Penumbra

Day one

2:00 am

Something awoke Fahd. The room was dark, its stillness interrupted by the hum of the fridge. He sat up and reached for his phone. The glare took a second to get accustomed to, and as he winced his eyes, he saw a message from Rami: If I call you, do not pick up.

He yawned, put the phone down and went back to sleep.

2:10 am

His phone illuminated but otherwise made no sound; it was on silent. It went dim after 45 seconds.

2:37 am

The man in a red cape stood in front of Fahd with his head bowed and his hands clasped together in front of him. He slowly revealed his right hand and pointed to the ground where an owl stood. A light appeared at the tip of his finger that produced a blinding flash, forcing Fahd to shield his eyes.

“You’re finally awake. We have very little time,” said the man. Fahd stood motionless, incapable of moving, and a force had seemingly taken hold of his head, preventing him from looking away. “I know what must be done.” The words left his lips free of his will. It had happened before, but he never paid much heed to it and dismissed it as an act of subconscious expression. Yet, somehow, something was different this time. He felt like he was trapped within a body that was not his, compelled to observe like an unwelcome guest hiding behind a veil.

“He will make himself seen, and you will know when the right time will be.” The man raised both his arms as a beam of light descended from the sky.

3:50 am

“Fahd. Fahd. Wake up.”

His girlfriend was shaking him up, as she has been doing so for the past week. Fahd sat upright. “Was I talking in my sleep again?” He turned to her and saw her face consumed with fear, tears in her eyes.” “Fahd, I really want to be there for you, but it’s been getting worse.”

“What was I saying? Could you hear any of it?”

“Fahd, you were screaming.” She covered her mouth to hold in a whimper. “I can’t…I can’t do this anymore.” She switched on the light and got out of the bed. I know it’s late, but could you please go?”

Fahd picked up his phone and checked the time. He had six missed calls from Rami.

“No, I understand. I’m sorry; I wish I knew what any of this is.”

“Do you not remember anything?”

“Just fleeting images. A man, a bird. I don’t know. Nothing that makes sense.”

He got up and put on his clothes. “I’ll call you later.”

“No, not until these episodes stop.”

He glanced at her for a moment, nodded, and left the apartment. The hallway lights flickered on, and though the city was blanketed with a layer of stillness, he could hear the murmurs of TVs from neighboring apartments and the shaking of keys as people locked or unlocked their doors.

4:25 am

Fahd turned the corner to his apartment building and heard a whisper. He turned around and stared at the empty street behind him. In the distance, he could see two men crossing the road and a woman seemingly walking her dog, her face lit with her phone. He continued walking toward his apartment but noticed that his steps were faster.

As he approached the main entrance to the building, a voice spoke through the intercom. “Are you still there?” It sounded like Ms. Parker, his neighbor from 405. He decided to ignore the occurence and pulled out his key from his pocket.

“Why aren’t you answering me? Hello?” Fahd looked around him to confirm there was no one else that could have been there. “Ms. Parker, it’s Fahd, your neighbor. Whoever you were talking to apparently left.”

There was a shuffling sound and then she said “He’s here” before hanging up.

“Ms. Parker?”

No response.

Fahd unlocked the door and went into the building. He pressed the elevator button and noticed that it had curiously been at the fourth floor.

He stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hall. 401, 403, 405. He paused infront of Ms Parker’s apartment; there wasn’t a sound. 407, 409…he heard footsteps behind him. He swung around prepared to face off with his intrepid pursuer. Nothing.

6:00 am

Fahd rolled down the window blinds, took off his clothes, and lay down in his bed. He picked up his phone and remembered the missed calls from Rami. He’ll call him back later in the day.

The Visitor

I am sitting on my couch watching TV. I live in a one-bedroom apartment with an open kitchen, a small dining table with four chairs, and a bookcase along the wall.

[DOOR KNOCKS]

I look at the time and take a second to wonder if I had invited anyone over. Am I expecting a delivery?

[DOOR KNOCKS]

ME: Coming.

I open the door. Before me stands a burly man. Gruff, with an unkempt beard, and looks like he’s been through more than he will be admitting to. He’s offputting

MAN: ‘Bout time. This 316?

Me: Excuse me?

Man: Maple 1, apartment 316. Is this it?

Me: Uh, yes. Sorry about that. Can I help you?

The man leans over, and it is only then that I noticed the travel bag with him. He lifts it up and pushes right by me.

Me: Hey! What do you think you’re doing? Wh…

Man: Who are you? Leave right now, if you please. Excuse me, are you listening to me?  Look, we’ve been through this before, and I’m really not in the mood for this. Let’s just get started so I can get you off my back.

