“You are imagining this,” said the cockroach.
“You are most definitely not imagining this,” said the housefly.
“One of these things is a lie,” whispered the worm, conspiratorially.
Joshua smiled. “Or both could be a lie. I could be dead. Maybe insects talk in hell.”
“My good fellow, what is that supposed to mean?” said the housefly, somewhat indignantly.
“Just that being surrounded by talking bugs isn’t my ideal situation.”
“Whatever, it’s fine,” the cockroach said. “You’re imagining this whole interaction, anyway. You’re as high as smoke out a chimney. Assuming the smoke’s from a burning heap of marijuana.”
“I disagree,” sniffed the housefly. “I think this fellow is completely sane, and that you, sir, are a twaddling gnarsher.”
“A twaddling gnarsher?” The cockroach’s scratchy voice grew angrier. “If I’m a twaddling gnarsher, you’re a tintinektifying broogle!”
“Now, now,” sighed the worm. “Calm down, everyone. Let’s take five deep breaths.”
They took a deep breath.
They took four more.
“What’s a broogle?” asked Joshua.
The worm shook his pale, flabby head. “I regret to say that I cannot tell you this information. Perhaps other people can.”
“People?” Joshua blinked. People. Of course, there had to be other people in the world besides him. Assuming he was in the world. Where was he? Where was here?
He thought to look around.
The ceiling was very high.
The room was very cramped, in terms of floor space.
A black door waited in the black wall behind him. A white door waited in the white wall before him. The walls on either side of him did not have doors.
The cockroach said, “See, we’re in a room. And it’s a weird room. That means this is a figment of your painfully cramped imagination.”
“Delusional,” sniffed the housefly. “Dreams aren’t the only places with strange rooms.”
The worm did not have eyes. If he had had eyes, he would have rolled them. “If I have to warn you one more time to shut up, I shall rupture.”
The cockroach did not have a nose. But if he had had one, he would have wrinkled it. “Oh, don’t do that.”
The housefly did not have shoulders. If he had had shoulders, he would have shrugged them. “If you’d like to combust, I shall not stop you.”
“No, don’t combust,” said Joshua, and he stood. He hadn’t realized he was sitting until he stood up, and then it registered that the ceiling was not very tall at all; in fact, he could not stand up all the way.
The worm inched its way along his shoulder. “Don’t mind my colleagues. They are silly at the best of times.”
The housefly settled on Joshua’s other shoulder, next to where the cockroach sat. “I resent the word ‘silly.’ I find that it debases my value.”
Joshua turned from the white door to the black door. “What’s behind these doors?”
“Ah, and therein lies the question,” whispered the housefly. “Are you frightened? If you’re frightened, it means it’s real.”
The cockroach said, “That’s bullshit.”
Joshua said, “Yes, I am, a little.”
He adjusted his tie – for, he realized, he was wearing a black jacket, a white tie, a stiff white shirt, long black pants, and shoes made out of glass.
“Are you more afraid of black or white?” asked the worm.
“Fullness or emptiness,” added the housefly, “respectively.”
“Presence or absence,” added the cockroach, “respectively.”
“Is black more real than white?” asked Joshua, glancing over his shoulder at the white.
“Again,” said the cockroach, “they are just as false as each other.”
“Again,” said the housefly, “they are just as real as each other.”
“Those mean the same thing.”
The worm said, “Yet one of them is a lie.”
Joshua took half a step toward the black wall. He curled his fingers around the plastic doorknob. His fingers remembered curling around something else, but he couldn’t place it.
He pushed through the black door, stepped through, and fell upwards.
The door slammed behind him as gravity switched. He was falling upward, flipping and toppling and yanked by the wind, but when he closed his eyes, he knew somehow that he was falling downwards, actually, and then his eyes cracked open a tiny bit and he landed on his feet. The glass shoes did not shatter. In fact, they seemed to absorb the impact of the landing.
Joshua looked around.
The air in the dense forest was warm, moist and runny. “Good choice,” remarked the worm.
“Speak for yourself,” grumbled the cockroach. “I bet you’re not too comfortable, are you, J.?”
“People call me Ash,” said Joshua, instinctively. Then he wondered why they would call him Ash, when his name was Joshua. Then he wondered how he knew his name was Joshua. And how he knew his last name was Bellinger.
He took a few paces forward.
“Freeze,” said the housefly, halting him. “You’ll have to be more careful than that.”
“Look down,” said the worm, its almost absentminded voice quite soporific when coupled with the warmth.
