While a bath warmed my body, it didn’t improve my mood.
“Maybe you should reconsider his offer,” said my fiancé, Amanda. She sat on the edge of the tub and took a sip of merlot, regarding me with wide, green eyes. “You have to move on from this at some point, hon. Think of it as the first step towards forgiveness.”
“Forgive Jesse? Not happening.” I splashed her with lavender-scented bathwater.
“Glastonbury was five years ago, Lex. Holding a grudge that long is unhealthy.”
“I prefer to think of it as a lesson learned, and a hard one at that.”
She set the glass on the floor, then began kneading my shoulders with her strong fingers. “You’re being too hard on him. I’m sure if he’d known—”
“But he did!” Water slopped on the floor as I twisted around. “He knew a portal existed but threw caution to the wind because he just had to engage with what he said were the old village’s spectral inhabitants. But what came through…” Eyes brimming, I trailed off. The screams of those fellow investigators reverberating in the dark recesses of my mind were as sharp and clear today as on that May eve, five years ago.
“Jesse Winthrop is the reason I formed my company. I can’t forgive him and I’ll never trust him again.”
Chimes jangled in the living room. I jumped at the sound, sloshing more water over the side of the tub.
Amanda sighed, “I’ll bet that’s Jesse. He’s called twice within the hour.” She kissed my forehead, then quit her seat. “I’ll tell him you’re not here, but you can’t put him off forever.”
She rounded the doorway and disappeared, leaving me to fume over why I had to be the one to nix the plan when Jules was the one who’d set the damned thing in motion! That was classic Jules: instigate the confrontation, then dodge the fallout.
I took a gulp of merlot, then sank deeper into the bath, hoping the rich floral fog would soothe my thoughts. When I opened my eyes again, Amanda, now wearing a cloudy expression of her own, was leaning against the doorway.
“Ugh! What did he say this time?” Part of me hoped he’d resorted to groveling. The same part that wanted to see Jesse Winthrop bloodied, beaten, and crawling on all fours.
“That was the hospital,” she sighed. “There’s been an emergency mandate. So much for a night off.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Something to do with Andrew Woodman’s funeral.” She handed me a towel, then resumed her stance in the doorway. “The Psych ED’s overrun. Teenagers, most of them, but they’re calling in every crisis clinician from Bennington and Windham County to deal with it.”
I thought about the students who’d attended the ceremony. Their initial shock and silence. The dazed expressions and robotic movements soon became dark and dangerous. Although I’d put them down to shock and grief, something about them now pricked at me like thorns. “Don’t they have guidance counselors at the high school?”
“Not enough of them.” Amanda crossed her arms. “People are reporting hallucinations and uncontrollable aggression. A half-dozen kids have even attempted suicide. What in the heck happened at that funeral, anyway?”
“The ceremony was some kind of pagan water burial. There was a gruesome procession, followed by a bunch of religious chanting. Monotonous, mournful stuff. I couldn’t tell you what was said, or even what language was spoken. I wasn’t close enough. The whole thing gave me the creeps, though. After that, there was a problem with Andrew’s virtual presence.”
She pushed off the door frame. “What kind of problem?”
“A glitch? Some kind of postmortem editing mistake, according to Jules. It was hard to listen to, ‘Manda. Something in the dark terrified Andrew. So much, it made me feel as if I was with him at the moment of his death, experiencing the same fear he must have felt in his final moments. His mother fainted. Right after that, his friends…” I paused for a moment, sickened by the memory. “It was weird. Andrew’s outburst didn’t seem to shock or frighten them. If anything, it drew them toward the screens, almost as if something was summoning them to the platform.”
She muttered a name under her breath, then said, “Where were the Afterlifers when this was happening?”
“Right behind the students.”
Her head shot up. “Did any of them exhibit similar behaviors?”
“No idea. I left right after that. Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She pulled me into a fierce hug. “If you’d stayed, whatever infected them might have infected you, too.”
“What you’ve just described is the result of subliminal implantation. It was a key component in Foyle’s trauma reprogramming therapy, which also relied on virtual reality-based media. Selective virtuality had been in its infancy back then. Practitioners couldn’t control it with any real degree of efficiency, so more often than not, it went haywire, often with deadly results. The malpractice suits forced the closure of the facility, and cost Foyle his license, sanity, and ultimately his life.”
Not that a little thing like dying had fazed him in the least. Now at least, this was starting to make sense. “If he learned how to infect multiple consciousnesses through the virtual stream—haunt an entirely new branch of reality—I’d say that’s one ghost we definitely don’t want in the machine.”
“Oh, God, Lexi. Don’t say that! I don’t want to believe he or anyone could…” Amanda rubbed her arms, which had broken out in gooseflesh. “Anyway, it’s just a hunch, but until we sort this out, stay unplugged. Just as a precaution. No virtual anything, Promise!”Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in