Dream-reality confusion. That was my entire life right now.
It’s a borderline personality disorder in which a person has difficulty determining whether events were occurring during the waking state or as part of a dream. I learned about it from my psych professor, or a Ted Talk, or maybe even a YouTuber. Who the hell could even tell at this point?
They say it’s a thin line between sanity and insanity but you never know how infinitesimal that line is until you’re precariously balanced on it. The scary bit? Whenever Shelly, whom I trusted most in the world, tried to contradict the reality I knew was absolutely stark raving looney tunes, my natural instinct kicked in to defend it tooth and nail.
“It was a Ted Talk,” Shelly said. She was currently combing through the bookcase behind the plush reading chair in my living room.
“Dream-reality confusion, it was a Ted Talk. We watched it together.”
I whipped my head around and caught her eye. “Y-you can hear my thoughts?”
“Sweetie, you’re standing in the middle of the room narrating to yourself like a detective out of a pulp novel. You’ve been doing it the entire time.”
“Oh my God, Shell, how embarrassing! Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
Shelly shrugged. “You’re going through a lot right now and I figured that addressing an invisible audience was just you coming to grips with everything. Besides, you talking to yourself is by far the least crazy thing I’ve experienced today.”
“Okay, I’ll try to be more mindful about my narration,” I said, trying to play it off as a joke and hide how freaked out I really was. Then I wondered if I just said that aloud as well?
“Damn. Let’s change the subject. What the hell are you looking for?”
“It has to be in here somewhere,” Shelly said.
“No offense but your creepy-ass Barbie Dreamhouse is set up like one of the model houses on the Nevada nuclear test site, filled with everything to replicate a real home…”
“This is a real home,” my natural instinct said. “My home.”
“So, where are the photo albums? They’re not on any of the shelves…wait a minute, I’m thinking about this all wrong. Pristine house…protecting your special memories while maximizing shelf space…” Shelly’s face lit up like a 150-watt lightbulb and she snapped her fingers.
Moving over to the ottoman, she flipped up the cushion to reveal the storage space inside…chock-a-block with photo albums.
“Ta-da!” she said. “Check out the big brain on this chick!”
“You missed your calling, you should have been a detective.”
“Still could be. I’m not the one who went and got herself knocked up and hitched overnight,” Shelly said and before I could process the comment, instant regret hit her expression like a thunderbolt. “I…am…so…sorry, Ginge. I don’t know where that came from, honest. Brain concentrating on unraveling this mystery, tongue on automatic…I-I can’t apologize enough.”
“Forget it, I’m not bothered,” I said, which we both knew was a big fat lie. “So, why are the photo albums important?”
Shelly scooped up the albums and made her way over to the sofa. “Pull up the coffee table. I want to test a theory.”
Spreading the books along the length of the tabletop, Shelly flipped through and gave each one a cursory glance.
“All the albums look like they’re yours,” she said. “I can’t spot your mysterious husband or baby in any of them.”
“Well, the baby’s a newborn, so maybe there wasn’t time to fill an album just yet?”
“Point taken,” Shelly nodded. “But that still doesn’t explain photo absentee hubby.”
She picked up the oldest looking album and we went through it carefully this time, page by page. It was filled with photos of the two of us, Shelly and me as kids in happier times.
“Do these photos look odd to you?” she asked.
“No, I remember all these moments vividly,” I smiled.
“That’s what I’m getting at, Ginge. Who took these pictures? I don’t remember our friends or either of our parents around with a camera during most of these events.”
She was right, we were by ourselves most of the time, off getting into trouble, trespassing in places we shouldn’t have been, doing things that would have gotten us both sent to juvie, or worse, tongue lashings, belt whippings, and eternal punishments.
And it wasn’t just that one album. Going through the rest of them, the pictures focused on the two of us and our relationship during the various stages of our childhood and teen years. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that we were close, but these photos, some of the them Polaroids, let me see that our relationship was closer than I realized. Shelly was as much a part of my life as my own family. Hell, she was my family.
“Call me crazy, but I don’t think these are photos, sweetie,” Shelly said.
“I think someone or something has filled these books with snapshots of your memories.”
I wasn’t prepared to deal with the concept of something, so I asked, “But why?”
“To, I don’t know, lull you into a false sense of security, maybe?”
There was only one set of photos left to be explored, the wedding album. Shelly saved the best for last.
The instant she opened the book, I stabbed at a photo with my finger. “You were there!” And she was, looking absolutely miserable in a shiny and puffy aquamarine bridesmaid dress.
