Queer Musings on Reality
Jeffery Scott Sims
I am Professor Anton Vorchek. I have devoted my life to the investigation of bizarre mysteries, those pertaining to events which fall beyond the purview of modern science and conventional knowledge. I wish to relate to you now the facts concerning one recent case, a case possessing especially peculiar elements which defy easy formulation, much less resolution. The matter stands open at this time. Shortly, I believe, you will understand why.
He came into my office two months ago, this Mr. George O. Kestrel, arriving unannounced, but that is customary; I am not formal about protocol, save when business presses. My secretary escorted him in, a youngish fellow, under thirty, well dressed, if appearing somewhat disheveled and harassed, like a man who had not slept well if at all. Indeed, that proved an accurate assumption.
Taking a seat across my desk, he said to me, "Professor Vorchek, I hear you deal with strange stuff. I could use your help. I've lost my family, or they've lost me, I don't know which. They're gone, or they're going, and I don't know what's happening to me. It's all so hard to believe."
Said I: "Sir, I am not a detective, nor a marriage counselor. I am a researcher into the unknown; a connoisseur of the odd, if you will. If you be suffering connubial difficulties, I recommend that you inquire elsewhere."
"Odd is the word for it," he cried. I noticed beads of perspiration on his wan face. "Either I'm losing my mind, or the world has gone crazy. I've got to know which it is."
Said I: "Tell me all about it." I offered him coffee. He gulped a cup, wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. This is what Mr. Kestrel told me, condensed and paraphrased for succinctness and clarity.
"I'm a stock broker. I recently received a big raise, moved up in the firm. It meant a lot to us-- that is to me, my wife Angela, our two young children, Robert and Deborah. We'd been living lean a long time, could afford to expand our horizons now. The biggest decision was to move out of our cramped city apartment and take a nice house out in the country, a place we could be proud of, a place where the kids would have a yard to play in. We picked the perfect spot, a choice property in a new community, Highland Estates, up near Cave Creek. There's the stream, and hills, and trees, and animals, and not too many people; a good place, quiet, appealing. We got ourselves moved in. Everything seemed like heaven.
"Then I stepped into hell. It first happened after about a week. Imagine this: I was driving home, as I'd already been doing for several days, and for no obvious reason I got lost. The route home wasn't difficult; a few turns, a couple of corners at intersections, nothing to throw me, but all of a sudden I couldn't find the way. I didn't know the area any more. Familiar streets ran out at dead ends or gave onto dirt roads. Trying to head in the proper direction, I kept ending up in the bush by the creek. I stopped, attempted to call from my cell phone, couldn't pick up service. I finally gave up, drove back to a filling station where I could call home. No such number, I'm told. It was infuriating, but of course the house telephone was new, so I swallowed my fury, contacted the phone company, got no satisfaction. I had a miserable bite to eat at a local cafe, tried to contact home again. This time I got through to Angela, explained-- with an enormous feeling of foolishness-- my dilemma, promised to find my way in pronto. You know what? I didn't have any trouble at all. I was rolling on those familiar streets within five minutes, reached home five minutes later. Everything was peachy, and we all shared a big laugh over my absent-mindedness, or my stupidity moment, whatever it was.
"That was the beginning. That was a tiny sample of what was coming. It didn't stop there.
"Three days later I lost my job. Wait a minute, I'm not saying that right. I wasn't fired or laid off. I mean I went to work that morning, but when I got to work I couldn't find the place. It's an older, renovated building downtown, four stories with lots of offices. The address, the structure itself, are unmistakable. I parked in the lot across the street, went inside, took the elevator to the third floor... and the company office wasn't there! I don't mean it was vacant or had been taken over by another outfit. There simply wasn't a place for it, as if it had never been there.
"I went downstairs to the information desk, asked a bunch of questions. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I made phone calls, none of which were put through. No such number, the recording said. Eventually I wandered away, cooling my heels outside while I thought. A little later I called home, found everything fine there, took a chance and tried the office again. This time I connected. I went right up, they asked why I was late. Problem solved, right?
