lifeless, identical is all respects that I could see to the way it appeared earlier in the day; except, of course, that the overhead light was now on. I stepped in. "James," I hissed, not wishing to wake his parents, "It's me, Albert. What the hell is going on?"
I closed the door.
I walked to the closet. "James! What are you doing? James!" With that, I threw open the closet door.
Clothes-racks, bare. Carpet floor. Textured wall. The same as it had appeared earlier in the day.
And no sign, none whatsoever, of James Raroff.
I call James the next day. "I came by last night."
"Oh yeah?" he says defensively.
"I saw you go into your closet. I came upstairs and..."
"We can't talk about this over the phone," he interrupts, and then abruptly hangs up.
Over the phone... If not over the phone, then in person? I drive, again, to his parent's house. They graciously let me in and in doubtful tones inform me he has sequestered himself again into his room. "I don't understand it," his mother shakes her head slowly, her white hair bouncing gently, "What's wrong with him? It's not healthy for a boy to stay inside all the time."
"I'm trying to find out," I assure them.
James is upstairs, sitting on the chair next to the empty desk. He looks not at me but out the window, at an angle, as if trying to observe something at the very edge of his perception.
"Sit down!" he hisses, "Down! Now!"
There being no other chairs in the room, I sit on the plain bed.
"James, what are you..."
"Ssh!" He hisses, "I think they can hear us in here." He again glances out the edge of the window, looking down onto the driveway. I peek out. Cars, parked. Garage, closed. Low-cut bushes. Grass. No where for a person to hide. No person (or animal, for that matter) in sight.
"James," I whisper, "Tell me what is going on."
He shakes his head, "The only safe place is the bunker. Beneath the house. I get there through the closet. That's why I go in the closet. There's a stairway down to the bunker. It's safe down there."
I process this revelation for a moment. From downstairs, James' father calls out, "We're going to the store! We'll be back in half an hour." A few seconds later the front door opens and I watch, through the window, the elder Raroffs' walk slowly out toward their car. James holds his breath for a second, then releases.
"He's gone," James whimpers, "He couldn't risk being seen. He's still close by, I'm sure." He turns to me. "They're watching us. They know you're here. Albert," the first time he's called me by name in days, "You're in danger."
The car doors close sharply outside, the sound muffled by the closed window. Click.
"James," I try a new approach, "Where did the bunker come from? Did you build it?"
He shakes his, watching his parents drive off out the window.
"Can you show it to me?" I ask.
Again, he shakes his head.
"Why aren't you answering me?" I sigh, tired at once of his apparent foolish game. "When you went into the closet, what happened next?"
"I went down the stairs," he answers, plainly.
"There are no stairs in the closet," I cry out, too loud, as I spring to my feet and throw open the closet doors.
The closet is a shallow, plain affair. It is immediately clear that there are no stairs or artifacts of any kind in the closet. It's just a closet, the same way it looked when I checked it the previous two times. "I don't see any stairs."
James looks paniced. "He's back," he whispers, glancing out the window, "He's watching us now. He's taking notes!" I peek over James, out the window, but fail to see whom he is refering to.
"James," I say as calmly as I can, "I don't see anyone there. Now tell me about the stairs. I don't see any stairs."
"Of course not," he shakes his head, "That's why it's safe, only I can go there."
"Ok, James," I pat him gently on the shoulder, like a parent might a wayward son. "I'm going to head out, you take care now."
"You take care," he empasizes. "They've seen you, they have their eye on you." He stares into me and with an intensity I've never seen before, whispers, "I know it looks like I'm crazy, but I'm not. You have to trust me. Back off, stop trying to save me. You're in danger here."
"Ok, sure," I respond, bewildered.
As I leave the house, I find myself reflexively glancing around, expecting a mystery man in the bushes or behind a tree. From the corner of my eye I see James peeking out his window, watching me. I decide not to wave or acknowledge him. I get in my car, close the door with a satisfying thud, and after a moment of contemplation, lock the doors. I stick the key in the ignition and give it a hearty turn.
The battery indicator lights up on dash, the only evidence of life. I suddenly feel trapped, clastrophobic. I glance around quickly. No mystery men. No mystery vehicles. No shadows that shouldn't be there. Still, my breath quickens. I fumble with the key, grasp it tightly, then turn again.
The car roars to life.
I breath a sigh of relief as I throw it into reverse and back out of the driveway. Maybe insanity is contagious. I feel like I've been going insane just being around James. He needs help. Professional help. As I breath a second sigh of relief, my cellphone rings.