“I have absolutely no memory of this,” she said. “And you should thank your lucky stars because putting me in that dress deserves an ass-beating.”
“You look fine, stop it. Is it weird that I’m happy you were at my wedding that neither of us can remember?”
“Well, in order to keep the illusion going I guess it would make sense for your best friend to be there,” Shelly paused and cut me a look. “I am still your best friend, aren’t I?”
“Shut up! You are so annoying!”
“Just had to check that you didn’t whip up a more perfecter friend, which, let’s face it would be impossible.”
“Can we just get back to my wedding, please? I want to see who all was there.”
In going through the pages, carefully inspecting each picture, Shelly brought up an interesting fact, yet another thing that escaped my notice: “Who didn’t you invite to your wedding?”
It seemed like everybody I had ever known was in attendance, grade school teachers, childhood friends, some weirdly still the same age as when I last saw them, everyone except my husband.
“Who paid for all this and all these people? It must have cost an arm and a leg,” I wondered.
“Money’s no object in a fantasy,” Shelly said and I had to bite back a potential argument.
And then we came across the photo that set matters straight, at least for me. Just like the other albums, the wedding pictures featured myself and Shelly prominently but in the background of one of the photos was Eric Petty standing next to what could only have been described as an anime cartoon representation of a woman.
“That creepy bastard brought his waifu?” Shelly said, picking up her jaw off the floor. “Okay, can we officially call this mess off the rails at this point?”
“Maybe it’s a hologram?”
“Hologram? Come on, Ginge, this is Eric we’re talking about, here. His broke ass couldn’t even afford a telegram. But we’ll circle back to him in a moment…because I just noticed something else. Who haven’t we seen yet?”
“I’m done with the guessing games. Why don’t you just tell me.”
“Your roommates, Mina, Paul, Nancy, and chipmunk-face.”
“Chip! His name is Chip!”
“Such an on-the-nose name, I don’t know why it doesn’t stick.”
“But, you’re right, they’re not in any of the photos.”
“Why wouldn’t you invite them? You invited everybody else, even Tommy Preston. Look, there he is in the background hands still protecting his groin.”
“It was a knee-jerk reaction.”
“Yeah, your knee jerked into his balls.”
“He tried to kiss me after I told him I wasn’t interested in him like that.”
“I’m not saying he didn’t get what he deserved—”
The sound of keys in the front door cut Shelly’s sentence short.
“Honey, we’re home! Are you in?” asked an oddly familiar voice.
“We’re in the living room,” I answered.
Shelly collected all the albums and scurried to put them back into the ottoman storage area.
My husband stepped into the room and cradled in his arms was our little bundle of joy. His expression slightly surprised and amused, he said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you had company. Hi, Shelly.”
Shelly took one look at him, her mouth opened slowly and she unleashed a high-pitched scream utterly shot through with terror and hysteria and pure madness. Her legs buckled and she collapsed to the floor, scrambling backward on her hands and feet to the far side of the room, only stopping when she hit the wall.
And the room turned to chaos. Her screams woke the baby who was now also screaming—a horrible, wet cry—which prompted my husband to shout at Shelly to shut up…and my head started pounding so hard it felt like my brain was about to burst, so I rushed over and knelt beside Shelly and now I was shaking her violently by the shoulders begging her to tell me what was wrong. And then…
The screaming stopped just as quickly as it began, from my best friend, my child, and my husband.
Shelly stared at me, wide eyes filled with terror, her normally beautiful face contorted into a hideously grotesque mask, and said, “Can’t you see it? Please God tell me you can see it! Look at his face, Ginge! Look at his goddamned face!”
Sometimes there are things in your life, glaringly obvious things, that you cannot for the life of you see until someone points it out to you. This was more than that. Someone or something was messing with my perception, because when I turned and looked at my husband, I mean really looked, I saw the reason why his face always appeared blurry or smudged in photographs.
His features were in a constant state of flux, but not smooth like the morphing techniques seen in movies. His physiognomy was continuously being torn apart and absorbed back into the skin in order to make way for the next face to emerge and the cycle repeated on an endless skin-rending loop. Eyes, nose and mouth ever-shifting between the distinct likenesses of Mina, Paul, Nancy, and yes, even Chip.
At least one mystery, that of my missing roommates, had been solved today.
Now it was my turn to scream as the reality of the situation dug its way into my mind and peeled back my sanity layer by layer until my equilibrium abandoned me and I descended into unconsciousness.
Not The End.