As I leaned my folded arms against the cold steel railing of the bridge, I took a deep and satisfying drag from my cigarette. I let the taste of nicotine linger in my mouth for a bit before slowly breathing it out. The smoke rose, creating grey mist-like shadows against the backdrop of the icy November night. I watched those shadows as they disintegrated and disappeared.
For one rare moment, my mind was blissfully blank. However; the tranquility didn’t last for long. A low laugh echoed within my ears, soon followed by a peculiar yet familiar scent.
The sound of that laugh trickled against the air like sweet, clean water. It reverberated across the walls of my mind and my heart throbbed in my chest. The hand I had holding the cigarette shook for a bit.
No matter how many times I had heard it, the sound never changed. It was always hauntingly beautiful. In fact, it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard in my life. A sound so beautiful it hurt, that sort of feeling.
The scent, on the other hand, was difficult to describe. Sometimes, it smelled like rain to me with a hint of my nana’s favorite flowers, magnolias. Other times, it smelled like a combination of snow and something metallic I couldn’t define. I didn’t know why exactly but whenever it drifted my way, the back of my mind would always tingle. It was the strangest yet sweetest sensation.
My lips trembled.
A flash of something passed the corner of my eyes, I glanced at it for a second and all I could catch was the afterimage of long silver strands. They swayed and danced in the wind for a moment before disappearing.
I closed my eyes. My free left hand made its way to the bridge of my nose, pinching it. When I opened my eyes again; both the laugh and the scent were gone.
It took a while for my heartbeat to settle down.
Was that the fifth time today? I honestly lost count.
My new psychiatrist had advised me to count those ‘episodes’ but I had already stopped doing that days ago. Truth to be told, it made no difference whether I counted them or not. Things kept getting progressively worse regardless.
I rested my face against my hand and sighed.
It had all started about two months ago.
My nana had passed away at the fifth of last September. I was there with her the moment she died. That week, her doctor called me and tactfully told me that she didn’t have much time to live. He said that the best thing to do at that stage was to be there for her in order to ease her passing. So, I took my leave from work and drove back to my rural hometown as soon as I could.
During those seven days, I got her out of the clinic and took her back to her house. I re-watched all of her favorite movies with her. I took my beat-up guitar from my old room and sang to her some of her favorite songs. I cooked for her some of the best dishes she herself taught me, even though she couldn’t taste anything anymore. Every morning, I placed her on her wheelchair and took her out to watch the sunrise like she used to do back at her old papa’s farm.
I spend every last minute I could with her, trying to cling to the image of her face and the sound of her voice for as long as I could. In the end, she left me and I had no choice but accept that I was never going to see her or hear her voice ever again.
The grief of losing her hit me quite hard. For me, nana wasn’t just a family member. In truth, she was my whole family. She used every last of her savings to raise me. She even sold her inheritance, her father’s farm, to put me through school. She took care of me. She gave all the love she could and she taught what it meant to be a proper, decent man.
Before she died, she left a will and a letter for me. The will was formatted legally, stating that the deed to her house and all her remaining assets were to be transferred to my name. The letter however was addressed personally to me. In it, she mentioned that she had left something for me in the attic and she hoped that I would find what I was looking for in it.
In the attic, tacked within a certain drawer, I found an old but exquisitely-made wooden box with my nana’s initials engraved on it. When I opened it, there was a worn, leather-bound book sitting inside it. The book looked quite old, neither thick nor thin. Its spine was frayed in some parts and some of the pages appeared to be torn at their ends. There was no cover, no title and no author’s name.
At first I thought it was a diary, possibly my nana’s. But then, I reconsidered the thought because why would my nana leave me her diary? My second guess was the book was probably a family heirloom which belonged to my grandpa or maybe even to some ancient ancestor.
Eventually, I came to the realization that neither guesses were correct. The book was, in fact, a novel.
As I was settling things with my nana’s lawyer, I had to stay in town for several days. So during those days, I took to tidying up the house and to packing up my nana’s things and mementos for safekeeping. I was curious about the reason as to why my nana left me that book specifically so every evening, around nine o’clock, I would brew myself a cup of coffee and sit through few hours of reading.
The story was written from the perspective of an omniscient third viewpoint. It had all the cliche elements of a medieval high fantasy setting: gods, magic, monsters, swords, kings and nobles. The plot started off with the story’s chosen hero who was born to common-born farmers in a small quiet village. As with all typical fantasy epics, the beginning was only the calm before the storm.
Predictably enough, a war between the lord of the hero’s home and the lord of the neighboring territory broke out. In the end, the hero’s small village ended up perishing due to the war. The hero lost his parents, his home and everyone he once knew and loved. Enraged, the young hero vowed to seek justice for his parents by gaining an audience with the king.