"Hello, Mary," I say, trying to hide my relief. Who was I expecting? The CIA? "Yes, I just spoke with James. He's not doing so well. Look, we need to talk. Are you busy? Can you meet me at Dennys?"
Thirty minutes later and we're seating across from each other in a somewhat neglected booth at the local eatery. Mary listlessly pokes a coffee, but does not partake. I wait, apprehensive, for the appetizer. I don't feel hungry.
"So he goes into the closet? You've seen this?" she asks me, confused.
"Yes. I saw him go into the closet. I went into the house, and went to his room, and he wasn't there. The closet was empty."
"How do you know he didn't go somewhere else while you were downstairs? He could have been in the bathroom," she retorts.
"Ok," I concede, "But then afterwards he told me he goes into the closet and goes down the stairs into a bunker. He says it's the only safe place."
I pause. The waitress passes by, briefly glancing to see if Mary's coffee needs a refill. "Mary, I had a strange dream. I figured it was nothing, but with the way James has been acting, maybe we should check it out."
"Ok, what was it?" she asks.
"I dreamt that I was in a building, and I found James listed in a computer. It said something about 223 million dollars. Mary," I become energized, "what if James won the lottery and was afraid to tell anyone? You know how he gets."
Mary pauses, frowning. "But why wouldn't he tell me? Or you? Why..." she shakes her head, "it just doesn't make sense." She stirs her coffee and finally takes a drink. I can tell from her grimace that it's already cold. "Although I know James does play occasionally... I saw a clip on the news a little while back, something about the largest lottery winner ever. And it was in this area too," she becomes animated. "Maybe you're on to something. Lottery winners are public record, right? We should check it out."
"What if," I lean in, "What if he did win the lottery? What if he built some kind of basement or secret room using the money? He calls it a bunker, but it could be anything, right?"
"Right!" she agrees vigorously. It can't be true; it doesn't even make sense, but we want to know the answer is simple; that James isn't completely insane or worse. We want a reasonable explanation. "And before you can make any modifications like that you have to get"
"A building permit," I finish her sentence. "Also a matter of public record."
"Let's go," she stands.
"You have to pay for that coffee," I remind her. Always the practical one.
There's an energy, a positive feeling, a rush even when a possible solution to a mystery presents itself. We split up, went to the appropriate public offices. A brief investigation at the permit office, however, lowered my spirits. There were no recent permits for the house, or even for other houses in that area. The existing permits merely indicating the original construction and a later addition; neither of which added any secret rooms or basement areas.
I sat down later at Mary and James' home, and we were both depressed. "Nothing," she said, "The winning amount was three hundred and some-odd million, and the guy that won it lives about 25 miles away. I've never heard of him before. They had a photo of him and everything. It's not James."
I nodded. "I got nothing either. No relevant permits of any kind."
The house sits silently for a moment. "Now what?" I whisper. "Do we abandon James to whatever insanity has him?"
Mary shakes her head. "I have a crazy idea."
"What is it?"
"Let's say your dream does mean something. We're just interpreting it wrong."
"Ok, so what does it mean?"
"That's the thing; we don't know. There's just not enough there. But if you could remember more, then maybe we'd have something to go on."
"Yeah, but... I don't know. It's fading. I think I remember less now than I did when I told you."
Mary thinks for a moment. "I have a friend who is good at hypnosis. Maybe she can help?"
"Lay back, close your eyes, and take yourself back to the memory," her voice barely more than a whisper. The room is dark, illuminated by candles, and otherwise quiet. Mary sits tensely nearby.
"I remember it started with houses, a road, walking down a road."
"Be there," she says, "You're in the road. You're walking down the road. What do you see?"
"Nothing," I admit. I'm not a big believer in hypnosis. Frankly, I'm starting to feel silly.
"You see the road. You see the houses."
"No cars," I recall. "I don't see any cars."
"Ok, no cars, good," she encourages, "You're walking down the road. What happens?"
"There's a building."
"Tell me about the building. Where is it?"
"It's in front of me. Directly ahead. I know James is inside."
"Very good. What does the building look like?"
"It has a front door. Like an office building. It's smaller than I expected. Only four stories. Yes, it's an office building."
"Is there a sign on the building?"
"I don't see any sign."
"Ok, what's happening?"
"I'm walking to the building, I'm walking up to building. I go into the building."
"What do you see?"
"A hallway. A long, white hallway. Lights overhead. There are doors on either side. I'm walking down the hallway."
"Do you see anyone?"
"No... Yes... Yes, there is someone walking beside me. Walking with me."
"Tell me about this person."
"There are more people, wearing white lab coats. Walking past us. They are ignoring us."
"Ok, very good. Tell me more about the person with you."
