Alright, we’re back with Part 2 of Disconnected! Welcome back my friends! If you’re joining us for the first time you should go back to episode 15 to hear Disconnect Part 1, or else risk total confusion… you’ve been warned… [If your podcast app isn’t showing the featured art for this episode above visit https://rebekahnemethy.com/artink16 to check it out. Castbox and Podcast Addict are both apps I recommend that do show episode specific art.] Links from the Show at a Glance: Artist: Sean Howard Title of Art: Disconnected Artist’s Website: seanhoward.ca Instagram: @passitalong Discover audio fiction podcasts on Sean’s network: fableandfolly.com Sean Howard’s Levitation photographs Learn more about my friend Matt and his audiobooks at: mattheweberry.com Email me with any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org Art Ink Submission Guidelines: rebekahnemethy.com/artinksubs Art Ink Podcast Transcript: [Intro:] Alright, we’re back with Part 2 of Disconnected! Welcome back my friends! If you’re joining us for the first time you should go back to episode 15 to hear Disconnect Part 1, or else risk total confusion… you’ve been warned. I’ll keep this brief because I know you’re itching to get back into the story, but I wanted to give you a quick reminder of who we have to thank for this episode. This is Art Ink after all, and Sean Howard is the artist of the hour. Disconnected, a photograph from his Levitation series, sparked this story’s inception, and I wanted to refresh your memory on what that looks like. [Art Description:] A girl in a spaghetti-strap, teal dress hugs her knees to her chest in front of a brown brick wall. She faces left, and we see a profile of her, eyes closed tight, pink and red highlighted dreadlocks pointing wildly in every direction. Floating around the girl, surrounding her at shoulder height, are five floating devices: a tablet and several smart phones. Sean titled this piece Disconnected, and I could think of no better title for the story that his creation helped bring to life. As usual you can check the cover art of this podcast episode to see it for yourself, or if your podcast player isn’t as intuitive as I hope, you can opt to visit the link I’ve posted in the episode description. Without further adieu, I present to you Disconnected, Part 2: [Story:] “I’m glad you like them,” Karen said, pulling Jennifer out of her thoughts, and she had to stop herself from the automatic urge to ask ‘huh?’ They were back in the white-walled office, waiting for everyone else to arrive. Following Karen’s gaze she realized she must’ve been staring down at her nails. “I really do,” Jennifer said as she twisted her hand around and folded four fingers over her palm to examine them more consciously. The tiny white flowers Karen had magically rolled onto just one accent nail were super cute. “Too bad I can’t Instagram them… what did you call it again?” “Nail stamping.” “There has to be a hashtag for that.” “A hastag? Girl, you’ll be scrolling for hours with all the nail candy you’ll find there. Pinterest is even better though… or worse. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be learning here? That social media is the devil?” Jennifer could hear her rolling her eyes with those words. “What’d I miss?” Matt asked as he plopped down next to Karen. The girls wiggled their digits at him and he exaggerated his impressed expression. The room was filling up now, not just with the rest of Jennifer’s group, but their transmitting partners were joining them too. Chris softly nudged her way into the quiet hiss of conversation that’d begun in her absence. “Is that everyone?” The whispers silenced. “Why don’t we get started… let’s do this the fun way. I’m going to have each one of you explain what you’ve depicted on the board first. Together we can discuss some possible interpretations, and then we’ll reveal what our transmitters were actually sending to us.” She walked over to the board and gestured to a jumble of what looked like random characters: a backslash and a forward slash were side by side, an at symbol was drawn to the right of those along with a plus sign, and below those were three short, horizontal lines. “Whose work is this?” A boy with mussed, mousey hair raised his hand meekly. It looked like he was trying to disappear. His shoulders were hunched, his arm only extended far enough to form a C around his head. Chris extended her hand to him and smiled warmly, “So what do you think this all means.” “I’m not really sure.” Jennifer could barely hear him. He ducked his head a bit as if he were a turtle retreating back inside himself. “The interpretation can be the hard part,” Chris said sympathetically. “Does anyone have any idea what this could mean?” She looked away from her students and walked alongside the board a bit, giving everyone a chance to think. When she returned her gaze to the group someone called out, “Part of a URL maybe?” “Could be… anyone else?” The room was silent as Chris looked around expectantly. She turned back to turtle boy, and he shrugged meekly, his head seeming to recede further, before she could even open her mouth to question him. “Who was your partner?” Chris queried and a hand raised slowly at the other side of the room. “Tell us, what was the message you were sending?” Jennifer couldn’t hear their response, but Chris’s animated expression flashed with excitement as she walked back to the symbols. She circled the two slashes, “This,” she said, “plus… this…” she drew another circle around the plus sign, and another around the three horizontal lines. Then she drew another picture, putting it all together for her audience. The two slashes with the horizontal lines in between them looked like a railroad track going off into the distance. “Take a walk at the railroad track.” Chris stood back admiring her own work, then nodded as she returned her gaze to the group. “I can see it. Good work you two!” Jennifer was amazed as Chris continued to analyze each pair’s work. Not all of the symbols and words could be interpreted so easily, but there was always at least some small clue that could be linked back to the original message. “Let it Go,” from the Disney movie Frozen, was what Karen heard when her partner sent her a visual of an ice cube. The message Jennifer was supposed to pick up on was “upside down,” and while she had no idea why her mind had chosen to use an umbrella to express that, it was clearly no coincidence. Matt’s interpretation of a “boy band” in stick figures was nearly spot on, aside from the one figure with pigtails… which made Jennifer wonder if her earlier thoughts about her partner’s resemblance to Baby Spice might’ve infiltrated his message somehow. Chris looked a bit smug at the end of class as she took several votes: “How many of you have had any kind of telepathic or psychic development training?” Zero hands. “How many of you thought you’d totally failed at this exercise before we reviewed it?” Nearly everyone raised a hand. “And yet all of you managed to succeed in one way or another.” Chris was smirking now. “Imagine what you’ll be able to do by the end of the month.” And with that she dismissed them. It was surreal to Jennifer. She realized that if someone had told her she’d be spending the next month in a mind-reading school she’d have laughed out loud. If that someone insisted that anyone and everyone could read minds, she’d step away slowly until she could make a break from this obviously unhinged individual. Jennifer had lived her entire life believing that “psychics” were little more than magicians around “for entertainment purposes only” like so many disclaimers warned. Yet here she was, participating in telepathy exercises and succeeding, with a bunch of other newbies at her side. Was this real life? *** NIGHT 2 That night Jennifer jerked herself awake, panting and sweating. The red glow of the clock read 4:44. She’d dreamt of the accident again: the old woman, the shock on her face even more terrifyingly twisted through the distortion of rain-rivered windows. Her skin awash in the yellow glow from her crayon bright umbrella… but this time, Jennifer noticed that her skin had suddenly grown warmer at the last second. She lowered herself back onto the bed and closed her eyes to recall what she’d seen just before waking. And that’s when she saw it, another hideously distorted reflection of the lady’s face was shining up from the hood of the car… and it was bright, fire engine, red. Despite her best efforts, Jennifer laid wide awake until it was time for her 1-on-1 with Chris. “Trouble sleeping?” Jennifer hadn’t planned on sharing the dream, but it seemed like Chris already knew… though Jennifer wasn’t sure if it