The [Loading] Screen
by Pauly Hart
With Editing assistance by Kim Gillham, Rebecca Gould, and Jennifer Hart
28th December, 2023
It was only a matter of time until I sank into the lake of shit. I was in the upper pad, away from the main staging area, far away from the dock. I was in the 1382d, one of our smallest telehandlers. My back wheels were going down, and I couldn’t stop them. It was an open cab, and when it was on solid ground, I was only 11 inches off the ground. The shit was creeping up into the cab and it was pooling up around my left heel. I had to do something.
Taking the fork-lift arm, I extended it forward and pointed the forks towards the ground. Pressing the joystick forward, it slammed into the muck, around twenty feet in front of me. Hitting the accelerator at the same time I retracted the boom, and I crawled forward just a little bit out of the muck. But the sucking was happening again, and the five feet I’d gained was being lost by the growing pool behind me. I tried to boom out again but the arm was slowly dying, being unresponsive to the controls. Somehow, the shit was growing up around the bright yellow body of the machine, with sentient tentacles.
The engine popped and the heating alarm went off with a strange melody: dee doo do dee dah to which I flicked the Dismiss button but nothing happened. I flicked the button again but the melody kept on playing. Outside the cab the engine was smoking now. Behind me, the pool had grown larger and I could see eyes at the bottom of it, peering at me. Red sharp fangs, exact replicas of chicken feet, shot out and snapped this way and that. The alarm was growing larger and louder, until unexpectedly I was shot explosively through a large white space into my brain.
Opening my eyes, my body pillow filled my vision. I reached over it to the shelf behind, fumbled for my phone, finally finding it, and hit the “Dismiss” button, mercifully the noise stopped. I rolled over and looked around the room. It was my room with my clothes on the chair, empty Pepsi can on the dresser, and smelling like my bad breath. Of course, it was my breath. That realization got me out of bed and into the bathroom to brush and shower and get ready for the day. I left for work and found myself having a moment to myself, looking out the window on the bus. I hadn’t worked for Lambert’s Construction in almost ten years. Why did I have that dream?
Morning routines around the conference table. Pitching, goal-setting, streamlining. Ugh, I hated the word streamlining. It made me think that we should all be wrapped in Teflon plastic. Brad’s droning stopped and it was my turn to share my goals for the week, the most enthralling of which was to make a new goal chart for everyone else in the office. Yeah, I had the glorious job of making others look good. Not a lot of joy in it for me though. That was alright. Give me a back office away from the reception area, where pesky clients didn’t walk by my desk. Except today someone did.
Mr. Kim and his translator stopped by to engage me in some aspects of Kaizen. They were Korean, yet still embraced the Nipponese philosophy of “continual improvement” as if they’d thought of it themselves. They wanted to go over all my charts. Well, that was until Mr. Randall came by. He was visibly shaken by the intercourse, gifting me his trademark glare and going on about how we couldn’t turn over “confidential business practices” to prospective clients. That’s not how Mr. Kim saw it at all and so, he was greatly embarrassed. Both men bowed a great many times before Randall ushered them away.
“Gemma, let’s not have that happen again,” he said flippantly as he walked past around an hour later.
“Oh yeah, can’t have our clients stealing our spreadsheets.” I smiled and toasted a Pepsi can towards him.
He grimaced and left, obviously butt-hurt that I didn’t bow like Mr. Kim. That’ll never happen. I didn’t see Randall again for the rest of the day. That is until he appeared before me in a 1920’s swimsuit, the kind that looks like a half-leotard including the obligatory horizontal blue stripes. It was sort of funny the way he held the beachball in his hands explaining to everyone, including the giraffe, that it was very important and we should make the ball very happy.
I was a little bit curious about how to make a beachball happy when Randall handed it to me with very serious creases on his face.
