Jack outstretched his hand and watched as the device in his palm formed words on the screen. The bright glow permeated the dark room. He squinted and then tilted his head in amazement as each letter suddenly hopped into the air and floated in front of his gaze. The letters were difficult to make out; they kept curling and reforming, like smoke wisps in the air. As soon as he thought there was a legible sentence, an errant “e” would transform into an “a” and then an “x” and then flip in circles until it resembled a “t” and then vanish. They were all faintly blue. He reached out his other hand and tried to catch an “f” but it reared back and bared its serifs as though they were teeth. He yelped and jumped backward, nearly crashing into a heap of half-filled boxes.
It occurred to him then that he had no idea where he was. He held the device out as a makeshift flashlight, but this had the unnerving consequence of casting gigantic letter shaped shadows across the barren walls. They danced in the breeze that poured in from the open window.
He tip-toed to the window and peered out into the empty street. He did not recognize the streets or the houses. There were no familiar landmarks, signs, or buildings, even in the distance. Letters and words leapt out the window and rode the wind. He swore he heard them giggling as they soared out of sight.
Despite the utter lack of real, direct familiarity, he felt like he at least knew of this place. Perhaps his parents had visited someone here when he was a baby, before he could form proper memories. Perhaps this was the house of a long lost friend, whose memory had managed to fade from his thoughts.
He stepped away from the window and walked down the hallway, somehow knowing what was behind every door before opening them with an inevitable squeak and croak. Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, all in various forms of disarray, as though someone had moved in but disappeared before unpacking. He did not bother to rifle through anything, feeling compelled to turn this corner and that corner and then suddenly there it was.
He was not familiar with this. It didn’t feel like it belonged in this house. It was much newer. There, in one of the interior walls, freshly carved and formed, sawdust strewn amongst the carpet, was a door.
He tried the handle. It wasn’t locked. The door did not creak when he shakily pulled it open. The stairs beyond it had not yet had time to settle and groaned with each step as he descended. There was no railing for him to support himself on. With his hand on the earthen walls, he lurched downward into a dark passageway, another door at the end, this one much older. The cold kissed his neck, and he shivered as he turned the ancient knob.
Jack was not the kind of person who typically remembered his dreams. When he did, he dismissed them as the nonsensical machinations of his subconscious, no more meaningful than the pattern of a coffee stain. This one was different. Every time he saw a screen, he winced in anticipation of the images to leap from behind it’s transparent wall and into the realm of the breathing and living.
Work was difficult. He watched the endless numbers and words shifty-eyed as he moved them from one location to another, added, subtracted, and even multiplied occasionally. The glare of the harsh lights strained his head, and so after he had sat in his chair for the prescribed amount of time, he drove to a liquor store, procured a bottle of bourbon (not nice, but not the worst), and attempted to relax at home with an old film and a tall pour.
Oh god the monsters! The explosions! Each shriek and claw reached out to where he sat, threatening to swipe him with their hideous talons, a storm of fire at their back. Who had left on the captions? Words poured out into his room like an army of ants, crawling along the floor toward where he sat in his old and tattered couch.
He tossed back a large swig of bourbon and immediately began to cough. He forced himself to swallow and rubbed his eyes and temples. He breathed. He clasped his fingers around the glass tighter, letting the coldness of the solitary ice cube penetrate his skin, sending a shiver up his arm and down his spine. Nervously, he opened his eyes. The monsters and explosions and words were all happily contained within the confines of the screen.
Jack brushed his dark hair out of his eyes with the back of his hand, the ice cube clinking in the glass. He brought his knees to his chest and hugged them. No matter how well the bourbon was working, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that at any moment, everything would pounce toward him. He needed out. He needed to be with people, real people, who could tell him he was insane. He needed a fresh breath of goddamn air.
He picked up his phone. “Call Finn,” he said monotonously. The phone beeped in compliance and it hummed until it clicked.
“Hey, man, what’s going on?” Finn’s voice and the static rise and fall of a large crowd talking boisterously carried over the phone and into Jack’s room. Glasses were being clinked, laughter was being bellowed.
“Oh,” Jack replied, slowly putting his feet back onto the ground, “uh, are you already out because I was going to ask if you wanted to…”
“Yes! Yes, come out!” Finn practically yelled. “Get out here you never come out please come out Jack, pleaaaaaase…you know where we are.”
“Okay, okay,” Jack said, a tinge of irritation hanging in his voice. He stood up and started walking toward his shoes. “And I don’t never come out just not as much as I used to before I had a…” Jack stopped talking once he realized he was talking into silence. “God, he hung up on me!” Jack said aloud. “End call.”