Me: Look, I don’t know who you think I am or where you think you are, but you’re clearly in the wrong place.

Man: John Fidelio, 39, copy editor, disassociated from your family, living the isolated life because you’re a hermit on a journey of cyclical self-discovery, favorite food is steak but look toward a future where you are a vegan. Any of this ring a bell with you?

Me: A lot of people fit that profile, and you could have pulled most of this information from social media.

Man: Look, buddy, I’m sure this self-importance you blanket yourself with is great and let me tell you, it actually got old the last three times we’ve been through this…

Me: Been through what? You keep talking like I should know who you are. I assure you, I have never seen you before, and I don’t know anything about you. Please, sir, I need you to leave.

The man drops his bag next to the couch, searches through his pocket, and pulls out a pack of cigarettes with a lighter slipped between the cellophane wrapper and the pack.

Me: You can’t smoke here.

The man gives me an icy stare as he taps the bottom of his pack, pulls out a cigarette, puts it in his mouth, and casually props the lighter up to light it.

I dash at him and fall on the couch as he deftly sidesteps me.

The man takes a drag of his cigarette.

Man: You done? The sooner you let me get through with this charade, the sooner I will get out of your way. Hopefully, for good. Look, pal, it’s been a rough day, and any other time I would have dilly-dallied with you until you are in a state of comfort, but I’m not having it today.

The man makes get closer to the couch.

Man: Now, make some space. What are you watching? Star Trek Deep Space 9, eh? I thought you all but gave up on this show. Why the change of heart?

Me: I’m not answering any of your questions. In fact, I’m calling the police.

Man: How long has she been gone?

Me: What?

Man: How long has she been gone?

Me: I’m not sure what…

Man: Did she take the music box with her?

Me: How could you possibly have…

The man wipes his brow with his sleeve.

Man: Jesus Christ. I told them this would be a long one. Hear me out, and if you’re still not convinced, go ahead and call whomever you want. How long has she been gone?

Me: About two months.

The man holds the cigarette with his lips, leans over the side of the couch, and starts rummaging in his bag. He pulls out a thick notepad and pencil.

Man: All right, let’s see. Two months…two months…

He’s scanning on the first page as if going through an index.

Man: There we go. Page 348.

He flips to the right page and squints his eyes as he looks at the contents of the page through the smoke. He gives a wheeze, takes one last drag, puts the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, and chucks the cigarette butt it in his bag.

Man: All right. So she took the music box. Did she clear out her drawer?

Me: Y-yes.

Man: That means she also tore that poster you got her.

Me: How…? Yes.

The man is going through a checklist, ticking boxes as is needed.

Man: Wait. Two months? She left you around your anniversary?

Me: On the day, actually.

Man: Jesus Christ.

The man scribbles some notes down.

Man: OK, according to my list here, she must have also taken her blue box, frisbee, hammock, clothes, Catan, and little Cthulhu figurine.

Me: Yes, yes, and yes. Could you tell me why and how you know all of this? Please?

Man: Sure, sure. I just need to check one more thing here and then we can begin. She left the ring, correct?

Me: What ring?

Man: The one you gave her on her birthday.

Me: I never gave her a ring on her birthday. Her birthday is…today.

The man looks surprised.

Man: Look, pal. Every one of these lists, covering every possible outcome, has her either leaving the ring or taking it with her. Now, think carefully and try again. Did she leave the ring?

Me: I’ll say it again: I never gave her a ring on her birthday. I never gave her a ring at all.

The man is now clearly flustered. He starts shuffling through the pages.

Man: John, you must be mistaken or you’re hiding this information from me. Either way, I will need you to take a deep breath and think again. Every damn list here has the ring.

Me: Look, I don’t know what that notepad is, and I don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve here, but there was no ring, there is no ring, and I’m starting to get bothered from you. Please, I have no idea how you came upon all this information, but could you leave?

The man stands up and walks to the bedroom. He turns on the light, looks around, and comes back out.

Man: There’s no ring.

Me: That’s what I’ve told you. Please just leave.

Man: I…this can’t be. There must be a list I overlooked.

I put my face in my hands and sigh.

Me: Why can’t this end?

The man starts going through the pages, perusing each of their content. He slowly lifts his head and looks at me.

Man: OK, let’s go through this again. You said she left you on the day of your anniversary, correct?

Me: (annoyed) Yes.

Man: And she took everything with her?

Me: Yes! For Christ’s sake, yes! She took it all! This apartment is free of her.