“I’ll have a full report about this in Q4 Gemma, don’t screw it up!” He told me, and stepped into the waves where a large whale was waiting for him, to take him wherever. The giraffe scoffed and told me I would really screw up if I didn’t feed it. I looked down and it was a baby. Looking back, everyone from the office had all wandered off and were setting up a badminton court. But, we weren’t at the beach any more, rather we were around 150 feet above it overlooking it and my chest hurt. Automatically my hand reached to place a hand on my chest and calm myself but… What the… I looked down and my chest was massive. Normally I was a B cup but now my aching chest was straining against the flimsy material. I realized then the baby was hungry, so I undid my top and let the little guy latch onto one of my ladies.
The giraffe was running up to me just then and I felt self-conscious. Although it was a little embarrassing, I held firm and took it in my stride. To my relief, he didn’t look down but opened his mouth wide and said: “dee doo do dee dah” which was very unsettling. He just kept saying it over and over and over again. He then opened his mouth really wide and, staring deep into it, I was drawn in and I somehow fell into a long white hallway. Once I stopped falling, I opened my eyes. I reached over my body pillow, feeling a slight case of deja vu, I fumbled off my alarm.
No Mister Kim today and Randall left me alone and I got my spreadsheets done on time and found myself wondering about the dream at lunch. I was around three bites into a Pastrami sandwich and just chewing along when unbidden my enormous bosoms flashed into my mind. I looked down and gave a little laugh when I remembered that I’d never been a mother and had no plans to be one. But then I remembered again the sensation of being swallowed and the giraffe’s mouth, or throat, or whatever… It was the same bright white place. A hallway? Anyway it was just like the night before.
Another Pepsi and a little salad for dinner, then brushing my teeth, shower and then toweling off my hair before going to bed. I always shower in the morning, and I’m always running late. My hair is short enough to go without messing about with product and prep. It’s a pixie, with Chelsea bangs. Not a full Chelsea, like fully shaved, cause those are hideous. Hitting the pillow, I figure I can hit the snooze button three times and still be alright with the time. I want to chase the dream tomorrow morning.
But it didn’t come. The interesting dream I was expecting was replaced with some boring memory of riding the train when I was a kid, except, it was upside down. Well, upside down for me, I was the only one affected by the strange twist in density and orientation, so only I was tumbling on the ceiling. “Dee doo do dee dah” said the man next to me, above my head. Now it was coming from his watch, I rolled over and hit the snooze button. “Dee doo do dee dah” said the little girl on the Ferris wheel. I hit the snooze button a second time but then, when it was time for the third one, it never came. There I was on the floor, wide awake; I had just fallen off my bed. I guess I must have slid off the bed. “Was this why I had all the messed up dreams about being upside-down?” I wondered.
I got up and picked up my phone. The alarm would go off in a minute anyway. I got ready and went to work, grabbing a Pepsi for the bus. Boring day. Wednesday. Meeting in the conference room. Randall gets to pester all of us about company privacy, glaring at me, because someone may have been careless. But I endure, and Roland, my (who is he?) wants to come over and watch Netflix, which is essentially his code for ‘booty call’ and, a little pissed, I turn him down.
Same designs, and hopefully no sliding off the bed tonight, and it happens. Maybe I didn’t dry off my hair enough but I’m aware that it’s super cold. Wait, we are in Antarctica! Of course, the place where the ‘flat earthers’ say the edge curls up towards the sky. And we’re taking sky-ice samples and there’s some weird dentist who’s a Neanderthal, or something, and he’s handing the samples very carefully you’d think it’s Napalm. But it is Napalm, he assures us. One of the samples is inside an old cell-phone case. It gets bumped and starts making the dee doo do dee dah sound, which is very frightening to everyone because it means that we’re all going to die now. I reach over my body pillow and tell the researchers that it’s alright we just need to go inside.
And we go inside and yes- it’s the white hallway I remember from before. Except I’m not cold, and it’s not Antarctica, and there’s no one else here but me. And, I’m no longer dreaming.
