Wake up, Benjamin .
Benjamin Park shifted in bed, pulling his bedsheets over his head. His dreams were loud, louder than normal, and that same loudness seemed to radiate into consciousness. Around him, his apartment was dark, save for a soft silver glow from the moonlight shining through the window, lighting him only slightly.
Wake up .
“G’ ‘way,” he mumbled in his sleep, waving a hand slightly. It wasn’t much, he couldn’t quite muster the energy to lift up his arm and gesture while still asleep, but it was something. In his dream, Benjamin prided himself on it, being able to wave away whatever was in his room.
It wasn’t enough, though, and something lurched out at Benjamin’s bed. Instinctively, he shot upright, eyes shooting open as he tried to catch his breath, and was suddenly face-to-face with-
“WHAT THE HELL?!”
At the foot of his bed sat a shifting figure, one that seemed to glow cyan, lighting his room. His eyes took a moment to adjust, and he scrambled back towards the headboard of his bed, shielding his eyes from the sudden light. “What the hell, what the hell, what the hell, what in the hell -?”
You’re finally awake! Good, I thought I was going to have to send you a dream to get you up. The figure’s speech was garbled, and yet Benjamin could understand it fully, as though it came through some machine that wasn’t quite a voicebox. My name is MAIA, and I’ve been sent to warn you!
“Warn- hold on, I have-” Still recovering from the fact that there was someone in his bedroom, not even grasping that that said someone currently radiated light and spoke inside of Benjamin’s head, Benjamin shook his head, holding up a hand. “I have several questions.”
The figure -- MAIA, Benjamin assumed, -- tilted its head to him. Yes?
“How did you get into my apartment, for starters?” Benjamin pointed a shaking hand at the front door, which didn’t seem disturbed. He distinctly remembered locking it before turning in for the night, a precaution often taken here, but for MAIA to have gotten in… He must have messed up.
And yet, the figure let out a staticky noise that Benjamin supposed was like laughter. I don’t need doors, silly!
“You- you don’t.” It wasn’t a question, more of a dumbfounded statement. Benjamin was questioning more and more these days, because of the Stratfords, this mysterious glowing MAIA, the Hoax and The Sentinel and The Sun … there were so many questions that flooded his mind, and apparently he just would get more. “Next question, um. Warn… warn me of what, exactly?”
MAIA cocked her head once more, much like a dog. The more Benjamin looked at her, the most distinctive a figure he could make out -- somewhat humanoid, glowing blue eyes. And then the figure shifted, and Benjamin was staring at a wooden box, then at something that looked similar to a robotic dog, then to the same humanoid. Warn you of what comes next.
“What do you mean?”
You will be visited by three spirits. That terrified Benjamin, and his eyes widened. MAIA must have sensed that hesitation and rethought her words. Not ghosts, though. Don’t fear ghosts.
“If-” He swallowed. “If not ghosts, then…?”
“Oh.” One more question nagged at him, and Benjamin indulged himself. “...Why- why are they coming?”
MAIA paused. Benjamin, she hummed, your future is in your hands. Your choices in the future are up to you, but they have repercussions. It may be wise to give yourself a chance to imagine.
Imagine. That was funny, really, Benjamin had never been prided on his imagination. That was Samuel and Rose’s job, not his. And yet, MAIA continued. You have to learn, Benjamin.
Learn to dream.
In a heartbeat, MAIA leaned forward and tapped her finger against Benjamin’s forehead, and he fell back against his pillow, mind strikingly quiet for once. It was peaceful, the chance to shut his eyes and not be plagued by wondering, and with a soft sigh, Benjamin fell asleep.
Your first spirit will arrive when the clock chimes one.
As though on cue, his eyes opened. His room was still once more, silent, save for the ticking of his clock. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The nerves were setting in, of course they were. He had been having trouble with his nerves ever since the first article hit the stands of The Sun , and since then, they had grown worse and worse. Worse still came after he made the choice.
