After a few moments, I realized I was holding my breath. Stomp, stomp, stomp. The mysterious thudding in the basement continued to reverberate up through the floor. “Let’s get out of here,” I commanded. “Where’s the other brother?”
We found him in his usual location, still stuck in his book, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The brother who was recently playing the game snatched the book from the other’s hands, and placed it on the coffee table.
“What?” asked the brother who was recently reading.
“We got to get out of here! Let’s go, all of you.” Mom dragged the brother to his feet and began ushering us toward the back door, but not before I had time to glance at the book title. The Collective. Had that always been the title? I couldn’t be sure.
Astonishingly, mom pried open the door. My mouth fell open as, just for a moment, I glimpsed a bit of the outside. All my instincts told me to run and never look back, but we were missing a person. “Wait,” I exclaimed. “Where’s dad?”
In answer we heard footsteps on the basement stairs. We turned from the door, never to remember it was there again. Around us, the air began to thicken. Almost passed the edge of my awareness, I thought I saw condensation begin to form and slide down the nearby wall.
“What’s going on?” Dad asked. I noted that the stomping in the basement had stopped.
“I don’t know,” mom said, dazed, and rubbed her eyes.
“I heard the noise in the basement and went down there to look. Nothing is there.”
“That’s nice,” mom yawned. “What noise?”
Dad shook his head. “I…”
His words were interrupted by a large crash way above our heads. In horror, we all looked up toward the origin of the sound. Silence. I was breathing a sigh of relief when I heard a brother give a shout.
“Mom!” his voice a mixture of fear and anguish
We all turned. Mom was gone. One moment she had been there, and the next, no sign of her remained. Frantically, we searched the room for her. We even began to search the rest of the house, though it hardly made sense to do so. What could have happened?
Finally one of the brothers suggested that we go down to the basement and try stomping on the floor. After all, he explained in response to our bewildered faces, that’s what was said to be helpful in the game. What else did we have to go by to try to get mom back?
So that’s what we did. For hours, and hours, and … we yelled and stompped ourselves silly , having convinced ourselves there was no other solution. In truth, we could not remember whether there was any other solution.
Finally, dehydrated, malnourished and exhausted, we collapsed on the floor, and fell silent. But the room would not be silent for long. At first, I could not determine the location of the many voices. Men, women, and children of all ages spoke at once together, in perfect unison. Chills ran down my spine.
For a moment, I thought I could pick out my mother’s voice from among the many. How? I wondered whether I could be sure. After a moment I decided I couldn’t be. I had already forgotten what she sounded like.
I tried to warn my brother to not go looking for the source of the sound, but he was practically compelled. Upon discovering it I heard him exclaim, “They’re communicating through the vents!” Then I lost track of him.
I had to focus instead on not listening to the voices. Somehow I knew that if I paid too much attention to them, I would bring attention to myself. But inevitably, I tuned in. “The people who previously stayed here ran away before we had the chance to welcome them face to face,” toned the united chorus. “How rude of them, really. For years, there was nothing here for us but to wait. Our number grew malnourished and weak. But the waiting was worth it, for you came. We have greatly appreciated your memories. We were hungry. You belong to us, now. We are the collective.”
I heard, and a cauldron of defiant anger began to bubble up inside me. It threatened to overflow, and for once I did not check my emotions. Belong to them? Who on earth did they think I was? Certainly no one who would ever put up with being in someone else’s control.
I jumped to my feet, which I noticed was oddly an effort. “Get up!” I hollered in frustration at my remaining family, who sat as if hypnotized on the floor staring in the direction from which the chorus of voices had come. “Move! Shout! Don’t stop. You have to throw yourself into your actions, those can’t be taken from you. Insist on your life as your own. At least we can put up a fight!”
I continued yelling phrases like this and staying in motion, although I did not know how I came by the words, although the air was getting thicker, although my body protested every attempt at moving and it took all I had to not slow down. I kept going like this accompanied by four strong other moving bodies and voices … then three … then two … then …
Slowly the silence grew louder and louder, until I was hushed still by the deafening recognition of absence. I was alone. Where was I? With growing terror, I opened my eyes which I did not remember closing.
I had never seen the room before. I tried, but couldn’t place it. The solid four walls mocked me. No escape. No way out. I screamed, and my voice was muffled, even to my own ears. It was as if this entire space was sealed shut. Who would hear me? In desperation I screamed one more time, before panic robbed me of the ability to speak.
Around the time I realized that no one would ever find me, even if they went looking, I began to feel like I was being watched. I blinked. Something was odd about the grey shapeless patterns on the walls. Were those eyes? At my thought of the eyes, they turned simultaneously, and fixed me with a calculating, heart-wrenching stare. I froze. And then it, they, came for me. I had put up a valiant fight. Now I would have to accept defeat.
The next thing I knew, I was lying in a bed. A woman sat beside me, talking to me quietly, gently wiping sweat and tears away from my face with a wet cloth. My first instinct was to panic, and I began to scream again. But over time, her calm voice and assuring presence dissolved my fears.
“It’s okay,” she soothed, “I’m your neighbor from next door.
“What happened?” my voice came out a shaky croak.
“I heard a racket at your house and came to see what was the matter. I kept hearing the scream, and your back door was open, so I went inside. I found you lying wet and cold on the basement floor, barely breathing. It was very odd. I continued to hear the scream, but it was certainly not coming from you. I could not pinpoint the origin. You smelled like plaster and ancient mold, though the basement was spotless and well ventilated. I hurried you over here as fast as I could. It’s all right, you’re safe now.”
“Mom, dad, the brothers?” I inquired with dread in my heart.
“I found no one else, just you. I’m so sorry. Can you tell me anything that happened which could help us find them?”
“I can’t remember.” I answered miserably.
My neighbor looked worried. “I’m very concerned about you, can I ask you some questions?”
“Sure,” I gave a weak nod. I felt suddenly exhausted.
“Can you tell me your name?” she asked, and the long silent response was somehow louder than screams could ever be.
“What’s your name! Emily, tell me your name!” she demanded, unable to hide the alarm in her voice.
“I don’t know,” I said at last, saddened to not be able to give her the answer she wanted. “Who’s Emily?”
It took many, many years for me to regain my memory. But once I had, there were times I wished I’d continued in my ignorance. I miss my family the most: their voices, their love. Since my escape, the house has been demolished. The bodies of my family were never found, and eventually all investigations ceased.
But I know better than to think it is over. Sometimes, late at night in my dreams, I find myself again alone in that dark forsaken room, with no windows or doors. I look around. The grey wallpaper is punctuated at intervals by sets of staring, hungry, haunted eyes. Slowly what looks like the wallpaper begins to peel away, sliding silently, until a disembodied mass surrounds me with single-minded purpose. In unison eager hands reach for me, but I am transfixed by the eyes, which seem to be the only remnants of individuality allowed to remain, nameless now. They watch me intently with an aching longing, pleading with me to give them back what they lost, what they barely remember had once belonged to them. But I cannot. And then I wake, full of an intense gratitude that I am free to be my own person.
But the collective is still out there, seeking to assimilate any it can make its own. It lurks in the shadows of the forgotten, just waiting, biding its time. Remember not to be next.
You can read Part 1 here:
The Collective Part 1