was mind reading so much as the fact that she obviously looked like hell. “Yeah, that dream I had… I guess it’s a recurring… memory.” Jennifer opted for the term Chris had used during their last session. “Well, why don’t we see if we can find out more about it?” Chris said as she got up and headed to the nearest bucket full of dry erase markers. She sat down next to Jennifer, reached for her hand and asked, “May I?” the marker uncapped and hovering. “Uh… sure,” Jennifer said, and Chris drew a small black circle on the top of both of her hands and colored them in. “We look at our hands hundreds of times every day while in the waking hours, and though we many not notice it, while we’re dreaming too.” She replaced the marker in the bucket and rummaged through it a bit before she plucked out a hot pink one and wandered back to her matching chair. “Have you ever heard of lucid dreaming?” Chris asked as she leaned forward and extended the marker. Jennifer shook her head as she took the pink gift offered her. “Perhaps you’re not familiar with the term, but you may have experienced it before. Lucid dreaming is simply a dream in which you realize you are dreaming.” Chris looked at Jennifer expectantly, as if she’d asked a question and was awaiting an answer. “Uh…” Jennifer looked up at the ceiling as she wracked her memory. “Maybe?... yeah I think maybe I have realized I’m dreaming, right before I wake up.” “Excellent!” Chris clapped her hands together, “Then this should be easy for you!” Not for the first time since stepping into this meeting, Jennifer was a bit disappointed by her inability to conceal the truth. It was like she was two glasses of wine deep talking with a kind-faced stranger… which was why Jennifer never had more than one glass of wine, and generally avoided talking to strangers. Not only did she share personal stories her sober self would never dare reveal to even some of her closest friends, but she also had a bad habit of overcommitting herself as a lush. One time she’d woken up to a slew of text messages from a girl she’d bonded with over a couple of bottles of Cabernet. The first text from a contact labeled “My new BFFF” said: “My address is 126 Gulliver Ave, thanks so much for agreeing to help!” And then two hours later: “No prob if you’re running late, just let me know when you’ll be here.” And then a couple more hours later: “You’re not coming are you?” Of course Jennifer had read them all at once, because she’d slept in, deeply and soundly, until well after the last message had come through. It’d all come back to her in hazy spatters: swapping bad ex-boyfriend stories and, OMG, they’d actually broken up with her boyfriend together through text, Jennifer reading and then editing them for maximum sassiness. “But I need to at least wait for him to help me move outta my apartment before I break up with him,” the girl had slurred out. “No,” Jennifer had insisted, equally slurry, “You don’t need some stupid boy to help you move, you have me! I’ll help you move tomorrow.” Those memories were aided by the context clues from the texts, but Jennifer never did see “My new BFFF” ever again, nor was she able to ascertain what her name was. Jennifer winced at the memory, and though she was stone-cold sober as she awaited Chris’s next set of marching orders, she felt the same kind of dread; as though she’d already unknowingly agreed to something. Like her tiny truth slip about a maybe lucid dream was as careless as a rich girl getting married without a pre-nup… but now it was too late. “The trick to lucid dreaming is to get into the habit of questioning your reality. Our habits in the waking world eventually show up in the dream world, and that’s our opportunity to take control.” “Take control?” “Oh yes, that’s the best part of lucid dreaming, you don’t just awaken, you become the driver of the dream, you might even say you obtain the powers of a God, to create whatever world you want to play in, at advanced levels. But for now, let’s just say that the beginning stages of lucid dreaming are like you’ve just experienced DVR after years of watching plain old cable. And that’s what I think will help you discover more about this dream of yours. You’ll be able to slow it down, look around, stay in the dream longer and take control of when you wake up.” “And how, exactly, do I do that?” “Whenever you look at your hands, those marks are a reminder to ask yourself: ‘Am I dreaming?’ But don’t just ask the question, test your environment; look around and see if there’s anything odd. See if things change when you look at them twice. A great test is to find some writing and try to read it. Usually writing is very fickle in dreams and it morphs as you go. If it’s clear and legible, and it stays the same when you check it out a second time, you’re probably not dreaming.” “Ok… so what’s this for?” Jennifer asked, holding up the hot pink marker. “Oh, I almost forgot,” Chris jumped up, scurried away, and returned with a stack of sticky notes. “This will work faster if you cover your environment with reminders too, you can draw simple dots, like I did on your hands, or write ‘Is this a dream?’ whatever works for you, and then stick those around your room.” Jennifer had some time before breakfast to adorn her room in the multi-colored little squares. She did an equal mix of dots and questions and stuck them on her bathroom mirror, on the windows, on all the doors and whatever furniture they’d adhere to. She had no idea if it would work or not, but it would be an interesting experiment to kill the time… no more or less strange than most of the things she was being asked to do here. “What the hell?” Jennifer said as she attached the last yellow note to the outside of her door, locked it up, and headed down to eat. Karen and Matt were at their usual table, and Jennifer joined them without the need for a wave prompt. It was awhile before there was a long enough break in the conversation for Jennifer to cut in, but she hesitated. She wanted to casually ask Matt what color car he drove, or what kind of car he drove, or something else that might naturally allow her to segue to that topic… but there appeared to be no direct way of coming right out with her main question without raising eyebrows. The truth was, she suspected that her recurring ‘memory,’ as Chris claimed it was, had to do with Matt. He’d said that he’d checked himself into this place voluntarily, that his harmless accident had been a wake-up call. But what if he was leaving something out that he was too embarrassed to admit? The first part of his story matched up with the dream, he’d been reading an email when he’d lost control of the car. And he’d said it’d been pouring. She could just come out and tell him the truth, approach the topic directly… once Karen wasn’t around, of course, no need to announce his secret to the world. Yet, she just couldn’t bring herself to do that either, for fear of her own embarrassment if she was wrong. Jennifer just wanted to confirm one more fact before she committed to the direct approach… now how to breech the topic of what color car he drove… “I know this sounds weird,” Jennifer started, looking down into her bowl of oatmeal, “but I kind of miss driving. Especially this time of year, when the leaves are falling like colorful crinkly rain. There’s a chill in the air, but the sun’s still warm enough to heat up your car.” “Yeah, that is weird,” Karen quipped with a smirk, “but I guess I’m a bit jaded seeing as I have to drive to make my living. Money just takes the fun out of everything I guess. I’m enjoying the break, myself… but I guess if I channeled my former self before Uber, well that girl would probably agree with you.” Jennifer laughed, “What about you Matt?” “Although I’m not paid to drive people around, I have a really long commute to work, so it sure does feel like a part of my job…” he trailed off and Jennifer wondered if he was thinking what she was thinking, about his bad habit of trying to work while he was driving. If he was, however, he didn’t let on, “I haven’t gone for a real joyride since I was a teenager… that’s the last time I remember just driving to drive.” Perfect, Jennifer thought, seizing the opportunity, “And what did teenage Matt drive back in those long-gone days when he still had time for a joyride? Wait, lemme guess…” Jennifer tapped her chin, feigning her contemplation, because she knew exactly what she was going to say, “you drove a red Camaro that attracted cops and tickets like rats to a plague?” “Close! It was a red Mustang, but you’re right on about the tickets.” He laughed. “What do you drive now?” Jennifer asked. “A BMW 6-series GT.” Karen was practically drooling, “I’ve always