Jessica’s brain hurt, and it was probably just her head throbbing even though it felt more like an orgy for quadriplegics than anything else. She was going to remonstrate herself for such an inappropriate comparison but slowly opened her eyes instead. The world was, mostly, draped in relative darkness, so it had to be nighttime, because Jessica’s cheap JC Penny blinds could only manage to block out the distant streetlight -just barely- while the sun would have pierced through such flimsy barriers with ease. She was in bed nonetheless, and an unmistakable stench of bleach permeated the air. The scent crept within Jessica’s nostrils and it reminded her of cleanliness. No, make that super cleanliness.
The veiled world that swam around Jessica wasn’t entirely alien, inasmuch that it wasn’t blurred beyond the slightest recognition, implying that she must have fallen asleep without removing her contact lenses. Her eyes weren’t ablaze from a lack of oxygen, however, meaning that she hadn’t been asleep for very long, which perplexed Jessica’s already addled, palpitating brain (it was most definitely her brain that ached) even further. If she had been so utterly exhausted as to fall into slumber without discharging her contacts, waking up so prematurely seemed unlikely, as to wear them beyond ten hours a day was an arduous task indeed.
A blinking, digitally induced light which emanated from atop her night stand indicated that the flow of electricity had been interrupted at some unknown juncture, and that thirty-two minutes had passed since time had been obliterated. Jessica rubbed her eyes voraciously and tried to conceive of some reason to have fallen asleep, but nothing became apparent, or reliable; she had difficulty in recollecting what she’d even been doing prior to her lapse in consciousness.
Jessica dug into her groggy, pounding brain to gather the events of the day: she recalled being at work till six; a gentle, kindhearted boy with rain-soaked blonde hair that had made several endearing queries into the nature of Dragonball Z, to which she provided no verifiable answers since action figures weren’t her department; going to dinner at Perkins with her coworkers (she’d ordered the breadbowl chili but the cook hadn’t thrown enough cheese on top, which on the one hand was no big deal, but on the other, kinda-sorta ruined her meal); some vague reference by Kris to Ghostbusters that was wholly unsolicited; and a preponderance of the color blue.
There had been something else just prior to consciousness, a vagrant dream deemed too easily retrieved for comfort, which penetrated the murky, disoriented mind of one Jessica Palmeri. In this misbegotten vision, there was another person, a man, that squirmed in a swiveling chair of some kind. This man, as best the image reverberated within her skull, had been in his early twenties at most, with a shock of wiry black hair, Asiatic features, and healthy physique. Jessica knew, almost inherently, that this unidentified man, this illusive figure, had not been some whimsically phantasmagorical caricature of any particular acquaintance. He was some unknown entity, a persona devoid of worldly reference, but the man was most certainly characterized by a suffocating pain that caused Jessica harm by imagery alone.
The poor guy had been choking on some preposterously glutinous mixture of rice, chicken, and refried beans; it was a Taco Bell signature item, the Grilled Stuft Burrito, a taste that she was intimately familiar with, but this had been different. This was the flavor of deadly consumption, of life sequestered. Throughout this dreamy recollection, Jessica felt as if she had been watching the unnamable man’s vitality drain away, his face turn a horrendous shade of purple-grey, his body contort and contract with ravenous ferocity, but that she had done nothing; she sat at some indefinable distance, merely watching as his buoyancy settled into inanimation, his body slumped onto an adjacent table. Other, obviously unrecognized figures, rushed to his aid, albeit too late to make any manner of difference, while she had remained glued to her chair, detachedly sipping Wild Cherry Pepsi from a straw as she sat beside some tawny compatriot who vaguely reminded Jessica of herself. An old Martika song had been playing in the background, but it was being filtered through a deficient Taco Bell sound system and the lyrics were mostly in Japanese, so it had been a total wash.
Jessica removed her hands from her eyes and began to massage her skull, with each strand of long, wavy, chestnut hair like a shred of sandpaper against her flesh. She couldn’t believe that she had endured the horrendous dream; to conceive of such a terrible vision disheartened her, and that she had -though subconsciously- done nothing to help (no, even further, been so nonplussed as to continue eating during the ethereal ordeal) caused her greater pain than her brain continued to inflict. She sat upright in an attempt to collect her wayward thoughts and somehow alleviate her discomfort. It was at that point that Jessica felt the distinct, unsettling displeasure of torn cotton flowing against flesh, and fear overcame disgust, with fright second only to the underlying bewilderment.
