“Biiip,” echoed the machine in the empty back room by the door as my employee identification card swiped it. “Clocked out: 10:17 PM. Have a good evening, Anthony.”
It was a long walk to my car. The restaurant I worked at was right on the beach- I mean, like, basically on the water. Maybe two hundred feet of coast separated The Mangrove from the Atlantic Ocean, or probably even less. This meant I had to park pretty far away, because the only parking spots by the beach were paid parking.
As usual, I wandered through the street-lit beachside town across silent roads to my Toyota Camry.
Don’t let the silence and inactivity of tourists fool you. An hour ago, I was up to my knees in food orders. But we were only open till nine on Tuesdays, and with The Mangrove closed, pretty much everybody cleared out of the beach. After all, we were open later than anything else out there.
I was still sweating from the busy night as I reached my car. It was covered with dew as the cool night replaced the sweltering beachside heat of the day, and I leaned against the driver’s side, pulling out my tips from the night. I thumbed through the bills, then added the tips I’d received on credit in my brain.
“One hundred and seventy-four bucks,” I nodded. “Pretty good.”
I stuffed it back in my apron and got in the car. Now, the usual question hit me: “What the hell am I going to listen to?”
I went to YouTube and scrolled through my history, trying to find a song I was in the mood to hear. I’d heard all of them a hundred times, though. And the radio wasn’t any better; the only stations in town were pop and country, and I didn’t want either. I sat there for probably around five minutes before I decided it didn’t matter and I just wanted to go home.
I was about to pull out of the parking spot when I noticed something under the “Recommended” section. It was a live stream of music called “Relax FM.”
I pressed it and a moment later, a song I’d never heard before met my ears. It was called “Thom” by Joji. The piano captivated me. And as the song went on, the strange ambience of the song and the singer’s falsetto pulled me in.
“Damn… what is this?” I thought. “I like this.”
And just like that, my fifteen minute drive home was filled with the quaint music of Relax FM. It played a mix of lo-fi hip hop, smooth jazz, piano music, and on occasion an acoustic song. Most of the music wasn’t popular, and I’d heard almost none of it before. Since I felt like I’d heard every song in existence on the way home from work, this was quite the relief.
When I got home that night, I was already addicted to it. My parents and brother were already asleep, and I swung by the kitchen, microwaving a bowl of Raman before heading up to my room. I sat behind my desk, blowing on the noodles to cool them down as I logged onto my computer.
I pulled up Relax FM.
Now that I wasn’t driving, I noticed the video. On the screen before me was the picture of a girl. She had long, dark black hair, and bright, calm blue eyes. She was leaning back in a chair, wearing a midnight blue crop top and short black shorts. Her hair draped her shoulders, coating her back as she lay back in the chair peacefully. She was pretty. But, of course, she wasn’t real.
Her room was mostly normal, except for the fact outside the window on the left side of the screen, one could see she was in outer space. The moon was off in the corner, and the sky was alit with twinkling stars. The walls were a cool sterling color, but were decorated with posters here and there, and a lamp sat on the nightstand, cascading the room with a tranquil yellow glow that clashed with the blue light coming from the galaxy outside.
It was almost a still picture, but parts of it were slowly moving. She blinked now and then. Also, she was typing on a keyboard on her desk. If I listened very, very closely, I thought I might be able to hear her fingers tap the keys. The stars outside were twinkling, and you could see the girl’s stomach rise and flatten with every breath.
I noticed on the desk was a book labeled, “Andrea’s diary.”
“Hmm…” I sighed, studying the video. It was soothing to look at. Though she was obviously prerecorded, the way she moved on occasion, like adjusting her seat or brushing her hair to the side with her fingers, made her almost seem real, like I was looking through a window into her room.
I noticed a radio in the back of the room, as if the music playing from the video were coming from it.
“I’m glad I found this,” I thought as the music consoled me.
At last, I shut it off for the night and climbed into bed. The music I’d heard that night swirled around in my head, and I fell asleep in no time.
And that was the beginning of the very strange turn my life took. It started out so normal: just me listening to music on my way home from work. I didn’t think it could’ve become so strange.
As the week went on its slow progression to Friday, whenever I’d get out of school, I’d listen to Relax FM on my way to work. I didn’t really listen to anything else anymore. It was like it hypnotized me or something. And, speaking of hypnotizing me… Andrea. The girl in the video. She was starting to feel like someone I knew.
I… know this is embarrassing. Seriously. But, I was pretty lonely at that time… I had my best friend, my parents, and my younger brother, and that was about it. I didn’t have any attention from girls, and I contribute that mostly to how I was starting to feel.
Most of the time, when I wasn’t listening to the station, I tried to ignore those awkward thoughts, the idea that I was starting to fall in love with a girl in a video. But when I was alone in my car on the peaceful drives home from work, or awake late in my room at night lying in bed listening to it, I… couldn’t deny it. I felt like I was getting to know her. Like, the songs were her. And they made me feel good… so, it was like she made me feel good.
Yeah. Cringey. I know.