"I ... he ... I'm not sure. He seems familar."
"It's a man?"
"The hallways opens into a large room. There's a desk, like for a receptionist or secretary."
"Who is sitting behind the desk?"
"No one, it's empty. I'm walking toward the desk. I'm walking behind the desk, now."
"Is the man still with you?"
"Yes, he is following me. I sit in the chair."
"Does the man also sit?"
"No, he's standing."
"There's a computer in front of me. It's asking for a name."
"Yes. I'm typing now."
"What are you typing?"
"His name. I'm typing, 'Raroff'."
"There's a listing. A long listing. There's a results counter. It's a big number. More than one hundred."
"What do the entries say?"
"I can't see them. They seem blurry. I'm scrolling through the list."
"Are you looking for something in particular?"
"I'm not sure. I just found it. It says '$223,000,000'."
"Two-hundred twenty-three million dollars?"
"Yes. I'm selecting the entry."
"Ok, stay calm, just tell me what you see."
"It says: 'What do I do with $223 million?'"
"That's all. I'm closing the list."
I gasp. The room spins, and slowly comes into focus. What happened? "The last thing I remember," I blurt out, "is seeing the building..."
"You were hypnotized," Mary's exotic friend answers in her kind voice, "and we went through your entire dream."
"We did!?" I sit up quickly. "Well, tell me!"
Mary looks down. "Unfortunately," her friend starts, biting her lip, "we didn't find anything substantial beyond what you already told us. Nothing concrete, at least. However, I do have some good news." Mary looks up, surprised. "The type of dream which you are recollecting is a very rare form; it is among those dreams which are precognisent."
"So you're saying that my dream is something that is going to happen?" I'm excited, and scared.
"Not exactly," she shakes her head, "It's in the same class of dream, but it's not a true precognition. It's a reflection from the future, yes, but not a pure one. That's why you can't make out details. They either don't exist or have been corrupted, or, because of something that you will do differently now, won't exist. In other words, the fact that you had this dream is altering your behavior in a way that will alter what is going to happen."
"The things you saw most clearly," she continues, "Are those things which will not change... The building itself will continue to exist virtually regardless of any choices you make. The hallways, the white-coated people, the reception desk, all of these things are fairly firm. Some things are more neblous; the person with you may or may not actually accompany you to this place. The results on the computer were even more neblous; they may be a complete fabrication, or may be vastly different when you arrive."
"But the one result I did see? About the money?"
"That was very clear, so presumably that entry will still be present."
"So what do we do now?" Mary asks.
"The key to blowing this open," her friend answers, "seems to be the 'where'. Where do these events take place? I'd like to try one more hypnosis, this time rather than walking through the entire narrative, I'd like to focus on things that can provide the missing detail: where."
Again we repeat the process. I feel silly, of course, trying to act calm and breath deeply and all that. It doesn't seem like this kind of thing should really actually work.
"I'm in front of a building."
"What does it look like up close?"
"The front door, a double door of dark glass, like an office building. There's something above the door."
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure. A sign, or a label, or something."
"Try to read it."
"It's blurry, I can't see it."
"Calm, breathe slowly. You're standing in front of the building. There's a sign in front of you, above the door. You're reading the sign."
"I'm reading the sign," I feel surprised that I see it now. It's becoming clear.
"What does the sign say?"
I pause. The letters swirl and then become clear. "Institute of Psychology and Technology," I intone.
"What was that?" I'm awake, beads of sweat on my forehead.
"You remembered! You told us the name," Mary's bubbly friend answers excitedly, "Mary's already looking it up online."
I look around. The room, just as I remember it. Nothing strange. Nothing out of the ordinary. "I thought I heard..."
Mary's friend cocks her head.
"Nevermind," I shake it off, and join Mary next to the computer. "Anything, I ask her?"
"You bet. Look at this: Institution of Psychology and Technology. It's in downtown."
"That's not far from here."
"There's more. Here's a photo of the outside." The screen shows a plain, white, four story building.
"That's it!" I recall, "That's the building!"
"According to this website," she reads, "They're a college of some kind. There's links for degrees and courses." She clicks, then frowns. "But they don't seem to be working. Let's try a search."
"What are you looking for?"
"If this is a legitimate institution, there should be alumni or something. Anything." The results come up. "Nothing."
"What do you think?"
"I think it's a front."
"Well," I process, "I think I know one graduate we can talk to."
"Institute of Psychology and Technology."
James shifts uncomfortably, the grilling eyes of his now estranged wife and best friend staring at him. "I know of it," he finally answers.
"James," she leans, "honey, you have to tell me what's going on. What are you doing? Where do you go when you disappear?"