wanted a beamer… but European cars are so expensive to maintain.” She sighed. “And were you practical enough to select a color that would draw a bit less attention?” Jennifer snarked. “Yeah, this one’s white.” Damn. She was wrong. It wasn’t him. Unless… but before Jennifer could figure out a way to ask her next question, Matt continued, “But my wife drives a red one, just around town though. She works from home. When we go out to eat on the weekends and whatnot, we usually take her car. Though… since the accident, she doesn’t let me drive it anymore. Not that I can blame her.” “You were driving your wife’s car when that happened?” Karen asked, wide-eyed. Jennifer was pretty sure Karen was more shocked about Matt’s relationship status; it was news to both of them. He wasn’t wearing a ring. Was that a bit of disappointment on her face too? Definitely. “Yeah… I said before that I volunteered to come here, and while I am here willingly, I probably wouldn’t be if she hadn’t insisted.” Matt looked down and his shoulders slumped a bit. “She was in the car with me.” He sighed. Karen and Jennifer gasped simultaneously. “She was always yelling at me to put my phone down, but I never listened to her.” He shook his head as if to shake away the memory. Then, more quietly, he said, “I could’ve killed her.” The silence lingered for an uncomfortably long time before Jennifer finally broke it. “But you didn’t, and you’re here now… and that’s what counts.” Matt looked up and nodded sheepishly but also gratefully. *** Jennifer was lost in thought as Chris led them into their next meditation. They were back in the Oak Room, repeating the telepathy exercise from the previous day, only now their roles were reversed. It was Jennifer’s turn to send the message and Emma’s turn to doodle her findings on the white board. But first, she was supposed to relax, and Jennifer was struggling even to slow the thoughts that were zooming through her head, much less eradicate them. Matt had confirmed her suspicions. He had been driving a red car that rainy night he’d been distracted by his phone and lost control. It’s possible he was leaving out the part about the woman… and who knows… maaayyybe she didn’t die. Though Jennifer wanted to believe that bit more than she actually did. The one thing that didn’t match up to her dream version of events was the passenger. It was possible there was someone else there, and Jennifer just hadn’t looked. Hopefully this whole lucid dreaming thing would help her sort out the details. Which reminded her: Am I dreaming? she asked herself silently. Jennifer opened her eyes enough to see her markered up hands. Then she scanned her surroundings to see if there was any writing she could examine, but they were facing one of the fully transparent walls and nothing hung to obstruct the gorgeous fall scenery that shone through. It was stunning, but normal, at least for this place. Not dreaming, she confirmed. It was odd, but Jennifer couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she was connected to Matt in a way she didn’t totally understand. And ever since she’d stepped foot into this Oak Room on the day she’d first seen him, she’d witnessed example after example of this connection. All those times he’d caught her looking at him on that first day could have been coincidence all on their own; but not once you add in all the other instances Jennifer had noticed over the past few days. It had to be Matt’s memory she was dreaming of. And she was determined to find out for sure that night. “Now that you’re all relaxed, it’s time for you send those messages.” Oh, right, the message, Jennifer thought. She was supposed to be sending Emma an Octopus. She imagined a rainbowy illustrated version of the creature she must have seen on Instagram at some point. Jennifer followed a lot of artists. Which reminded her… she’d planned on starting that 100 days of drawing challenge while she was here, minus the sharing of course, but she hadn’t had as much time as she’d thought she would. Not with all the unexpected socializing she’d been doing. “Now, for just a couple more minutes, try to focus on your message in a different way.” Octopus, Jennifer stressed to herself, it was so easy to drift away in the current of her stream of consciousness. She wondered if she’d ever get any better at meditating… right now she royally sucked at it. Octopus, she repeated in her mind again, and this time she imagined a live creature zipping across the ocean floor until it reached, and hugged, a coral-crusted rock, instantly molding its texture and color to match. *** When Jennifer walked into Chris’s office for the big reveal, later that day, she didn’t have to wait to see if she’d been successful. She zeroed in on it immediately: “ocho chameleons.” Jennifer had never seen Emma’s handwriting, but no one had to tell her that it was, in fact, Emma who’d scribbled that message across the wall. And just as had happened after the previous day’s exercise, it turned out that everyone had received at least an inkling of the message that’d been sent to them, and some much more than that. Chris congratulated everyone and went into a lecture about the different types of psychic abilities. The “clairs,” she called them, and Jennifer, it turned out, was best at the most commonly known clair: clairvoyance. Which literally meant “clear seeing,” because Jennifer naturally saw her transmissions vividly, in her mind’s eye. Since Karen tended to hear her messages, typically in the form of popular songs, her psychic superpower was known as clairaudience. There were a bunch more that Chris rattled off, but there was no way Jennifer would remember all of them. “So I’d like you all to get together with your partner,” Chris said, “and talk about your experiences in sending and receiving messages. Describe to each other what senses you used to send your messages and also how they came to you. More likely than not, if you receive your messages visually, you probably tried to sent them in the same manner… but maybe your partner could benefit from a different type of delivery? A lot can be lost in translation during this psychic game of telephone we’re playing.” Chris laughed at herself and, as usual, the rest of the room was silent. “Oh that’s all,” she said after a pause, “you’re free to go.” Jennifer and Emma didn’t waste any time getting together. It seemed like she was the first person Jennifer had met there that was even half as intrigued as she was to learn this stuff. It turned out that Emma worked best with words, which judging from the literal writing on the wall, made sense. Jennifer promised to focus on sending Emma words in the future, and Emma said she’d make sure to project pictures during the next round. It was pretty late when Jennifer finally started making her way to her room. She’d planned on reading or drawing that evening, and a pang of guilt hit her at the thought of another day shaved off the 100 day challenge she’d yet to begin. Then again, despite the mild sense of dread she had about waking up from yet another nightmare, she also had hope that this time, she’d wake up inside the dream and finally start to get some answers. *** NIGHT 3 The purple circle in the center of the screen reminded Jennifer of the dots on her hands. But it was the text on the phone, morphing as she tried to read it, that really jarred her into lucidity. There were numbers stretched across the top of the screen too, but they were transforming as well, like rapidly changing stock indexes. Words below the purple dot were jumbled and strange; Jennifer could only get three or four words in before she got confused and attempted to reread them, (man, door, tory? centaur?) at which point there were new words in their place. Time seemed to stretch on a bit longer than usual. Far away, non-dream Jennifer thought that must be a perk of lucid dreams. Hadn’t Chris said something about that? Slowly the phone began to fall as Jennifer’s dream body raised its head back to the road. She was awake inside of this dream, aware, but she was still more of a viewer than a participant. Wasn’t there something she’d wanted to do in here? Memories from the real world were a bit fuzzy, hard to recall. She didn’t want to look at the terrified old woman, but it was more than that… she… her gaze drifted across the reddish black hood of the car, where an orangey glow was gradually growing. The yellow umbrella, Jennifer realized, as she let herself become mesmerized by the distorted reflection as it danced through glass and rain and red paint. And that’s when she remembered. The realization was sudden and the world around her seemed to want to keep pace with her surge of excitement