This story was first published in The Infinite Sky, Vol. 4 Issue-1& 2 January-December, 2021
There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was like any other white-walled room in an assisted living facility. The furniture was minimal: single size bed, dresser, coffee table, and two chairs. I sat on the one facing him, placed the voice recorder on his side of the table past the glass of water in the middle, and pressed the button. The small red light began flashing.
“We’re recording now, Mr. Popescu. Thank you for having me. As my wife must’ve told you, the subject of my book is obscure supernatural legends about the nature of reality. She told me that you have a story for me. Go ahead, please. I’m listening. And please remember that we can stop recording whenever you want,” I said.
“Sure.” He gave me a half-smile. “I’m surprised you’d want to listen to an old man like me, Mr. Antones—”
“Just call me Andrei.”
“Yes, sure. You’re too young for useless formalities. For me, they remind me that I’m still visible. When the nurse here calls me ‘Sir,’ I feel like I haven’t yet turned into another piece of furniture in this room. Being old is not easy, but if your memory is still young, you get by alright.
“I was like you, Andrei. I had a handsome, round face crowned with thick black hair before the years left me with a worn-out face, bald head, and hollow eyes. But I’m happy, still. I had a full life, Andrei. You have a beautiful smile, Son.” His liver-spotted, withered hand reached for the glass. He sipped some water, cleared his throat, put the glass down, and continued. “They say when you’re an old bachelor, you regret not making a family. But I don’t. I truly don’t.
“I experienced love to the best of my ability and had many friends and lovers. During those communist times, making love to another man was an act of rebellion. In your lover’s eyes, you wouldn’t only see his soul but also a dreadful warning that you both may soon be behind bars among murderers and thieves—simply for daring to love.
“But I didn’t let that get to me. I decided to migrate to a different reality. I carved a niche for myself. I ignored the askance eyes of the dictator haunting me everywhere I went. And I paid no attention to a society that was outraged by my private sexuality yet accommodating of public corruption and oppression.”
A line formed between his eyebrows when he brought them together. His eyes welled up. “The only thing that really broke me,” he said, “was the death of my lover, Petru, my soulmate. I never loved and will never love anyone that way. We lived together for five years before a terrible car crash on one of those bendy, narrow roads of the Transylvanian countryside stole him from me. No one knew how it happened. From the look of the mangled car, the police concluded that it must’ve had been a collision with a dump truck or some heavy equipment vehicle. But, you see, Son, the problem’s that no trace of such vehicles was ever found nearby—no skid marks, dirt, gravel, or demolition waste. Nothing!
“It’s been more than thirty years since, but my grief hasn’t aged a second, neither has my bitterness. I just learned how to accept them and live with them, just like the disabled carry their cross diligently and go on living. I wept upon first receiving the news, and then I fell unconscious. And when I came to, the nightmare truly began. My depression was severe. It swallowed me whole.
“But the worst was yet to come. I lost my job because of my absenteeism and underperformance. I had to rely on my meager savings. I could’ve died of hunger, Son. But I was blessed with many good friends, Andrei, real friends, ones I truly bonded with over our common suffering, alienation, and rejection. That was way before all the pride parades and the public acceptance—or indifference in the case of Romania. Back then, people saw us as the ultimate ‘other,’ subversion incarnate, you could say. So, if we didn’t stick together, we would’ve simply had to retreat to our holes and die alone in silence.
“Adina—a good friend of mine and a talented painter whose beautiful green eyes had more majesty than anything an artist could produce—moved in with me. She spared no effort, the poor soul. She cooked, cleaned, and kept me company when I went into those horrid crying spells, always holding me and rubbing my shoulders in a motherly fashion. She was a saint, I swear. She gave me priority over her art and never complained, not even once. But the pain was tenacious, and the sense of purposelessness that overran me after burying Petru was viciously palpable. It was less of a feeling and more of a plane of existence.”
With his mouth set in a grim line, he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and let a sigh out. Tears began running down his face when he opened his eyes again. He wiped them dry with the back of his hand and went on, “The funny thing about death, Andrei, is that it turns the deceased into uncaring gods. We bury the dead before they begin decomposing, luckily. Our last memory of them is that of clean, well-dressed bodies placed in neat coffins and surrounded by grieving souls.
