Optical Allusions

Originally published in Electric Velocipede #7, Fall 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Perry Slaughter.

John Bevis was terrified of the dark. He was not just scared—he was simply and irrationally terrified.

It was nothing in the dark itself that frightened him, for he was sane enough to know that there was nothing in the darkness which wasn’t also present with the lights on. What terrified him was the very idea that nothing lurked in the darkness. No chairs, no walls, no floors—nothing.

Bevis had the bedcovers pulled all the way up to his chin, and he gripped them so tightly that in the light his knuckles would have been white. He needed the coarse, scratchy reassurance of the woolen blankets, the cool, crinkly reaffirmation of the sheets, to stave off a descent into hysteria. He could feel his rapid, shallow breaths against his clenched fists. “I breathe, therefore I am,” he told himself, but, held up to the darkness, this assertion seemed trite and banal.

Damn you, Bevis! he thought. Cowering like whipped puppy! Where are all your guts now?

Earlier, in the reckless confidence of daylight, he had shut off the circuit breaker to his bedroom, determined to prove to himself that he could last through a night of full darkness, without so much as a nightlight for defense. Now he knew what a foolish idea that had been. He couldn’t even leave the prison of his bed long enough to throw his heavy drapes open to the moonlight, for fear that his feet would never reach the floor and he would tumble forever through blackness.

Sleeping alone only made things worse, but that couldn’t be helped. The older he grew, the more frequent that became. He was thirty years old now, and alone. If only he weren’t so reluctant to go out nights...

A pocket transistor radio was Bevis’s only companion—the Sony TR-63, to be precise, a fine little unit even if it was Jap workmanship—and he flicked the volume dial with a clammy thumbtip. A thin cord snaked from the breast pocket of his pajamas to the tiny ’phone snugged flush in his right ear. He could have chosen from a plenitude of comedy, suspense, sports, or music broadcasts, but instead he was tuned to a news station. He couldn’t be lulled to sleep by music or fantasy; instead, he craved for companionship the stern realism of a no-nonsense newsman’s voice, telling it like he hoped it really was.

Midnight loomed, the local news winding down before the hour. The newsman’s voice was neutral and bland. County taxes on the rise, he reported. Teamsters on strike. Heat lightning blamed for a sudden rash of UFO sightings. Three players from the local college arraigned for narcotics possession. A young secretary in serious but stable condition after mutilation by an intruder, latest in a string of such incidents.

The news was not pleasant, but pleasantries were not what Bevis craved. He craved only the assurance that the world beyond his bed still existed, good or bad.

Drifting slightly, his thoughts began to diffuse like jet trails in the sky. Behind the fear, he was very tired. So alone in the darkness ... even a madman with a knife ... might be a welcome visitor ... sufficient at least to prove Bevis wasn’t alone...

“We—greet you.” A woman’s voice, fuzzed with static, sounding in his ear with an exotic accent he couldn’t place.

Bevis sat bolt upright. The voice had come through his earphone, which was now feeding him only white noise. His eyes strained, but the darkness revealed nothing. Slowly, deliberately, Bevis pulled the covers back up to his face, eyes darting back and forth in vain. The voice seemed unreal, like the fading memory of a dream. Was he so desperate for companionship that he was now imagining female voices?

The static hissed in his ear, an eerie sound in the oppressively black night. He had dreamed the voice. He had drifted off to sleep, lost the radio station, and dreamed a woman’s voice.

He pulled the covers over his head and twisted their solidity around his body. Then he twiddled with the dial on the Sony radio, trying to relocate his station. But there was only static—no talk, no music, just static. Panic rising, he switched the unit on and off, repeatedly. Still nothing. Static. Alone. Where were all the goddamn radio signals?

“This is not, from our observations, the—normal response of your kind to spoken greetings. Are you—distressed?” It was the same voice, in his right ear, riding the crackle like a surfer on a wave. Curiosity suffused the staticky voice, leavened it with sensuality.

Bevis ripped off the covers, turning this way and that on the mattress as he gained his knees. The darkness was like a wall. “Who are you?” he cried. Sweat broke out under his flannel pajamas. “Where are you? What do you want?”

“We fear we have chosen an incorrect method of address. With such close proximity you prefer—direct vocal communication? We have needlessly distressed you.” The radio fell silent. Dead silent. “This is—preferable?” The voice now came from a few feet beyond the foot of his bed, clear as a ringing guitar.

He was not alone. Bevis relaxed, but only slightly.

“We see that it is,” said the voice. “We presumed incorrectly upon observing the—device in your ear. Forgive us.”

Bevis’s hands went reflexively to the side of his head, to the lifeless earphone. He let the ’phone fall, and it dangled from his breast pocket like a spider on its cord. He was sitting now, back to the headboard, knees and covers drawn up to his chest. “Who are you?” he barked, more harshly than he had intended. “How did you get in here?”

“We seem to have aroused hostility. This is unexpected. We presumed you would find our appearance—” A maddening pause ensued, while the speaker seemed to grope for the right word. “—attractive.”

“I can’t even see you!” Bevis pulled the blankets higher.

“Ah, yes. Presumption again.” The speaker—Bevis had a hard time picturing her as a woman, despite the voice, especially here in his bedroom—sounded enlightened. “We—see things differently, you and we. But what an exquisite joy, to—see through the eyes of another. To share of one’s selves.” He heard a rustle of movement. “But to share of such things, ones must be acquainted. We shall adjust our selves to the appropriate visual spectrum.”