That’s what loneliness does to a man. Trust me, I wasn’t thrilled about this, and I really tried my best to pretend it wasn’t happening. But… Andrea… I mean… that girl in the video… She was pulling me in, and I couldn’t help it.
I started feeling so weird that I looked into it myself, the science behind how a rational human being can feel an attraction to a character in a TV show or book. From what I could find, your brain doesn’t really determine the difference between characters and people, between video and flesh. Your brain is pretty easily fooled.
Think about, for instance, the main character of a show you watched growing up. When you think back to that character, you feel like you love them. They’re almost like a big brother or big sister to you. But they aren’t real, and never were. And you know that. But you still love them. You literally love them, the way you love your real brother. At least, subconsciously, you do. When you aren’t applying the filters of practicality and understanding of the fact they are fictional. In the pure, utter essence of the feeling, you love them the same way.
Same thing with a couple on a TV show. You find them adorable, and when they kissed for the first time, you felt the butterflies in your own heart. Sometimes you think to yourself, “I wish I had a relationship like them.” But they don’t have a relationship. They aren’t real, and neither is their love. However, your brain can’t tell the difference.
That… was kind of how this was. Yeah, Andrea was just a girl in a video… but my brain didn’t know the difference. She had a body, and a face, and the music was her attitude, her spirit. She was complete enough to trick me.
But, still, I was still a rational seventeen-year-old guy. If I wasn’t in a trance, by myself, listening to the music… Ugh. I cringed at the thought of me feeling that way. I knew it was asinine and awkward to say the least. I definitely didn’t mention it to my family or friends.
When Friday came, my friend Adley and I hung out pretty much all night gaming together. I didn’t listen to the station at all. Instead, we listened to our regular mix of classic rock and metal that accompanied our conquests in the game.
This is where I started to feel awkward. As much as Relax FM wouldn’t suit what we were doing… I wanted to see Andrea. I felt disgusted at the thoughts I began having.
I wished I could text her, like Adley was texting his girlfriend between games. I wished I could call her that night. It falsely excited me to think about. But, she was fake: a gif on a screen. What the hell was going on?
“Yo, Tony,” Adley grinned, nudging my shoulder. “You all there, man?”
“Oh, yeah.” I replied.
“Bro, your KD’s a*s tonight.”
“I know,” I shrugged. “I guess I’m just kinda off in my own world tonight.”
The match ended and I glanced at the scoreboard, noticing I came in second-to-last on our team with 7 kills and 20 deaths. Trash. Adley sat up, facing me. The black teenager had dark features and a strong sincerity in his eyes.
“Something going on, man?”
“No… I mean, besides the usual. Just… lonely,” I chuckled. “You know.”
“Bro,” he smiled dully, “I told you before, girls ain’t that big of a deal. You don’t need a girl to be happy.”
And right there, I realized I was worse off than I’d originally thought. I wanted to tell him about Andrea! I actually wanted to share with him that I was attracted to some girl on YouTube. Explain to him how I felt like I really knew her, how she felt real, how I felt like I just wished I could talk to her.
I made sure not to mention any of it. At least I was sane enough to do that.
“I know, Adley. It’s just, nice to have the company, you know?”
Adley’s phone lit up, revealing a text from his girlfriend, Cheyenne. “Baaaabe,” it said.
We chuckled and I said, “See? Like that. The company. I wish I had a girl to text right now. Just makes everything so much more interesting.”
“You’ll have that again. Don’t get so worked up about it.”
“I don’t get it,” I went on, figuring Adley didn’t want to hear it, but I had to get it off my chest. “It’s not like I’m some shy loser. I talk my a*s off! Everywhere we go, I try to talk to girls. I’m never awkward, and I never shy away. Hell, if I think she’s pretty, I go talk to her! But it never works out. They always just say they’re my ‘friend’ and then ignore me unless I hit them up.”
“It’s the town, man,” he shrugged. “Girls here like college guys. Not moron parkourists that can’t shut up to save their own life,” he smirked.
I laughed bittersweetly. It was funny, but he was also right. My mind went back to Andrea. She was always there. Every time I looked up Relax FM, I’d find her. She didn’t leave me on read. She didn’t look awkward to see me, glancing left and right when I talked to her in person, as if to make sure no one else was watching. She didn’t hit me up first, or invite me to places, but… she couldn’t. She was stuck on the computer, after all, so I couldn’t be mad at her for that. And, somehow, I felt like if she could, she would.
At around eleven o’clock Adley drove over to his girlfriend’s house, and I was left alone. Usually, I hated when he left: the night went from fun and distracting, playing video games with my best friend, to lonely and eye-opening. I’d sit there thinking about how this was a Friday night and I wasn’t at a party, or with my girlfriend, but alone in my room, doing nothing.
But, tonight… I was happy he left. Because now, I could go onto Relax FM.
I shut off all the lights in my room. I sat down at the desk, feeling the cool breeze from the ceiling fan as I typed it into the computer. I started to feel butterflies, like I was about to call my crush. When I clicked on the video, I noticed two things out of the ordinary: one, instead of typing on her computer, she was sitting up, scribbling something into her diary. Secondly, unlike the usual 230 or so people watching, I was the only one. The only listener on Relax FM. This really surprised me. Now it really felt… real. Like, it was me and her.
