It didn’t take long for the security guards to notice Hannah and Ray sitting there and one of them strode over to investigate. Ray spun them a story about a gang of men wanting to hijack them down in the garage. (This was a psychiatric hospital after all, and Ray didn’t want the guard to start thinking they were escaped patients.) The guard called for backup and offered to go down and get the car for them. Ray gave him the keys. By the time the guard came up with the car, Hannah had composed herself. The guard said that there was no sign of anyone down in the parking lot.
Within a few minutes, Ray was driving out of the gates with a silent and contemplative Hannah beside him. His shoulder still stung, but he hadn’t dared to look at it. The rhythm of the windscreen wipers was calming. The pitter-patter of the rain on the roof of the car eased the tightness in his chest. Then Hannah spoke.
“What were those things?”
Ray found his mouth to dry to speak. He swallowed. “My guess is they are what Erin said they are.”
“Maybe she has some kind of hallucinogenic disease… a disease that we’ve caught.”
Of course it was easier to make up excuses than to believe. He didn’t want to believe either, so he ignored the throbbing in his shoulder and said simply, “Maybe.”
When they pulled up at Hannah’s apartment it was already getting dark. The sun had just set somewhere behind the clouds and shadows were beginning to form. Neither Ray nor Hannah said anything, but they hurried inside and switched on all the lights as fast as they could. Hannah started building a fire in the fireplace and Ray retreated into the bathroom to finally check his shoulder. Peeling off his shirt hurt, so he was prepared for something bad. What he wasn’t prepared for was the dark red scorch mark across his skin, as if he’d been burnt by some kind of acid. He yelped in surprise and immediately regretted it as Hannah wrapped on the door. “Ray? Did you scream? What’s wrong?”
He threw a towel over his shoulder as he opened to her. “It’s Nothing. I just gave myself a fright.” He smiled in a way he hoped she’d find disarming. “I’m a little jumpy.”
Hanna seemed less than convinced. She narrowed her eyes at him, but when he failed to say more she retreated to the kitchen.
Once Ray heard her footsteps on the tiles, he removed the towel and forced himself to look at his skin. If this was what happened when those things touched him, no wonder he had ended up in a coma in the last universe. Gingerly he began cleaning the wound. He had to grit his teeth to stop himself crying out in pain.
Of course, this being Hannah’s apartment, there was a small first aid kit in the bathroom cabinet. Sodium Bicarbonate was what one usually put on acid burns, but Hannah was in the kitchen so he’d have to settle for the generic burn dressing that the kit had to offer. He swallowed two aspirin. He’d be okay.
When he emerged from the bathroom, Hannah was busy in the kitchen. Food. The ultimate comfort. He sat down in front of the fire and waited until she came and joined him, handing him a bowl of some kind of pasta.
They were both silent for a long time and then Hannah made an observation, “You’d think that having seen those things with my own eyes, I’d believe they existed.”
He could empathise. He dug his fork into the bowl, and loaded it with noodles. “I suppose it’s part of them. What they are. They’re supposed to be unbelievable.”
Hannah was looking at him quizzically.
“Well,” he said, “It’s like those Madagascan frogs.”
“Yes. The ones that look like they’re part of a rock. They’re like that because it means predators overlook them.”
“I hardly think those things have to worry about predators.” She shivered at the memory.
His own throbbing shoulder agreed. “Alright maybe not predators. But surely it would make their lives difficult if people were constantly on the lookout for them? Maybe it’s part of them… they slip over our consciousness so that they don’t stay there. Like shadows. Never quite sticking. I can’t remember their exact shapes or any details about them… just that they look like darkness.”
“Like a blank space.”
She seemed contemplative, staring at the flames, then said slowly, “Or maybe it’s a fault with us. With human beings. We’re simply unable to believe… or suspend disbelief.”
These were big words coming from the woman who always called him gullible. Seeming to pick up on his thoughts she added, ‘Some of us are more believing than others.”
“Yes. You could see them much clearer than I could. Because you really believed they were there”.
He nodded. It made sense. Well at least as much sense as any of this did.
Ray stared into the flames for a long moment. When he looked at Hannah again, she was curled up in an armchair with her head on her arms, the firelight flickering over her face and her eyelids slowly closing. Anyone else might have thought that she was falling asleep, but he knew the expression. It was the one she wore when she was battling with herself over some complex decision. He let her be, stretching out in the warmth of the flames, beginning to feel drowsy from the aspirin he’d taken.
She startled him when she said, “I have something to show you.”
So that’s what she’d been battling with herself about.
He sat upright in the chair as she went to where her bag was hanging by the door and pulled out a file.
“Remember I told you we’re one of the best funded psychiatric hospitals in the country?”
She settled beside him, clasping the file so tightly that her knuckles were white. “We’re one of the few to have a PET and an EEG and a electroencephalographer on site.”
“A person to interpret the results. Erin had her scans done this morning.”
He was at once alert. “And?”
She opened the file.
In first year psychology they had done basic neuropsychology. They had looked at readouts from EEG scans – zigzags called “waves”. And they had looked at pictures from PET scans. The pictures were usually brightly coloured according to where there was activity in the brain. He didn’t understand much about them… but he knew that they shouldn’t have been like the one Hannah showed him now. This one was completely blank. No colours. No waves.
“Technically dead,” Hannah said.