They evaporated into puffs of smoke, and the world around me drained away, leaving nothing but the darkness of eternity. An unending void. 

 

“What is this place?” I asked.

 

The void responded, putting the words into my head.

 

Don’t you understand? This place is whatever you wish it to be. You want this to be a secret government experiment so you can be the hero? You want to make this something you hate so you can destroy it? You want this to be heaven so you can finally relax? This can be anything and everything you want, deep down. All you have to do is play the game.

 

“Okay,” I said. An idea had just struck me. “Can we go back to the castle one again?”

 

...seriously?

 

Whatever the void was, it seemed as if it couldn’t read my mind. “Yeah, seriously.” It had no idea what I was planning.

 

The eternal nothingness vanished with a poof. I was back in the castle. The enormous wooden doors at the edge of the hall swung open. The man who entered wore a suit of armor, scuffed with dirt and blood from a recent battle. As soon as the door had closed behind him, he removed his helmet.

 

Tobias.

 

“My lord!” he said before taking a knee. “The undead army has reached the castle gates. Our warriors are preparing for their final stand. We await your command.”

 

“I command you to…” I looked around to see if there was anything here to stop me. There wasn’t. “...Hey what’s that over there?!”

 

Tobias turned around to look over his shoulder, at whatever I was pointing at. While he was momentarily distracted, I made a running break for the closest window. The last words I heard before diving out face first were, “My Lord, NO!”

 

Just as expected, I was far enough off the ground to get the job done. In the distance, goblins and skeletons fought manifold knights clad in battle armor, but my focus was on the ever-approaching ground. I was weightless, falling, speeding towards an inevitable collision. They say that jumpers almost invariably regret their decision the moment they jump. My own experience was no exception. But it was the only thing I knew to do. The only way I could jolt my system. I’ve heard it a million times before. Dream logic. You can fall. You can fly. But you can never hit the ground, or else you die in real life. That’s why you always wake up before it’s too late. It may have been an old wive’s tale, but at this point I didn’t have anything left to lose. The earth came up to meet me, and because I could not stop for death, he kindly yadda yadda… 

 

My eyes shot open.

 

I was awake.

I was finally awake.

I took in my surroundings. Here we were again, seated around the dinner table. To my right, Jerry. To my left, Loren. Across from me… I could barely make it out, but that looked like it must have at some point been Wolfgang.

 

My eyes stung like they’d been brining in salt for hours. My muscles were jello. My head was heavy and off balance, and as I moved my neck I could feel something readjusting itself. Krikrikrikrikrik. Something that felt like a series of shallow knives stabbed into the skin in my hair, releasing streams of blood down my forehead and behind my ears. I reached up and pulled at the heavy bowl-shaped object on my head, but as I did, the knives dug deeper.

 

Krikrikrikrikrik. The pain was almost too much to bear, in a moment filled with panic and adrenaline, I pulled with all my strength, yanking the object free. I looked down at the thing in my hands and saw an insect, kicking its six pointy legs in the air. Chunks of my own flesh attached to the serrated feet. It looked like a gray mite, only it was about a foot in diameter, with a shell like a horseshoe crab. Where its mouth should have been, there was instead a thick, white, segmented tube running into my own mouth. Something beneath the hard crabshell vibrated, emanating that loud chirping noise: Krikrikrikrikrik.

 

I dropped the mite onto its back, grabbed the tube inside my mouth, and started pulling. It was sticky, slimy, rubbery, and--worst of all--long. I could feel it wiggling in my throat as I pulled it out, three or four inches at a time. But the more I pulled, the more emerged, until it was just a coil of white tube several yards long. When I finally reached the end, I saw that it had a pair of black eyes, and a mouth of its own--with concentric circles of hundreds of yellow, hooked teeth. I was looking into a tiny lamprey face. The noise it made when we locked eyes was loud and shrill: KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI!!! 

 

I tossed it aside and dry-heaved as every muscle in my body screamed. A tingling feeling was returning to my arms and leg. Tears washed the burn from my eyes. And now I could see with clearer horror exactly what surrounded me.

 

The helmet-bugs were sitting atop all of the others. The calamari mouth tubes suckled at their insides as the creatures clenched themselves in place. The room was the same, but oh so different. The light came from a bioluminescent white film that coated the surface of the walls around us and looked like glowing coagulated fat.