"That's still just the beginning. At infrequent intervals I would get lost in the shuffle between home and work, or even while running errands alone. It only happens when I'm alone. Surely that's important. At first it was only for short periods that I could ride out, hopelessly befuddled, of course, but something I could barely manage. It went on like that for almost a month.
"Now, just this past week, it's become terrifying. I started to crack when I lost most of a whole day. I zipped in to work that morning (last Thursday this was), found the office gone, went through my nutty ritual of killing time and striving to make contact with that element of my life. This time I couldn't get through until late afternoon, not too far from closing. I was plaguing myself coming up with plausible excuses for my absence, but I needn't have bothered; when I managed to break through and enter the office, no one seemed surprised or concerned. My boss, my colleagues, they all carried on with business, fitting me right in as if I'd been there all along. From their statements I soon realized the impossible truth: from their standpoint I had been there, doing my job just like I was supposed to be doing it. They didn't miss me. I was there, all of the time that I wasn't!
"That was horrible enough, but it hit hardest when the same thing occurred at the other end. This is the big one coming up, Professor, so please listen carefully. Before I go into it, let me be clear on one issue. I hadn't discussed any of this with my wife, after that initial episode. I didn't know what to say. Okay, here it is. Saturday morning I popped down to the store for some groceries. We needed supplies for a party we were throwing that night, a get together with our new neighbors. I drove to the market by myself. Why did I do that? It was a senseless risk. I did it, paid for it. I lost my way again. The street vanished, the subdivision disappeared, replaced with bleak, scrubby terrain by the wilderness creek. After a fashion I was getting used to it, so I prepared to pass a few wretched hours until the world turned right side up again. It didn't, not all that day. I spent the night in a motel. The next morning was bad as ever. I couldn't find home, couldn't locate the church we would have been attending at that hour. Those chunks of existence weren't there for me. Come the afternoon everything shaped up and I rolled on in. Back home, I found everything frighteningly normal. There was nothing I could say, because Angela and Bobby and Debby were still bubbling about what a nice party it was, and how I'd impressed all of our guests, and didn't we all have a great time? I wasn't there, but I was, as far as they were concerned. Our life was beautiful, except that I wasn't experiencing it!
"Since then I've lost two more days. I'm supposed to be at work right now. Maybe I am, but I don't know it. It's not there for me. Vorchek, look at me. I'm real-- not a figment of your imagination-- but I'm starting to wonder if I'm a dream somebody's having. What's it all mean? Where is this going to end?"
I asked Mr. Kestrel: "Tell me, sir, if during the course of your life you have suffered from periods of disassociation? I refer to episodes when you felt, for any length of time, a sensation of unreality radiating from the world about you, as if it were all illusion."
He replied, "I was a lonely child, who often imagined that I was the solitary inhabitant of a dark universe." The gentleman did not put it that way, but that was the gist of his halting response. He said also, "During my teenage years I grew to crave company, required the press of people around me. Actually, our old apartment suited me. It was Angela who desired the quiet country life. I had misgivings, which I couldn't intelligently express."
I agreed to look into Mr. Kestrel's case. I told him not to worry, took down his full personal information, sent him on his way, assuring him that I would be in touch.
Afterward I called into my office Miss Delaney, my secretary, assistant, and confidant. A beautiful girl, vivacious, fashionable, but hard as nails. I like that in a woman. She considers me, I know, to be a naive fellow, naive in the common ways of the world, yet it is she who is naive in her narrow, simplistic grasp of cosmic arcana. Her evaluation of the matter, once I had acquainted her with the particulars, was typical.
She threw aside my notes, lit a cigarette, airily decreed, "He's a freakazoid, or a shyster. Either way, don't expect to be paid for your services." I smiled, said, "That does not interest me at present." She responded, "Well, it should. There's no way to make sense out of this stuff. It's a gag, or he needs locking up. Take your pick."
I demurred from her inflexible options. "I choose investigation and analysis. Mr. Kestrel is sincere. Is he, in addition, a maniac? That I can discover with alacrity. You and I, my dear, must go forth into the world, substantiate the facts as they can be known to us."
