Anthony Sarkin wakes up in a cold sweat sometime around the crack of dawn and knows, without a doubt, that he was taken again last night.
Ignoring his aching back, he sits up in bed and scans the interior of his studio apartment, his eyes already adjusted to the dark. That was one of the signs. People didn't mention it on the UFO forums he frequented, but every time he was taken, they always sent him home with his eyes able to see in the dark.
Everything looks in order on the home front, which was to say that everything is messy, but it's the mess he'd made, not anyone else. The window is closed and locked as he left it last night. There's still laundry on the floor, dishes in the sink, garbage bags by the door that he'd never gotten around to taking out.
All the same, he knows they've been here.
He grabs his phone off the bedside table where it's been charging. The clock tells him it's 4:36 AM.
With a groan, he forces himself out of bed. His arms and legs feel like lead, and he wants nothing more than to go back to sleep. He knows that in a few hours, he's going to be feeling like shit warmed over. This happens every time; he winds up feeling like he's been running and lifting weights all night.
At least this time his feet aren't bleeding.
And his ass doesn't hurt this time.
He goes to the bathroom and peels off his shirt. The mirror shows him odd bruising on his back and on his shoulders. The bruises don't hurt when he touches them, and this time at least they can be easily hidden by clothing.
He puts the shirt back on. Later, when the sun is out and the light is better, he'll take pictures to document the bruises and upload them to the forum, but for now, he doesn't want to look at them.
He returns to the bed. He takes his laptop off the bedside table, logs in, and finds a file titled Abduction Log.
The last edit to the document had been made a month ago. The one before that, a month and a half. Then a month again, followed by a whopping six month absence. The logs go back for years, all the way back to when he was eighteen and still living with his folks back in the trailer park, a place four states away and still not far enough. Sometimes Abduction Incidents are regular, sometimes there are long periods of inactivity, and sometimes they're back to back, with the most frequent visitations being separated by only a few days.
But what could it mean?
He tabs open a new cell in the document and begins writing.
Bedtime - 9:30~ (PM)
Wake time: 4:36 (AM)
Dinner: Leftover pepperoni pizza (Tony's Pizzeria)
Drink: Nonalcoholic cider. Diet Pepsi.
Medications: None (forgot evening Adderall dose)
Sore arms and legs.
Sour taste in mouth.
Bruising (neck, back, shoulders)
The column labeled "Incident Description" is blank, as it is blank in all the previous entries. Other people on the forum swear they remember flashes of the process-- the medical experimentation, the tours of the ships, the telepathic communication with the hosts-- but Anthony never remembers what happens during his abductions.
Idly, he glances through the previous entries. Though the situations are often different-- different foods, different wake/sleep times, different places, different alcohol levels-- the effects are generally the same. He always wakes up tired and sore, with his eyes able to see in the dark, with foul or strange tastes in his mouth. Sometimes, something stands out. Every so often, his toes will be bleeding and his feet will be blistered and bruised. Sometimes its his hands that bleed, with the tips of his fingers puffy and red. Sometimes he wakes up covered in vomit.
He saves the document and opens up his web browser. There are already dozens of tabs open, some of which have been up for an embarrassingly long time. With only the occasional exception for game walkthroughs and video streaming sites, all of them are somehow related to UFOs and alien encounters. He finds the one at the beginning of the horde, the one that leads to the ancient, 2000's style forum that he's most active on. He scrolls down to the Close Encounters board, finds his existing thread, and updates it with the new information, not even bothering to read the comments people have added since the last update.
Then, with a sigh, he closes his laptop, shoves it aside, and goes back to sleep.
* * * * *
For what feels like as long as he can remember, Anthony Sarkin has been abducted by aliens.
Aside from that, he doesn't really have a lot going on.
He has a job. Two of them, in fact; serving at an all-night diner most evenings and stocking shelves during the day. What little free time he has is spent playing games on his laptop and noodling around various UFO lore communities. Or sleeping.
He sleeps a lot, these days.