"The bunker," he mumbles, "It's the only safe place. It's not safe here."
"Listen to me," she says, "Tell me: Are you having an affair?"
He looks at her for once, making direct eye contact. "It's not like that," he states, shaking his head, "It's not what you think."
"Tell us about the institute," I interject.
"Yes," he says, "I'm involved. Too involved. Listen, you two, you have to stay away. Ok, just stay away."
"You've got some blonde secretary down there you're in to?" Mary asks bitingly. What's gotten into her?
"What about the money, James?" I ask, "The 223 million dollars?"
His eyes lock on mine. "How do you know about that?"
"I saw it, James, in a dream."
He shakes his head. "I can't talk about it. Not at all. And you shouldn't be asking about it."
"Well, if that's how you're going to be, I'm sorry," Mary stands abruptly, in anger and frustration. She storms out, leaving James and I sitting across from each other.
He leans closer. "I can take you there," he says.
The drab building looks somewhat more formidable up close. James and I stand outside the door. "This is it," he says, with an air of finality. My spine shivers. Part of me resists going in, but another part wants to help James, believes this is the way to help James.
The doors part. We step in, and the doors close behind us.
We walk down a long, white hallway. Folks in white lab coats scurry about, popping in and out of doors on either side. The scene is simply errie. They ignore James and I as we walk side by side down the hall in silence.
The hall opens into a reception area. Just like the dream. It is the dream. James was the person, the person beside me. It must have been James. The reception desk, just like in the dream, it right here. The empty chair invites me to sit.
I sit. James stands next to me. The monitor reads "Institute of Psychology and Technology, Patient Lookup" and then "Enter name".
Enter name. Without thinking, mechanically, I type "Raroff". James breaks the silence, "What are you looking for? We probably shouldn't be back here."
"It's ok," I whisper.
The machine processes for a second.
"No results," it displays.
"No results," I whisper, shocked.
"What did you expect," James asks, confused.
"There were... hundreds," I motion, "Hundreds of results, and the money, the $223 million, it was there too."
He shakes his head, "I don't know what you thought you saw, but there's nothing here."
Tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly I'm overwhelmed and confused. "This isn't how it was," I half whisper, half cry.
James takes me by the shoulder. "Listen," he says urgently, and hands me a card, "You can't take this outside the institute."
I look at the card, confused, and then he continues, "Follow me, quickly."
I stuff the card into my pocket as we jog down the hall, heads turning as we go by. Now we're attracting attention. Fear spikes through me. Who are these people? What has James so spooked? What's going on? "Through here," he calls, leading me into a smaller hallway, "This way."
A small, nondescript beige door ends the hallway. James throws it open and leads us into a damp tunnel. The door closes behind us.
"What the hell is this?"
The walls remain their subterrean concrete gray. The floor, likewise. A big screen television hands on the wall; silently showing a football game. A small kitchenette in a nook to the side. A couch. An unmade bed.
James sighs, and a visible relaxation melts over him. He collapses, like a man who has just run a marathon, onto the couch. "We made it," he breathes, "We're safe now."
"Safe? From what? Where are we?"
He looks at me, eyes drilling into my skull. For a moment I see that he percieves me as the unnamed enemy, the threat to his existence. Then it is gone. "This is my bunker," he says, "the place you never believed."
"You're saying we're under your house? How did we get from downtown to under your house in a handful of steps? And how did the tunnel get built? This doesn't make any sense."
"The bunker connects to everywhere. It's the one place they won't follow me," he replies cryptically. "I can go anywhere. Do you like the lake?"
"Lakefront Park. Look," he walks down another hall and in a few shorts steps opens a door revealing, sure enough, Lakefront park. Lakefront park is a good 10 miles away from his house, and it's absolutely nowhere near downtown. How does this work? I step gingerly out the door.
The grass crunches under my feet; the sun shines into my eyes. People laughing, playing, boats on the water. Birds chirping. Without a doubt, this is Lakefront Park. I turn back to James.
"Now you see," he says, "Come on, I'll show you the stairs to the closet. The stairs you said don't exist."
I follow him back into the tunnel, into the bunker, past the silent football game, and up a set of stairs to a panel. He pushes on the panel and it swings open. We step out into his closet. He opens the closet and we enter the room. His room. The same room where I saw him disappear into the closet. Where I searched for the stairs and found nothing. Behind us, he closes the wall panel shut.
It blends seamlessly and perfectly into the wall. You would never know it was there.