Jack stood outside The Twin Crows, sucking down a cigarette and exhaling plumes of smoke against the moist air. It was early Autumn, and the smell of falling leaves hung in the atmosphere. He looked inside the bar through its large glass windows and saw the mass of people weaving between other people, heard the cacophony rise to the ceiling and pour into the streets. He clenched his fist. It seemed busy for a Monday night. He inhaled one last pull on his cigarette, tossed it into the street, exhaled, and pushed his way in.
He was immediately accosted by the volume and the smell of beer thick in the air. He flinched and pushed forward.
“Huh?” Jack asked. He looked back to find the bouncer holding onto his elbow with a don’t-fuck-with me look that seemed so natural Jack surmised he must practice it in front of a mirror.
“ID? I need your ID,” the bouncer repeated.
Jack fumbled in his pockets, produced his identification, and activated it for inspection.
“Lantern?” the bouncer nearly cracked a smile, almost laughed, “Jack Lantern? What the fuck kind of name is that?” he barked at Jack.
Jack recoiled and deactivated his ID. He brushed the hair from out of his face. “It’s the only one I’ve got,” he replied, trying to keep his cool.
“Sounds like a cheesy goddamn supervillain,” the bouncer grunted and waved him inside.
Jack smirked, “Villain, hero, as long as I’m super” and then somehow winked, winced, gave a thumbs up, and nearly fell over backward while trying to turn around all at once. Someone caught him before he could crash into a server carrying a tray of neon drinks.
“Jack!” Finn shouted above the din, “I didn’t think you were going to make it out!”
Jack stood to his feet. He always forgot how tall Finn truly was, about a foot taller than Jack and proportioned more like a bear than Jack’s beanpole frame. Finn hugged him, hard, and then slapped him on the back.
Jack groaned, “Yeah but I said I was going to…”
“I know!” Finn bellowed, “and now you’re here! Come on, we’re over here,” he gestured with his massive arm before disappearing into the crowd.
“I’m going to go get a drink first…” Jack trailed off, knowing Finn was already too far away to hear him. Jack turned and slunk his way through the endless crowd until he reached the bar. It wasn’t that he hated going out to the bar. In fact, he quite liked it, or used to. It just hadn’t been the same since he got a job that required him to wake up in the morning while his friends worked in industries that were more conducive for them to stay out all night and sleep it off in the morning. He was jealous, really.
“What’ll be?” the bartender stared him down.
“Uhh, bourbon,” Jack stammered.
The bartender cocked his head, “Any particular kind of bourbon?”
“Just, you know,” Jack waved his arms, “I don’t know… brown, one ice cube, double, please.” Jack didn’t remember ordering a drink to be so exhausting. As the bartender turned to leave, Jack threw twice the money onto the bar, and shouted after him, “Actually can you make that a double double?”
“Double fisting, huh?” Finn eyed Jack as he approached the table. They were sitting in a booth, all three of them.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Jack replied, “I kind of just expected one big drink, you know? Like, a double double.”
“A double double,” Finn repeated. “Man, it has been a while. Anyhow,” he gestured to the others, “this is Trish and this is Fish. They’re rad. Trish and Fish, this is Jack. Jack Lantern.”
“Trish and Fish?” Jack asked, awkwardly bundling both drinks in one hand while trying to shake theirs with his other. He set the drinks down on the table, sidled up next to Finn, leaned forward. “Well, Trish, Fish, Finn, would you like to hear about the weirdest dream I’ve ever had?” He took his phone out of his pocket and laid it down on the table between them all, screen side up. It hummed quietly while Jack drained half of his double double bourbon.
Jack was jolted awake by the intense urge to vomit and to not do so all over himself, in bed. He flung off his blankets and darted toward the bathroom, taking out a lamp and folding chair along the way. Ignoring the stabbing pain from kicking a goddamn folding chair, he threw himself down to the toilet and begged the lights to not turn on. They complied and he retched in the darkness, holding his stomach wondering why the hell he had agreed to go see Finn in the first place. His head throbbed and the room spun mercilessly fast around him.
His phone buzzed in his bedroom.
“Not now!” he shouted, but then he realized he had no recollection of how he managed to end up in bed, in one piece. The end of the night was fuzzy, only flashes of various images and feelings, tastes and smells, his brain firing one memory at a time behind his eyelids.
It’s probably Finn, he thought, making sure I made it home okay.
Jack stood and flushed and washed his face, his groggy eyes staring out from behind the mirror.
His phone buzzed again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” he yelled and stumbled back into the bedroom.
The bright screen permeated the dark room. One by one, blue smoky letters floated into the air, danced, and then in perfect synchronized movement, settled into two words, hovering toward the ceiling. Jack rubbed his eyes and read them, “Find Me.”
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)