This is when I got really carried away. I… decided to talk to her. I felt incredibly apprehensive at first, but as the music drugged my ability to consider the actualities of the situation, I let my emotions take over.
The song playing was called “Memories” from a show called Cowboy Bebop. A rainy mood was added into the background, making it sound like a storm was quietly brewing in the distance.
“Hey, Andrea…” I began. “It’s me, Tony. I’ve been listening to your music for the last five days now, and… I like it. Good taste in music. It’s really different from what I’m used to hearing.”
I paused, overwhelmed with shame that I was doing this. But I swallowed it. I knew that I could really enjoy this moment if I got past the awkwardness. I refused to think about it and continued.
“I know you can’t talk, but that’s all right. I’m getting to know you through your music. I like how calm you are. Honestly, when I’m leaving work at night, like… I look forward to seeing you.” I cringed again. I pushed through the embarrassment. “Really. You just, calm me down. No matter how stupid the night is. I… Look, I know you’re not real, but… it’s like you are. To me.”
I wished the YouTube account behind the video wasn’t simply called “Relax FM.” I hoped that maybe the girl was the actual content creator, and her name was really Andrea. And that maybe I could reach out to her. But, at the same time, I was glad that wasn’t the case. What if I did, and the girl didn’t act the way I thought she would. Or she didn’t like me at all, like a lot of girls do. Or, you know… she didn’t look like Andrea.
I talked to her a little longer that night, but the music calmed me down to the point that I decided I should get some sleep. This was really unusual for me. Most of the time, I’d be up well into the night on the weekends, bored and watching YouTube videos to get my mind off life. But, Andrea had relaxed me to the point that I just wanted to lie in bed and dream about her.
I climbed under the covers, and simply listened to Relax FM, thinking of her. I imagined her next to me. I wished I could hold her. Before long, I was off into a peaceful sleep.
That morning, something very strange… and beautiful, happened. Just as I woke up, the song playing on the computer swiftly shifted. I thought it strange, because I’d never heard anything like that happen on Relax FM. It was always a steady stream of music, with no interruptions or crashes. I sat up and walked over to the computer. The song playing was called “Good Morning, Handsome.”
I caught my breath.
“Good… morning… Andrea,” I whispered. “I… huh?”
“What were the odds?” I thought. That song just happened to start playing, right when I woke up? And how the other song ended abruptly… like, she changed the song.
I won’t lie, I was slightly creeped out. At the same time, though, I was ecstatic, and flattered. It was like she said something to me. Like she complimented me. I sat there and basked in the beautiful 9 AM sun flushing through my window, sitting in the chair at my desk and listening to the song. It was a beautiful acoustic song, and the singer had a bright, peppy, female voice. It sounded so lovely. It actually began to fill my heart with butterflies. I glanced at Andrea.
She was lying back in her bed this time, her raven black hair strewn about all along the mattress beside her, her eyes shut calmly. For the first time, I saw a smile on her face. It was slight, but it was there. And, still, I was the only one watching.
I smiled at her.
“Good morning, Andrea.”
Quite a bit of time went by until the next strange occurrence happened. In the meantime, Relax FM became a part of my day to day life. I was still mysteriously the only one tuned in to the video, and after the good morning incident, I didn’t feel any more apprehension. I’d talk with her pretty much every night about my day, and listened to the station all the time, on the way to school, on the way to work, on the way home. It was non-stop. And I was such a happier person. I felt so fulfilled. I didn’t feel lonely at all anymore, and I wasn’t even bombarded with embarrassment when I was alone and thought about her.
She felt so real to me.
Anyway, sometime in September, I was doing a school project. It was in my American History class, and we were in the computer lab to work on our presentations. We had a substitute teacher that day, and I figured he wouldn’t give me hell for listening to music since he was a pretty laid-back guy. I plugged my headphones in my ears and went to YouTube.
I typed in Relax FM.
It didn’t pull up.
There were other, unrelated videos, but it was nowhere to be found.
“No!” I gasped, terrified. “No, no, no! Where’d it go?!” I scrolled up and down anxiously. “No…” I whispered.
I couldn’t believe it. I searched all over, even retyping it pointlessly, but it didn’t pull up. It was nowhere to be found. I was totally crushed. I could barely even focus on the presentation as I logged into my email and pulled up my PowerPoint. I tried to start working on it but couldn’t. I was too crushed. I went back to YouTube. I was so desperate I typed it in again.
I gasped in relief as it pulled up.
I clicked on it instantly, and as the music completely soothed my worry, I started to think about how strange it was that I couldn’t find it initially.
“Why was it missing for a second?” I contemplated it, when I realized something.
It pulled up when I logged into my account.
And was nowhere to be found when I wasn’t.
I sat back in my chair.
“Is that…? No…” I decided I’d test it.