How, you may ask, does one go about researching a curious puzzle of this kind? The obvious first step is to establish the bona fides of the client: confirm that there is such a man, that he is who he says he is, that our evidential foundation is secure. In this age of computers this essential task may be completed within minutes. I possess a powerful, up to date machine, and while I am somewhat behind on the necessary skills, Miss Delaney is a maestro of the information highway. Without even the appearance of effort she produced for me a lengthy print-out containing everything I needed to commence my labors. There was indeed a George O. Kestrel, who did currently reside at the Highland Estates, with his family as described, who was currently employed by the brokerage firm as stated. There was nothing in the plain data to indicate major metaphysical difficulties. To be sure, there seldom is.
The next morning Miss Delaney and I embarked upon a leisurely drive north and east through the town of Cave Creek, then passed along a straight, readily comprehensible route to the Highland Estates, an upscale abode of the climbing middle class draping the hills and vales by the verdant stream which gives the town its name. We cruised slowly by the given address, beheld a fine house with a large, landscaped lawn, saw two small children playing therein. We did not stop. White letters on the black mailbox formed the word "Kestrel".
Come Monday I ventured downtown to Mr. Kestrel's firm, intending to look him up, satisfy myself as to the situation there, inform him that I was acting on his behalf. That quickly developments took a strange turn. I found the building-- 1940s architecture, dwarfed by glassy skyscrapers-- located the office according to his directions, breezily entered. I was immediately directed to his work station, greeted him, shook his hand. He responded pleasantly, affably, yet without any serious regard or eagerness. In fact, it quickly became apparent that he harbored not the slightest idea who I was.
"What is this all about, Mr. Vorchek?" he queried.
"Professor," I corrected. "Did you not, sir, visit my office the other day, ask for my aid in relation to a pressing personal problem?" "I did not," he returned. I shrugged good-naturedly, replied, "My people obviously erred. Thank you for your time." There was more to our conversation, but not much more.
Practical joke or mystical conundrum? Miss Delaney doubted not the answer. "It's some kind of sleazy trick," she exclaimed upon hearing my tale. For purely psychological reasons I questioned her conclusion. She had certainly hit upon the logical null hypothesis, yet such a complicated subterfuge requires a compelling real world reason, and none was evident in this case. Therefore I continued my intellectual exploration.
That evening I telephoned Mr. Kestrel at home. He took the call, was pleased to hear from me, asked what I had learned, volunteered more information. "It was another bad day. I lost the morning, some of the afternoon, but no one noticed at the office." He responded with astonishment to my query concerning any previous contact with me that day. I expected that.
Deductions, hypotheses: where did I stand at that juncture? I liberated my imagination, conceived (for amusement if naught else) the notion of my client slipping haphazardly through streams of space-time. He dropped in and out of this world, or in and out of another postulated world. What was the key? Where the trigger, the instigation for these events? As if that were not enough, the problem of the twofold Kestrels muddied the waters. During longer stretches of absence from our continuum, there appeared a stand-in-- a replica-- an identical but separate personality? Occasionally my man was missed by others, but increasingly only he experienced the rather dreadful effects of his plight. There was something ominous about that.
I looked into the history of the plot currently bearing the Highland Estates. I might as well, since the phenomenon commenced with his moving there. I learned nothing dramatic or remarkable. In the 1920s the Highland Resort, a kind of dude ranch, opened for business on the site, operated until the ‘40s, closed due to wartime constraints. The land was left fallow, the old structures disintegrating, until unpaid property taxes landed the place in the arms of the state. Recently a cunning developer had forced a bid, acquired the land, built it up into the form it bears today. There had arisen a local controversy over that deal, many opposing the despoiling of the somewhat pristine scape. I gathered that the acquisition by the developer had barely gone through before political action would have frozen the real estate asset.
Interesting, I suppose, but so what? There were no legends of hauntings, no forsaken Indian cemetery, no wild New Age tales of exotic marvels. I could envision a connection, without finding one. Investigation into the history of his workplace also yielded nothing of obvious consequence.
I kept track of Mr. Kestrel for the better part of a week. Twice he dropped out of the picture for short periods known to those around him, twice for longer spans of which only he was aware. I spoke to him several times on the phone. In our conversations he was approaching the point of hysteria, although once he responded angrily, wanting to know who I was and why I kept pestering him. I pleaded the same mistake by incompetent staff as before.