“We cry next to them. We beg them to get up. We shake them. We do whatever our desperate minds trick us into doing, but the result is always the same: utter silence, one that translates into, ‘I’m above your emotions, you still-suffering mortal.’ Isn’t that like praying to a deaf god? Isn’t that simply just precious hope thrown into the black hole of oblivion? I’d surely say so.
“But above all, our greatest plight is that we don’t fully understand death, and, therefore, we must admit that we still don’t know what reality is. For sure, there is a physical reality that contains many small realities within: biological, individual, collective, etc. That much we can tell. But that is merely to skim the surface.
“You might be wondering why I bored you with such details. But the story you came to hear is about that. In any case, a year after Petru’s death, I was a walking corpse skinned in an aura of sadness that one could almost touch. I barely ate—despite Adina’s constant pleading—and spent my days either sleeping or smoking and drinking.
“‘I’m begging you, seek some help. Have you seen yourself lately? You look like a ghost. You’re pale and gaunt. Your eyes have become lifeless. Do it for me, for those who love you. Please see a doctor or something,’ she once told me. I could tell that she was more than concerned. She was heartbroken. She put her hands on my shoulders, then pulled me towards her, hugging me tightly. I’d always admired her long, thin fingers.
“One long-overdue honest look at myself in the mirror convinced me. The next day, I was in the doctor’s office. After a thorough evaluation, his words were, ‘Major depressive disorder, Mr. Popescu. That’s what you have. I’ll prescribe you bupropion.’ He looked at the prescription pad before him and began writing. He raised his head and dictated, ‘You must take it as directed. In the beginning, you may have ringing in the ears and drowsiness. That’s very common. Those side effects will go away in a month or so. In any case, I must see you again in six months. Take the exact dose daily at the same time and do not quit the medication on your own.’ He shook his fat finger at me.
“The first two weeks were tough. I had morning grogginess and awful tinnitus that sounded like TV static. But gradually, I did get better: My mood improved; my sleep was deep; and the tinnitus became less frequent. ‘Look, look at you now,’ Adina almost sang. ‘You’re finally smiling. I can now go back home without worrying about you.’
“I was fine on my own when she left. The medicine didn’t make me forget about Petru, however. It just helped me go through the day without having those episodes of crushing despair. My next step was to find a new job, which wasn’t hard in those communist times. It’s in the communist DNA to make people work. It didn’t matter how little the job paid or how terrible the conditions were, the government would always find you something to do.
“The local municipality soon employed me as a night guard at the local bus garage located on the edge of the city. It was a badly paved giant yard surrounded by oak woodlands. I loved the serene nights, and in early May, the stars would shine brightly, mitigating any sense of loneliness one could’ve had. I had nothing to complain about but that godforsaken noise in my ears. It wasn’t constant now, but it was still fairly strong when it came. ‘It shall go away soon, like the drowsiness,’ I often comforted myself. Have you ever had tinnitus, Andrei?”
“No, I don’t believe so.” I smiled at him.
“Great, great. It’s a bizarre thing to have. It’s a subjective noise, much like our individual views of reality. You can describe it. You can approximate it. But you can never really define it.
“Anyhow, Son, whenever the noise became too much to tolerate, I’d lock my guardroom and go for a walk in the woods. The country was safe back then. My presence was merely a formality. No one dared to criticize the government, let alone steal from it.” He chuckled, then carried on, “There is something majestic about nature in this country, Andrei, something that makes you almost lose your sense of identity and forget about your own pain. Therefore, the vicious hissing in my ears didn’t matter when I was in the arms of the woods.
“Son, I don’t like religion, but here, in Romania, I can easily see why my fellow countrymen are religious. Faith saves them from feeling like insignificant blemishes on the faces of the giant mountains. Petru loved the mountains. He was an avid outdoorsman. We hiked all over the country. ‘Listen, listen, my love,’ he’d tell me, ‘in the silence of nature, you can hear the voice of God.’ When I began trudging the woodlands alone, I, too, felt a special connection to something grandiose. Maybe it was God, the cosmic spirit, or simply my own yearning to return to the earth and find eternal rest.