as time suddenly sped up. Just as the woman’s fear-twisted face zoomed into view, Jennifer spun away from her, not just to avoid seeing the grotesque details of her yellowed wrinkles, but to check the seat next to her for passengers. No one was there. Jennifer’s heart was thundering when she opened her eyes, but she hadn’t sat straight up like she had the previous two nights. She was still under the covers and though she felt hot, she wasn’t soaked in the sweat that usually accompanied this nightmare. This lucid dreaming thing is a pretty handy trick, Jennifer thought as she rose from beneath the comforter. Although terrifying, this dream wasn’t nearly as stressful as the previous ones. And it looked like she was going to have to keep visiting this particular dream, because the new information she’d found hadn’t confirmed her suspicions that this was Matt’s memory. The passenger seat had been empty. Matt had no reason to lie about traumatizing his wife… he’d been so ashamed and reluctant to admit that part of the story. But something else was niggling at Jennifer. Matt had been reading an email, and though she hadn’t been able to read what was on the screen, she was now certain that there was yet another discrepancy in his story. The brightly colored bubble that’d divided up the words and number shone in her mind. She hadn’t been looking at an email, she’d been looking at a phone call. Matt had said he was reading an email, with his wife in the car, and though it had been wet roads that’d caused him to lose control of the vehicle, it was seeming less and less likely to Jennifer that this was his memory. The fact that he’d been driving a red car must’ve been a convenient coincidence. Too much didn’t match up. Well it was time to start looking for more details. Now that Jennifer had successfully woken herself up within the dream, she was confident she’d be able to do it again. She’d simply go back to sleep and examine her surroundings more thoroughly. She doubted she’d see much outside in the limited visibility of the rainy night… but maybe she could pay more attention to the interior details. Determined to follow out her new plan, Jennifer laid back down to go to sleep. She closed her eyes. But sleep was a million miles away from the spinning top of thoughts whirling through her head. For the next hour or so she tried to get comfortable and relax, but her brain just wouldn’t slow down enough to make it happen. With a heavy sigh, Jennifer rolled over and opened her eyes. Her gaze landed on the collection of books and art supplies she’d piled on the desk. Giving up on sleep she got out of bed and turned on the yellow-tinged desk lamp. Normally she’d prefer to work in natural light, but at 4am she’d take what she could get. For the next few hours, Jennifer drew the thing she couldn’t get out of her head. The most frightening frame of the nightmare unfolded onto the page before her. The phone frozen mid-fall and the sickly looking scared woman a millisecond before impact. The moment Jennifer could never seem to get past before waking. When she ran out of details to draw in the dashboard, she switched from gray graphite to colored pencils and filled in the sections of the scene she was sure of. She jumped when her alarm clock blared from behind her. It was obnoxious enough when she was sleeping, but the sound was intolerable when she was already awake. She ran to silence it, and then stretched in front of the golden sunshine filled window. Now Jennifer felt like she could fall asleep. Figures, she thought miserably as she made her way around the room to ready herself for yet another weird day. *** Jennifer wasn’t listening to anything Matt and Karen were saying this morning. She fixed her bleary-eyed gaze on what had become her usual breakfast here, oatmeal with a mountain of brown sugar, and got lost in replay after replay of her latest dream experience trying, and failing, to recall any new details. When she was done eating, she looked up, instantly drawn to the yellow fingernails Karen was waving around as she talked. They were the shade of an autumn leaf, bright yet still golden, and they popped against the black background of her shirt. Jennifer finally tuned in as Karen threw her hands over her face. Matt was rubbing her back with one hand, which seemed a bit too comfortable a gesture for a married man, until Jennifer heard the eruption of a sob escape from behind Karen’s hands. “Don’t worry,” Matt said, “I’m sure he’ll be just fine.” “You don’t understand,” Karen said barely getting a hold of herself, “The last time this happened he nearly died. The only reason we finally caught him was because he was too weak to run away. He gets so spooked in unfamiliar places. And if he was freaked out in the middle of the woods, how do you think he’ll do all alone in the city? I’ll probably never see him again.” “Is he microchipped?” Matt asked. “Yeah, but they have to catch him first for that to do any good.” Karen sighed. “Well I’m sure with all the people in New York who might find him, you have a pretty good shot at getting him back.” Matt reassured. “Yeah, it’ll be ok,” Jennifer finally chimed in. She’d gathered that Karen’s dog or cat must have escaped, but didn’t want to risk asking about details that’d most likely already been covered when she’d been tuned out. Karen nodded, but didn’t look up from her barely touched bowl of fruit. “Hey,” Matt said with a sudden surge of excitement, “maybe we can use our new psychic skills to help find him!” “Yeah, why not?” Jennifer said, “It couldn’t hurt to try.” Karen looked skeptical at first, but her face shifted with her thoughts until it seemed to hover around reluctant hope. “I guess it’s worth a shot.” *** When Chris heard about Karen’s cat, she decided to change her lesson plan for the day. Jennifer was grateful for the story’s retelling, that’ll save a lot of awkward verbal side-stepping later on, she thought. Apparently Muppet had escaped from the pet sitter who’d supposedly tripped and dropped his cat carrier while bringing him to the vet. Karen, however, was convinced that the girl simply hadn’t paid attention to her instructions on how to properly secure the finicky contraption. That explained all of the angry hand gestures earlier too. The class voted unanimously to learn a new skill called ‘remote viewing’ in order to help Karen find Muppet. It was very similar to the telepathic exercises they’d already been doing for the past couple of days, the only difference was that they were all playing the role of the receiver and there was no human transmitter. For this reason, Chris insisted that they remain in the Oak Room for this exercise. Apparently the pyramid shaped room served a greater purpose than aesthetics alone, and was some kind of energy chamber, designed to strengthen the signals they all sent and received there. That was the best way Jennifer could explain it anyway, and suddenly the fact that people who’d never experienced a drop of psychic ability before they’d come here and were able to be so successful right at the start of their training made much more sense. They were using some kind of energetic technology… like a cosmic Wi-Fi connection, or something. The students laid out their multicolored yoga mats in a circle centered beneath the pointed pyramid’s peak. Since they were lacking in white boards in the Oak Room, Chris handed out a pile of tiny notebooks accompanied by mini pencils before she began. “Karen, why don’t you set the scene for us? Tell us, in as much detail as possible, what it looks like in the area where he escaped.” “Well, when you step outside my building, there are a few trees and a line of street parked cars. Across the street you’ll see a brick apartment building with a gray awning, and next to that is a ramp leading down into a parking garage. Brownstones line the street on the other side of that. Depending on the time of day there are a lot of kids walking the sidewalks; I’m only a few blocks from a school.” “What does Muppet look like?” “He’s orange, with a little triangle of white on his chest. He has green eyes… and he’s kinda chubby.” “And which direction did Muppet head in, when the carrier broke open?” “He went towards Central Park,” Karen said, “so from the front of my building, he made a right.” “Ok, everyone follow that cat!” Jennifer kept her eyes closed, concentrated as hard as she could, but it was no use. The only thing she could see were brief flashes of her recurring dream. She was sure that given her successes so far in these trainings she’d be able to come up with something, especially now that she knew the pyramid was some sort of psychic cheat sheet, but nothing even remotely cat related