Once upon a time, he dreaded the abductions more than anything else, refusing to think of them, refusing to acknowledge them, terrified of what they could mean about the universe and his place in it. These days, for all the anxiety and fear and physical hurt they give him, they're the only thing about himself worth talking about. Even then, he can't talk about it with anyone in real life. You start talking about aliens in real life and people stop talking to you.
Sometimes, after powering down the laptop and staring at himself reflected in the black screen, he wonders how he became so boring. He hasn't always been this way, he tells himself. He hadn't always felt an oppressive, crushing hollowness in his chest. Or, when the hollowness decided to suddenly become full, he hadn't always felt bursting to the brim with anxiety for the future-- not that anything bad would happen, but that everything would stay the same. That his entire life would boil down to endless toil that barely let him scrape by, video games, and sleep. It hadn't always been this way.
For example, he used to play guitar.
He had been good, too. For a kid. When he was ten, his uncle had given him an old acoustic guitar he swore up and down was a Martin, but was likely some Chinese bootleg. And for years it felt as though he were crafting his entire life around music. He never went anywhere without it; he'd carried it with him the way smaller kids carried their stuffed animals. He'd practice day in and day out, taking whatever music classes his schools offered, then when the time came, applying for every music scholarship and program he could. He recorded himself playing and put the videos online, basking in the praise and taking criticism to heart. Some of those videos were still up, somewhere, on a long-abandoned Youtube account. When he was older, he'd tried to start a band. It hadn't worked out, but at least he'd gotten to play a few times in front of a crowd. Hell, he'd gotten dates.
But that was a long time ago. Or it may as well have been.
Around the time the abductions started happening, the music had died. The notes were dead and flat to him, his fingers stupid. He forgot basic things and couldn't bring himself to care. The scholarship money dried up with the music, and eventually he returned home with nothing but anxiety, insomnia, a paranoid fear of sleeping with the windows open, and a bone-deep exhaustion. He hadn't even brought the guitar when he moved out the second time. For all he knew, it was in a landfill somewhere; he didn't think his parents would keep it.
It's like there's a blurring of time, a shift that didn't affect anyone else but him. One moment, he's an anxious, but optimistic, teen, ready to go out and try his hand at making music. The next, he's a twenty-four year old college dropout, trying to make ends meet with two jobs he can barely stand, with the only music in his life being whatever was playing on the shop radio, and he has no idea how he got here.
* * * * *
The rest of the week passes normally. Every day, he rolls out of bed with just enough time to shower and make the fifteen minute drive to work. He sweeps floors and stocks shelves and deals with irate customers and tries not to hate it. After, he waits tables at a Denny's and is too tired to hate anything. Once home, he either noodles around online, or he tries to cram a couple of hours of games before bed.
It's around midnight, seven days after the last encounter when they come for him.
He wakes and knows immediately that it's happening again. Panic grips him, and he hurriedly reaches for his phone. Maybe he can record it this time. Maybe he can finally get some proof. He fumbles with the phone,trying to punch in the unlock code while keeping an ear out. He expects the sounds of machinery whirring, of futuristic beeping and humming and other, sci-fi noises.
What he doesn't expect are the sounds of hoof beats.
He glances up from the screen and stares. The floor of his apartment is carpeted in mist. Low, white mist that coils up from the floor, chilling the air. Some part of him wonders if its damp enough to wreck his computer.
There are people in his apartment. There are horses in his apartment. They're ghostly looking around the edges, and he is half-certain that if he tries to touch them, his hand would go through. Three people, two men and a woman, all sitting atop enormous white horses. There is an empty fourth horse at the center of their formation.
They are knights. He doesn't know how he knows this-- they don't look like knights; they wear no armor, just vaguely medieval-looking clothes, though they do all seem to have swords on their belts, so maybe that's the tip-off.
The lead knight looks down at him and says nothing.
"This isn't happening," Anthony says. It can't be. Aliens were one thing, hell, he's prepared for aliens. This is just insanity. Clearly this is a dream.
He opens his mouth to speak more, but the mist crawls down his throat. He feels it slide down his esophagus, as though it were liquid and he were drowning. He coughs and gags and for a moment, he is afraid. But the mist seeps itself into his head, and the fear is gone. Any concerns he has are muted and far away.
The knight waits patiently for the coughing fit to end.