 

The mouth tube on the creature I’d tossed aside was now screeching, KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI!!! It whipped around like an uncontrolled firehose. KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI!!! As soon as I was strong enough to stand, I stomped it into oblivion. KRIKRIKRI--. The mite creature’s legs stopped skittering in the air and slowly curved in on themselves. It got off lucky. Death was too good for the bastard.

 

My next move was to try and wake Jerry. He would know what to do. Or he would, at least, have something funny to say about our predicament. But the creature on his head had six legs firmly embedded deep into his skull. I couldn’t figure out any way to remove the bug without risking a fatal scalping. As I considered pulling at his mouth tube, I realized that Jerry had grown a beard since the last time I saw him. Even with the bug helmet, I could see that his wild hair had grown significantly longer. We must have been sitting here at this table for a couple of weeks at least.

 

Realizations came to me in waves. He was wearing the same clothes he’d had on when we walked up the hill to Bedside Manor. I was also back in my jeans and t-shirt. The floor was sticky, patches of spaghetti-noodle plants wriggled out of the carpet every few feet, releasing clouds of ashy spores into the air. On the table where our plates should have been, there were clusters of translucent egg sacs, with each egg about the size of a ping-pong ball and containing multiple tiny helmet-bug embryos. To top it off, everyone else at the table was different now.

 

They were all emaciated. The worst being Tobias and Bridget--mummified corpses with dark-tanned skin stretched across skeletal remains. Wolfgang was naked, taller, gaunt and stretched out like a starving child that had aged into malnourished adulthood. He and his mother must have been sitting in place for years.

 

Claire and Loren were wearing the same clothing as when we attempted our escape together. It felt like such a long, long time ago. I couldn’t tell how long the sisters had been here, but they both looked like they were starving. I needed to check, to see if any of them were even breathing, or if the insects had sucked the last of the life from their husks.

 

Stripes of blood had dried in lines down Claire’s face long ago. The tube of the insect pulsed as I got closer. The parasitic monster was clearly aware of my presence, even if none of the others were. Maybe I could scare it away or pry it off, but first I needed to see if I was wasting my time on a futile effort. I put my hand to Claire’s neck, hoping to find a pulse. Her skin felt cold under my fingertips. If there was a trace of a heartbeat, I couldn’t find it.

 

But I didn’t need to. Her hand shot up and wrapped around my wrist. Her eyes opened wide and stared ahead, through me. And then I heard her voice, inside my head.

 

Do not waste your time.

 

She released her grip and let her hand fall to her side.

 

“Claire,” I said. “I’m not going to leave you.”

 

Open your eyes, Jack! You cannot save us. We’ve been here far too long, waiting for you and your friend to arrive so they could start the test. If you don’t end this here and now, there will be no one left to save.

 

It was at that moment I felt the blazing heat upon my back like a fire run amok. I turned to face the source and nearly missed it. The thing emitting this invisible radiation was sitting there, at the head of the table--the same place where it had been this entire time. I knew he was there, only I couldn’t see him. He didn’t reflect any light. Like some kind of dark hole, he absorbed everything around him. But I could sense his presence if I focused hard enough. He was the shape of a human--one head, two arms, all that stuff, except he wasn’t made of flesh and matter. He was made of negative space. I physically couldn’t even point my eyes at him, but I knew he was there.

 

“Hey,” I said. “Is this whole thing your idea?”

 

“Yes,” he said back in a voice that sounded an awful lot like my own.

 

“Well it’s quite awful and I hate it.”

 

“I know. You were never supposed to see this. No one has ever woken up before. Not in a billion worlds. Not in a trillion years. There is no protocol for this.”

 

“What are you supposed to be, anyway?”

 

“We are as the microbiota who live in your intestines. We help you, we keep you alive and strong. And in return, you feed us. Our species are a symbiosis. We do not wish you any harm.”

 

“Oh really? I said, wiping the fresh blood trail out of my brow. “You could have fooled me--what with all the death and torture and everything.”

 

“We survive off of the emotional energy you throw away. Excitement, fear, love, hate. It all tastes the same. When our hosts allow it, we sow euphoric sustenance. But if our hosts try to starve us, we make darker withdrawals in the name of survival. Surely you understand.”