crossed her mind. She could hear notebooks being opened, the faint scribbling of pencil on paper, and Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut tighter as if doing so would activate whatever inner senses she needed to tap into. She felt a mild headache coming on, but that was the only difference she could sense despite her best efforts. “Ok, great,” Chris broke in quietly, “looks like many of you are receiving some information. For those of you who haven’t started writing yet, I’ll give you five more minutes.” The guilt was real. Jennifer felt like a complete and utter failure. Shouldn’t she be more able to pick up on something when it actually counted? When the person she’d be helping was someone whose happiness she actually cared about? Why couldn’t she get a hit on this motherfucking cat? The minutes ticked by. Nothing. Maybe I’m just too tired after last night, Jennifer told herself, trying to justify her failure. She was too distracted with this stupid nightmare. “Ok everyone,” Chris said, “I’ll give you a few more minutes to write down what you’ve discovered, and then we’ll try to see if we can bring Muppet home.” Jennifer glanced up at the circle of students in front of her, most of them furiously scribbling in their tiny notebooks. Karen looked hopeful. Another wave of shame washed over Jennifer as Karen turned toward her. She opened her own little notebook, hovered the half pencil over a blank page, willing some bit of information, anything really, to jump out of it and onto the page. The dot on the back of her hand reminded her to do a check in. She wrote, “Am I dreaming?” Jennifer closed her eyes for a second, opened them, and the words were still there, unchanged. “No,” she wrote beneath them. “Alright,” Chris said, “let’s begin. We’ll go around the circle quickly sharing what we’ve received, and then we’ll put all of the pieces together and see what we can come up with. Matt, why don’t you start?” “I don’t know how helpful it might be,” Matt began, disappointment more than reluctance in his tone, “but I saw an orange blur run across a street. It was three lanes, and there was a patch grass on the other side of it, but that was all the detail I got.” That was much more than Jennifer could contribute, anyway. Emma was next, but instead of answering Chris, she simply held up her notebook. Only one word was scrawled across the entire page, the bold capital letters traced over many times, and so although the page was miniscule, Jennifer could read it clearly, “ACCIDENT.” Karen gasped, “Oh my God! Muppet’s been hurt,” she stood up and spun in a panicked circle, hugging herself. “I have to go home, I have to get to him.” She started to move toward the door, but Chris stopped her. “Now Karen, ‘accident’ could simply be referring to the carrier mishap or your pet sitter tripping. You’re letting your fear get the best of you.” “Well, I can’t just sit here and listen to all of this, it’s like getting a Brazilian with tweezers… maybe you can just give me the Cliff Notes version later?” Karen’s face was pinched in pain and pleading. Chris nodded sympathetically and Karen walked briskly toward the exit as the group watched in silence. Not until the door clicked shut behind her did anyone return their gazes to the faces within the circle. When Chris made eye contact with Jennifer she took it as an invitation to speak up, “I didn’t come up with much of anything, so do you think I could be more useful keeping Karen company right now?” “Sure, and why don’t you two come by my office after lunch?” “Ok, sounds good,” Jennifer said as she rose from the floor. She met Matt’s gaze briefly, and he gave her a forced smile, before she turned away. Jennifer caught up to Karen just as she was letting herself into her room, “Hey, wait up!” Karen looked over her shoulder, but didn’t pause. She left the door to her room open behind her. She was pacing in front of the bed when Jennifer got inside. “I can’t stay here,” Karen muttered, “I feel useless… I can’t do anything from here.” “Well… what do you think you could do back at home?” Jennifer asked softly. “You said it yourself, he’s spooked; he’s not going to be waiting for you when you get there, who knows where he could be…” She’d meant to sound soothing, but was failing miserably at it. “Pacing at home won’t be any more effective than it is here.” “I could go look for him! If I had a fucking computer or a phone I could start calling animal shelters to see if anyone’s brought him in.” Jennifer didn’t have anything to say to that. It was true. “Well why don’t we wait and see what the group comes up with. If they get something solid, maybe Chris will let you go.” “You think so?” Karen stood still, a glint of excitement in her eyes. “I mean really, I’ll be less than useless if I have to stay. There’s no way I’ll be able to focus on any of this shit knowing that Muppet might be out on the streets or hurt.” “I mean, I don’t think she’d change her lesson plans for the day if she didn’t care. She definitely wants to help you.” “I hope you’re right.” The concern crept back across Karen’s face, but before she could start pacing again Jennifer grabbed her attention with fluttering fingers. “I think I have a couple of chips in these, can you help a girl out?” Karen sent Jennifer a grateful smile, “Well we can’t have you walking around here like hobo, now can we?” She pulled open her box of nail art supplies and started laying her tools out. *** Karen worked on Jennifer’s nails through lunch. She didn’t say it, but Jennifer could tell she was glad for the distraction. If not for Muppet having gone missing Jennifer probably wouldn’t have even taken the time to remove the nail polish, much less redo it. Instead, she guessed it would’ve taken weeks for the polish to chip away on its own, with a little help from her own random picking maybe… when she was in line at the grocery store or something. Though she had to admit, she really did love Karen’s work, and this time she’d really outdone herself. Every nail had a different design on it, all Halloween themed, though the holiday was still a few days away. One nail looked like a piece of candy corn, with three thick horizontal lines in yellow, orange and white, all the rest were decorated in orange and black with tiny, incredibly detailed nail stamp designs: a spider, a jack-o-lantern, a ghost, and even a haunted house. In all the times Jennifer had momentarily missed her phone, this was probably the most profound; it was truly a shame not to be able to capture this most temporary work of art. Yeah, she’d also Instagram the shit out of her Halloween themed nails, but she’d be just as satisfied with just a keepsake photo alone at this point. She couldn’t stop looking down at them, afraid to touch anything lest she suffer from a premature chip. Jennifer rested her palms in her lap, noticing the marks on top of her hands. Am I dreaming? she thought, and looked around Chris’s office, where they were waiting for her to get back from lunch. Jennifer looked up to the walls where some writing and doodles remained from the last time they’d done their telepathy exercise. She looked away and then back, but everything remained the same. Not dreaming, she silently confirmed. Karen was pacing again, weaving around the sporadically placed beanbag chairs. “Maybe I can do your nails after we’re done here?” Jennifer suggested, breaking the silence. Karen hadn’t had the chance to paint her own after focusing all of her efforts on Jennifer’s. Karen’s bright yellow polish was flawless, of course, and Jennifer would most likely end up painting just as much finger as nail, but they both knew her offer was more about support than glamour. “Sure,” Karen said with a smirk, “I guess I can let you practice on me.” Chris walked in just then, her face unreadable, but Jennifer sensed a solemn energy in her that was in sharp contrast to her usual perkiness. Karen stood still and looked up at her expectantly. “Please, take a seat,” Chris invited her as she did so herself, in her favorite velvety pink chair. Karen moved quickly to the nearest seat and dropped into it, wringing her hands in her lap. “We believe that Muppet may have been injured,” Chris began, then, as Karen’s eyes widened she said quickly, “but we’re sure he’s still alive.” “What happened?” “Most likely it was as you’d feared: a car hit him. But luckily the driver had a heart and we have received some signs that he’s been taken to a vet.” “What vet?” Karen was standing again and Chris pressed the air with both hands, gently motioning for her to sit back down. Karen did, albeit impatiently. “We were hoping you’d be able to help us with that.” Chris pointed to one of the