Once he telephoned me, begging for news of progress. On a hunch I advised him to communicate with me at a set hour, 6:00 P.M. every day, without fail, until we clarified the mystery. Also, I requested an invitation to meet his family.
Miss Delaney and I paid a visit to his home, after checking to ensure that he-- my "he"-- was present. Mrs. Kestrel was a fine young woman (although I detected an air of reserve toward my companion, who tends toward boisterous showiness), the children delightfully well mannered. The good wife was largely in the dark as to her husband's dilemma, but his behavior had tipped her off to the actuality of some mental distress on his part. After dinner she contrived to take me aside, pump me for information I did not possess or could not reveal. "Where did you two meet?" she asked. I told a casual lie, which did not suit. Eventually I discovered that she thought me a psychiatrist, brought in by her man to aid him with secretive emotional difficulties. From her standpoint, he was on-again, off-again moody without intelligible cause. I fobbed her off, finally making my departure with Miss Delaney, leaving that household, I am sorry to admit, less happy than I found it.
The next evening, I decided now was the time for a dramatic gesture. Conventional research and observation yielded little insight, so a considerably more esoteric method must be employed. This procedure was right up my alley. I have devoted my professional life to the analysis of the abstruse and mystical conceits of our universe, those my typical colleagues can not or will not grasp. Along that twisting path of weird knowledge I have learned a few tricks of the trade, non-standard methodologies for garnering insights. They are strange, they can be risky, but they have proved rewarding.
Said I to Miss Delaney, "I intend a revelatory experiment. I shall sink my consciousness into the basal substratum of existence, attempt to open for myself the gate which swings so freely for Mr. Kestrel. In this manner I may peer through the conceptual murk, perhaps find myself in a position to objectively testify as to his unhappy situation. I may gain much, possibly enough to help him."
"That is a really stupid idea," she said. "He didn't even bother to call you tonight. Besides, if you're right about this crap-- if what you say is really true-- you might get stuck, or tied in knots, just like him."
"I know my limits," I said. "There are precautions I can take, that minimize the tempting of fate. I will cast a portion of my essence into the beyond, without risking the totality of ego."
We conducted the experiment in my isolated old house far up on the north-west side of the city, on a high hill overlooking the lonely barren lands. There, removed from the tumultuous energies of the commonplace world, I could undergo submersion into an alternate state without fear of conflicting influences. I had prepared a sufficient quantity of the obscure drugs-- devised and formulated by me, based on in-depth studies of ancient Eastern practices-- which would produce the intended effect. Miss Delaney's chores consisted of administering the chemicals intravenously, maintaining oversight of my physical being during the test, then bringing me back to normality via another solution at the requisite time. For the latter purpose a second prepared syringe stood ready.
For my comfort and relaxation we performed the experiment in my cozy den, I seated in a soft, plush chair, easily reclining. "Good luck to you, Professor," she said, as she slid the needle into my arm. I counted backward from a hundred, breathing evenly between the numbers. I do not remember reaching ninety.
Despite years of study into such matters, I can not tell you whether what follows represents a genuine emergence into another plane of reality, or merely an amazingly focused dream. I am capable of entertaining-- nay, of accepting-- either conclusion. What I can do is describe the experience in detail, that you may know it as I lived it.
After a blank period which felt like seconds I regained awareness of mental self in darkness, concentrating fiercely on the subject at hand. Then, sight restored, I stood by the reclining chair, staring down at my quiescent physical self; the real one, or the other one, or the usual one. Miss Delaney hovered near, watching me with concern, checking my pulse, rolling up my eyelids with her thumbs. The other me-- he who observed-- she saw not. I spoke to her, received no response. Very good, the transition was complete. Now I was at liberty to move about as I pleased within that fresh state, that plane, that world.