A soft glow developed at the foot of the bed. The woman slowly became visible, radiating her own light as if in defiance of the darkness. She was dressed all in black—a high-necked black blouse beneath a short and sumptuous black fur coat, a black skirt that clung sensuously at the hips and narrowed slightly as it plunged to mid-calf, black patterned stockings, black ankle boots, black silk gloves, black horn-rimmed sunglasses, a furry black cap perched askew over one ear. Her hair was black too, all pulled to one side and cut at the line of her jaw. She wore no jewelry, but her cheeks betrayed a gentle kiss of rouge and her full, oddly pursed lips were painted crimson. Her eyes were a mystery, hidden behind the black sunglasses, but Bevis was certain that those eyes were strikingly clear and liquid. Her body, from what he could discern, was flawless. Her thighs strained the skirt as she moved around to sit on the edge of his bed.

Despite a stiff quality about her movements, Bevis found his pulse quickening. Attractive? It had been an understatement. This was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“We have no—name, as your kind knows names,” she said, tilting her head to rub one cheek against the soft fur of her collar. “What is your—name?”

He took a deep breath, fascinated. “J-John,” he said. “John Bevis.” It was hard to push the air from his lungs.

“J’johnjohnbevis,” she repeated. “This—name comes to the tongue with some difficulty.” She extended a delicate, gloved hand. “What do you do, J’johnjohnbevis?”

He took the proffered hand, unsure whether to shake it or kiss it. “I’m in, uh—data processing. Building the machines, I mean. That do the processing.” He hesitated, flustered by the blank look on her face. “IBM?” he added quickly. When he realized that he was still holding her hand, he released it with a twitch. “You’ve heard of it, right?”

She drew her hand to the lapel of her coat. “We fear we have confused two of the—interrogatives of your language.” An expression crossed her face that should have been accompanied by a blush. “We believe what we meant to ask was—how do you do?”

It was Bevis who blushed. “Oh,” he said feebly. “I should have—”

“No.” She stilled him with a gentle touch on the arm. “It was we who—erred, J’johnjohnbevis. You need feel no guilt.”

“Please—just call me John.”

“All right—” She smiled, lips parting to reveal even, white teeth, and the glow about her seemed to intensify. “—John.”

Bevis smiled back, tentatively, unconvinced that this was real. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe he had slipped off the deep end at last. He was staring into the strange woman’s face, looking for ... he didn’t know what. All he could see in the opaque lenses was his own dark reflection, as if he were no more than a misdirected echo of her reality.

“John—” she said after a few moments. “John, if we—we two, we mean—are to proceed with—the act we mentioned before, the sharing, then we must have your—permission.”

“Permission?” He had heard some strange come-ons, but nothing like this. “Permission for what?”

Her fingers hovered just above the back of Bevis’s hand. She looked away as she spoke. “We are a curious—race, John. We yearn to feel, see, and—experience as much as is possible. For this end, we share our selves with others and others share their selves with us. We are a—composite of all any of us have experienced. We wish for you, John, to share with us your—” She turned her head further, demurely, so he could no longer see her face. “—to share with us your points of—view. Forgive us. We know not how better to—express our desire. We wish to—see, as you see. We wish for you to share this with us, John.” She faced him again, her mouth plaintive. He wished he could see her eyes. He pictured them large and imploring behind their impenetrable blinds, as undeniable as those of a child. “Do you understand what we ask?”

Bevis took her hand in both of his. He tried to reassure her through his touch. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I think I do.”

“And you are willing?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

The ghost of a grateful smile flitted across her face. “Thank you, John.” She drew his hand to her mouth, pressed her lips lightly to it. “Thank you.” She stood. “The—preparations will take only a few moments.”

She removed her coat and cap and lay them carefully upon a nearby chair, then stepped out of her boots. Her gloves came off next, to expose long nails painted a lustrous silver. She reached behind her neck, beneath the sable spill of her hair, to unfasten the clasp of her blouse, and spoke to him as she continued to undress. “This sharing of—portions of one’s selves is the common practice among our kind. Only in this manner, seeing as others see, feeling as others feel, are we truly able to understand one another. In coming to this world, we were both fortunate and pleased to—discover that we could—interact with your kind in a similar fashion. Now the process here is nearly complete for us, and we shall be as one with you and your kind.”

Her clothing was folded into a neat pile on the chair. She stood erect before him, bare but for the sunglasses. Bevis felt a freezing cold in his loins. Her body was nearly perfect, its only flaw the thin tracery of scar tissue that encircled her joints, demarcated her torso, defiled her neck. With the others as cues, delicate scars could even be made out now beneath the makeup on her face. She resembled a patchwork doll, pieced together from field-hospital discards, all somehow fused into one.

The scar that seemed most recent ran, angry and red, around the circumference of her left breast. The right breast, with its own faded scar, was smaller than the left one, rounder, more firm.

Bevis cowered on his bed as the patchwork woman approached. She reached out to him with her right hand, its nails poised like glinting silver blades, while with her left hand she removed her sunglasses. Her eye sockets loomed dark like pits of tar, caverns filled with shadow.

“Come, John,” she said. “Let us see, as you see. Share this with us.”

And John Bevis shrank from the impending, unending darkness, terrified.

Who? What?

Perry Slaughter is the reclusive author of such cult works of horror and sci-fi as Chairman of the Board, Deus ex Machina, and more. His passions include vinyl records, scotch whisky, and high-seas piracy.

Perry Slaughter