walls. There, drawn out in great detail, was a street view drawing of a storefront. Jennifer wasn’t sure how she could have missed the new illustration, remnants of what’d been erased remained haphazardly around the edges. On the sign above the doorway was a red cross with a smiling dog and a curled up cat. The only vague thing about this picture, aside from the limited color palette, were the squiggles that stretched from the logo to the right, where words would normally be. “I know exactly where that is, I have to go.” Karen jumped up and was already taking backwards steps towards the door. “I have to-to be with him, in case…” She didn’t finish her sentence. “Thank you for your help, but I have to go.” Chris only responded with a sympathetic smile and a slight nod. Karen took that as her cue, turned swiftly and marched out the door. She was only gone for a few seconds before she flew back in, “Ummm can I have my phone? I have no idea how to get home from here.” *** Jennifer found herself feeling unusually lonely as she made her way back to her room a little while later. It was an odd feeling; she’d never really been the outgoing type. It was strange enough that she’d clicked with Karen so quickly in the first place, even odder that she felt like she missed her already. But Jennifer consoled herself with the knowledge that in her haste, Karen hadn’t packed any of her things. It seemed she was planning on coming back as soon as possible. Jennifer only hoped that Muppet would be okay. As she approached her room, the sticky on the door reminded her to do a reality check. She closed her eyes for a second, opened them again, but the note still asked her if she was dreaming. Maybe tonight she would finally get to the bottom of this haunting memory that wouldn’t stay out of her head. “Hey,” a familiar voice called out, and Jennifer turned to see Matt walking towards her. If missing Karen seemed odd, relief at Matt’s appearance was the hot syrup on top of this strange feeling ice cream sundae. “I missed you girls at lunch.” “I was keeping Karen distracted, but anyway it’s just me now, she took off to go see Muppet.” “She knows where he is?” Realization spread across Matt’s face, “So she recognized the drawing.” “Yup… I hope he’s ok.” “Me too.” They both looked at the floor for a couple of seconds. Then, Matt brightened suddenly. “What do you say we go for a walk?” he asked. “It’s another one of those Indian summer type days, it’d be a shame to waste it inside.” Jennifer perked up immediately, “Oh God yes… I could really use some sunshine right about now. Maybe it’ll cheer me up.” She turned away from her room, without ever having walked in, and followed Matt into the beautiful outdoors. *** Jennifer felt lighter when she returned to her room a few hours later, despite the fact that she’d had a heavy dinner of pasta drenched in garlicky oil. Rain beat against the darkened windows. She and Matt had just made it back inside after their loop around the little lake before the sky had opened up above them. She could only assume it’d been raining like that ever since. When Jennifer walked past the desk, however, the lightness suddenly felt heavy, like she’d walked into a suffocatingly humid cloud. She’d forgotten all about the drawing she’d made when she couldn’t sleep the previous night. She froze in front the illustration, drawn immediately to a detail she didn’t even remember adding. The hand that’d dropped the phone and was frozen mid-way to grabbing the wheel, was decorated with bright yellow nail polish. Jennifer froze as flashes of realization pulsed through her: the red Mazda in the parking lot: Karen’s car, Karen’s hand, but then a more frightening thought occurred to her. This was no memory, this was a premonition. She spun to read the clock behind her, trying to calculate where Karen might be in her journey, if she was already too late. It was a 4-hour drive at least, she estimated. There might still be time to warn her, to stop this. But she had to act fast. Jennifer dashed back out of her room and raced down the hallway. She rushed across the lobby to the front desk. The girl who sat there looked concerned, probably mirroring Jennifer’s own panic. “I need Karen’s number, it’s an emergency!” Jennifer gripped the edge of the desk with both hands, breathing heavily. “Karen who?” The girl asked, and Jennifer realized she had no idea what Karen’s last name was. “Is there more than one Karen staying here right now?” And when the girl didn’t answer or move to help immediately, Jennifer lost her patience. “Can you check?!?” “I’m sorry, but even if I could, I’m afraid I’m not allowed to give out any of our guest’s information.” She appeared to be sincere in her apology. “But—” Jennifer began, but another voice cut her off. “What’s going on?” It was Chris. Both the girl at the front desk and Jennifer sighed a breath of relief simultaneously. “That dream I’ve been having, it’s not a memory, the accident hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to if you don’t let me stop it. I have to get in touch with Karen before it’s too late!” Chris nodded to the girl behind the desk, who started shuffling papers around, then handed over a page. Chris picked up the phone, dialed, and stretched the coil-wired receiver toward Jennifer, who grabbed it and twisted a finger in and out of the stretchy spirals as she waited for Karen to pick up. “Hel—” but that was all Jennifer got out before squealing tires screamed back at her. A thump hit Jennifer’s eardrum before the line went dead. The rhythmic thumping that followed grew louder and louder, as a sudden realization rushed blood to her head. Jennifer held the receiver in front of her, staring at it blankly for several seconds. She wasn’t seeing the phone, though, she was seeing the nightmare play again in her head: the woman’s face paralyzed in fear. How hadn’t she realized what was happening? In her panic she hadn’t thought things through… Chris was gently removing the phone from Jennifer’s shock-frozen hand. She wrapped an arm around her shoulder and led her over into the soothing sounds of the waterfall on the far wall. Jennifer sat down. “Well it’s a memory now,” Jennifer said, defeated, “and I caused it.” Chris rubbed circles into Jennifer’s back for a couple of minutes before she said, “Don’t blame yourself. It wasn’t all your fault, you know. Karen could’ve ignored the call. That woman could’ve looked before she stepped into the street.” “You knew didn’t you?” Jennifer accused, because spreading the blame out did seem to be alleviating her guilt… but it wasn’t quite enough. “Not until you pulled the phone away from your ear.” Well shit. “What the fuck is the point of knowing then?” Jennifer spit out angrily, “If you can’t change anything?” “That’s a good question,” Chris said, “and I wish I had an answer for you… but sometimes the messages that are sent to us don’t have the clearest meaning. Sometimes we’re not meant to do anything but accept what’s happened and move on. You did the best that you could, and that’s what matters.” Jennifer stared into the water for several long moments after that. Blue lights embedded into the rock illuminated its peaceful rippling curves as it fell, turning a brighter blue in the frothiness that formed at the waterfall’s base. “Water is a great metaphor for how energy works.” Chris broke the silence. “Sometimes it’s so still and clear you can see right through it, other times it ripples and what’s just below the surface is distorted, and then there are those moments when it’s so turbulent that it’s impossible to discern what’s hiding within… but I think with practice, you’ll be able to recognize what’s clear and what’s convoluted.” Jennifer whipped her head around, staring at Chris hard, “And what if I don’t want to practice any of this shit anymore?” “Well that’s your choice,” Chris said, “but let me ask you this: Would you want to go blind because you saw a disturbing image? Would you want to cut out your tongue for tasting something nasty?” When Jennifer didn’t answer, Chris concluded as if she had, “Well then why would you ever want to turn off your natural ability to connect to the Universe in a way most people deem impossible?” Chris had a point, but Jennifer didn’t want to tell her that. Chris laughed and Jennifer realized, a bit angrily, that Chris had been listening to her thoughts again. “I’m sorry,” Chris said with a smile in her voice, “but you make it hard to resist when you won’t answer me.” “Look this all seemed cool at first, but it’s gotten pretty scary now too… I don’t know if I can handle knowing so much.” “I know, it’s strange to suddenly have access to an ability that’s been withheld all of your life. It