This negative void entity was really starting to piss me off. I circled the table to Tobias’s chair. His beard was wild and gray. His clothes worn down to tatters. His jerkified skin clung tightly over the bone like it had been vacuum sealed. As I pulled his chair away from the table, I noticed the faintest groan and saw in the dim light that his pupils were rapidly bouncing back and forth behind his closed lids. He may have been sucked dry, but this insect was keeping him alive somehow. I couldn’t focus on that, though. Not right now.

 

I got down on the floor and reached for his pants leg. The fabric tore in my hand as I pulled, revealing the ancient weapon that had fallen to the ground around his bone-thin ankle. I pulled the pistol from its holster, then stood and aimed at the being that was sitting at the head of the table.

 

He laughed, although the sound was humorless and dry. “You can’t hurt me. I’m not real. None of this is real.”

 

“If it’s not real,” I asked, pulling back the hammer, “then why are you so nervous?”

 

He had no response. I put my finger on the trigger and prepared to squeeze. 

 

“Wait,” he said. “You’re making a mistake. No mortal weapon can harm me.”

 

It all led to this. The man behind the curtain. The one who had tortured us all. The one who made me torture a child. It was time to end this once and for all. 

 

But then another thought reached the foreground of my mind. This sure was good, how I managed to will myself awake. How I had a chance to face off against the big bad. A clear case of good versus evil for a climactic end to an exhausting journey…

 

Fuck. I thought. I’m doing exactly what he wants!

 

I laughed deliriously and tossed the gun onto the table.

 

“What’s so funny?” asked the void.

 

“I’m still playing the game, aren’t I?”

 

The void stared at me. I stared back at the void. Time passed agonizingly slowly. Eventually, the void answered. “Ah jeez. You figured it out. This was all just another deeper level of the hallucination.”

 

“Well, I think I’ve proven once and for all that you’re not going to get one over on me.”

 

“Yeah. You’re way too smart for us, Jack.”

 

I wiped blood from my forehead. “I wouldn’t go that far, but thanks all the same. Now, how about we end this game already? We’ll call it a tie. You let us go, and we’ll forget this whole thing ever happened.”

 

“Sounds perfect. There is a back door to the program. It will let you end everything right away. All you have to do is take that gun and put a bullet through your brain.”

 

I laughed. “Oh, no. I’m not falling for that one again. You just want me to keep playing, don’t you.”

 

The void hesitated. Then laughed strangely. “Curses! You figured me out again! This time, I swear I’m telling the truth. You’ve passed every test. It’s time to set you free. This will all be over... very soon.”

 

I waited for the room to disappear in a puff of smoke, but it didn’t. Instead, I just stood there in eager anticipation of the story finally coming to an end, hoping that the pain wouldn’t be so bad in this next one…

 

I was about to ask the void if he’d forgotten about me when I felt the prickly knives of the helmet-mite climbing up my leg.

 

Krikrikrikrikrik.

 

“Oh fuck!” I screamed, kicking it across the room. I turned around just in time to see a dozen more of the insectoids crawling towards me, emerging from the fat in the wall, burrowing out from the floor, skittering across the ceiling. Their mouth tubes swung in the air, reaching out towards me. One wrapped around my wrist and pulled me towards the creature that had anchored itself to the wall.

 

“Try not to fight it,” said the void. “This is how we put you back into the game.”

 

“What?”

 

One of the mites reached my feet. Its claws stabbed through my ankle as it began to climb. Krikrikrikrikrik. I screamed and fell to my knees. 

 

“This was a close one. There’s still so much to learn. But we have all the time in the world...” Another lamprey-mouth swung around me like a lasso as I reached up towards the table. The gun was right there. Another tube organ wrapped around my throat and pulled me away from the weapon. “...Please know that your sacrifices will not be in vain...” Krikrikrikrikrik. The tentacle organs constricted, cutting off air and blood flow, forcing me onto my back on the sticky, mucousy floor. They held me in place as the crawlers swarmed on top of me. Dozens of feet stabbing into my skin from every direction. One of the creatures had already latched itself onto my scalp. They all sang a horrifying chorus. Krikrikrikrikrik. “...Please, Jack. You must try and forget what you saw behind the curtain. It will only make you upset.”

