Where’ve I been?
A thousand spotlights aim at my bedroom window and cut through the half-opened blinds. I move on the mattress and feel that familiar bump is no longer there. It seems smaller for some reason. I stare up and just see blank space and bright light and wonder what day it is.
The room is bare and feels unlived in. The only sign of any kind of life is the phone next to me. I pick it up and click to see it’s 7:34 on Monday, November 14.
Am I asleep? Had I slept? Is Tyler my bad dream or am I Tyler’s?
I’m thinking of movie quotes for some reason even though I’m still not awake.
I was living in a state of perpetual déjà vu.
That’s true. Even though I have no idea where two of the last three days have gone.
If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?
“Fight Club,” I say out loud.
The echo of my own voice makes me sure I’m awake. Though I don’t know why I’m quoting lyrics from Fight Club.
Looking at myself in the mirror, that’s the guy I look like. Edward Norton from the David Fincher film.
He’s the unnamed narrator. Sorta like you, right?
As I put my leather briefcase in the backseat of my SUV, I spot the hardcover book seemingly tossed there. It’s a Stephen Conroy book called Moonlight. For the prolific author who writes complicated love stories—ones that feel a bit more authentic than your typical happily-ever-after stories—I think this is still my favorite of his. He’s said several times that it’s still his favorite even though it’s probably sold the fewest of his best-selling titles.
I pick up the title to browse through when I’m behind the wheel. I see lots of highlighted in its pages. An early paragraph sums up storytelling in a very accurate way.
“I turn on my computer but find myself restless, avoiding the story I’m just getting into. Writing a novel is like taking a long cross-country journey. The hardest part is getting going, making sure you have all the items you need to take with you, double- and triple-checking that the route you’re taking is the best way. So often you leave your driveway and start north when you realize you actually needed to head southwest. I’ve never written a novel without a certain number of false starts. And it never seems to get easier. Part of me thinks it only gets harder.”
I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to write a novel, but this quote turns out to be meaningful since the character is really talking about his life. He’s trying to find a meaning and purpose and keeps going in all different directions than the one he should be heading toward.
I don’t remember pulling this book off a shelf to read through it.
You can’t remember two whole days.
And seriously—I can’t. I absolutely can’t besides a memory of a dream or two.
I don’t see him enter the bookstore. The stranger is standing by the back door leading to my office and inventory room. Just standing and seeming to wait for me to notice him. Standing and staring at me.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
He grins and I’m reminded of the movie Blade Runner and the way the creepy villain looks at the end of the film right as Harrison Ford’s character kills him.
“I think I can help you,” he says in a slow, drawn-out sort of way.
Uh, oh. Someone thinks they’re Obi-Wan Kenobi. Or Morpheus.
“I can always use help,” I say.
He doesn’t walk but more like saunters across the store floor. Soon he’s by the counter I’m sitting behind. He grins again, and I swear he could be the twin of that actor. What’s his name . . .
“Have you ever wondered how in the world a bookstore can survive in a small town like this?” he asks, not with condescension but as if to get to me ponder the question.
He doesn’t look like the Blade Runner Rutger Hauer but rather The Hitcher one. Ordinary guy except something’s majorly off. There’s something behind the smile. Something that could be positively fucking demented.
“Man, I wonder that every single day,” I answer. “Bricks and mortar businesses just don’t have much of a place these days. Especially a bookstore.”
The man picks up a book off the counter.
“’Book of the week.’ So does that mean you’re supposed to take seven days to read it?”
Clever guy. Clever and creepy.
“You’re the customer,” I say.
“Tell me something, Nolan. Have you been experiencing any bits of short-term memory loss? Any sense of longing or question or meaning?”
It’s the eyes. Wide and long and light blue. All centering a gaze that doesn’t change. It’s blank.
How’s he know my name?
I think of the flyer stuck in my door.
“Are you from Riverside Bible Church?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Definitely not.”
“Then what’s this about?”
I’m in no mood for someone screwing around with me. Especially in my sandbox.
“I want to ask you a simple question, a standard sort of question in a story. Perhaps even a cliché.”
The expression hasn’t changed. It’s not threatening, not amusing, not taunting, not friendly. It’s matter-of-fact.
“Okay, sure. Ask away.”
“What if everything you know is wrong?” he asks.
I nod, smile, shrug. “Well, I would say that’s pretty accurate.”
I laugh but he doesn’t laugh.
When’s Casey coming in? Or maybe Officer Mike Harden who’ll come in to chat every now and then.
“Do you believe that this store is actually real, Nolan?”
“Well, I do, but I’m not sure the public knows it exists since they’re never coming around.”
I joke when I’m nervous or when I can’t articulate my exact thoughts or when there’s a silence.
“Remember these lines? ‘What is real? How do you define “real”? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’”
The guy must be reading my mind.
“Funny, I was just thinking of that movie. Loved The Matrix. Morpheus was a great character.”