can be quite a shock.” “What do you mean ‘withheld all of my life’?” “They say that ignorance is bliss. The question is are you the kind of girl that prefers the comfortable bliss or can you handle the uncomfortable truth?” “Is that a trick question?” “Not at all,” Chris said with a smirk, “You just said yourself that you’re not sure if you can handle all of this, and you can’t come close to knowing what “all of this” entails. I’m giving you the choice to go on with life the way it has been… because if you choose truth, I’m not sure there’s any way you’ll be able to get back to that comfortable bliss.” “I’m not so sure I’m in the right state of mind to be making such life altering decisions,” Jennifer said dryly. “Well you think about it then, and get back to me.” She stood, patting Jennifer on the head almost condescendingly, before she sauntered away. “Why don’t you take the rest of the night off, class will be uneven with Karen gone anyway,” she said over her shoulder, and then disappeared in the direction of the Oak Room. Jennifer stared at the floor for awhile after that. The holographic iridescence popped out of, and disappeared back into, the floor as she rocked back and forth; reflections from the glowing waterfall illuminating its magical looking depths. “It’s called labradorite,” a voice that was way too close scared Jennifer still, and she looked towards it. The girl at the desk was smiling back at her, but there was no one else in sight. “Yeah, that was me, I didn’t want to scream.” The girl was waving at her now, and Jennifer realized the voice was in her own head. “Don’t worry, I’m not like Chris, I can’t read your thoughts or anything, I just thought you’d like to know. It’s sort of like the pyramid in the Oak Room, it amplifies our abilities.” “Huh,” Jennifer said, and then returned to examining the labradorite floor. Was there anything in this place that’s just here to look pretty? Jennifer wondered. She got up, forcing a smile at the strange head whisperer as she did, and headed back to her room. At least if there were magical, psychic-ability-enhancing structures in there, she didn’t yet know about them. Ignorance is bliss, she thought grudgingly, and she was happy to walk back into her comfort zone. Though, back in her room, alone with her thoughts, Jennifer felt anything but comfort. Her nightmare plagued her even more than usual with the newfound knowledge that it’d just actually happened. Now, on top of reliving the crash again and again in her mind’s eye, Jennifer was sickened by another thought: how was Karen taking this? What was happening to her right now? Did she blame Jennifer for what’d happened… or did she blame the center, since Jennifer hadn’t even had a chance to speak? Would she blame Jennifer once she found out the truth? Her mind was spinning with infinite answers, each one worse than the last, when a light knock came at the door. Jennifer glanced at the clock: 8:26 pm, it wasn’t nearly as late as she felt like it was. Matt stood on the other side of the door. “I was worried when I didn’t see you in class,” he said, “I just wanted to check on you. Everything ok?” “No…” Jennifer sighed, “not really… still want to come in?” “Of course.” Jennifer stepped aside to let him through. She moved some books off the little love seat and Matt sat down in their absence. Jennifer sat across from him on the bed. He might be her friend now, but he was still a manspreader and, predictably, he stretched his knee across half of the cushion he wasn’t sitting on. Jennifer twisted, leaned back against the headboard and sighed. “So I’ve been having this nightmare ever since I got here…” Jennifer started, and she went on to fill him in on everything that had led up to the phone call that’d caused Karen’s accident. “Wow.” Matt said once she was finished. “And now Chris basically told me I’m living in the Matrix and offered me a couple of pills.” “Wait what?” Matt said. “I dunno, she said something about how our abilities have been repressed. She said that if I wanted to know the truth there was no going back.” “So, judging from your confusion, I’d say you told her you didn’t want to know?” “I told her I needed more time to decide.” Jennifer paused for a moment. “What would you do?” “That’s a tough one.” Matt leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands hanging limp between them. “I think I’d opt for the truth.” Jennifer sighed. “Yeah. That seems like the right thing to do. But I guess… I’m just… scared.” A smirk swept across Matt’s face then and he said, “Anything worthwhile is usually on the other side of fear, no way around it though, gotta go through it. Good news is, the unknown is usually much scarier in your head than it is in reality.” “How can you be so sure?” “I’ve faced a lot of fears, and I noticed one huge thing about the human brain… well at least mine; maybe yours is different.” He paused, still smiling at her, but Jennifer didn’t return it. “I always imagine the worst case scenario going into something new or scary. Like the first time I had to give a presentation at work, I was terrified, I imagined everyone laughing at me, I saw myself trip, fall, and faceplant walking up to the projector screen, and I worried I’d do such a bad job I’d get fired. None of that stuff happened, of course. There was no standing ovation or anything, but it wasn’t the end of the world the way my fears led me to believe it would be.” “Well it’s actually my fault that a woman died today, and I never imagined that could happen. I’m afraid of going to another class, of learning anything else here… afraid it’ll just lead to more of me fucking up and hurting more people.” “That woman’s death is definitely not your fault.” “Yes, it is. If I hadn’t called Karen, she wouldn’t have been distracted. Ugh!” Jennifer buried her face in her hands. Suddenly the phone rang and Jennifer jumped, it was even more obnoxious than the alarm clock, but mostly because it was so unexpected. She grabbed for it before it had a chance to sound out again. “Hello?” “Hi Jennifer, it’s Chris, I just got off the phone with Karen and I thought you could use some peace of mind.” “Okay...” “The woman committed suicide, she intentionally stepped in front of Karen’s car… there’s no way any of us could have prevented that without knowing who she was.” “Oh my… God. But how can they be sure? She looked old, I mean, how do they know she wasn’t just confused?” “When the police identified her and spoke to her husband he said she’d left a note.” “Oh.” Relief and sadness passed through Jennifer in intermittent waves. “And Karen’s ok?” “She’s fine, and so is Muppet, by the way. She wasn’t able to see him, being held up at the police station most of the night, but she called the animal hospital, and he’s a bit banged up, but he should heal up just fine. I told Karen to bring him back with her… she should be able to pick him up in a few days.” Jennifer felt a surge of relief overpower the sadness, “That’s great news, thank you so much for letting me know Chris, that really does make me feel better.” Matt’s brows raised in question as Jennifer hung up the phone. “Karen and Muppet are fine and they’re both coming back in the next few days!” “That’s great… but it sounded like there was more.” “Oh. Yeah… apparently the woman from my nightmare was suicidal, she walked in front of Karen’s car on purpose. Can you believe that? It’s so sad.” Matt harrumphed. “As if killing yourself isn’t selfish enough, you have to involve other people in your death too?” “I just wonder why I saw it in the first place. I mean… what was I supposed to do with that information?” “Maybe you weren’t supposed to do anything with it. Maybe it was just proof. A lesson in what you can do and where your blind spots are.” “I guess. But this is the weirdest kind of learning I’ve ever done.” “Soooo…” Matt began, “you give any more thought to which pill you’re going to take?” “The red pill. I might regret it once I swallow it… but if I don’t I’ll always be wondering. Definitely the red pill.” *** Chris was leading Jennifer down a narrow, claustrophobic hallway deep below the lobby, in a section of the center she’d never been in before. She wasn’t sure how many floors they’d passed on the way down, or if there were any other floors (as the buttons were atypical and revealed nothing), but the journey down had taken a long time. The rectangular florescent lights above them, evenly spaced within the white speckled dropped ceiling tiles, reminded Jennifer of a shady hospital. Though the shadiness was probably more due to the unfinished cement floors. Either way, this was the first bit of ‘normal’ architecture Jennifer had seen since she’d arrived at the