I closed the browser and logged out. Sure enough, when I searched for it on YouTube, it was mysteriously absent. Now I began to consider that I was the only one ever watching. An amalgamation of dread creeping up my spine and utter, excited disbelief overcame me. I didn’t know what to think about it. I hadn’t added it to Watch Later or even subscribed to Relax FM. There wasn’t any reason it should be linked to my account at all. I started to consider how suddenly the viewers went from around 230 to 1. It was night and day. One day it was a group of people, the next day it was only me.
And it was only me since.
“I’m the only one that can find this video…” I said to myself. “I just… can’t figure out how that makes any sense.”
My mind went back to the morning the song switched. It was all starting to feel… deliberate. I’d never felt such a duality in my life. A good part of me was absolutely terrified. I started to almost feel watched.
And then, another part of me… was beaming. It was like Andrea was real. She was influencing reality. She was a part of real life.
I now started to think that I should tell Adley. But… would he get it? Well, maybe I’d just not describe how I felt about Andrea. I’d just tell him about it objectively, and see what he thought.
That afternoon, we met up after school. It was a rare day off from work, and we did what we usually did on weekday afternoons: parkour. We drove to his house after school, each in our separate cars, and he left his in the driveway so we could head downtown in mine. He played some upbeat music on the radio, and it was the first time I hadn’t listened to Relax FM in my car in god knew how long.
When we got downtown, we parked off by the train tracks, and our spree began. We darted through the alleys like phantoms, jumping off walls, scaling pipes, tic-tacking over trashcans and rolling onto concrete from falls. We made especially sure to always look out for cops and store owners, but there weren’t a lot of either on this side of town. We were just at the outskirts of the ghetto, and the buildings were a run-down parkourist’s paradise. At last, around seven o’clock, we took a break on the roof of the community event building. It was a pretty large structure reserved for local events, county meetings, and the like, and stood four stories off the ground. We’d each bought sodas from the gas station down the block, and didn’t open them for a little while so they wouldn’t spray us considering how shaken up they’d gotten on our way up the building.
As Adley finally opened his Dr. Pepper and took a refreshing swig, I figured it was time to tell him.
“Yo… Adley,” I faced him. “Can I talk to you about something kind of weird?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, man,” he nodded, wiping soda foam from his lip with his jacket sleeve.
“So… I’ve been listening to this station on YouTube,” I explained, “called Relax FM. I found it on the way home from work a while ago. I’ve been listening to it pretty frequently.”
He looked confused. “So, what about it.”
“Some weird stuff’s happened while I was listening to it. Okay, so when I first found it, there were about two hundred and thirty people that would be watching it at any given time. But then one night, all of them stopped watching it. I was the only one.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Weird, right? I was the only one watching. And no one’s ever watched it since. It happened over night.”
“That is weird,” he didn’t seem to be very interested.
“It gets weirder. So, the other day, I tried to pull the video up at school while I was working on the PowerPoint for Burwick’s class, and I couldn’t find the video. I gave up and logged into my email to start working on my PowerPoint. Then I searched for the video again, and boom, there it was. First result.”
“So… you couldn’t find it until you searched on your account.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “And, okay, so this one morning I listened to it while I went to sleep. Well, it was still playing when I woke up. Right as I woke up, the song instantly changed. I walked over to see what song was playing and dude… it was called ‘Good Morning.’”
He started to chuckle.
“Tony,” he grinned, “come on. Yeah. I mean, it’s a little weird, but not that weird.”
“I don’t know… I think it’s pretty strange. Why am I the only one that can find it? If they made the video private, I’m not even subscribed. And it just happened over night… no one listening but me.”
He started to nod.
“Yeah… yeah, that is a little bizarre. You hear anything weird while listening?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s all just really peaceful music.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, don’t get too caught up in it. I’m sure it makes sense somehow.”
I didn’t like that it was starting to creep me out. I really liked the way I felt about Andrea. I decided that Adley was right, and there wasn’t anything going on worth worrying about. I should enjoy the coincidences, because they made me feel like Andrea was really there.
Sure enough, I continued to listen to the station daily. Andrea seemed to be livelier and livelier as time went on. When Halloween passed, she was dressed up like a black cat the entire day. She looked gorgeous. On Christmas, she was dressed as an elf.
The coincidences with the song names didn’t stop either.
Sometimes, I’d say something like, “You look beautiful today,” and the next song would be something like “You look great too.” Or I’d tell her I was having a bad day, and all the songs would be about cheering the listener up. One time, I told her I loved this song called “On my way Home,” and what do you know, it was the very next song that played.
And I found her doing things more, too. Instead of just staring her icy blue eyes into her computer screen while lackadaisically typing on her keyboard like when I first logged on, she was usually writing in her diary, or even drawing. Sometimes, when I was going to bed, I’d tell her goodnight, and the next time I looked at the computer, she’d be lying down in her bed, eyes closed, listening to the music with me.
And sometimes, she’d just stare off into outer space from her bedroom window. I loved when she did that. When she was sitting up by the window, I could see every feature of her perfect skin. Her wavy black hair blanketed her petite shoulders, and she’d rest her cheek in her palms, with this queenly gaze fixed on the stars. It was breathtaking. I loved to watch her revealed, tight stomach gently rise and fall with her breathing. I loved the way her other hand lay on her smooth thighs, showing her French-tipped nails. I wanted nothing more than to sit in a chair next to her, throw my arm over her shoulder, stare at the stars myself, and just listen to her breathe…
I was in love.