 

I struggled to break free. To get back up. To reach the gun on the table. I’d made a huge mistake. I was sure of it now. One of the tentacle appendages was snaking up my neck, across my cheek. When it got close enough to my face, I tried to bite it. But the thing was faster than me, and it took advantage of the open mouth like it was an invitation, sliding inside and forcing its way down my throat. Krikrikrikrikrik. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even breathe. And then--

 

I opened my eyes.

This negative void entity was really starting to piss me off. I didn’t know how to hurt it. But I knew who would. 

 

I walked back over to Jerry’s seat and grabbed the fleshy appendage that connected him to the bug on his head. I took it with both hands and started to pull it out of Jerry’s throat.

 

“Stop that!” commanded the entity at the head of the table.

 

The thing wriggled in my hands as I removed it little by little. It was a yard-long when I finally heard the sound of Glagh! The head of the creature popped out of Jerry’s mouth, recoiled to face me, and screeched, KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI!

 

Jerry’s eyes popped open. He gagged, sputtered, looked around and said, “What in the holy name of Xenu--” The wormy tentacle whipped out of my hands and darted for Jerry’s mouth. Considering how many benders I’d seen him recover from, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how quickly Jerry’s reflexes returned to him after regaining consciousness. Without even taking the time to panic, he punched the creature in its tiny face and said, “At least buy me a drink first!”

 

“Jerry!” I yelled. “No time to explain! We’ve been tripping on deep-throating monster juju this whole time!” 

 

He looked at the others in the room, at all of the bugs latched onto their heads. With a grossed-out expression, he put a hand onto his own head and felt the creature there. 

 

“Quick!” he yelled, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a metal lighter. “Grab it by the prehensile proboscis!”

 

“The what?”

 

“The teethy tube!”

 

I grabbed the teethy tube out of the air. It wriggled and fought back. I dodged its bites as Jerry worked the lighter. It took a few flicks, but eventually he managed to catch a steady flame, which he then held against the bug’s shell.

 

KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI! It screeched in my hands. The body portion detached from Jerry’s head and jumped away. As soon as it was loose, I swung it around in the air and gave it my best hammer throw into the wall.

 

“Enough!” shouted the void. “I command you to stop!”

 

Jerry pointed at the entity at the head of the table, turned away momentarily to vomit on the floor, then asked, “What is that thing?”

 

“I don’t know. Something stupid.”

 

It seemed to rise, like it was standing. Or growing. “There are eight billion hungry mouths waiting to be fed. You cannot stop all of us.”

 

Jerry picked up his chair and flung it into the void, shouting, “Try me, bitch!”

 

The void disappeared with a sound like a crack of thunder. Still, his voice lingered. “You will end this senseless violence! Or else, we will not be so kind the next time we put you back into the game. Your whole species will have you to blame when they wake up in a hellscape.” 

 

I heard a noise that nearly stopped my heart. An avalanche of stabs. I turned around to see hundreds of the insectoids crawling through the door, skittering towards us on thousands of feet. Emerging from the fat in the wall, burrowing out from holes in the floor, crawling across the ceiling. Most of them were smaller than the ones that had grabbed onto us. Fresh hatchlings, bodies the size of coins and mouth-tubes as long as rulers. They covered every inch of the floor, climbing over one another, flowing towards us. Reaching out with their lamprey mouths, screeching that horrible noise.

 

KRIKRIKRIKRIKRI!

 

Jerry jumped onto the table, grabbed my hand, and hoisted me up. As they expanded to the walls and began to cover the white bioluminescent film, the room grew darker and darker.

 

“Alright,” Jerry said. “Don’t panic. I have a plan! First, I’m going to jump onto the chandelier and swing across to the--” he didn’t finish what he was saying. One of the legs of the table broke under our weight. We both toppled off of it and slammed into the pile of hatchlings at Bridget’s feet. I stood and wiped the bug goo off of my shoulder, then jumped into the chair with Bridget. Now that I was this close, it was hard not to see exactly what these creatures had done to her.

 

Her hair was long and gray. Her clothes worn down to tatters. Her jerkified skin clung tightly over the bone like it had been vacuum sealed. And in the dim light, I could easily see her pupils rapidly bouncing back and forth behind her closed lids. She may have been sucked dry, but the insects were keeping her alive somehow. I couldn’t focus on that, though. Not right now.