center, and though her anxiety levels were soaring with anticipation about what Chris was about to reveal to her, there was a strange sort of comfort in the standard looking industrial ceiling. They turned a corner and a row of doors stretched down the left side. Jennifer lost count of how many they’d passed when Chris finally slowed next to one and rested her hand on the knob. “Last chance to opt out.” “So tempting,” Jennifer said, “but no, I’ve made it this far. Let’s do this… whatever this is.” “That a girl.” Chris smiled and pushed the door inwards and held it for Jennifer to pass. The room was a bit anticlimactic, to be honest. It looked like a typical exam room you’d see at any doctor’s office. A patient’s chair lined with disposable paper sat in the middle. A couple of rolling stools were nearby, one of which was occupied by a gorgeous woman whose beauty was only tamed down by the fact that she wore shapeless pink scrubs. She had dark brown skin and honey-hued, almond-shaped eyes with flecks of green and gold. Her dark brown hair was up in a ponytail and had streaks of plum purple. Jennifer thought she was colored like an exotic flower, and her exotic nature was only amplified once she opened her mouth. “I’m so happy you’ve decided to join us!” Her accent sounded Russian. She stood up quickly and threw her arms open to Jennifer who returned the embrace reluctantly, caught off guard. “Now Katja Jennifer only agreed to open her eyes to the truth, she hasn’t agreed to join us yet.” Chris corrected her. Katja waved Chris off and fell back onto her stool, spinning toward the counter behind her. “Yes, I know,” she said, “but she will.” Jennifer breathed in deeply when she saw the needle laid out. “Are you giving me a shot?” “No dear, I am simply taking some blood.” That was even worse. Jennifer hated shots, but having blood sucked out of her always made her feel faint, especially if she looked. She just wouldn’t look she decided. Besides, wasn’t giving a bit of blood better than getting some kind of mystery shot? Jennifer rationalized to herself. Chris spread one hand toward the patient chair, silently saying: have a seat, and Jennifer did. Katja ran a cool wet cotton ball over the sensitive skin in the crook of Jennifer’s arm. When the needle approached Jennifer turned away and waited for the inevitable ‘pinch’ most nurses euphemized to young children in warning. Katja said nothing, however, before she penetrated the skin. Jennifer waited until she felt the pressure that signaled it was over, and finally looked to see Katja covering a mound of gauze with a Band-Aid. Unconsciously, Jennifer covered the wound with her hand as she watched her nurse work. Katja released a drop of blood onto a small rectangle of glass and slid it beneath a microscope that Jennifer hadn’t noticed before. She rolled back to her computer, clicked and tapped, and a few seconds later writhing reddish membranes filled up the screen; up close, her blood cells were more translucent than she expected them to be, revealing the sickly looking yellow plasma that held them. They seemed a bit frantic, like worms recently stranded after a downpour. Aside from that, as far as Jennifer could tell, though she was surely no biologist, everything looked normal. “This dye,” Katja said, pulling Jennifer’s attention from the screen, “only adheres to non-organic matter.” From a tiny dropper, she let loose a single drop of blue liquid into the larger puddle of blood. Movement on the screen directed Jennifer’s attention back up and she watched as a wave of purple spread across it. “What the fuck are those?” Jennifer gaped. Inside of nearly a third of her blood cells were tiny robotic looking things where the nuclei should be. They had what looked like wires that pulsed sporadically like Christmas lights gone wild. “That,” Chris said with a humorless smile, “is only part of what’s been repressing the human race.” Jennifer forced herself to look down at her hands. She stared intently at the black circles, willing herself to wake up inside of this nightmare. In slow motion she returned her gaze to the screen… but this, was no dream. [Conclusion:] I know, I know, cliff hangers are soooo annoying aren’t they? But what can I tell you? This story isn’t over, and yet, it needs to pause so that this show can go on to do what I created it to do… and that is introduce you to artists AND to teach creators of all kinds how to craft stories about their own work in an engaging way. So, first of all, a great big virtual hug goes out to Sean Howard for being so generous with art. His photo, ‘Disconnected’ is on the cover of this podcast episode and on the previous show’s. You can learn more about Sean and his work at seanhoward.ca, and, of course, there’s a link waiting for you in the show notes. As mentioned in the previous episode, Sean is also the co-founder of Fable & Folly, a podcast network that features audio fiction shows, so if you’re anything like me and always on the lookout for more audio entertainment, definitely check out fableandfolly.com. I’m sending out more virtual hugs to my friends on Patreon who are supporting the creation of Art Ink with their very generous donations. For this story, in particular, I’d like to give special thanks to Jennifer, Karen, Matt, and Chris, who as you might’ve guessed, made naming my characters really easy in this story. Although these characters have very little in common with the Patrons they were named after, I want to point out a few real life characteristics that I’m grateful for. I’ve enjoyed watching Jennifer create gorgeous handmade books and journals every year at our annual creativity retreat. I’m forever in awe of her vast knowledge of flowers and forever grateful to be able to pick her brain when I can’t figure out what flower I’ve photographed. Thank you Jennifer! Karen has literally changed my life. First with her not-so-subtle fact dropping about animal cruelty, and then with her endless commitment to making sure I could still eat all the things as I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. Thank you for fearlessly being you and challenging me to do the same. Matt is my newest friend in this group of supporters, and also a fellow audiobook narrator. Thanks, Matt, for lending an ear, and for sending me countless audition opportunities. Find out more about Matt and check out his horror audiobooks at https://www.mattheweberry.com/ I’ll have a link in the show notes to Matt’s audiobook work so you can check it out! Chris is actually my mom’s name, and so it seems weird to call her that, because despite the fact that I was definitely one of those snarky teenagers growing up, I never did that whole call your parents by their first name thing. Though, if I’d thought of it, I’m sure I’d have tried. Anyway, thanks mom, for introducing me to audiobooks back when they were still on tape, and for always letting me hang out in the woo-woo section of Barnes & Noble as a kid, both of which, I’m sure needed to happen to turn me into the person I am today. Neither I, nor this story, would’ve ever been the same without you. Thanks mom! Well, I never intended to put novella in my podcast, and I have to admit, I am a bit vulnerable putting this out into the world. This is officially the longest story I’ve ever written, and while I have all the confidence when it comes to writing shorts, writing long is hard, man. I have to give props to all my author friends. How do you guys do it? My biggest struggle over the past few weeks has been this internal battle tug of warring inside of me. Part of me has been so disappointed it’s taken me over 2 months to put out an episode, and the other part of me is screaming to let my creativity be wild and free and do what it wants to do. I guess the two teams on either side of the rope finally came to some kind of an agreement because I stopped writing so that I could move on to a new artist, to a new story, and focus on making future episodes more sustainable. Really, I’ve just been driving myself crazy. So please, help a girl out here and send me your feedback. What’s more important to you? Would you rather have shorter more frequent episodes or is ok with you if I go off the rails sometimes to follow my inner creative’s whims? What I’m thinking is that I should really focus on sourcing more submissions so that I can have the best of both worlds. What do you think? Email me at email@example.com if you have an opinion! After toiling in a void for so long, I can tell you for sure that any feedback would be much appreciated. Ok, that concludes this 2-part presentation of Disconnected. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll catch ya next time, friends!