Joshua looked down. Two feet from him sat a swirl of quicksand. He circumvented it and went on his way.
But he soon had to stop, because he walked into a wall.
The wall was not painted to look like a continuation of the forest. It was not printed to look like a continuation of the forest. Nonetheless, it looked exactly like a forest stretching into a dim greenness. It had the texture of wood. And it was very annoying.
Joshua trailed his hand down it. “There’s a wall here,” he decided.
“Well done,” said the cockroach.
He walked around and discovered that there were really only one hundred square feet of forest, after all. Ten feet of walls on every side. A square room.
Joshua climbed one of the trees. The gentle breeze at the top mystified him. How was there a breeze? Was it coming from a vent?
What was a vent? How did he know of them?
A vent was inside a wall. Yes. Like veins inside skin, only for a building. A twisting map of them.
But there were no vents on these walls.
Joshua looked high up on the wall. Up in the blue sky was the black door whence he had come. He wondered if the white door would have been any different.
“Maybe you’ll die here,” said the cockroach, helpfully.
“Thank you,” muttered Joshua. He climbed back down from the tree. “Well, what do I do now?”
The three insects remained silent.
“Didn’t you say I was going to meet people here?” Joshua demanded of the worm.
It curled its pink body up and sighed, “Put me in your pocket, please.”
“Put me in your pocket. I don’t want to fall off your shoulder when you figure it out,” said the worm, its voice unusually acidic.
Joshua slipped the worm into his pocket. The cockroach scuttled in and the fly buzzed after.
“Assume you have nothing to lose,” said the worm, its voice muffled.
Joshua looked around and came to an understanding. He walked carefully back to where he’d started.
Then he took three steps forward, took a deep breath, and jumped into the quicksand.
It sucked him downward, steadily.
The sand closed over his head.
For two miserable eyes-closed no-oxygen skin-suffocated seconds, Joshua thought he was just going to asphyxiate and die there. Then the sand sucked him down into its stomach, and around, and around again and backward and inside out, that last one being rather painful, and then he was stretching and morphing and suddenly he was still again.
He opened his eyes. He lay on an uneven wooden floor, sand falling from his black hair and dripping in tears from his blue eyes.
The worm wriggled across his face. “Well done,” it said.
“Thank you,” said Joshua, as he got to his feet. The floor was warped. The walls were nowhere in sight. It was a plain of wooden flooring, with a plaster ceiling above, both stretching on and on until eternity without support.
“I think I’d rather this place not exist,” mumbled the housefly. “What a troublesome locale.”
“You see it my way, finally,” said the cockroach.
Joshua began to walk. He walked for many minutes before he decided there was no end to the darkness around him.
So he pulled at the floorboards. He took the sword from the belt around his waist and sliced at the floorboards.
Beneath the floorboards there were more floorboards.
Beneath those there were more.
And so on.
Joshua sat in his shallow hole and scowled. “Look, this is really frustrating,” he said.
“I like your sword,” commented the housefly.
“It’s pretty cool,” said the cockroach. “Too bad it isn’t, you know, real.”
Joshua put his sword back and suddenly discovered that, next to its spot on the belt, a black device had been clipped to the leather. When had that gotten there? In fact, when had the sword arrived? Had it been in place the entire time?
Had he put these things here? Before the cockroach had started talking?
Where had he been before the cockroach had made its claim – this isn’t real?
Joshua took the black device from his belt, aimed it at the ceiling, and pressed a button. A small metal claw on a cord zipped out from the device and plowed into the plaster.
As the claw hit the ceiling, the plaster peeled off it. All of it. It fell in a great torrential snow, all the way down into the distance, and underneath, embedded in the ceiling, lay a thousand, a million doors. All different colors. Horizontal, vertical, large, small. Doors inside other doors. Doors wedged beside other doors.
“I think I’ll try white this time,” said Joshua. He retracted the claw. It ripped out half of a purple door. Then he shot it at a white door and pressed the button once more. The cord retracted, dragging him up toward the claw’s grip.
He opened the circular white door and fell inside.
The door slammed shut on his fingers.
He screamed. He screamed for a long time.
Then he clutched the four mangled fingers to his chest and bled all over his white shirt.
“Oh, stop being such a baby,” the cockroach said.
The worm slapped the cockroach with its fleshy back half. “Don’t be so insensitive. Ash has just undergone his first remembrance of pain.”
“Why can’t I remember anything?” gasped Joshua, in-between his screams. “What am I doing? What’s happened to me?”