 

An idea struck me. I pointed at Tobias’s shriveled husk and shouted to Jerry, “Weapon!”

 

Jerry didn’t miss a beat. He sloshed through the puddle of insects, grabbed Tobias’s skeletal arm, put his foot against the man’s torso, and said “Sorry, T-Bone,” before ripping the limb free from its socket with a sickening, fraaack!

 

One of the adult insects leapt through the air. Jerry punted it across the room with Tobias’s arm.

 

“I meant his gun!”

 

“Oh!” Jerry dropped the arm, bent down, ripped the fabric from Tobias’s decaying pants, and picked up the gun where it had settled on the floor by his ankle. Bugs spread up his arm and legs. An army of the little bastards were stabbing their way up Bridget’s chair and onto my leg as well. There were too many. We’d never be able to kill them all. For the briefest of moments, I considered begging Jerry to just shoot us both… But then Jerry pointed at a cluster of eggs on the wall and fired.

 

The sound of the gunshot in the tiny room was loud, but the reacting screams of hundreds of shrill otherworldly monsters was nearly deafening. The walls reverberated from the collective hissing, and all together they flowed away from the noise. They dropped from my clothes and skin. They ran back into the holes in the floor and walls. They retreated en masse. It would seem that they weren’t used to their food fighting back like this.

 

I approached Claire. Her eyes were open again. She was staring straight ahead. But the creature that had been keeping her alive had fled, just like the rest. I put my hand on her cold cheek and waited for her to tell me something. But she didn’t. She and Loren were both gone now. Tobias, Bridget, Hope, and Wolfgang... I didn’t even need to check to know. It was over for them. The game had come to an end.

 

Jerry pulled me by the arm towards the door. And we left them there. Claire knew what was going to happen. She knew I couldn’t save her. So why did I feel so guilty?

 

We stepped into the great hall and saw that the walls were completely covered in that same waxy, white, glowing substance. A hexagonal pattern emerged, a bee hive shape, with each section containing clusters of translucent eggs. They vibrated as we entered, swelling and bouncing in tandem, like the house was breathing. A pair of mites, both the size of English Mastiffs, crawled down the wall on either side of the front door. Their tube-appendages were as thick as two-liter bottles and longer than Jerry and me put together.

 

“Wait!” The voice seemed to be coming from the creature closer to us, and it was using the same crepitating voice that Maggie used when she invited us into the manor all that time ago. “You can’t go! It’s dangerous out there!”

 

Another voice entered the room. A man’s voice. This one sounded just like Nathaniel, and it sounded like it was coming from the other creature. “I believe now would be an excellent time for us all to come together and work as a team if we are to solve the mystery of Bedside Manor.”

 

Jerry shot the one that sounded like Maggie. Its hind end exploded in red goo, and the other critter dove onto the ground and burrowed into a crack before Jerry could take another shot.

 

We didn’t spend any more time admiring the settings. We just ran.

 

We hit the door, came out on the other side, and kept running. It was the middle of the night, the only light coming from a full moon. The air was full of humidity and cicada screams. We kept running. We ran until we saw the car graveyard on the other side of the road, hidden in plain sight. A huge field, with at least twenty different vehicles parked haphazardly. Most of them with all of their doors open. Some, it seemed, had been here for decades. At the very back, I found my shitty little Nissan.

 

“Who parked this here?” I asked, but as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I remembered… the bandaged memory fell out of place… I was no longer under the spell. We parked here. On purpose. Jerry saw the house, and we thought it would be smart to leave the car and check it out. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. I shook my head. There was another conflicting memory in the same spot. We broke down a mile up the road and walked here to use the phone. There weren’t any other cars... My head throbbed. I was getting a migraine for the record books, and I still can’t tell which of these memories--if either--was real.

 

I tried the keys, and the engine started right away. But Jerry wasn’t with me anymore. He’d gone searching for something specific.

 

A couple rows down, he found a rusty old truck… In the bed, a five-gallon fuel container.

 

Ten minutes later we were back on the road, pulling out of the driveway to Bedside Manor with Jerry behind the wheel.

 

“Hey Jack,” he said solemnly.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“We are certain that this is the real world now, right? Like, there’s no chance we’re still stuck inside a game... Right?”

 

I didn’t answer. I just stared in the rearview mirror, watching the flames of Bedside Manor burn as we got further and further away.