"Listen to me, Mary," I yell into my cellphone as the car careens down the road. "It's much weirder than me thought. No, not an affair. Listen, I saw the bunker. I was in the bunker. It's crazy. There's tunnels that connect all over town. Not even with $223 million could he have built it. No way. There's something much more crazy going on. Look, meet me at Lakefront Park. I want to show you something."
I'm irritated at her lateness, at her slack, at her seeming lack of caring. I wait over thirty minutes at the park before she shows up. "What now?" she asks.
"Don't you care about James?" I blurt out.
She slaps me. Really. Right across the face. "Of course I care about him," she cries, "I love him and I'm his wife. I don't know what's gotten into him and I don't know how to fix it."
"I'm sorry," I apologize. "Listen, check this out."
We walk together to the far side of the lake, to the door that leads into the tunnel. The access point to the bunker. "It's here somewhere," I start to fret.
"A tunnel?" skeptical would be a generous description of her tone, "From here to the house? I don't think so. I think you two are in on something together. You're messing with me now. You know this isn't funny."
"It's not a joke! It was here. I walked out the door and back in! I saw it it was here!"
But there is no door. No tunnel. Just weeds and brush and bushes; bird droppings and mud. Mary shakes her head, and walks away.
A chill washes over me. As I put my hands into my pockets, I find the card that James had quickly handed me earlier. I pull it out of the envelope now, searching for any answers I can find.
"Happy Birthday" a colorful front proclaims in glittery letters with balloon stickers. Inside the card, a hand-written message. "Our son James, on your seventh birthday we wanted to tell you that we love you very much. When you were a little baby, we rescued you from a terrible home, a home where you lived with a mom and dad who were addicted to drugs. You also have an older brother, they didn't give him up, who is now in jail for selling meth. So don't look back, only look forwards!"
I've known James for a long time. He's never, never said anything about this before. A birthday card? To a seven year old? Talking about drugs and jail? I put the card away. Why did he give this to me? I don't even know where to start anymore.
Returning to my car, I decide to confront James about the card. About everything. The insanity has to stop.
"What's the story behind this?" I find James in his bunker, watching silent football. Now that he's shown me the door in the closet, I can find it easily enough.
He shakes his head. "I was devastated to find out," he says, "Destroyed. That's why I'm down here. That's why I've given up."
"James," I look at the card, "This card is from years ago. Why did you suddenly react now?"
He shakes his head again. "I can't help you any more than I already have."
I leave James to his misery and drive home. On the way, I call Mary and ask about the card. "I've never heard of anything like that," she retorts, "And it sounds like another of you two's bizarre fantasies. I don't want you to call me anymore unless you have something real to tell me."
I slept fitfully that night, my dreams full of bizarre images which I can't quite describe or recount. I wake up again and again, hearing voices I can't understand, but when I sit up and look around, the room is empty and silent. The next morning the whole world seems to be more gray, almost fake, a facade, a painting. I can't focus. I can't work. Whatever happened to James is happening to me. I can feel it.
Then I see the first one. Frankly, I'm terrified much more by the fact that I see him in the same way James did than that he's there. A man, in a lab coat, watching me, making notes. Then he's gone. But when turn, there's another. And then another. Out of the corner of my eyes I see them; an army, always following me, watching me. With me wherever I go.
Back inside the apartment, I bolt the door and draw the shades. I rush from room to room checking locks on the windows and closing the blinds. I turn back to the hall, and see another. Inside the apartment, standing in the door frame. White lab coat. Clipboard. Writing. Observing.
I rush him, and tackle the dusty carpet. There's no one there.
I burst out of the apartment, and drive like the wind. On the sides of the roads, the men in lab coats observe my progress. I dare not look in the rearview mirror. I know who is sitting behind me in the car. I drive to James' parents' house, past the horses and the barn. I rush in, upstairs, to his room, his parents still calling out my name from below.
The closet. The wall. I run my fingers eagerly along the panel. Open, damnit, open. The latch does not give. The secret staircase does not open. The bunker, the one place I can find James and maybe find answers, is shut off from me. Rage, fear. It's all there. I grab a heavy chair and swing. The textured drywall of the closet fails quickly; blow after blow I smash into the wall, into the secret staircase, into the bunker.
His parents are yelling. His mom on the phone now, calling the police. His dad, too frail to stop me by force, trying to talk me down. The drywall falls away. Behind it the old wooden beams of the house, dirt, spiderwebs, and the wall of the next room. No staircase, no bunker, no James. I turn, rage in my eyes, rage masking fear, to his parents, who back away from me; his mom still holding the phone.
I hear the 911 operator talking. "Ma'am, can you hear me? Ma'am, we're on the way."
Outside the window, in the corner of my eye. I see a man in a white lab coat, observing this event with apparent interest.
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