Long panels, off white, cream and butter, strange patterned wallpaper. The air was so thick that you could cut it like… Well, like butter. I take a step forward into the hallway and turn behind me and look at, nothing like the door I just walked through. It’s just more hallway.
It has the distinct flavor of lack of salt, if that’s a flavor at all. The room was set to “room temperature” in such a way that I didn’t know where my skin ended and the room began. It came with the feeling of such deep dread that I couldn’t place.
If there had been a place in her dreams that was so unrecognizably a dream, this had to be the place. The same hallway turned this way, and that. Off in the distance there was a slight musical tone that grew ever louder, the farther I walked down the hallway. I came to a door, the sound was behind it, I was sure. I opened the door that held the tone, then opened my eyes to the dee doo do dee dah of my cell phone.
And that’s all I could think about at work. Of course, Roland wanted to come over again.
Once, during the middle of the morning, I caught myself flipping through the company’s paid time off request forms, and, on a spur of the moment thing, filled one out for the next day, Friday. I didn’t tell anyone about it, and it was auto-approved, as I hardly ever used mine. I thought for a moment, and then went straight back into the system, and created a request for the whole of next week, and hit “Send.” – “Approved.” popped up almost immediately. Auto-approved! Wow. Literal astonishment. Randall would poop biscuits but he couldn’t do a thing. So, I got focused and worked like a crazy person pushing projects through as fast as I could. I shared folders of mostly-done work, when I couldn’t finish them. I left around 6:30 that night, happier than ever.
Turn off the alarm. No. better yet. Airplane mode. Nope. Just turn the dang thing off. Phone off. What else? Lights off? Blinds drawn? A ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the handle of the door? Pfft, she thought, no one came to her apartment anyway. Although, Roland might if I didn’t text him telling him everything was alright. OK then. Turn the phone back on, send a quick text. Going out of town? Sure. That was it. Gone for a week. No need to call or come by or… Whatever. Turn the phone back off. Wait. Dangit. Put the phone in the microwave oven. That’s a faraday cage. Done.
Do I even have food? I could Instacart it later. Sure, and I’m not even hungry now.
Wait. Should I do any melatonin? Benadryl? Nope. Good old Pepsi should do the trick.
And I’m out like a light.
But the rhinoceros didn’t think it was alright. What is it with me and zoo animals? Do I have something they want? Do they want me to do something? But the rhino acted like a Studio Ghibli character and just kind of hoomphed and turned his shoulder so you couldn’t see his face. And all around me it’s a Jackson Pollock painting, maybe “blue poles” or something like it. And there’s these little faces in all the larger splotches that look like my third grade classmates. There’s Heather and Tiffany and Jill. Jill looked a little weird. Oh yeah it was that awful haircut before she got bangs. But I slip in between Jill and that Thomas kid who tried to kiss me on the playground and there’s like a huge blue velvet curtain so I move behind that into the hallway.
It’s just a hallway.
It’s just a hallway.
It’s just a hallway.
And the longer I walk down the hallway, the fewer turns there are. Like in Vertigo, or Jaws, where the camera moves towards you, and it zooms out at the same time… Or the other way around. What did they call it? A dolly zoom effect? Yes, that’s the one. I remember that from Poltergeist, and it was a stupid hallway just like this one, except it’s made of butter with no salt. I hope there’s no large hole in the wall trying to suck me into an alternate dimension like hell like Poltergeist… Nah. That was just in movies, I try to convince myself knowing I’m lying. But I’m a bad liar. And, there’s no way to get farther down this hallway… Wait. This door on the left wasn’t here before, was it? Silence. I held my breath. It feels like that pure silence before the awful but necessary climax when you hold your breath. He’s about to appear, you just know it. So, you’re just waiting as you turn the handle to the door. It opens…
My alarm goes off.
That’s not right. My alarm can’t go off.
It’s a phone in my dreams.
On the wall is a microwave.
The phone is inside the room.
I open the microwave.
I answer the phone.
It’s made of foam.
The foam phone.