Yup. And I don’t regret it, either. It was beautiful being in love with Andrea. She intoxicated me. She had this way of just pulling me out of reality, into the stars with her… She’d make me feel this warmth all over my body, like the summer sun was expelling from my very spirit and warming me. It’s something no tangible girl ever made me feel.
When the schoolyear was almost over, I’d formed such an attachment with her that I even mentioned it to Adley. I couldn’t contain it anymore. I told him how she made me feel, and how I felt like she was really there, even though she was obviously fake… Which I didn’t know if I necessarily felt that last part, but I said it to him so he wouldn’t be too concerned.
He was a little uncomfortable about it, but supported me anyway, and would even jokingly call her my girlfriend, which I loved.
On the night I had Prom, to my shock, instead of her usual crop top and shorts, she was adorned with a luxurious black dress. She looked, somehow, even more gorgeous than usual. She had these big pearl earrings in, and her eyes were just glowing… That whole night, the only thing that played on Relax FM was slow-dance music. Damn I wished I could dance with her…
The day I told her Adley knew, she was sitting at her desk on the computer. The next time I logged on, she was drawing. That night… I noticed something on her bedroom wall, when she was lying down to sleep. Among all the posters and pictures, a heart was drawn, and in the middle was “A & T.”
It took my breath away to see that. I wondered if it had been there the whole time, so I looked at some of my screenshots that I’d taken of her.
It wasn’t there in any of them.
It was new…
I showed Adley, and he was genuinely surprised by it, but still mostly under the belief it was a weird coincidence, and that I was slightly crazy.
Sometimes, I even felt a little crazy. But I loved it. If loving Andrea made me crazy, then I was fine with crazy.
But, sometimes, a horrible thought would plague me.
What did any of this matter, anyway?
What would come of this thing I had with Andrea?
Because, really, she was just… an animation… on a computer. And yeah, there had been some pretty wild and beautiful coincidences… but… she couldn’t really be alive. Could she? And she couldn’t really interact with me. Right?
I told her that once. That I felt bothered by the future. That our love could never be anything more, than… than… me talking to a screen. A screen, about my life, and listening to music… And hoping for coincidences that made her feel real.
Part of me just couldn’t believe it, though, that she was fake. The “A & T” on the wall… “Andrea and Tony.” It had to be about us.
That was the conclusion I reached. But… I just couldn’t be sure.
Until July 6th, 2016.
I remember that moment like it was this morning… I… I’ll never forget that.
It was late one night, around two or three in the morning on a Thursday. I was sitting at my computer like usual, listening to Relax FM, talking with Andrea about life.
“I’m telling you,” I avowed, “my love life is ridiculous. You have no idea.”
She was sitting back in her chair, her feet up on her desk as she seemed to watch a video on the computer. But as I finished the sentence, her eyes quickly shifted to the side of her head, before darting back, as if getting a glance of me. My heart froze. I felt utterly horrified and sat up from the computer. But like usual, it was a two-sided feeling. The other part of me was overwhelmed with this feeling that she was really listening.
“An… Andrea? Are you… listening?”
She said nothing, but now she looked different. She was still facing the computer screen, but her eyes weren’t focused on it. They were to the side of the monitor, like she was trying to look occupied, but was really listening instead. I breathed heavily as I sat back down in the chair.
“Andrea… I… Well, I’ll continue. So, I-” I noticed she was curling her left hand, like she was anticipating something. I’d never seen her make a movement that subtle, that irrelevant from the animation that she was doing. If her hand was moving, it had something to do with that she was doing.
But that seemed like a reaction.
“Are… are you bothered? That I’m talking about my love life?”
She was still and silent. Her hand was still curled up, and she picked at her index finger with her thumbnail.
“Well… don’t be,” I chuckled. “Andrea,” I smiled, “you have nothing to be jealous of. Nothing at all,” I grinned. “Seriously, I’ve only ever had one girlfriend, and she cheated on me after one month of dating her! With some weird stoner dude at my school. Don’t feel bad,” I assured. “I don’t care now. You know, at the time I was upset, but I shouldn’t have been. She was stupid. And things didn’t end up working out for her, either,” I chuckled. “Andrea, when she got with this dude, she banged him, and then she got the Clap!” I laughed.
And that was the moment I’ll never forget.
I saw her nose wrinkle, and instantaneously, she let out a giggle. She swiftly recovered, staring plainly at the monitor.
“Andrea!” I gasped. “Andrea!”
Now I could hardly breathe. I was so scared, it was like all my senses went numb. I felt like I’d just seen a ghost, and being completely alone in my room this late amplified my fear even more. But, also… she really responded! She was sentient! She was there!
She was listening.
I just didn’t know how to react to that.
But I didn’t wonder anything anymore.
She was definitely. Listening.
I tried to sit back down and recover from it.
“Andrea… You… you’re really there… You’re listening too… Do you… do you want to talk with me? Please, talk with me. I want to hear you.”