“The bright moonlight would seep through the dense branches of the trees and end in small patches on the ground. There was always an ebbing-and-flowing discord produced by screeching owls, barking dogs, grunting deer, and howling foxes. But nothing really scared me. I basked in that sense of isolation, so much so that the noise of twigs breaking under my feet was offensive.” He smirked. “Have you ever experienced exhilarating fear, Andrei?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘exhilarating.’ But I liked to spook myself as a kid.”
He scratched the corner of his mouth. “Fear is a beautiful emotion. It’s the best catalyst ever. It is responsible for many human inventions and for most of our mythologies. Even love, at its core, is the fear of losing someone.”
“Beautifully put, Mr. Popescu. So, about your encounter with the supernatural. That’s what this interview is about. Remember?”
He huffed and shook his head. “Please forgive me, Son. I get carried away sometimes.” He cleared his throat again. “One night, when I was walking in the woods, I stumbled upon a round manhole. Its steel cover bore a simple inscription: G.B. It was obviously weird to find it in the middle of the woods, but I didn’t really think much of it. As I began making my way back to the station, the static noise in my ears raged. This time, it was debilitating, bringing me to my knees. I pressed my hands against my ears and quivered in torment.
“The noise became intermittent, then ceased completely. My breath began shaking, Andrei. It must’ve been less than a minute, but it felt like decades of relentless torture. I got up, and once I took another step away from the manhole, a second episode came on. There was a chill in my soul. ‘What the hell is going on with me? Am I losing my mind?’ I asked myself.
“Suddenly, a muffled voice came from beneath the manhole. ‘Come in,’ it told me. When I tried to run away, the third wave of devastating static eventually forced me to comply. ‘Yes, I’ll come in. Just stop. Please stop.’ By now, I could feel something warm dripping slowly from my ears and onto the sides of my neck. I wiped it with my hand. It was blood!
“I advanced cautiously; my chest tightened with fear. ‘What do you want? Who are you?’
“‘Remove the cover and get in,’ the voice ordered me. It spoke Romanian, but the intonation was archaic. It sounded more like Ecclesiastical Latin than modern Romanian. ‘Should I send you the hiss again?’ it threatened when no answer came from me.
“‘No, no, no, please.’ I removed the heavy lid and climbed down the steps. The smell was atrocious, a mixture of rot, feces, and must. I began gagging until I eventually threw up. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and looked around, ignoring the urge to run away. It was too late, anyway. The whole scene was enveloped in darkness apart from a dim white light flickering at the end of the tunnel.
“‘Come towards the light,’ he said.
“My mouth was dry, and my heart was beating like a war drum. However, I had no choice but to hesitantly do as I was instructed. When I finally got there, I found myself in the presence of two creatures dressed in black, hooded monk robes. They looked less like medieval friars than two sinister things parading as men. I could see something constantly fluttering underneath their garments.
“‘Who are you? What do you want from me?’ I stuttered.
“‘Your brain waves have the right potency now, Mr. Popescu.’ A low static underlined that unearthly voice. ‘You will soon begin seeing the glitches in the simulation.’
“Sweat dribbled down my spine. In a voice trembling with fear, I inquired, ‘Who are you? What are you talking about? What simulation?’
“‘Reality is bizarre and complex, Mr. Popescu,’ one of them answered me, then removed his robe.
“I was awash with trepidation. He had no features and was made of nothing but TV static assuming the mere shape of a man, a static silhouette, you could say. I shivered. ‘What the hell are you? I must be losing my mind. This is not real. It can’t be.’
“‘But it is, Mr. Popescu,’ said the one that was still dressed. ‘We all live in a simulation. Existence is a series of simulations.’ He disrobed himself, exposing the same dreadful look of his companion. ‘Don’t be afraid. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to explain to you.’
“‘Explain what?’ I said.
“‘Explain that the sounds you’ve been hearing are frequencies from other simulations. Think about it this way: Each universe is merely a simulation that begins within another simulation that is more advanced. When they reach a certain developmental stage, simulations automatically generate new simulations. It’s like an endless Russian nesting doll. But just like any other artificial invention, glitches are bound to happen. Sometimes cracks appear in the façade of reality and frequencies sip from one simulation to another; other times, events happen uncaused. A building collapses. Someone just goes missing without a trace. A car is destroyed by some unknown force in what appears to be a mysterious car acci—’
“‘Do you know anything about Petru’s death? Did you kill him, you bastards?’ Rage flamed through me.