Man: You’re sure you looked everywhere? Under the bed, in the closet…

Me: (Angrily) You will leave right this instant or I’ll…

Man: What’s that box on top of the bookcase?

Me: What box?

The man reaches behind three photos and pulls out a rectangular box with a note. 

Man: It says here ‘John, do not open this. I’m actually surprised you even found it. You rarely look at these photos anymore, but I love you and I always will. Do not open this box!’

Me: Can I have this, please?

Man: Sure.

I open the box, and in it is a note that conceals a ring. I unfold the note, reading its content.

Man: A note? Let me check the footnotes. Section B, addendum 543, A-prime 3768. Ah, there we go. (Pauses for a moment as he reads) Oh. Wow.

The man goes through his notepad.

Man: The ring that ‘she’ bought, not ‘he.’ What an awkward typo. Yeah, you probably know this by now, this is the ring she wanted to give you on her birthday, so. Yeah. Anything in that note I should know about?

I look at him with pain in my eyes.

Me: She wanted to give this to me to remind me of the gift that I am to her. I really fucked up.

Man: Hate to be doing this to you, but this is not where this ends. I did not come here to show you a box.

Me: You said this is not the first time you and I have been through this?

Man: Well, yes, but the circumstances always change. It’s how you’re feeling that awakens me. Human emotions exist on a near-infinite spectrum, and I am notified whenever you feel like you do now.

Me: Sad?

Man: Hurt and wounded. Desolate, depressed, unmotivated…call it what you will. One of humanity’s fallacies is thinking that naming emotions is a road to recovery; like you need to defy what it is you are feeling or embrace it to become better.

Me: I can do without a lesson in psychology.

Man: Why don’t you sit down.

Me: I’m OK, actually. I don’t have it in me to relax.

Man: Suit yourself.

The man lumbers toward the couch, sits, puts the notepad in the bag, and pulls out a notebook with a retractable pen.

Man: Let’s cover the basics. You’ve always been prone to sadness and have adopted it as your neutral emotion. You and most of the world, by the way. Your species might want to start seeking more substantive solutions beyond pharmaceuticals and yoga.

Me: Species?

Man: News flash: I’m not human; I am a symbiote. Half-human, half-ethereal. I won’t launch into a lecture that would reinforce the simulation theory or even posit its validity in the first place. However, we have been watching you and honestly? You’re all trying too hard and requiring way more from us than you deserve.

Me: So, a non-human…

Man: …half-human.

Me: …appears in my life, as he has multiple times before apparently, walks in knowing more about me than I do, drops on me an ‘I am an alien’ comment and I’m expected to react how? And if you are what you say you are, could you not have picked a better body to…meld with?

The man looks at himself.

Man: You think this is the body I would have picked for myself? No, John. This human body is an old friend of yours, your father, and you, thrown in a blender and crapped out. Let’s skip all these pleasantries because we never have enough time to run through them and I am starting to run late.

I hesitantly pull up a chair from the dining table and sit down.

Man: Now, where were we? Your mental state is not a result of your upbringing, it’s not due to trauma, and stress has little to do with it. Did I shatter your in-depth understanding and perceptions of the human mind?

Me: I mean, if you say so. It’s all rather subjective, really. According to studies…

Man: And that’s your self-defense mechanism kicking in.

Me: My what?

Man: Every time your emotions get out of wack or you’re cornered, you pull out the proverbial hat of intellect and start talking like a snobby little wanker.

Me: But this is how I always speak.

Man: Ah, denial. Of course; your second card-up-the-sleeve. Your one-way to disassociating yourself from whatever you are being called out for to discretely play the victim when someone does not understand you. How would you have said it? It’s all rather rudimentary, my good sir. Please. I’m surprised she didn’t leave you sooner.

Me: Hey! That’s uncalled for and you know nothing about why she left!

Man: Oh, really? (Leans forward) Do you want to go there? Actually, maybe that would be the fastest way to get done with this. (He opens the notebook and flips through the pages) September 4, you callously message your ex to pamper your bruised ego. Guess who was signed in on the computer where his girlfriend was working. October 9, you blame her for being late to a movie before you asked her what delayed her. For the record…

Me: I know why she was late.

Man: Well, I’ll skip over that one, then. October 11, you promised her a night out and 25 minutes before you were supposed to pick her up, you cancel.

Me: My boss had just dropped in and invited me to a stakeholder dinner. These are the things that get you promoted.

Man: Did you get that promotion?

Me: …No.

Man: Moving on.

Me: How long is this going to go for?