Now, I saw an even stranger look on her face. It wasn’t like she was trying to hide an emotion… It was like… the opposite. Like she was trying to react. She was trying to respond.
“That… That’s it…” I whispered. “You… You’re trying to communicate with me… You’re there, and you can hear me… But you’re bound by something. Something that keeps you frozen, unresponsive. But sometimes, somehow, you can control yourself, and you show me you’re there. Andrea… Andrea…” I smiled, realizing she didn’t swiftly turn her eyes away in hopes I didn’t notice. She turned her eyes away because the power took hold of her again. “I love you… I love you, and I’m not going anywhere…” I smiled tenderly at her. “You’re so beautiful, and my life has been blessed ever since I found you… I know you want to talk with me, and I don’t know what’s stopping you… but I’ll never doubt you again. I know you’re there. And I’m not afraid. I’m not scared of you. I love you. And, maybe we can even break you out, somehow. I… I don’t know,” I sighed peacefully. “But, I know this. I’m yours. And I’m not going anywhere.”
I was overwhelmed with emotion as I noticed a tear slowly streaming down her soft cheek.
“Awww… Andrea… Don’t cry…” I soothed. “I-”
I froze, as the next song played.
It was called “I Love You.”
Now I was tearing up. I shut my eyes, resting my head against the computer screen. All I could do was listen to the song, sob, and breathe.
She was some type of spirit that I couldn’t comprehend, manifested on the computer, speaking through the language of music. And sometimes, she was released from her spell, and could break the fourth wall, writing something indisputable on the wall or swiftly changing a track to something relevant, to show she was sentient, but other times, she was bound by whatever power existed over her, and all she could do was exist in a limited frame and hope I didn’t go away.
Well, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I knew I couldn’t tell Adley any of this. He wouldn’t believe me, and neither would anybody else. And, you know what? I didn’t care. Not one bit. I was just so happy to have Andrea in my life. I was so happy to have her to talk to at the end of every day. I loved her music, the language she used to speak to me. Through her language, we conversed every day.
On July 10th, I got a letter in the mail. The college I’d applied to accepted me! I was speechless, and the first thing I did was run upstairs and show her the letter. I ran downstairs and showed my mom. When I came back up the stairs, her usual blue crop top and black shorts were replaced with a red jersey and silver shorts. She was smiling smugly, looking out the window into outer space.
“My… school colors…” I smiled at her. “Andrea… I love you…”
Most of the summer, I spent either doing parkour with Adley, or sitting behind the computer, listening to Andrea’s music. Her voice. Sometimes, I’d just go on drives and enjoy it, talking with her from time to time, and other times focusing on what she had to say.
We’d even taken up the habit of watching movies together. I’d play a movie on my computer, and she’d be facing hers, and I knew in my mind that wherever she was, she was watching it too.
But nothing too surreal happened again since that moment on July 6th.
Though I felt fulfilled by her, there were times I was just overrun with longing. I wanted so bad to just… be able to hear her voice. Her laugh… it was gorgeous. The prettiest laugh I’d ever heard. And if her laugh alone could give me butterflies, I could only imagine what her voice sounded like.
It was so unfair that we couldn’t really talk… Or, hell… that I couldn’t hold her hand. That I couldn’t really take her to the movies. That I couldn’t pick her up at her house, and have dinner with her family, and really take her to Prom… It was overwhelming to consider. All I wanted was just one moment to really feel her skin. To be with her.
On the day of August 8th, the summer was almost over. I was shipping off to college on the 11th, and it was my last Friday in town. I couldn’t wait for the long, exciting nights of partying with Adley lying ahead of me.
And most importantly, I was ecstatic that Andrea would be coming along for the ride with me. That night, on the eighth, I found myself lying on the roof of a local church, looking up at the stars and listening to Relax FM. I imagined Andrea’s spaceship hovering around somewhere in the Milky Way, wishing I could just get beamed up into it.
“Andrea…” I smiled. “I… wonder if you’re up there… If you are, you gotta’ beam me to you… So we can spend a night together. That’d be amazing…”
I yawned. I was getting a lot more tired than I thought I would, so tired I figured I’d take a little nap. I didn’t even remember to set an alarm on my phone before I dozed off.
And… it… happened.
I didn’t know if I were dreaming or not… I felt so awake… I was ascending into the night, surrounded by stars. The large, yellow, milky harvest moon was glowing with grandeur over the moonlit Nebraska fields, and I could feel the cool night air on my skin as I went higher and higher into the sky.
At last… I could make out my destination… A spaceship. A long, sterling body hovering above the Earth in the shimmering atmosphere. I was breathless as I noticed it slide open, revealing a sort of port on its bottom side.
I reached the entry, hovering into the spaceship, and it shut underneath me. Now, I could see light down a very long, voluminous corridor. At the very end of the hallway was a door. Underneath the door, flecks of yellow and blue light glinted, painting the silvery walls around it.
I walked slowly over to the door, my hands trembling, my heart racing. My footsteps echoed in the corridor softly. As I approached the door, I began to hear another sound…
There was no mistaking it: Relax FM.