"Come," the knight says.
Anthony's mind goes completely blank. His phone clatters to the floor, still on the lock screen. He gets up and goes to the horse. He's never ridden a horse before, he's certain of it, but he pulls himself on to the animal's back with the same familiar ease he has when getting in and out of his car.
The knights say nothing, but they turn as one, as though ready to go galloping through the walls of his apartment.
He does not remember much about the ride with the knights. He is aware that there must have been a ride; he vaguely recalls cold wind rushing against his face and hands, but apart from those flashes, there's nothing. He doesn't know how they entered or left his building, or what direction they had gone, or even if they used the roads on the ground at all.
When he is next aware, he is standing beneath an arch of white roses at the entrance to a garden. On either side of him are enormous red flowers, each as large as his head and larger, with soft round petals rose-like centers.
The garden, at least the part he's in, is circular and lower than where he's standing, as though it's at the bottom of a shallow valley. It is one of those large, courtyard types of gardens, surrounded by a massive hedge that walls it off from the disinvited. From where he stands, he can see people mingling around the flowered areas below, as well as the grassy area in the middle. In the grass, there's a long table, and a pavilion at the center of it all.
He doesn't want to go in, but the knight is there beside him, and she gives him a gentle shove through the arch.
There are fountains, and crystalline ponds brimming with strange, underwater flowers and even stranger creatures making their homes within them. He stops to stare at one-- why does he feel like he's supposed to know what these are?-- but the knight ushers him forward.
There are dozens of people. They are all dressed like something out of a renaissance painting, with the women wearing elaborate gowns and the men in puffy and equally elaborate shirts. They drink colorful liquids from goblets and stand around talking, or they lounge on the grass or on the couches scattered around the place. The one thing all of them have in common, he sees, are their delicately pointed ears.
One woman catches his attention in particular. She wears a long green gown sewn through with golden patterns. She has long, copper curls that fall down past her waist. And when she turns to him, he sees that she is, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he's ever laid eyes on.
He freezes, his breath catching in his throat.
She smiles at him, and it makes his chest hurt. His heart is pounding. His palms sweat. He wants to run, and he doesn't know if it's towards her or away from her. When she approaches him, she holds her arms out, as though expecting an embrace. Instinctively, he pulls pack, bumping up against his knight escort. The woman's smile grows wider, and she laughs. It is a pure, ringing sound, full of light and air. Everyone in the pavilion stops their conversation to hear it, resuming only when she's finished.
"Hello, songbird," she says. Her voice sends a shiver down his spine, but the nickname sends a flare of panic through him before the fog in his head quells it.
She grasps his hand, and her touch sends and an electric tingle up his arm. He tries to pull away again, but she only smiles and pulls him through the garden.
There's a long banquet table spread out on the grass, laden with colorful foods that smell delicious, but make his stomach churn. Beyond that is a pavilion with two ornate thrones set beneath the awning. Lounging lopsided on one, with one leg hanging over the arm rest, is a bored looking man who is as handsome as the woman is beautiful. His hair is black and oddly iridescent, shimmering almost blue in the light. The color and pattern of his clothing matches hers, and when they approach, his wide, black eyes gleam.
The woman pulls him along as she sits down in the throne beside the man.
"Love, our songbird returns," she says.
The man beside her smiles and kisses first her hand, then Anthony's. A small gasp escapes him when the man's lips brush against his skin; it burns. Somewhere inside, instinct is screaming at him to yank his hand free and run, but he stands, transfixed before them.
"At last," the man says. "I tire of the silence."
He snaps his fingers, and a servant appears, carrying a guitar case. The servant inclines his head, first toward the man and woman, and then to Anthony. He holds out the guitar case.
The very familiar guitar case.
Inside, tuned and polished and ready to go is his old Martin. The knowledge doesn't surprise him, if anything it feels like something he'd forgotten, then remembered again. Of course it was here. He takes the guitar.
He stands in front of the king and queen, and he plays.