In the novel’s setting, commoners didn’t have the right to meet with the king, only nobles, high-ranked adventurers, generals and knights did. Now, with the proper motive, the journey of the young hero took off as he honed his natural gift and toiled his way into becoming one of the strongest adventurers in the kingdom.
Eventually, the hero became powerful enough to have weight in the kingdom. He met the king only to receive some gold and sugary words as a compensation for his dead family instead of a proper trial of the lord who invaded his home back then. Later on, the hero realized that not only did the king know all along about the strife between the two lords, in the fact he was the one who instigated the conflict in order to curb the power of the feudal lord of the hero’s home.
Filled with anger and the desire for revenge, the hero used his power and political weight to usurp the king whom he viewed as a monster and a tyrant who didn’t deserve his crown. However before he could achieve his ends, the cursed fifth prince, who was held in a secret dungeon underneath the palace by his own father, became possessed by an ancient evil power. Completely lost to the dark forces controlling his consciousness, the fifth prince massacred the king, his own family and the entire palace. He unleashed a gate to another dimension and let loose an army of nightmares into the kingdom.
In a timely fashion, the hero teamed up with other high-ranked adventures and his faithful party in order to take down the final hidden villain. Fast-forward thirty or so chapters, the hero with his gifted magic managed to seal the ancient evil and kill the cursed prince. In the end, the hero won and order was finally restored. As token of the people’s gratitude to the hero, the surviving nobles agree to crown him as their new king. The rest wasn’t worth mentioning as the plot followed the cliche finale of the hero becoming a benevolent and wise ruler whose legacy was sung about in tales for hundreds of years to come.
The story was neither outstanding nor terrible. In truth, it was rather a typical fantasy story with nothing special about it. It followed a trope that was already written and rewritten in hundred other ways and mediums. I had no idea why my nana would leave me something like this. What did she mean by it? Was it perhaps written by her, was this why?
Confused, I didn’t know what to think about it. Eventually, I came to the decision to not think about it anymore. I would treat this book as a memento from my precious nana and keep it safe for her sake.
Afterward, nothing major happened. I decided not to sell nana’s house and instead to put up for rent. By the end of that week, I returned back to my own apartment and to my job.
The first few days were normal but then out of nowhere a week after my return, I started to hear things. It started with the laugh, but then it had always been that sweet, ethereal laugh. At first, I dismissed it believing it was just some side effect of stress and grief. I thought it would eventually go away. Only, it didn’t.
It got worse. My hallucinatory ‘episodes’ progressed from being merely auditory to being sensory. I would be sitting in my living room watching some TV and then a peculiar scent would wafer in the air and seep into my nose. I would feel my own heartbeat as it would drum faster and faster against my ears. A strange sense of urgency and anxiety would envelope me. An instinctive urge to follow the trail of that scent would take hold of me and my grip on my own reality would slip for a moment.
My sanity was strained even further when two days after my second auditory hallucination, I began to see things.
They were never full and complete images. It would be more correct to call them ‘afterimages’. They often played like a looped tiny snippet of a video, a small piece of a collage puzzle. They didn’t have context to them, the only common thread they connected all those afterimages to each other was hair. Long, flowing silver hair. I could never see the face or the figure of the person to whom the hair belonged.
I would always hear the laugh first, then the scent would drift my way and lastly I would ‘see’ those dancing locks of silver. The entirety of all those hallucinations combined wouldn’t last more than a minute or two but the affect they had on my mind and my body would last for days.
I had always prided myself on being a steady and level-headed kind of guy. The guys at the workshop would good-naturedly tease me for being ‘boring’ and ‘stuffy’. They would often joke around about how I was nothing like what my looks suggested and how my face was wasted on me. I was tall with naturally broad shoulders and back. I never skipped on any of my taekwondo sessions which kept me in a good, trim shape.
Due to my mother’s Hispanic heritage, I had a bronze-colored complexion. From my biologically father whom I never met, I got my gray-greenish eyes. Coupled with my full-sleeve tattoos, my short black hair and my cliche love for old Harleys, I looked like the poster ‘bad boy’ of ninety percent of Hollywood 80’s movies.
Guys would often approach in gay bars with the expectation of having a ‘wild’ ride with the bad-boy of their teenage-hood fantasies. They always end up sorely disappointed because I failed to match up with the image they had of me in their heads. I was never the ‘wild’ sort. I was actually quite the home-buddy. I enjoyed cooking, good music, good books and the occasional video game. I didn’t drink much, I never did drugs and I didn’t have a list of past flings plastered to my bed. In fact, I was quite picky with people I slept with because I couldn’t have sex with someone I didn’t at least enjoy talking to.
Long story short, I was the sort of guy who would be the least likely to go crazy in your local neighborhood.
As time progressed, those ‘episodes’ became more and more frequent which affected my sleep pattern and messed up my head. Eventually, my co-workers and even my boss started to notice. I realized by that point that I was in serious need of help and by help, I meant professional help.