Samuel had gotten the raise, Benjamin knew that. He knew that, deep down, his friend deserved it. Still, he couldn’t help the bitterness that lingered deep in his chest at the thought. He had been the one to print them, he had been the one to make their thoughts into reality.
He was the one being punished.
He was the one resorting to betrayal.
Slowly, Benjamin sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand as he adjusted to the darkness once more. Perhaps MAIA had been nothing but a dream, or some figment of his guilty consciousness trying to change his mind.
It was too late. His mind was set.
A shadowy figure dropped from the shadows of Benjamin’s ceiling, its voice scratchy and high-pitched, much like a child with a sore throat. For a moment, Benjamin was sure he was hallucinating, or better yet, still dreaming. This was a dream, it had to be, it absolutely had to be.
And then the creature stepped into the moonlight.
The bat-creature looked as though it was straight out of Benjamin’s worst nightmares. Dark rust-colored wings were on the back of its furry body, a bat-like face with a turned-up nose similar to that of a pig. It was small, perhaps four or so feet in height, but it looked up at Benjamin with its hands on its “hips”, and had that thing just actually talked oh my Lord oh my Lord oh my God oh my God what is that-
“Yeah, yeah, I know, cool your jets.” The bat-man hopped onto Benjamin’s bed with ease, standing in front of him. Its hands still were firmly on its hips, as though it was a disappointed parent looking down at Benjamin. “So. Benjamin Park, right?”
“Yeah- yes, yeah, yes, yeah, what-” Bat-man is talking to me- “What… what do you want?” His throat felt too dry, and suddenly, Benjamin was left wondering if he was actually ill, if this was all due to some bad reaction to an allergen. That would explain it, the hallucination, the upset feeling in his stomach that he wouldn’t admit was guilt.
The bat-man quirked an… eyebrow? Benjamin wasn’t sure if he should regard that as an eyebrow. “I’m here to show you your past. I’m the spirit of the past, friendo!”
“Who- my past?”
Benjamin glanced at his door, then at his window, then back at the furry little bat-man that stood on his bed. “Is… there any way not to do this?”
“Unless you’d like your life to be absolute toast, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal.”
Sighing, he sat up straighter. “Show me your wisdom, then.” It’s not like I’ll be sleeping much after this . A good night’s sleep was really what he needed, but it was most certainly not going to happen at this rate. Benjamin didn’t know what he expected, really.
Any expectations he did have, however, upon meeting the bat-man, were quickly brushed aside as it took hold of his wrist, its leathery wings unfurling from its back. Those wings, the grin that it gave him, the twinkle in those dark eyes, it was terrifying, but what was even more so was how it pulled him up into the air.
His bedroom window gusted open, as though blown open by a gale, and Benjamin cried out. “Wait, shit, no, ohhhh my god no, what are we-”
“Don’t let go!”
And the thing pulled him up into the air and through the window, out into the New York sky. The moon was high, the stars glimmering, and the city below peaceful for once. Any other man would have been amazed, but Benjamin was too busy screaming. “PUT ME DOWN PUT ME DOWN PUT ME DOWN PUT ME DOWN-”
“HANG ON, I TOLD YOU!”
The moon began to glow in the sky, something far more radiant than she normally shone, and Benjamin looked up, eyes wide. “ Is the moon- ”
“I said,” the bat-man called, and pulled on Benjamin’s arm, leading him up towards the moon. Higher and higher, further and further above the ground, “hold on!”
His breathing was shallow, panicked, and Benjamin clung to the bat-man’s hand as the moon shone bright and brighter, enveloping the world below in her silvery light.
Before he touched down on the ground, Benjamin knew the city below. It was New York, obviously, but not Printing House Square. No, this was where he had grown up, a smaller suburb just outside of the city. It was winter, and snow fell onto the ground below his feet as Benjamin and the bat-man landed in his past.