It's been years since he's played. Some part of him is certain that he should have forgotten how; that was why the dropped out, wasn't it? he'd stopped being able to play. He'd stopped feeling it. But here and now, the music comes easily. The song comes naturally, fluid and sweet. He doesn't know what song it is, but he plays it with concerning familiarity. It's a light and lilting tune that has some members of the party-- Court, they call it hosting Court-- watching him, and others starting to dance with one another. The two on the thrones never take their eyes off him. He feels the weight of their gazes down to his very bones.
The song ends.
"Lovely as ever," the man says. He rises to his feet and offers his hand to the woman, who delicately takes it, and the two stride forward to the banquet table. Anthony follows, knowing that it's what he's expected to do, but not knowing how he knows.
The man takes a seat at the end and at a gesture, one of the servants comes by with a goblet of wine for him. The woman sits opposite him. Anthony sits down beside her.
Who are you? What is this place? How did I get here? Why do you have my guitar? These questions and more spin through his head, but when he considers actually voicing them, they suddenly become unimportant.
"What song was that?" he says instead.
"Oh, don't you remember?" the woman says. There's a false innocence in her tone telling him she knows exactly what he does and does not remember. "You wrote that for us."
"It was the first gift you ever made for us. The first of many," says the man. He takes a sip from the goblet, then passes it to her. She sips and passes it back.
"I don't remember," Anthony says. And it's true, he doesn't. But though he doesn't know, the entire situation feels familiar. He knows that he always sits to the left of the woman. He knows that is his designated seat because she likes having him in arm's reach, and her husband likes being able to look at him from across the table. He knows what gesture to make if he wants his own cup of wine, and what foods on the table will make him sick and which won't. He knows that the reason his feet sometimes bleed in the morning is because, sometimes, they want to dance with him for hours and hours on end. He knows that this entire garden is one of many, and if he were to go past the hedge wall, he would eventually find a town, a castle, a forest--
"I don't remember any of this," he says.
"Poor dear," the woman says. But she sounds satisfied.
"Absolutely tragic," says the man. He smiles into his drink.
"Why am I here?" he says.
"Because you're ours," the man says. Then he frowns. "Almost."
"Not long now," the woman says. "Only another-- what, a week, dear?"
"Eight days," says the man.
Anthony tries to think through the fog in his head. What's in eight days?
"My birthday?" he says. "What happens on my birthday?"
"You have twenty and five years to you, and the terms of the wager are complete," the woman says cheerfully. She reaches for a small plate with floral-looking pastries and begins to help herself.
Her words send a spike of panic through the fog. "Wager? What wager?"
They share a laugh. Loud, hearty mirth that's almost theatrical. They're laughing so hard, he sees their eyes tear up, and he feels a growing pit in his stomach.
"I apologize," the man says, wiping his eyes. "But it's still funny, every time you ask."
"You made a wager with us, darling,' the woman says. "And you've had seven years to try and win, so don't be upset with us about it. That's plenty of time for a human to accomplish anything."
"We were very generous," the man adds. "You must at least admit that."
"What was the wager?!" Anthony says, voice rising. "What am I supposed to do? What happens if I lose?"
"Don't be upset now," the woman coos. She strokes his face, then frowns slightly when he pulls away from her.
"What were the terms?" Anthony says.
They glance at each other, barely containing their smiles.
"We won't tell you," he says.
"That wasn't included in the wager," she says.
He stares, confused. "What?"
"You asked for a contest," the man says. "That you would complete our challenge within seven years, or your freedom was forfeit. But you were painfully unspecific."
"Dreadfully so," she says.
"A terrible oversight," he says. "You never specified any actual rules. You were so concerned about what you would get if you won, so consumed by your desire to be away from us, that you never made it clear that we had to let you know what the challenge was. The agreement was that if we bested you in a contest of our choosing, after seven years and seven days, you would be ours. There was nothing said regarding your memories of the event."
"And it's your own fault," she adds. "We might have been satisfied leaving you the memories and watching you fumble around, trying to best us. But then you had to go and be so hurtful. When you left like that, putting that iron horseshoe above your window--"
"Planting those horrible yellow flowers around your old home--"
"--then moving away like we wouldn't be able to find you."
They both fix him with disapproving looks. "Very hurtful," the woman says again.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Anthony says, his head spinning.