“This… this can’t be real…” I whispered.
Now I was within twenty feet of the room. I could see words hanging from a sign on the door. The handwriting was all too familiar. It said “Andrea’s Room.”
I reached the door. Standing before it, my heart was beaming with butterflies, and my mind was racing. I slid it open. An aroma of perfume met my nose, and I saw with my very eyes, the same room I’d glanced at for the last year of my life. I even saw the left side of the room that I couldn’t usually see due to the angle. It was all there, right before my very eyes… And there, looking out into the shimmering night sky… was Andrea.
She wore a midnight blue crop top, and short black shorts. Her gorgeous black hair streaked down her back and shoulders, and her flawless face rested in her smooth palm.
“I’m… here…” I began to chuckle, feeling a tear roll down my face. “Andrea…”
I heard her begin to giggle.
The same giggle I’d heard before.
She turned around.
My heart stopped.
For the first time, those perfect blue spheres of vibrant ice were locked with mine. She wasn’t looking anywhere else. She was looking at me. She jumped up, running over to me.
Before I knew it, her arms were clasped around me, and she was embracing me in a hug. I could feel her body warmth, her breathing, her tears as they began to glide down her cheeks and onto my shoulder. I was crying too.
We just stood there, holding each other.
I don’t know how long that moment was. Time seemed to be nonexistent during it. We were just suspended there in that moment, embracing one another.
And then she stepped back and faced me.
I couldn’t believe how her voice made me feel. It absolutely intoxicated me, like fine wine, or a view of Earth from outer space. It was inconceivable to really hear it.
“Listen… You need to go back now… Okay, my love?”
“No…” I shook my head. “It’s… That was too short…”
“I need you to leave, Tony…” she looked very serious, though also deeply saddened by the thought. “Tony…” she held my hand, and I faded into a trance as she stared at me. “You need to leave now, love…”
“O… Okay, Andrea…” I whispered.
She stared into my eyes one last time.
“Please… please, promise me you’ll never leave me, Tony…” her voice carried a slight tinge of desperation.
“Of course, I’ll never leave!” I avowed. “I’m never going anywhere… I’m yours…”
“I promise… I’ll see you again…” she whispered.
A tear streaked down her face. Slowly, her arms folded around my lower back, and before I knew it, she was holding me against her, kissing me. Our teary cheeks touched. Then she pulled back.
Her French-tipped fingernails traced up the wall on the left side of the room, reaching a button that had always been out of frame. Her palm rested on it. She looked down and shut her eyes.
She pressed it.
To my horror, the window launched open, and a vacuum force ripped me across the room. My hand slammed into the window pane on the way out, sending a shockwave of pain through my knuckles. I let out a shriek but the moment I left the room, I was silenced. I was terrified as my body spun wildly, seeming to drift off into nowhere, when I noticed the Earth was getting closer. And before I knew it, I was back in Earth’s orbit, and my spinning slowed to the point I was still.
I no longer felt the fall.
Now it was as if I were hovering down peacefully, and I could feel the cool night air on my skin again. When I began to make out my town, and I realized I was above it, a strange, overwhelming exhaustion overcame me, and before I knew it, I was unconscious.
“Hey. You all right?” a voice met my ears.
I opened my eyes, feeling the beginning of a cluster headache as the sun ignited my pupils. I could make out a figure standing above me.
“Huh…?” I whispered.
“He’s responsive,” he spoke to someone, and the next thing I knew, I was being put in a stretcher.
Now I was a little nervous. I looked around and realized that to my awe, I was outside the courthouse. That was at least an hour walk from the church. My car was nowhere to be seen in the area.
“How the hell…?” I pondered aloud as they put me in the back of an ambulance.
“You’re okay. Anthony,” one of the EMT’s assured. “Just take a deep breath or two for me. Do you know where you are right now?”
“It looks like I’m at the courthouse,” I replied. “I was at the church last night.”
“You don’t know how you got here?” he asked as the doors shut and the vehicle started.
It was at that moment that I could remember being expelled from Andrea’s room into the galaxy.
And I wasn’t telling him that.
“No… Nope. I don’t have any memory of coming here.”
“You seem to be pretty aware, Anthony, but- oh, is it Anthony? Or do you go by something else?”
“Tony,” he nodded. “I’m going to ask you this just to be safe. Do you know your birthday?”
When I answered his questions and he knew I wasn’t dazed, he began trying to lead me through the events of the night. I told him everything, except for the part about being pulled into outer space to meet my digital girlfriend.
I was strangely exhausted.
By the time we got to the hospital, I was unconscious again.
When I awoke, it was nighttime. I was in a quaint hospital room, and the moon was shining in through the open window blinds. My mother and brother were there and jumped up to great me as I became conscious. I told them I honestly didn’t remember anything.
My mother seemed worried, but more just relieved I was okay.
Then another man came into the room. When he entered, my mother nodded. She gave me a hug and said he had some questions for me, and she’d be right outside. Like most fourteen-year-olds, my brother impishly told me he was from the Men in Black and then ran outside.