“‘His death was the result of a glitch, Mr. Popescu. We can’t kill anyone, cause glitches, or influence the structure of the simulation. We’re just messengers. We’re once ordinary humans with the same talent as yours. We heard static, saw glitches, died, and then became Glitch Beings, the few creatures that can travel between simulations. But we are merely that. We don’t know who’s behind them all or who initiated the first simulation. Now that you have this gift, Mr. Popescu, you’ll begin seeing glitches yourself, too. Don’t worry about them. They eventually get fixed on their own. You should consider yourself lucky. When you die, you’ll be one of us.’
“‘What? What am I to do with all of that?’
“‘Take comfort in the fact that you now know your fate, and live and die normally, just like any other man. We’d tell you not to tell anyone, but none would believe you anyway.’
“‘There is no but, Mr. Popescu. That’s all. You must go now. Don’t be afraid.’
“Suddenly, I couldn’t move or talk.
“‘Don’t worry, you shall soon faint.’
“The static noise returned, this time louder than ever. I experienced severe pain before going out like a light. The next day, I woke up in the woods. When I went back to investigate, the manhole was not there anymore. Instead, I found a broken TV. My boss gave me a warning letter that month for leaving my post.
“Some of my friends laughed at me when I told them the story and advised me to go back to the doctor. Others shook their heads and displayed some pity. ‘The poor soul. He grieved himself insane,’ they must’ve had thought. Adina’s reaction was rational. ‘Antidepressants may sometimes cause weird side effects. Be careful. Be an active patient,’ she told me.
“I was. So, I gradually decreased my antidepressant dose and was finally able to deal with my loss without numbing my feelings. I gave to charity, volunteered to help those in need, and took up running. The tinnitus was also gone; I heard no noise anymore; and my life”—he hesitated a bit—“has been normal.”
“Such an inspiring story, Mr. Popescu.”
“Thank you, Son. I know I wasn’t hallucinating that night, and I am not ashamed of telling and retelling the story. I’ve done that so many times, especially at parties. I actually still enjoy that.”
“Great, because I really enjoyed listening to you. I’ll surely include it in my book. I just have to change your name to protect your privacy.”
“Thank you.” He looked down at the recorder. “Please turn it off.”
I obliged. “That’s not the whole story, however.” He gave me a lopsided grin, one that was almost victorious. “I still see them. I began seeing them the next day after the incident and never ceased to. They used to frighten me at first. Now, I am more than used to them.”
“The Glitch People?” I inquired.
“No, the glitches, Son. I see them every day. They’re like small cracks filled with flickering pixelated noise with a voice coming from them. It’s always the same goddam unearthly voice.”
“And what does it tell you?”
“That’s something I’m not comfortable sharing.”
I nodded in silence.
“One last detail, Son. I can choose one person, one person to give my gift to.”
“Have you chosen any?”
“Don’t look at me this way, Son. I’m not crazy.” He twirled a finger next to his temple.
“I honestly didn’t mean to. I was just surp—”
“I think that’s enough for today.” He coughed twice. “I need to rest now. I’m not feeling well. Would you mind showing yourself out?”
I got up, grabbed my recorder, and shook hands with him.
“Best of luck, Son,” he told me when I opened the door. “Give my best regards to your wife. She’s an excellent physician.”
“Will do. Thank you. I’ll send you a copy once the book is out.”
It was midafternoon when I stepped outside. A clear sky hovered above the city, whose streets were now brimming with uncomprehending passersby. A sinister hissing noise crept into my ears. Fear swelled in my gut. Oblivious to my surrounding, I ran to my car. I turned on the stereo. Heavy metal music blasted but couldn’t drown out that awful static in my ears. Within a month or so, I began seeing the glitches, too; they were exactly as Mr. Popescu described them. Now, I, too, hear the other-worldly voice hissing, “Nothing is real. No purpose. No meaning. No beginning. No end. It’s all an illusion.”