"You tried to run from us," the man says. His voice has a strained disinterest to it that tells Anthony how interested he is pretending not to be. He toys with the cutlery. "After everything we did for you--"
"Did to you," the woman purrs.
The man flashes her a wicked smile, then continues. "After all of our gifts and attention, all of our love, you ran from us. Rejected us. You can't possibly blame us for taking it personally."
"We were so upset," the woman says.
"We mourned," the man says. "We wept." He takes a sip of his drink.
She brushes the back sides of her nails cross Anthony's cheek, and this time he's too stunned to resist. "Don't you know how terribly cruel it is to make the ones who love you cry?"
"Why?" he says, staring at them. "Why me? Why are you doing this?"
Their black eyes shine.
"You're ours, songbird," the woman says.
"It's time you stayed where you belong," says the man. He sets down the goblet. "Here. With us. You tried your hand at that-- that schooling place, and it didn't work. I'm still surprised you didn't return to us after that--"
"I believe we'd already started taking his memories, dear," she says.
"Ah, of course. Slipped my mind."
Anthony stares at them still, eyes wide. His head feels full to bursting, but the thoughts keep slipping away when he tries to grasp them. He stands, suddenly struggling to breathe. He needs fresh air, but he's already outside. His heart hammers inside his chest, as though it's trying to escape.
"You thought yourself so clever," the king says. Anthony didn't notice him get up, but suddenly he's there, right in front of him, close enough to loom, and he realizes for the first time how much taller than himself the man is. He can't move. He wants to back away, but he's frozen and only able to watch as the man gets right in front of him. He rests his forearms on Anthony's shoulders, lacing his fingers together behind his head. The king brings his head down until their foreheads are touching. When he speaks, his voice is low.
"You had your fun. You tried your hand at living out there, and where did it get you? We've seen your misery, your malaise, all the earthly toil you cast us aside for. And we forgive you, songbird. We want you to come home to us, to we who appreciate you as no others do."
They can't lie. The knowledge bubbles up from some dormant part of his mind-- the part these two have apparently cut him off from. He thinks he's telling the truth.
A hand grabs his shoulder and whirls him around. She's there, and before he can say or do anything-- or at least try, her hands are pressing him into a deep kiss. Sweet, warm liquid fills his mouth and he recognizes it as one of their wines. She's spat it into him, and he swallows without hesitation.
Almost immediately, the fog in his head worsens, now joined by a lightheaded warmth.
He feels their mouths on his back, on his neck, going down his arms. He feels their hands sliding under his clothes, and suddenly he's elsewhere, and the three of them are falling backwards together into something soft. And despite everything, all he can think through the sluggish and growing warmth in his head is,
Oh. That's what the bruises were from.
* * * * *
Anthony Sarkin wakes up in a cold sweat, sometime around the crack of dawn, and knows he was taken again. His eyes are already adjusted perfectly to the dark, and when he moves, his arms and legs feel like lead. His face feels gross, and his pillow is damp; he's been crying, and he's not entirely finished with it yet. He sobs and shivers uncontrollably, though he has no idea what's actually caused it.
Whatever happened this time around must have been bad, and he's almost thankful he can't remember it.
He lies in bed for a time, trying to get himself under control. Slowly, the fear ebbs. His breathing slows. His mind clears.
Jeez, he thinks, sitting up. He hasn't had a reaction that bad in months.
Then, my birthday's next week.
The thought comes unbidden. It has nothing to do with anything. Why the hell is that important now? But the thought of it is filling him with dread, almost as much as the thought of the abduction. His heart beats faster. His palms sweat.
What's wrong with him? Why is he freaking out about turning twenty-five? Why would he be concerned about--?
Oh, he thinks. I'll probably have call mom and dad.
And he relaxes. Or rather, he relaxes about the fact that he's still got a knot of anxiety in his belly. That was probably it. That was the thing worrying him; he hates calling his parents. And it just figures his stupid brain would be worrying about something like that when he apparently got curbstomped by the greys last night.
He sighs and pulls his laptop off the bedside table. Family anxiety or no, he still needs to document this latest Abduction Incident while it's fresh in his mind.
He powers on the laptop, opens the document, and begins to write.