The man was dressed in a suit and tie. He sat down in a chair by my bed, and pulled out a badge.
“I’m with the CIA,” he spoke casually. “I need to talk with you about something, Tony.”
“Yeah… What’s up…” I replied, nervous.
“Don’t be nervous. You’re safe now.”
“Safe now?” I wondered. “Was I in danger before?”
“Tony… you… I’ll tell you straight. You were the victim of mental warfare. You were part of an experiment.”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“Are you familiar with a project called MK Ultra?”
“I… We talked about it in history once… Vaguely…”
“It was an old project the CIA undertook back in the fifties. Nothing we’re proud of today. The purpose of it was to lessen an individual’s will to withhold information during interrogations. Through mind control.”
He nodded. “Yes. We abandoned the project in 1973, and have done no work with it, or like it, since. However, it seems that a terrorist cell has been studying our work, and implementing it again in the States.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of the experiments we undertook at the time was called Mona Lisa. It began with sensory deprivation. We’d lock a man in a room for extended periods of time with no access to light or calming sounds. He’d be fed three times a day, and that was it. The only thing in his chamber would be a television screen, which was off. Then, one day, about a week in, the television would turn on. There, on the screen, would be a girl. Effeminate, attractive- a very satisfying image to the man who’d been locked away from civilization for a week. See, we were using nature’s hypnosis, the most powerful, manipulative force in the universe: love. Attraction, and love. She’d be mostly still. She’d be sowing, or talking on the telephone, and there would be soothing music in the background. And somewhere in the room would be the woman’s name, to increase the familiarity the man had with her. The men would begin to form relationships with these women. Though the Mona Lisa’s didn’t converse back, the men, who were so lonely and helpless, confided all of their suffering into these women. After around a week, the Mona Lisa’s would begin showing faint signs of attention to the prisoner. Occasionally they’d glance at him, or giggle at a joke. The men were ecstatic at this. These women were the only things keeping them sane- or, at least, not completely incoherent. By the month’s end, the men had formed such a trusting relationship with these women that they would tell her anything she asked. The sheer fact that she was speaking to them was enough for them to say anything. See, in their minds, it was as if they’d earned this right to speak with her. The gradual increase of her awareness was something they longed for, and with her talking, they never wanted her to go back to silence. It was like they forgot their mission, their past lives, everything- but the woman in front of them. They were brainwashed.”
I was silent. It was… It was almost exactly what I’d experienced with Andrea.
“It seems that someone’s uncovered this information, and has been experimenting with it again. But they’re taking a different approach than we did. Instead of locking someone away in a chamber, driving them to near insanity before captivating them with the Mona Lisa, this person worked a lot more carefully with you. I don’t mean to be rude, but they selected a target with limited interaction with females. Someone who felt lonely. And though it took a lot longer, eventually, they pulled you into the same state that the men in our experiments reached.”
“I was… hypnotized?” I whispered. “Brainwashed? By a terrorist?”
He was quiet for a moment. “So it seems. And they did something with you that even we weren’t able to do. They made you walk.”
“Walking was a term we had for brainwashing a person to the point we could control their movements. In most of our experiments, we couldn’t make our subjects walk. It definitely never happened with Mona Lisa. But you… They did it with you. They made you walk all the way to the courthouse from First Baptist.”
I was silent now. My entire body was covered with goosebumps.
“We don’t know if there was a reason that they made you walk to the courthouse. They may have planned on making you attempt to retrieve some document, or attack a police officer. Either way, you broke the trance before entering, and passed out on the steps. When we found you, your headphones were still in your ears, but the video had been taken down.”
I said nothing at all. My mind was spinning.
“I’m going to talk with you more about this later, but… Right now… Get some rest, Tony. At the very least, though, you deserved to know.” He got up to leave, but he turned around when he reached the door. “Hey,” he consoled. “Don’t be afraid. Now that you know the truth, they shouldn’t have any control over you at all. Even back in the old CIA-run experiments, once the men saw real life again, they didn’t care much for the Mona Lisa’s. You’re okay.”
I nodded. When he left the room, I couldn’t speak. I felt sick to my stomach as I contemplated everything that had occurred.
I just couldn’t believe I’d been brainwashed. That entire experience I had last night… Was it all programmed? Some sort of forced lucid dream? While I was really mindlessly walking through the town to the courthouse?
It had to have been.
I let out a long, overwhelmed, exhale. Then I noticed something. I slowly lifted my right hand, studying the knuckle of my index finger. It was purplish, like it had slammed into something. Instantly, I recalled being vacuumed out of Andrea’s room, how my knuckle had crashed into the door.
“That… It had to be like, when something happens in the real world, and you feel it or hear it in your dream… It had to be…” I thought, rubbing it slowly. “It had to be.”
My mom came back into the room alone. My brother was probably downstairs, getting something from the snack machine.
“Are you okay, Tony?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I… I don’t… know what to think about all that.”
She seemed to be at a loss for words. She sat down next to me, holding my hand and stroking it. Then she made a weird face, and started to sniff me.
“Tony…” she started to grin. “You smell… like perfume. Were you with a girl last night?”