This asshole isn't in my story, but I share his ridiculous visage, nevertheless.
I’m sitting in the dark, cross-legged, watching glowing shapes move like giant fireflies across a star-dotted screen. Next to me, a woman pants like a dog, her rhythmic breathing setting a pulse for the rest of us as we stare at our illuminated captors, trying to discern the slightest hint of their form or purpose. Bob, an executive at a leading healthcare conglomerate, screams "What the hell do you want from us?" for about the thousandth time, and his question goes unanswered, just like every other. Some of the other captives tell Bob to shut up. "Can’t you see we’re fucked?" says Armando, an Italian fellow who speaks excellent English. Not everyone here does. Most of them are Americans, though we get a lot of Russians, for whatever reason. There’s a ritual when a new person arrives. We do our best to calm them down, to tell them that they’re with other human beings. The darkness is not very reassuring and usually the initial concern. We tell them the darkness is welcome to the bright white lights that randomly flash and reveal our surroundings. Every time they flicker on we’re in a new environment. We’ve floated on an island in a sea of green, orange vapors rising up from the writhing waters. We’ve been in a cloud crawling through an alien atmosphere, the fog thick, no solid ground beneath us. We’ve sunk beneath the earth, stalactites dripping ooze above us as we slide down the throat of the world. It’s an illusion, the others have theorized, though I am not so sure. My sense of reality has dissipated into the air, which seems thinner than I remember, a strange burnt odor clinging to my nostrils.
The important thing about the ritual is to go over the abduction event. Everyone has a story. There are various scenarios that are repeated like themes in a symphony. You were driving on a rural road late at night and a bright light appeared. You were alone in a cabin in the woods and stepped outside for a cigarette. Your car broke down on the side of a New Mexican interstate, and the heavens came to you. In all of my indeterminable time here, I think I’ve had one city visitor, the aforementioned Bob, the big shot executive. They must have plans for Bob, for he’s been here nearly as long as me.
The woman who was panting starts crying now, sobbing loudly into her arms. I've seen her once when the lights turned on. That time, we were hovering above pools of rainbow colors, smoke drifting around us toward a purple sky, each cloud traveling in a spiral shape, corkscrews obeying strange laws of physics. The new visitors are always amazed at the alien environments, but I take the time to look at the people to try to put their faces in my memory. They don't last long, besides Bob, and as soon as they are removed, they tend to fade, their voices and faces melting into a nebulous chronology I cannot account for. The woman is young with auburn hair and a pretty face, dressed in a baggy college sweater and jeans. Her name might be Margaret; I can't remember. Like I said, it's hard to remember.
The others do nothing to console her, most of them having taken their turns with grief. If you've been here awhile, you don't need consoling. If you're not new, it just makes it worse. Is one arm different from the next? I would like to approach the young woman and tell her everything is going to be okay. It's difficult to lie, though. You just can't tell them the truth. Bob never tells them anything. He screams his question and then begins muttering to himself. The others always think he's crazy. I'm not sure. Bob and I don't share much besides some indeterminable quality that keeps us in the void. Maybe we're each other's conscience. I don't think we're each other's hope.
The woman was studying geology at an Ivy League college. She went on spring vacation with a couple friends to the Appalachian Mountains. There was a bonfire, and lights in the sky, and something invisible crashing through the woods. To me, it sounded like a bad paranormal story, the kind of thing someone would fabricate to get on a television program. I used to watch a lot of stuff like that, mostly just to laugh at the stories, how they defied logical behavior as well as science. Maybe she made it up. Maybe she just woke up, and she was here, without a story. You have to have a story. No one is going to write one for you.
Bob approached me once, the last time they were all removed. We can't see a damned thing in here, but somehow he got ahold of me, his thick hands wrapping around my shirt collar, his body odor pungent, cutting through the burnt recycled air. "I don't think they're real," he said, the madness in his eyes almost perceptible in the total blackness. "Either that, or there's something wrong with us. Maybe we're bad. Maybe we're impure."
"I don't know about that, Bob," I told him.
"I did plenty of bad things," he says. "Maybe this is purgatory. Maybe we have to atone."
"There's nothing to do but talk to people, Bob," I say. "How are we supposed to atone?"
"What the hell do you want with us?" he says to the shapeless lights which hover in the distance.
I lived a normal life. I had a kid, a wife, a dog, a comfortable job in retail. I sold people shoes, nice, comfortable shoes for an affordable price. I was good to my wife. I tried to teach my child well. The dog I took on walks almost every day. Still, I get what Bob is saying. There is an indefinable guilt which resides in my heart, causing me to think of every miniscule sin, every moment I gave less than I should have. When the hand comes down and people are collected like ants scurrying from a hive, I think of what I've done to not merit being collected. Bob says that it's a hand, but I think of it as more of a claw. Its outline is faint, barely perceptible, a groping collection of tendrils. Everyone is pulled up into the dark, and we never see them again.
I've never told anyone my abduction story. I've listened to thousands, but no one has ever asked, I being the oldest, along with Bob. I don't know Bob's story, either. I decided to take a walk one night. My wife had come home in a bad mood, her temper flaring, and complained about the house. I let the kid play video games too long, she said. His grades are lacking, and he should be studying. I can't make him study, I told her. That wasn't the right thing to say, and instead of arguing, I took a walk. You argue so much when you are married. The problems and stresses of life are projected onto your partner. You say things you shouldn't. Maybe I said something before I took that walk. I don't remember. I just recall the sidewalk and the rows of identical houses spread out like models, looking unreal, looking like they'd tip over if you gave them a good push. The sky was vacant besides the moon, which was pregnant and full with the reflected light of the sun. I hadn't looked at the moon in forever; I hadn't stared at it, treated it like a god. As I walked the sidewalk seemed to spread itself out in a straight path, carrying my feet like it was automated, like I had somewhere to go, something to do. I wanted to keep walking. I never wanted to stop.
The woman, a girl really, keeps crying, and some of the others are agitated. They ask Bob questions, and he responds with his sole question, and my presence is sort of forgotten, since you can't see a damned thing, like I said. I navigate by the sound of her crying. She stops when I touch her shoulder.
"I want to go home," she says. "I don't want the lights to turn on."
"Maybe we're in purgatory," I say, Bob's words coming out of my mouth.
"I'm not Catholic," she says.
"Neither am I," I respond. "I meant it figuratively."
"What's going to happen to us?" she asks.
I look into the void. Directions have no meaning in this place. You can feel something solid beneath your feet, and if you move away from the group, you always come back to them, no matter how far you seemingly walk.
"When you say us, do you mean you?" I ask.
"I don't know," she says. Her voice is throaty. In different circumstances, I'd say it was sexy.
"That's a good answer," I tell her. I look and there's the claw, its white tendrils a faint suggestion in the darkness. None of the others have seen it yet.
"I think everything is going to be okay," I say.
"That's a bunch of bullshit," she says. The others are whispering now, the claw's outline clear, its nebulous shape similar to a deep-sea creature, a monster with enormous eyes and fangs.
"Do you forgive me?" I ask.
"For what?" she says.
"Just forgive me, and I'll forgive you." People are leaving us, the arms of the claw entwined around them, their shouts and screams reverberating in the void.
"You are forgiven," she says, as the tendrils wrap around her waist.
"Thank you," I say. I watch as she is pulled up into nothingness. I am left alone with Bob, my conscience, my question, my absence of memory. He asks his question, but I am content with waiting. Maybe I will wait forever.