I booked an appointment with a neurologist and had a brain-scan to see if there was something physically wrong with my head. It turned out with nothing. Everything looked the way it should be which even puzzled the doctor herself. She recommended me to a psychiatrist, believing that my problem is likely to be more of a psychological nature.
So, I took a day off and went to meet them. When I described my ‘episodes’ to the doctor, by the way he was the one who gave them that name, he admitted that I might need to go through multiple sessions in order to reach a conclusive diagnosis.
Truth to be told, I didn’t even need him to hint at that. I knew my ‘case’ wasn’t diagnosable. My hallucinations were not only auditory but also sensory and visual which pretty much didn’t stray that much from what most people commonly associated with schizophrenia. However, I didn’t have any of the behavioral symptoms associated with that disorder. I didn’t suffer from paranoia, I wasn’t behaving impulsively and I wasn’t depressive.
My problem wasn’t the hallucinations themselves but rather the fact that they were growing more and more frequent and becoming progressively more acute. I feared that I might have moments in the near future where I could entirely lose touch with my immediate reality.
The doctor suggested that I should find a way to keep track of those episodes; one of those ways was writing them down every time they happened. He mentioned using a note app in my phone and keeping it on hands at any moment.
Sufficient exercise and night walks were also one of his several suggestions to fight off stress and insomnia.
So here I was, freezing my ass off at 3 a.m in the middle of November because I couldn’t sleep.
I took one last drag from my cigarette before snuffing it out. I then threw it in a nearby trash can. I put my hands against the steel railing and rested my head against its icy cold surface. The chill seeped my skin and for a moment, cleared away a bit of the countless cobwebs lingering around in my head.
I closed my eyes, sighing.
I used to smoke only once a week but since my nana’s death and this whole ‘hallucinatory episodes’ thing, I found myself smoking daily. I understood why I did it but I also knew I had to cut back on it.
I was stressed out. I hadn’t had a goodnight sleep in nearly a month. My nerves were strained pretty thin already. On top of all of that, I also was quite worried about work. This week was already the third leave I took in about two-month span. No matter how kindhearted my boss was, I knew I couldn’t carry on like this. I was one of his best mechanics and he needed me to do my job which I currently didn’t seem to be able to do.
As I was resting my head against the bridge’s railing, struggling to not think. A smooth voice rang out through the silence.
As if electrocuted, my whole body jolted aggressively. I twisted myself around, frantically trying to find the source of that voice.
As I was internally debated the possibility that I might have well and truly went insane. The lights on the other side of the bridge started to flicker on and off, one by one.
What? Did that just happen or am I seeing things again?
I frowned, stepping closer the other side of the bridge. My footsteps echoed across the empty and desolate place.
“Is someone there? Did someone call for me?” I cautiously asked.
There was no response.
I swear I just heard someone call my name. Did I not?
I continued to move closer and by the time I reached the first light pole on the left side of the bridge, it flickered off for a moment then instantly died.
I looked up at it, confused. I didn’t know why I was hoping for it to turn back on but in the end, it didn’t. I shrugged my shoulders several times; trying to drive away this eerie feeling I had swirling in the very pit of my gut.
I moved several steps forward, bypassing the second light pole. As with the first one, the same thing happened. I kept walking as if to prove something to myself. Like I had already expected, the third light pole died the same way as the first and the second ones. At that point, I could already feel the fine little hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
This didn’t feel right.
As I was wondering if maybe I should just turn around, get back on my motorbike and get the fuck out of this place, that voice called out to me again.
I didn’t know what it was about that voice but I found myself compelled to follow it, like it wasn’t a question of wanting to know who it was but more of needing to know who it was, just like I needed to breathe.
I had to know.
Disregarding all the warning bells going off inside my head, in one motion, I run to the other end of the bridge.
Or what should have the other end of the bridge.
Similar to the feeling of running on a treadmill, no matter how fast or for how long I ran, I never seemed to reach the edge. At one moment, I stopped. My heart was beating so painfully hard I could almost feel it in my throat. Slowly, I turned around.
I looked back excepting to see what should have been the illuminated other end of the bridge. And yet, there was nothing there. All I could see behind me was endless, bottomless darkness.
The blood in my very veins froze.
“Sergio, my Sergio.”
I flinched, spinning around.
It was then that I saw it, that I saw him.
A slender, willowy figure in black, pale skin, slated narrow crimson eyes. Flowing, long silver hair.
And then…a laugh.
That sweet, beautiful laugh. Next thing I knew, I was nearly chocking on the scent of rain, snow and fresh magnolias.
Without a second thought to what was happening to me, I found myself already running to him.
Our eyes met for one second. Like two pieces of dark ruby, his eyes glistened against the dark as they looked at me. They looked at me as if they knew me, as if I was no stranger to them.
I extended my hand towards him but before I could reach him, everything suddenly went utterly dark and quiet.
For one moment, it felt as the whole world just…stopped.