“Why are we here, spirit?” Benjamin whispered, looking around. He knew this place well, it was his childhood hideaway. The woods behind his parents’ house, where he would sit and read when everyone else was working. His father never did seem to stop working, and his mother was far too practical to read him stories. He taught himself, and he prided himself on it.
The bat-man didn’t respond, only gesturing to a cluster of birch trees with one leathery hand. Beneath the trees was a young boy, no more than ten years old, sitting with a small dog in his lap. He read from a pocket-sized book to the little animal, who snuffled at his hand as he flipped the page.
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine,” the boy read, his voice uncertain on certain words, but Benjamin knew them. Oh, he knew them too well.
He swallowed the lump in his throat, turning to the bat-man. “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream . I used to love it, it was… my favorite story when I was younger.” Benjamin couldn’t help his mind from straying, looking back to the boy. “My father said it was foolish.”
“To be fair, it is.”
“But I loved it.” His voice was little more than a breath as he looked at the younger him, pausing in his reading to scratch his little dog’s ears. “I loved how foolish it was. Who turns someone’s head into an ass’? It was… absurd, reading it, but I loved it.”
The bat-man cocked its head. “Why have you stopped loving it?”
Why had he? Benjamin knew the answer, and although it soured his mouth as he spoke it, he knew it to be true. “I grew up.”
From the boy’s lap, the dog hopped up, letting out a small yap , and ran towards the house, where a stern-looking woman was calling Benjamin’s name. Quickly, the boy covered his book, hopping to his feet and running to greet her.
“Come on,” the spirit said, nudging Benjamin’s arm, “there’s somewhere else I want to show you.”
This time, they didn’t fly. No, rather, the world melted around them, as easily as the snow from his childhood. In a heartbeat, the pair stood in the center of Printing House Square, the June sun beaming down at them from the sky. There was no temperature difference from 1818 to 1833, but Benjamin could feel the air change, he could feel a shift in his present self… and his past self, of course, who as he looked up from the ground, stood across the street from the Stratford Family Paper Stand.
“You like her,” the bat-man said, so quietly that Benjamin may not have heard if he wasn’t paying attention, “don’t you?”
Once upon a time, Benjamin would have scoffed. The idea of being in love with Rose Stratford was terrifying and enthralling all at once, and Benjamin was a simple man. He knew he would never be the adventurer she so longed to match with, and he had accepted that. And yet…
“Yeah,” Benjamin whispered. “I do.”
From the stand, Benjamin saw the pair of twins bustling about. Samuel, laughing, hitting Rose on the back of the head with a rolled up newspaper as she stacked the last of them in their small display. It was so domestic that his chest ached.
He remembered how he felt then, watching the two of them from afar like they were distant stars and he was stranded at sea. Benjamin longed to feel that sense of direction again, but that had sunk away as he lost his anchor. He was shipwrecked, and the Stratfords couldn’t help him this time.
As he did every day at this time, Benjamin watched his past self finally look away from the stand and hurry to his work at The Sun . Day after day, he would do that, and day after day, he would wish he had stayed to talk.
And then one day he did. It was as though Benjamin watched weeks pass by in an instant before he finally saw that day, that fateful day where he finally went up to the Stratfords.
“Benjamin. No, I’m- I’m Benjamin. I’m- Benjamin Park, New York Sun , I’m- you’re- Can I have a newspaper? ”
Internally, Benjamin groaned. “Of all the things I could have said-”
“Ah, young romance,” the bat-man crooned, patting his shoulder from where he fluttered mid-air. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
“You sound like a ten year old, please don’t talk about ‘young love’.”
“Fair enough.” With a snap, the square was gone, and Benjamin had reappeared somewhere he knew all too well. The fear must have showed on Benjamin’s face, because the bat-man frowned. “Oh, you don’t like this place, do you?”