Man: Oh, there is no time to go through the full list, but just another couple points will do. November 11, exactly one month later, in the heat of an argument, you ask her to leave. Of course, being the little puppy, you beg for her forgiveness not two hours later and buy her flowers. The wrong kind, the wrong color, with a ‘be my Valentine’ card. 

Me: It was the only thing available!

Man: Yes, convenience is better than nothing, and I’m sure the results were overwhelmingly positive. Here, let me go back a few more months. (flips through the pages) Ah, here’s a good one: March 25. You decide to play a trick on her by having one of your friends pose as a thief and point a fake gun at her.

Me: Hey! Context! We were laughing a few days earlier about how silly it would be for me to save the day as a superhero. Mike may have gone a bit too Stanislavski on her, but it was thematic.

Man: Uhuh. I’ll bet she fawned over your rescue and made sweet love to you right there and then.

Me: Move on.

Man: February 6. You decide to eat in and order dinner. The delivery person arrives two minutes later than they were supposed to, prompting you to call the restaurant and demand they refund you the money. Let me tell you, she was not impressed. February 1; you take her out on a blind date to her favorite restaurant and booked a band to play her favorite song. Huh, that’s nice. January 20; you cook dinner for her and confess your love to her over dessert that you also prepared. Nice. In fact, let me see here. (He flips the pages) Up to this point, you’re an ideal boyfriend. Care to tell me what happened?

 Me: Shouldn’t you already know? Isn’t my life laid out in that notebook of yours?

Man: Only the actions, not the intentions or feelings.

Me: Well, too bad because I don’t know. One day things were great, then things were not. Look, I hope you’re not going to tell me some shit about my life from the angle of this relationship. I’ve been with other women whom I broke up with. I’ve experienced pain and joy. I’ve gone through sleepless nights…

Man: Spare me the tears-in-the-rain monologue. I am here to remind you that things are not bad, or good for that reason. You are as happy as you will ever be.

Me: Wow. Platitudes? That’s all an observant symbiote has for me? I’m doomed already.

Man: Not platitudes. I’m just reciting what your mind keeps replaying when you look yourself in the mirror every morning…and three, two, one.

[DOOR KNOCKS]

Me: I’m not going to even ask.

I get up to open the door. A postman is standing there with a box.

POSTMAN: Sign here, please.

I close the door and take the box in. I place it on the dining table and open it.

Me: It’s a coat. I never ordered this. Is the address right?

Man: It is.

Me: It’s nice, but I’m not sure who sent it. There’s a note in it.

Man: Isn’t there always one? Right, I need to leave.

Me: What? Just like that? You haven’t shared with me anything of substance or a message to drive an epiphany. What was all this for?

Man: Look, buddy. Just as you are guided by base instincts, I also have a commanding officer who’s pinging me. I don’t know, do what you will with whatever it is you heard from me. To be clear, my cue was the delivery of the coat, it says so right here. (points at the notebook)

The man stands up, picks up the travel bag and heads toward the door. 

Man: Stop watching Star Trek or wallowing in what was. I know you two used to enjoy the show, but you’re better off watching the news or something else. Let bygone be bygones.

Me: I have so many questions.

The man stops at the door and takes a heavy breath. He turns around to look at me.

Man: I’ll answer one.

Me: All right. Why don’t I remember you? How many times have you visited me?

Man: Hey, pick one.

Me: Why will I forget you?

Man: Your capacity to retain information, no matter how important, is limited. Think back on how many people you met whom you thought you would always remember. Can you pinpoint every poignant conversation you’ve ever had? How many times have you had a breakthrough that you’ve forgotten about?

Me: But I’d remember someone who looks like you.

Man: I don’t always look like this. You just happen to have chosen this form for today. Tomorrow I may be a cat. Three years ago I was a barber.

Me: But what did we achieve today?

Man: What was needed. Take care of yourself, and make sure you take that coat with you; it’s going to be cold.

The man opens the door and leaves. I rush to the door.

Me: Hey, I…

There was no one there. I close the door and go back inside. I open the note that came with the coat. 

Me: There are no words in this. It’s empty.

I sit in front of the TV and switch channels until I come upon a news report.

TV REPORTER: …Thanks, Bill. It’s getting really cold, but that hasn’t stopped people from going out enjoying their time. I’m standing here on Santa Monica Boulevard with a young woman who’s… 

Me: Laura.

I look at the coat, run out of the apartment, and grab it on my way out.

LAURA: The cold should never be an excuse to not have fun.

TV reporter: Are you here with someone? 

Laura: Yes! I’m with my boyfriend of one month who just asked me to marry him.

TV reporter: Wow! Are you going to go for it? Are you sure about it?

Laura: Life’s too short to overthink, and sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.