“Remember the moment he shows up and tells Neo the truth? About everything?”
“Yeah, kinda,” I say.
“’Let me tell you why you’re here,’” the stranger quotes. “’You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?’”
I nod. The Matrix has never felt so relevant that it does now on November 14, 2016.
“So is this the moment you produce a red pill and a blue pill?” I joke once again.
“No. There’s no pill to take. Just a choice for you to make.”
“Red socks or blue socks? Strawberry or blueberry donut?”
He gives me a smile suddenly, strange and scary with really bright, white teeth.
“The cleverness—keep that up,” he says.
I’ve had about enough. “Listen, mister—I gotta–”
“One choice, Nolan. Your life depends on it.”
Hold on. Is this the guy who . . .
“Okay, wait,” I say. “Have you been leaving me messages by any chance?”
“Maybe. And maybe they haven’t been getting through to you.”
“What’s going on? What do you want?”
He leans closer to me, then talks in a whisper.
“This store, and this town, and all the people in it including me and you—we’re all made up.”
This guy’s certainly a trip.
I have no idea what else to say.
“And the reality, Nolan, is you might eventually slip away. Forgotten about. Stored away in some safe place. Perhaps to be revisited again. But probably not. You will be an interesting idea that never went anywhere because you didn’t fight to stay alive.”
Something about what he says—I don’t know—it claws at my chest, below it, scraping everything inside.
“What’s this all about?” I ask again. “Who are you?”
“That’s difficult to summarize. But if I had to, I’d say it was a personification of the subconscious.”
“A what of the what?” I sigh and begin walking over to the front door. This guy easily might have a rifle or a bomb on him.
“A personification of the subconscious,” he repeats, slowly following me.
“Of who’s subconscious?”
“That’s one question you have to answer. I can’t answer it. But I’ve given you plenty of clues already. It’s easy if you simply allow yourself to accept that this—this shop, your average body and face and life—are not, in fact, real.”
“Listen . . . I didn’t catch a name.”
“I didn’t offer one,” he says.
“Well, my friend, I can accept that this store might not be a bonafide indie bookstore and that’s okay. And I’ll accept the average terms applied to me. But they are all very real, in fact. Somedays, they’re too real.”
“But you’ve been wondering about everything around you for the past fourteen days, have you not?”
Those sky blue eyes look startling in the sun coming through the front windows.
“November’s been a strange month,” I say. “So are you telling me the Cubs didn’t win the World Series? Or that Trump didn’t become President elect?”
“Those are real. Those events really happened. The real world always directs this world.”
“Our, uh, Matrix-esque world.”
“If you want to call it that,” he says. “Reality always plays a part in our story because reality informs it.”
“Man—you’re really inspiring me to have a shot or two. Are you working on a book or something?”
He laughs and it cuts through the store and gives me goosebumps.
“Nolan. Ask yourself the same thing Neo is asked. ‘Have you ever had a dream . . . that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?’”
“If I’m dreaming, then I need to tell myself to dream about a yacht and a Victoria’s Secret supermodel to hang out with.”
The man opens the door to leave.
“What if you’re not the one dreaming, Nolan? What if someone is dreaming you? And what if you suddenly become boring? What if you’re suddenly very, very forgettable? What then?”
I don’t say anything because I feel that feeling again. That strange emptiness inside, as if he’s speaking some kind of truth I don’t understand yet.
This guy’s smoking loaded mushrooms.
“I can’t promise I’ll be back around, Nolan. That’s your decision to make. But make it fast. Act fast. Make something happen and make it interesting.”
He starts to walk off, then pauses and turns around before shutting the door.
“Oh, and Nolan? For shits and giggles, let’s just say my name is John Ryder.”
And just like that, the strange stranger walks back onto the main street and away. I try to make sense of this odd conversation and what he might have wanted or intended with all of it. But I have no clue.
I just know that life lately has really been crazy.
Before going to bed that night I think of something and check it on my phone. My IMDB app comes up and gives me the info.
The Hitcher (1986). That’s it. Right below the 2007 film I never knew the made. I read the description.
“A young man who escaped the clutches of a murderous hitch-hiker is subsequently stalked, framed for the hitcher’s crimes, and has his life made into hell by the same man he escaped.”
I scroll down. The first actor billed is Rutger Hauer. And the name of his character?
“John Ryder,” I say out loud.
I laugh. That’s all I can do.
I think of the supermoon that’s up there tonight. It’s the closest full moon to the Earth since 1948. We won’t see another supermoon like this until 2034.
Maybe I won’t have a chance to even see a full moon if John Ryder was right today.
I go outside my apartment building and stand in the parking lot looking up at the sky. For a few moments—seconds or minutes I can’t really tell—I’m mesmerized.
The searchlight finds me, standing and staring up and seeing my slight breath escape past. They say it’s a supermoon. I say it’s not even real.