“Hello?” I say, into the foam.
“Hello?” I say back.
It can’t be me.
It’s like the hallway scene in “Us” with the rabbits.
It’s like the hallway scene in “Matrix Reloaded” with the keymaster.
It’s like none of those.
It’s the Wood between the worlds in The Magician’s Nephew.
That’s literally what it is because now I’m in the woods.
And then the foamy phone is gone.
Thanks C.S. Lewis. At least now I have no way of knowing how to get back home. Maybe Eustace Clarence Scrubb could show up and…
“Hallo?!” A voice calls out, sounding just like Eustace.
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me.” I say aloud.
“Oh I’m not him.” The not-Eustace says, before I could ask. “And I’m not from the Potterverse as well. A lot of people get us confused. It’s usually because of the argyle sweater vest.” He points to his argyle sweater vest.
I understand. “But really you’re actually not him because of the copyrights.”
He nods and says, “Please sit down,” motioning to a chaise lounge beside him, where moments before there was none.
The stillness of the woods leaves me, with the only sound of my heart in my ears, and I sit on a bench that, in the manner of the chaise lounge, appeared beside me.
He begins to speak, but I cannot make out his words exactly. He is ponderously slow, and the steady sound of a violin is accompanying him. The violinist, wearing a purple gown, nods at me and, at that moment, not-Eustace snaps his fingers at me and the violinist disappears.
“I said you have to stop narrating the story.” He is very serious.
“Of course I’m serious!” He almost yells.
Wait – how did he hear me?
“Because you’re not inside of your reality! You’re in mine!” He stands very tall and uncoils an impressive set of wings from behind him. They are red and black, like those of a bat drawn by Jack Kirby.
“And who exactly are you to forget Digory Kirke?” The creature asked.
“Wh-what?” I ask, now looking up at a twelve-foot tall demon, suddenly very afraid.
“It wasn’t Eustace in the woods. It was Digory Kirke and Polly Plumber. You’re thinking of Silver Chair.” The beast said. “This is The Magician’s Nephew!”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Of course.”
“And, they aren’t really paying attention to you.” He said, pointing to you.
“Who?” I asked, looking around. For he had pointed just over my shoulder at you, but I didn’t see you sitting there – only he did.
“Ah. You’re just the protagonist. Of course you don’t know about them.” The tall demon said more to you than to me, smiling, if you could call it that.
I was a little more disoriented than normal.
“Well, what happens now?” I asked. “Are you really in control? I just wanted to do a bit of exploring is all. That’s why I turned my phone off and took all this time off of work.”
The demon, whose name was Penume, glances at you and asks: “Well? What will it be? What shall I do with her?”
“But you don’t know, because up until this point you didn’t realize the story could know you were there, and now that it does, and the actual teller of the story isn’t Digory Kirke or Polly Plumber or Pauly Hart or anyone that you’ve ever known or thought to have known for that matter.
Rather, it is I, Penume, ancient Watcher from times gone by. I discovered to the children of men, bitterness and sweetness. I pointed out to them every secret of their wisdom. I taught men to understand writing, and the purpose behind ink and paper. Therefore numerous have been those who have gone astray from every period of the world, even to this day. For men were not born for this, thus with pen and with ink to confirm their faith; since they were not created, except that, like the angels, they might remain righteous and pure. Nor would death, which destroys everything, have affected them; but by this their knowledge they perish, and by this also its power consumes them.”
“That was impressive,” I say. “But you ripped all that from the first book of Enoch.”
“Shutup!” He waved me off and continued.
“And it is with these talons, yea my very hands that I teach and tell to this day, all the purposes of men behind the pen, to take up and follow me with their ways. Many tales they weave and cast them upon their holy holly boughs, the very wood they use to sacrifice their children to me and my kind. They sacrifice their children’s minds to the very thing they decry in their pews on the first day after Sabbath. Yet they deny the thought of me who puts within man the heart of malice and maggots the vitriol to despoil their world… All from their pens and keyboards.”
