Chapter 9.1

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I woke to the smell of stale nicotine. Niko was leaning against the stairs back up to my room, staring dully into the dark, a lit cigarette between his fingers.

"Our lease says no smoking in here," I grunted, still shaking off nightmares.

He took another drag. "Blow me."

I laughed and he flashed me a wicked grin. It felt good to laugh. Even if I mostly did it to make sure he knew that I knew he was kidding.

Rubbing my eyes, I sat up in my sleeping bag. After a moment I scrunched myself over beside him, back against the stairs.

We steeped in smoke and silence for a long minute.

"Did I ever tell you," he finally said, "about that time I went camping by myself, up in Brushwillow?" I shook my head. "Used to do that a lot, after the, uh. Accident."

I took that in. He hadn't brought it up in a long time. Neither had I.

"I went by myself, cause I didn't want a lot of people around just then, and it's easier than twisting people's arms to get them to come with you. Planning around schedules, all that bullshit." He shifted into citation voice. "'The man who goes with another must wait until they're ready. The man who goes alone can leave today.'"

"Yeah, Thoreau. You quote that one a lot."

He shrugged. "I like it up there. Anyway."

I waited, staring into the whorled beige universe of the carpet.

"So this one night I'm up there, alone. I'm in my tent, and it's dark. Cloudy, no moon. I'm sleeping fine, on my back, you know, head up against the edge of the tent. And then I wake up, cause I hear something, just outside."

He sucked on the cigarette. "Something breathing. Low, hissing, gurgling breathing. Sounded huge, like a bear or something, or a big-ass wolf. And it was right on the other side of the tent flap. Inches from my face. Like something had pressed its muzzle against the nylon, that thin little nothing sheet of ultralight fabric, and was waiting. It could smell my breath, maybe. Waiting for me to move. And as soon as I did, it would get me.

"I still remember what that felt like. Fucking terrifying.

"I was too scared to move, so I lay there a long time, hoping it would go away. But it didn't. The thing stayed where it was. Kept making those horrible breathing sounds. Inhale. Exhale. Raspy, choking."

He flicked the cigarette onto the carpet, rubbed it out with his foot.

"And then I realized where the sound was coming from. The breathing was coming from me. I was sleeping on a root or something, my head had gotten into some funny angle. I was snoring, basically, and woke myself up. But I didn't realize what woke me was a sound I was making myself."

I was too tired to process this. "Cool story."

"Do you get what I mean, though?"

I rubbed a hand over my face, tried to think.

"You're saying maybe there's not... a thing down there. That somehow, all of it is us."

"Echoes," he said. "Reflections. The rooms are reflections of our shitty old house, and the things we're seeing, experiencing down there, maybe they're not alive. We're causing them, somehow. And now we're ascribing intentionality to side effects. Jumping at our own shadows." He lay back down on his sleeping bag, staring up at the ceiling.

I remembered something from a neurology class. "Did you know there are more neurons going from your brain to your eyes than in the other direction?"

"So?"

"From your brain to your eyes," I repeated, "not the other way around."

He blinked. "That doesn't make sense."

"It does if you realize that vision is mostly the brain telling the eyes what it expects them to see." I rubbed my face again, trying to wipe off the exhaustion. "We think we have two little cameras in our head. We don't. We have little yes-men, reassuring us that nothing unexpected is happening. That's why that trick works, with the guy in the gorilla suit. You ever see that video in school?"

He nodded. "You're watching a bunch of people toss a ball around, and the guy in the gorilla suit walks right through them, and it's like he's invisible. He even waves. But you don't see him the first time, because you're watching the ball. Then you watch it again looking for him and your mind's blown." He smiled faintly. "Dude in my high school science class swore the teacher changed the tape."

"You don't see the gorilla because you don't expect to. There's no reason he'd be there, so your eyes don't notice him. Even though he's in plain sight. Standing right in front of you."

We were both quiet for a while.

"So maybe we're somehow looking at this wrong," I finally said. "We're not seeing something. We keep saying it doesn't make any sense. Maybe we're just not seeing it the right way."

"Maybe." He closed his eyes. "Or maybe there's nothing there to see."

"Niko. About the accident." I swallowed. "That night."

He rolled over. "Don't want to talk about it."

"I know. But if you ever did want to, I mean, if you ever needed that again—"

"I don't. Go the fuck to sleep, man."

We both closed our eyes and tried. I could feel the camcorder dream lingering, eager to take over again. I tried to fight it off, but I was so tired.

"Even if we are the wolf," Niko muttered, just as I was about to drift off, "that doesn't mean it's not trying to kill us."

I got fired from my job, which was fair enough; I'd missed two shifts in the past week. I got a nosebleed during the meeting with my manager. He told me to go home and take care of myself. I was halfway home before I remembered that phrase has a positive meaning, too.

I'd thought he was telling me to commit suicide.

Something was in my room when I got back. I stood outside the closed door, dried blood on my face, listening. It sounded like an elephant. Heavy, clopping footfalls made the floorboards groan. Wet, agitated breathing rasped. Dust motes danced at my feet in a strange breeze, sucked under and pushed back out through the space below the closed door, rhythmically. Air moved with faint fleshy sounds, like a hundred quiet people flapping their arms, flailing.

I crept away, miserable, and by the time I came back with Niko and he threw open the door in some play at courage, there was nothing there.

I collapsed into his arms, sobbing, and he let me stay there for a while until I'd calmed down. I clung to him, afraid if I loosened my grip he'd disappear. Like dad, tucking me in. Gone between one blink and the next.

He had a perpetual headache now. He kept describing it with the word "stabbing" and only that word, as if clinging to the sound of it. Like using a different word would acknowledge the pain too had changed, grown worse, was no longer caged by the word he'd picked to trap it. I could see how much it hurt him to think, to make words, to move around. He ground his teeth. He stood up carefully now, putting a hand against the wall each time, as if his blood was fighting his heart's attempts to lift it to his head, to keep it from being dragged back down.

My headaches weren't getting worse, not yet anyway. It was the strain of always having them that wore on me. Of wondering if we'd have to deal with them for the rest of our lives.

We left to explore down the slippery tunnel late that night. 

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