“I don’t like what comes with it,” Benjamin whispered, and watched Chester Thomas spin around in his chair to face Benjamin. Instinctively, Benjamin -- the Benjamin viewing this -- closed his eyes.
“For the last time, Benjamin,” Thomas said, leaning back in his chair. “I will not give you that raise. Samuel is different than you, and while he may have also disobeyed me, you are the one who made the choice.”
Choices. It’s all about choices now, isn’t it? “But it’s a choice that pushed us forwards , sir!” Benjamin insisted, taking a step forward. “I did what was right for The Sun , and by disobeying you-”
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”
Right through the heart.
Samuel had told him once what the pain of losing his parents was like. The two sat together on the fire escape outside of Benjamin’s apartment, passing a cigarette back and forth to each other. “It felt like someone had stabbed me in the chest with an icy dagger,” Samuel had said as he leaned out, looking down at the city below. “The worst part was realizing that it was only the beginning of the pain.”
This wasn’t like that. Not exactly. Benjamin knew that, and yet the metaphor of a dagger struck him here. The word struck him to the core, and even now, Benjamin’s hands balled into fists at his sides.
Before either Benjamin could respond, he was back in his bedroom.
When the clock chimes two, prepare…
His hand clasped to his chest, Benjamin sat down on his bed breathing raggedly. Idiot. Why did that sting so much? He couldn’t place it, he couldn’t figure it out-
“CHRIST ALMIGHTY-” Benjamin promptly fell off of his bed, landing on something soft. Soft, he realized, and alive- “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU-”
On the floor of his bedroom lay a buffalo. A live buffalo, one unlike Benjamin had ever seen. Its dark blue fur seemed to spiral in the light from outside, its eyes glimmered with compassion and starlight. Its fur seemed soft to the touch, cottony rather than coarse and thick, and as it stood up, Benjamin was lifted onto its back with a graceful ease that seemed uncharacteristic of a buffalo. “A friend, Benji,” it replied, and once again, Benjamin’s bedroom window was opened. “Let me show you something.”
“No, no, nope, we are not flying again, no, no way , not a chance in he-OH MY GOD-”
It was too late, and the buffalo galloped out of the apartment through the window, leaping into the air. For a split second, Benjamin felt overwhelming panic, the realization that he was sitting on the back of a buffalo that just jumped out of his apartment window sinking in.
His hands tightened in the fur of the buffalo, preparing for the worst, but it didn’t fall. Instead, the moment the buffalo’s hooves were out the window, they were running through the street after the first article had hit the stands. People stood on every corner, excitement palpable in the August air as they talked loudly.
“What does it mean?” “Is there life?” “The moon!”
Benjamin only caught clips of the conversations, but even those soft words brought him joy. He was the reason for this, this excitement, this wonder. He was the reason that so many people found something to believe in, if only for a moment.
He was so caught up in his own thoughts, the buzz of the crowd, the excitement like electricity through the air that he hardly noticed that the buffalo had come to a stop.
Benjamin peered up, frowning. “...We’re… where’s here?”
Before him stood a hotel, the Westchester Hotel. He knew it, vaguely. Of course, he had never stayed there, nor had he any intention of it, but the buffalo seemed to know what it was doing. “Come with me.”
“Do I have a choi-OHHHH MY GOD-”
And then they were flying. Literally flying, and Benjamin was clinging to the buffalo’s back as he cried out. “ Oh my God oh my God oh my God-”
“Do you know what phantom pain is?”
That wasn’t the buffalo’s voice, nor was it Benjamin’s. Slowly, he cracked an eye open to see who it came from, and before him stood a woman. Her dark hair was pulled out of her face, her gray eyes misty with tears not yet fallen. She looked up at the moon, never breaking eye contact, even as she spoke to the man beside her.
“Who is she?” Benjamin whispered, and the buffalo made a noise that sounded like a contented hum. “Do I know her?”
“That’s Margaret Cavendish. She, like so many others, has found a home in your words.”