He appears breathless, and sags downward onto the chaise lounge, as if the very act of speaking was life-draining.
He smiles at me and says, “Oh, but it is.” And from behind him are his other two hands which have been writing down how he gave the speech and how the very words I was thinking as Pauly was writing them, he also was writing. And, I got very dizzy at it all and fainted there.
“Dee doo do dee dah.”
“Dee doo do dee dah.”
I wake and there on top of me, with his tongue in my mouth, is Penume, the devil, demon, watching me. He’s on top of me, literally, and his tongue has the firmness of cooked fish and tastes like cigarettes in a garbage disposal.
I want to vomit, I want to scream, I want to kill him. I retch and his tongue whips back out of my mouth and I sneeze violently, spraying gray foam all over the ground.
He quickly scrambles up and backs away from me. I think to reach out my hand for my phone and he laughs.
“Oh that wasn’t your phone.” He smiles. “I’m very good at mimicry.”
“I can see that.” I say, still disgusted from his mouth rape. But how did I fall asleep inside my dream?
“Why was your tongue in my mouth?” I ask, and spit out more of the gray foam.
“I was exploring your sinus cavity.” He gives a long whip-like lick of his eyelid. “There’s usually some delicious nuggets up there people forget about. Maybe I can do it again?” He stands as if I’ll give him permission.
“Oh abso-flippin-lootly not!” I scream.
But Penume is on me again. He’s put his scroll away and has two of his arms holding my arms down and now the ground is holding me as well. His other two arms are taking open the front of my toga. Oh my Lord God please help me. His tongue is out and a small fleck of drool is rolling down it, poised. It is poised there at the very end of his unfathomably long tongue to fall upon my…
And then, there it is… The most violent explosion of light and sound and manifest glory. An electric crack in the woods, like a rip in the fabric of the reality of the place. It’s a shattering of purple and green and orange and brilliant flashing lights. Another crack follows, like the sound of a mountain being torn in two, and a fragrance so sweet and light and good shimmers over me. Suddenly, the ground releases me immediately, almost like a rubber band, flings me askew.
I look, and a being like a man walks through the split in the mountain, towards us.
“Release my daughter!”
The Voice, like rushing waters, floods over us.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere and inside my head all at once.
Ahhhhh! The scream rips from Penume. “Son of David!”
“Release her, and let her go!” The Voice demands again. The forest itself vibrates with the very reverberation of His voice.
Barely has The Voice completed the demand, and Penume, falls back from me, quivering into a dissolving mess of pink taffy, and sinks into a large puddle at His feet, becoming a slog of pink slime.
The Son of Man comes to me, and holds out His hand.
Tears stream down my face. I can’t even form the words, thank you!
“No need to thank me, child.” I don’t know if He says those words out loud, or if, as water feels, I just know them.
He takes my hand in His and then He gestures to you, seated there.
“It was they who did this for you,” He tells me, gesturing towards you. “For it is within their power to parse the written words before the vile Watchers perverted them. And it is by their faith in The Word that they have declared it to become truth. And it is The Great Ruach in their hearts that allows them to discern lies and goodness from evil and truth.”
And then I wake up.
Stumbling out of bed, I remember my phone. I sigh with relief to see it’s still inside the microwave. I get it out and turn it on. It’s the only calendar I use.
I’ve only been asleep ten minutes.
Pauly Hart is a public speaker, actor, painter, singer, poet, and story-teller. His main focus today is writing. His latest works have involved novellas in the vein of “Classical Horror” from the Christ-centered world-view. The Horror story is the story where the character has to survive until the end. What better chance for survival than in Christ? Pauly writes not for the churchy types, but for those who would pick up a Stephen King book, giving them an alternative to the spirits. Pauly writes so that the Holy Spirit will have room made for him in modern day literature. He runs several websites all bent on leaving the mind of the atheist awash with the glory of heaven. You can find him at PaulyHart.com