She gazed down upon her slouched body, and for the first time noticed that her nightshirt, an oversized, virescent Savage Garden concert T-shirt, had been sliced from the neckline down to her diminutive navel. Her meager breasts remained sheathed, covered faintly by the drooping cloth, but Jessica felt as if she’d been violated; not irrevocably, as her viridian Umbro shorts remained intact, and her somatic instincts dictated that she remained virginal as a whole, but there was a sinking, creeping impression that she had been subjected to some form of desecration. She pulled her lacerated shirt as close to her flesh as she possibly could, and brought her knees up to her chest, but-
Had she been granted more time to ponder the issue, Jessica would have contemplated just who, improbability notwithstanding, could have been nefarious enough to slip some manner of drug into her chili. Jason had a kid coming, and his girlfriend kept track of him quite nicely. Dave was too naive to know how to buy, let alone employ, any kind of sedative. Kris had never displayed any inclination toward women, so she seemed an unlikely culprit. Steve, well, possibly, but he wasn’t the brightest candle on the cake, so she had to rule him out as well. But why? Or how? Or?
-there was a scratching sensation as Jessica’s knees rubbed against her exposed skin that could not be ignored. It wasn’t a painful feeling, but awkward and unexpected, like much of the past thirty-six minutes had been. She wanted to cry, to crawl up into her own body, and remove herself from the outside world of her very own bedroom, a place that should have been a sanctuary, that should have been a haven from oddities altogether, but there was that inopportune scratching sensation that wouldn’t leave her alone. In the muted, caesious light bestowed by diminutive sources, Jessica scanned her knees to ascertain whatever it was that had been adding to her disorientation. Miniscule, pallid bits peppered her knees and, upon further inspection, she noticed that her torso was showered by what looked like cookie crumbs. Snatching a granule between her thumb and forefinger, Jessica rubbed it gently, and took note that it was most definitely not a cookie of the chewy variety. This was yet another perplexing development, as Chewy Chips Ahoy! were the only cookies allowed in the Palmeri household (okay, apartmenthold), and despite such recent amnesic lapses, Jessica was most certain that she was all out of delightfully squishy treats. This macabre development troubled her as all other recent, disjointed occurrences had done, but there yet another disturbance, something nebulous which seemed apart from the supposed norm. Something incorrect.
Jessica could, without a doubt, easily make out the flowery asymmetry depicted upon the Massive Attack poster which adorned the southern wall of her bedroom, next to a closed door that led to the rest of her apartment. The flashing alarm clock, a small, efficient Sony Dream Machine, was pointed toward the opposite direction of the poster, and the light seeping in through the blinds, while facing the south wall, was surely insufficient to illuminate the greater area. A great many things were problematic -and downright terrifying- but this was immediate, and though she was trembling profusely, Jessica forced her feet down upon the trampled carpeting and shuffled toward the door to flip the adjacent light switch.
A faint hum accentuated the return of luminosity, and it was mildly reassuring, but she quickly tapped the switch again for comparison. Bright. Azure. Vivid. Vague. Right. Wrong. Blue. Jessica flipped the switch one last time, allowing light to bathe her uncertainty, and rubbed her eyes once again, as there was a predictable blur of vision caused by sleeping with contact lenses affixed to her eyes. She looked downward again, at the bits and pieces strewn about her upper body. They were flecks of whiteness not unlike the color of her bedroom walls, and definitely not food of any kind. Taking another shred of the unknown substance between her fingers, Jessica examined the coarse shrapnel and although she was no expert, it looked almost as if -she inhaled deeply, knowing precisely what it looked like- it were something dislodged from the ceiling. The color and consistency of the flake yielded no other conclusion, and thus she nervously shifted her gaze upward. The ceiling appeared entirely normal, which failed to alleviate her suspicion because that was whence the flakes came, if she were to place faith in her power of deduction. It answered nothing else, and there was so much else to worry about.
The bed was wrong. The issue of Entertainment Weekly that lay beside her bed was wrong. Sitting upon the floor, at the foot of her bed, there was something wrong. That the door to her bedroom was closed was wrong, too, in that she never liked to close it. For a scatterbrained person, this was a precarious situation. Fearful of what lie before her, but even more horrified at the prospect of what lie beyond the closed door, Jessica considered her options haphazardly, but there was a morbid curiosity that attached itself to the torrential dread. Gingerly, she inched toward the foot of the bed, because it was, ostensibly, the easiest thing to comprehend.