The cockroach and the housefly exchanged a glance. “We don’t know, because you don’t know,” said the housefly.
“More evidence that this doesn’t exist,” mumbled the cockroach.
“Why does this hurt so much? Why do I hurt so much, oh God, why don’t I remember anything, who am I and what am I doing in this room—who are you—who am I—”
The worm snuggled against Joshua’s neck as he lay on the sawdust. “Hush, now,” it said. “Maybe you don’t know because deep down you really don’t want to know. Not at all.”
Joshua yanked the sword from his belt and found that it was a gun. An M395.
He scrambled to his feet and held the gun in his quaking hands and shot at the insects again and again. “YOU’RE BUGS!” he screamed. “BUGS DON’T TALK!”
They buried themselves in the sawdust, which flew up in powder and fluff as the gunshots exploded. When he ran out of ammo, when the gun clicked with an empty chamber, they resurfaced.
“That wasn’t very civil,” sniffed the housefly, buzzing up to sit on his shoulder again. “Look, your hand’s better, why did you need to take it out on us?”
Joshua held his hand to his face. His fingers were smooth and aligned and perfectly intact. His shirt was clean and white and crisp and not bloodied in the slightest. “What’s wrong with me?” he moaned. “Where am I?”
How did he even know these things were not supposed to happen? Why were bugs not supposed to talk? Why were broken, bloody hands not supposed to fix themselves? Why were rooms not supposed to be built out of sawdust, from the walls to the floor and ceiling?
He grabbed the door handle and it flaked and molted away in his hand.
He kicked at the walls, and they showered down around him. He slavered and seethed and screamed and tried to kill the bugs again. He turned his head upwards and cried, and his clothes shredded themselves until he was naked.
Then he collapsed and covered himself in sawdust. It was warm and comfortable. “I like this room,” he whispered quietly, as if trying to convince himself.
“There’s no way out,” said the housefly. “There is no way out and you are happy with that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” murmured the cockroach. “None of this exists. He can be happy if he wants. He can be happy here for the rest of his life.”
The worm whispered, “You are uncomfortably close to the way you came in, Ash.”
“I am?” he breathed. “How?”
“It’s time to stop being afraid,” said the housefly.
“Being afraid is just your body’s way of keeping you safe,” said the cockroach. “Be as terrified as you want.”
Joshua rubbed his eyes and sank lower in the sawdust.
“You’re an American,” said the worm.
“I am,” said Joshua, as his eyes drifted shut. “I am an American before everything else.”
“Are you American before you’re scared for your life?” demanded the cockroach. “Don’t fall asleep. Don’t fall asleep! There’s no guarantee what your mind will come up with next. This isn’t real; you don’t need to sleep –”
The housefly said, “Ash, keep your eye on the objective.” And its voice wavered and warped into another voice entirely, one that was all too familiar to Joshua. “Keep your eye on the objective.”
The worm’s voice melted into a soothing female tone. “You’re an American. A brave American.”
The cockroach’s voice cracked, turning grizzly and low. “You better break before you say a goddamn word. There’re things more important than you and you better remember it, you little piece of shit greenie.”
“There’s always a way out,” said the worm.
Joshua fell asleep.
He woke up instantly, buried in sawdust. He thrashed. It showered all around him. A fly buzzed near his ear, but it wasn’t talking. A cockroach scuttled over the grimy wooden wall; a worm wriggled through the dirt near the door. A window sat high up on the wall, letting in grainy sunlight, illuminating a room with dark wooden walls.
Joshua looked down at himself. Burns covered his arms. His fingernails were cracked and torn. He wore a ripped white tank top that was no longer white, browning and yellowing with dirt and sweat. He wore camouflage pants.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and every inch of him ached.
He turned around and stared up at the back wall. A row of tally marks stretched across the dark wood, gouged in, splintered and rough. Beside every mark were the same words, scraped in by his own nails: this is real this is real this is real this is real this is real this is real this is real this is real
Then, halfway down the line, this is not real I am not real this is not real I am not real
Joshua counted the second half.
Thirty-four tally marks since he had locked his sanity away, somewhere deep.
Thirty-four days since he had lost his mind.
At the side of the wall were small, fresh letters: i havent said a word i havent said a word i havent said a word
Joshua traced them slowly with his mangled fingers.
The door slammed open, and Joshua scrambled back. Pressed himself against the back wall as someone walked inside.
The man was not Viet.
“Joshua Bellinger?” he said. The voice of the housefly, bizarrely transplanted on this man’s tongue.
“Here to bring you home.”