Oh . Benjamin’s chest felt tight. Perhaps he would cry, too. Tonight had already stirred so many feelings from him…
“I’ve always felt connected to the moon,” the woman whispered, and Benjamin nodded, grip on the buffalo’s fur loosening slightly as he relaxed. Her peace, her loneliness, her emptiness, it spoke to him on such a deep, terrifying level.
“...What will happen,” Benjamin whispered, “if I betray them?”
The scene shifted. Benjamin wasn’t back in his bedroom, nor was he on the ground of New York, but in his apartment. Standing in the corner, with a strange, shadowy figure leering in front of him. He could taste cigar smoke and coffee and something inside of Benjamin burned painfully at the mere thought.
This wasn’t his present anymore. He could feel that. Something had changed, and Benjamin knew it. The room felt dreamy, odd, shaky. Not quite there, as though he could fall through the floor or windows or anything and wake up.
This was all a dream, wasn’t it? Just a dream…
“It’s no dream, starchild.” A soft voice replied, as though it had heard his thoughts, and Benjamin turned around to see something that he never thought he would.
Its fur was a misty shade of shifting violets and pinks and blues and it seemed to glow, if only slightly. The edges of its form seemed blurred, as though Benjamin could blink and it would only be-
“I’m not a dream.” It repeated gently, in the same soothing tone as before. And despite himself, Benjamin nodded. “Do you see the man there?”
He did. Of course he did, the man stood in the shadows. Although he was obscured by smoke, his form was clear, and Benjamin could make out the details of his face if he squinted. Then again, everything felt hazy. Odd. Strange.
“You make a choice soon, one that will change everything, with this man.”
Choices. It’s all about choices, isn’t it?
Benjamin obeyed, and they were no longer in his apartment, but outside the Stratfords’ apartment. He raised a hand to knock at their door, but it creaked open of its own accord, showing a sight he never wanted to see.
“How could you do this, Benjamin? I thought we could trust you-”
Rose wasn’t crying. She wouldn’t cry, not in front of Samuel. They both knew that. There was an unspoken agreement that Rose was the composed one, she was older, she was going to be strong no matter what. And yet, her eyes were filled with tears, tears that she held back by sheer force of anger.
“You were supposed to be my best friend , and you turn your back for a bit of cash-”
Samuel was different. He kept balling his fists, then relaxing them, then repeating the motion. His breaths were short, shaky, and Benjamin could see that he was holding back tears as well, tears that he would let fall.
“...They hate me,” Benjamin whispered. His throat felt tight, his chest, too, and he looked back at the unicorn. “Spirit, tell me this- this is just a possibility. This isn’t going to happen, is it? If I tell?”
The room shifted around them as the spirit answered. “That’s up to you. The future is uncertain, but I show you what is possible. What could happen. Your friends could hate you, Benjamin, if you continue this. You’ll hurt those you love. What could be worse than that?”
What could be worse than that?
Benjamin dropped to his knees back in his apartment. The floor was solid once more, sturdy. Tears were cold on his cheeks, and he rested his hands on the floor, breathing. Just breathing.
“...I can’t- I can’t hurt them.” He whispered, as though talking to the spirit still. Or another one of the two, or perhaps MAIA. Or himself .
Yes, that seemed right.
The window was still open from the night before, and the mid-morning light leaked in. Morning, when had it become morning? It was midnight when he laid down to rest…
Knock knock knock.
…It was the man. The man from The Sentinel , Benjamin had invited him over to discuss…
He stood, shakily, and ran to the door, flinging it open. He was in his nightshirt, but it didn’t matter, not right now, for right now he just shook his head, pointing at the man. “Go. Leave.”
His lips twisted up in a crooked smile. “Mr. Park, I don’t-”
“ Go. Leave me, leave this place. You’re not getting a story.”
And he did.
It’s your choice, Benjamin .
He had made his choice.