There was an opened box of donuts sitting upon the carpet. Jessica immediately recognized the familiar brown, red, and white Donutland color scheme, and there was an assortment of delectable pastries contained within; she hated herself for doing so, but counted the donuts, ten in total, as if it were some piece of the puzzle. Wait, ten? That meant two were missing. Three cherry, two orange, two glazed, two chocolate sprinkle, and a maple glaze. Lapse of memory notwithstanding, she’d always hated fruit-flavored donuts.
The bedspread. Yeah. Jessica didn’t know what to think about this new addition to her mattress. Given the peculiarity of her situation, Jessica hadn't given the bed much thought, but now, bathed in light, the bedspread was particularly distressing because it wasn’t hers, and because it wasn’t a bedspread whatsoever. It was also pretty dirty as well as torn in a few places. The color, originally a pleasant beige, had long since become a vaudevillian tapestry of putrid discolorations, each of which probably had a story that none wished to experience firsthand. Jessica dared not get much closer to the cloth, which seemed not unlike a flowing window fixture, but reflexively tried to look behind her shoulders, as if to check for swarthy remnants where her body had once touched the hideous cloth, yet to no avail.
The issue of Entertainment Weekly itself was of little surprise to Jessica; she remembered quite clearly that it had arrived in the mail two days ago, and that she often, as always, relished reading it within the comfort of her bed. The lives of the famous and their preoccupations didn’t interest her dearly, but the subscription had been a gift from her sister, and Jessica didn’t really mind the diversions of popular entertainment, although the insight of movie critic Owen Gleiberman was something that she could do without; she was a Siskel kind of gal, and his untimely death saddened her immensely (like most any manner of death, for that matter). It lay open to a page depicting the stars of the forthcoming V for Vendetta, Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman, posing dramatically for the camera. On the facing page was an interview with the pair -advocating the film, of course- and nestled between the two pages, there lay a worn, scratched photograph that was torn at the upper left corner. Before she had even crouched down for close inspection, Jessica recognized the photo; it was a ghost from years prior, something that she once felt unruly about losing, and the tattered corner had most assuredly resulted from it having been ripped from the thumbtack that once moored it to a bulletin board outside her dorm room halfway through freshman year. Upon its theft, she had been so flustered as to place a handwritten sign in the picture’s stead which stated “Don’t steal my pictures, jerks!,” and someone had the gall to respond with a “Sorry...” written in deep blue ink, as if the superfluous punctuation somehow made the thief’s actions defensible.
The picture wasn’t anything special, just a photograph of she and two friends, Kayla and Becky, people that she roomed with her first year at UNI. She just hated the notion of people stealing something like that. Why anyone would elect to pilfer such a memento had always baffled her, and now it was back in her possession, so to speak. Jessica crouched, momentarily adrift in thought about the three women depicted in the photograph; who they once were, who they were now, and who the thief had been, but more importantly, it wasn’t quite the photograph she had remembered. In this simulacrum, she herself appeared mostly intact, though her figure was a bit too shapely, while her friends bore considerable variations from reality. Becky’s fingernails had been painted red, and if there was one color Jessica had never seen Becky use, it was red of any shade. Kayla, meanwhile, smiled up at Jessica with a blazing set of pearly whites, and Kayla had always been one to smile with her mouth closed. To Jessica’s best recollection, Kayla had donned a white tank top the afternoon the photo was taken, yet here she wore a top the color of wilted jonquils.
All things considered, it would have taken an additional ten seconds -at the very least- for the question of how this slapdash fabrication became Jessica’s possession to pop into her addled brain, but that’s not how events transpired. So mesmerizing was the concept of flawed reproduction that she barely noticed a faint crinkling noise, akin to that of a pork cutlet being fried in grease; and even then, so focused was she that a fleck of dislocated plaster falling upon the glossy photograph was required to rattle her morbid fascination. Perturbed, Jessica’s gaze drifted slightly upward, only to note that it was...snowing. She tilted her head in disbelief, and yet, despite her better judgement, Jessica’s widening eyes inched heavenward till they reached the source of her discomfort, only to see that which is, perhaps, best left unseen by humanity; something that made her jaw drop wide open.