The fact or illusion of corporeality held firm. I left the room, patted my jacket pocket to verify the continued presence of my keys, departed the house and shortly sped off into the night, driving Miss Delaney's sporty coupe. I had two destinations in mind. I drove the long, tedious journey downtown, carefully wending my way through traffic still heavy in spots. I felt somewhat distant from myself, as if I peered through alien eyes onto foreign scenes, so I proceeded with caution lest I get myself into a scrape. I do not know what would have happened if I suffered an accident while a secondary being. I did not choose to learn just then. That may form the basis of a fruitful future test. I am familiar with accounts, however, which allude to potentially dire possibilities. Some learning best remains within book covers.
I pulled up in front of the old office building. It was closed at that hour, so I could not enter-- the edifice was as real and solid as I-- but I could examine the company addresses posted at the door. There was no reference to Mr. Kestrel's firm. I was, then, at least for the moment, within that ellipsis of being which had often excluded him without providing the very odd personal replacement. That was a distortion of his reality. What of mine? Did my private world remain the same, or had it shifted as well? I thought not, certainly not to a significant degree, for my house and Miss Delaney's company had not altered. I moved on, making a detour to the university, where beneath the bright glow of many parking lot lamps I checked for the presence of my own office. It was there, as normal. I appreciated that.
I got onto the highway, racing north toward my next main goal, turning east onto the Carefree Parkway, then north again through Cave Creek. I knew the directions by heart. As I drove I clicked on the radio, listened to random stations coming through as always. I approached the turn-off for the Highland Estates, switching on my bright headlights as I closed with the local avenues.
A white wooden gate bearing a sign shouting "NO TRESPASSING" loomed ahead. I slowed to a crawl, rolled to a stop next to another car parked before the gate. There the road abruptly ended. An unofficial detour curved to the right, through a gap in a barbed wire fence, then turned back and forward through the dense thickets ahead. That was wonderful. At that moment the Highland Estates did not exist.
Someone stirred in the vehicle next to mine, a make which I thought I recognized. Could it be? This was too good to be true! The door opened, Mr. Kestrel stepped out, shadowed but distinct. I killed my engine and joined him.
"Vorchek," he cried, "is it really you?" Said I: "Possibly. Hail and well met, I trust." He replied, "Of course not. I'm stranded again, been here an hour."
I quizzed him on this night's occurrence, heard more of the same. He had been about to leave, to allow time or opportunity for the world to snap back. "It never happens while I'm watching," he pointed out.
"Interesting," said I, "all of it. I did not actually expect to join you."
He seemed nervously pleased to see me. "But you're here," he noted. "You know who I am, and you see what I see, that it's all gone. Is that a good sign?"
I shook my head soberly. "Not necessarily. My presence, unfortunately, means nothing. You and I exist within the same dimension, but the meaning of that fact is scarcely transparent. Tell me, have you ever thought to explore the wastelands out there?"
"Never. It gives me the creeps."
I produced a flashlight. "Let us investigate. A few minutes walk will do no harm." Mr. Kestrel did not care for the idea, yet my unexpected companionship meant so much to him that he sullenly followed my lead. We trudged up the path of the abandoned dirt road, which ran straight among large sycamores and cottonwoods by the creek, walking in oppressive pitch darkness save where the beam of the flashlight lanced. There was nothing objectively horrible about that natural scenery, nor any outright evil in the dim masses of decayed, collapsed wooden buildings that we shortly observed. Nevertheless, Mr. Kestrel suffered. He was near to tears when I paused.
"This is the site of the old resort," I reasoned. "Your home should be right about here. In this dimension, this sliver of existence, the developers never got hold of the land. Is not that a reasonable deduction?"
"How should I know?" he almost screamed. "I only know that I'm falling through the cracks."
"A convincing intuition," I replied. "Mr. Kestrel, make allowances, please, for my scientific curiosity. Your concerns are paramount. While I would enjoy touring the entire area, I realize that you are motivated by more primal interests. Let us retrace our steps and depart. Since I have fortuitously found you, I may add your presence to my experiment."
The poor man was understandably querulous and glum, but I asked so very little of him that he could not bring himself to refuse, nor, I think, did he truly wish to do so. I invited him to follow me back to my place where, all going well, I could provide him shelter until his home became once more accessible. To this he agreed. Arriving back at the cars, I set out in Miss Delaney's vehicle for my house, Mr. Kestrel coming up behind in his. Reaching the parkway, I headed due west those many miles across the northern fringe of the city, making for my lonely abode and my drugged body.
I was eager to find out what would happen when his person, in its current state, intruded into my "real world" condition. There I might accrue a great load of valuable data, perhaps even something of value to my client.
Traffic was fairly light at that late hour, but nevertheless Mr. Kestrel somehow fell behind, or some development transpired by which I lost sight of him. I arrived home about two o'clock, alone on the gravel drive, tarried a while for him, then went inside. As I entered the den I saw Miss Delaney stooping over me in the chair. She raised up, setting aside the second syringe, now empty, that I had filled for her. I came to in the chair, looking groggily into her impassive face. I asked weakly, "Has Mr. Kestrel appeared? He was supposed to follow me home." She impatiently shook her head, replied, "You have not moved out of your seat all night."
With great regret I tell you that this is pretty much the end of my account. The Kestrel case remains technically open, but there have been no subsequent developments. He never did catch up with me that night. Neither has Mr. Kestrel leveled further complaints or expressed more fears for his life or sanity, in person or via our scheduled telephone conversations. I have seen him since, sufficiently to learn that all is well with him at home and work. Indeed, from his point of view the only discordant note in his affairs has been my unrequested and unwelcome intrusion. I have been ordered to, as he put it, "butt out".
Where does that leave my analysis? Even Miss Delaney admits to a certain confusion over this business which, if a game of my former client, seems a remarkably unmotivated one. "There's nothing in it for him," she grants. What is there in it for me? What have I learned?
I advance no conclusions. Those demand testability, and I have no data to test, rather a series of aimless, subjective impressions, possibly misleading, definitely open to conflicting interpretations. I may, however, speculate freely. During the critical period I dealt with two George O. Kestrels, only one of whom could be considered my client. That fellow has disappeared from the picture. Enough time has passed that I do not expect to see him or hear from him again. During that same time I apparently involved myself with three separate but related subsets of reality-- his reality-- three unique fragments of a greater whole that should have nicely dove-tailed but which, for a time at least, did not. There was the conventional reality of Mr. Kestrel, that time stream which seemed normal to him; the initial altered state, in which he departed from the stream, being squeezed out and left stranded by a competing historical series; and the even more sinister third stream, in which another subjectively different self began to fill the gap.
Perhaps my Mr. Kestrel (the first one, the real one?) broke away, became disconnected from the basic cosmos. I can envision closely layered strata of reality, imagine that an unfortunate man, perhaps one given to psychic disassociation, might wander from his proper layer into another. What would be the result? Maybe reality is a fast flowing river, one which a falling pebble may disturb, but the rushing current sweeps the eddies away. The system rights itself in the end.
What does this mean at the level of personality, of ego? Was my Mr. Kestrel a distinct entity, alive, sentient, entire in himself? If so, then I must agonize over his fate, for he seems to be no more. Or was he merely a fragment of his larger true persona, a discarded chip of enamel from the vase that contains his life, a minor flaw to be repaired and forgotten? The world, including his world, now goes on serenely. No one is bothered; there is no one for me to pity.
Is this benighted tragedy, of a sort that must cause us all to shiver and doubt, or a trivial contretemps of reality, an ephemeral, vanishing blip on the radar screen of existence? I do not know. How am I to know? I merrily or morbidly deduce, without the power of verification. There is no one to ask, no one to tell. That surely ought to constitute grounds for supreme optimism.
Miss Delaney was entirely correct in one of her deductions. I have not been paid for my labors, nor am I likely to be. Should a similar case arise in the future, I must see to it that my fees are settled in advance.
Jeffery Scott Sims is an author devoted to fantastic literature, living in Arizona, which forms the background for many of his tales. His recent publications include a novel, The Journey of Jacob Bleek, and the short stories "The God In the Machine", "The Love of Jacob Bleek", "The House On Anderson Mesa", "The Nasty Club", "The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge", and "In the Hills of Yost". His literary website, containing essays and latest news, can be viewed at http://jefferyscottsims.webs.com/index.html
Published by permission of the author.