The rest of the night was uneventful but also restless. I didn’t sleep a wink because I did not need to. For some weird reason, I was wide awake. I listened to music, checked out my favorite Twitchers, jumped in a few solo games, but nothing. No matter what I tried, I was wide awake. When the sun came out, I gave up and went downstairs for some grub.
After getting fat on waffles and bacon, I made my way to the clubhouse and upstairs to Conference Room #3, where Gerry had set up a gaming station for us to practice during the tournament. When I walked in, everyone was already there. I was met with cheers and applause, which made me feel awkward for some weird reason.
I’ve been an extrovert ever since I could remember. I lived for recognition, and the spotlight was my best friend, so where was this shyness coming from? Ever since the semi-finals, I have had these crazy moments where I felt like that really old flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like someone unscrewed my top, poured me out, and put something or someone else inside.
The team and I were hanging out and going over the strategy for the upcoming final when Gerry walked in. He called us to gather around and went into one of his patented speeches that sounded a lot like lines from a Captain America movie. We all looked at one another and tried not to groan out loud. Personally, I couldn’t give a fuck about Gerry’s crusty old speeches, but we all indulged him because the boomer was really good at his job.
Gerry finally ended his monologue with a series of deep heaves, trying to catch his breath. PhAded cheered and clapped with great enthusiasm, and eventually, we all followed with a lot less effort. Poor PhAded had always been the sensitive one. He needed to grow up some more and stop getting all sweaty over the smallest things.
As our little circle broke up, I walked up to Gerry and pulled him aside. “Hey Gerry, got a minute?”
Gerry’s lips curved downward in frustration with a small snort. “I’ve told you many times not to call me Gerry. My name is Gerard.”
“And I told you that I don’t like that name, so Gerry it is. Now can we talk seriously for a minute? I got a major problem going on, and I really need help.”
“Fine. Fine. What’s going on?”
“Honestly, I don’t know where to start. I’ve been having these weird visions or dreams about all this freaky-deaky stuff. They all seem so familiar and common, but I also had no idea what they were and where they came from. I didn’t even sleep at all last night. Felt like it was a normal thing. I’m legit freaking out here!”
Gerry’s eyebrows shot up for a few seconds as he stood there silently. Then his face lit up, and he smirked at me. “Wait, a second. How did you have weird dreams when you didn’t sleep? Are you trying to prank me again? ‘Cause I’m not going to fall for it this time.”
“Wait, Nani? That’s the fucking problem, bro! I’m going about my day, and all of a sudden, bam! I am somewhere else doing something else. And even more fucked up of all, I feel like I am someone else!”
A small gasp escaped Gerry, and he took a step back from me, physically shaken for a quick moment. Then he…recovered? “What the hell are you talking about? Are you high? How is that even possible? Don’t tell me that the one team member known for having ice in their veins is actually starting to crack.”
I took a big breath as my shoulders slumped. Was this what was really going on? Was I cracking under the pressure of the tournament? The first time I spaced out was during the last match, after all. Yet, everything else that’s been happening since has been away from gaming. And even after my spacing out during the match, my play was still smooth. I didn’t BM…much. I didn’t get all sweaty, and I definitely did not play like a boosted ape.
Noticing my demeanor change, Gerry put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and shook me gently. “Look. I know you’re freaking out, and I don’t blame you. If all sorts of crazy things were happening to me, I would feel the same too. So how about this? Let’s concentrate on beating Team Pale Zombie tomorrow, and then we’ll figure out what is going on with you. Deal?”
I nodded, my head still down. We were so fucking close to ending Team Pale Zombie and sending shock waves through the Esports community. All I had to do was get my shit straight for a few more days. Losing to the Zombies fair and square was one thing. Yeeting myself out of the tournament like some zoomer and letting everything go to shit was not an option. I needed to stay in my space and do my thing.
“It’s a deal,” I told Gerry in a low voice, still not in the mood to pick my head back up. “I’ll do my part and try to win the finals. But after that, I’ll need a break so I can figure out what’s making me crack.”
“Sounds good, then. Once the finals are over and done with, we’ll do all we can to figure this out.”
I walked away from everyone, still feeling icky about everything but also feeling more determined to see things through for myself, my family, and my team. None of us were the product of a rich family. Everyone’s gaming machines were frankensteined from new and old parts, trying to keep them as updated as possible with the ever-moving technology.
The bottom line was that we all busted our asses for the opportunity to make it to the finals, and we all needed the money. So not making it to the finals by getting disqualified was not an option. I needed to see this through, and I would.
That evening I decided to order food in and try to get to bed at a decent time. Hopefully, I would get some decent sleep. I ordered a fruit platter and a cheeseburger and sat on the couch to watch a movie. I was just getting into the movie when some dude from the restaurant rang the bell. He brought the food in on a fine tray with real plates under shiny domes and everything. Mighty classy for a burger and some fruit.
I pulled off the dome over the cheeseburger and was pleasantly surprised. It was a monster and yummilicious too. I smashed it so hard. I think I forgot to breathe a few times. I leaned back on the couch, full and happy, forgetting the weirdness of the last few days for a while. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.
As the movie was winding down, I reached out for the fruit plate and removed the dome. It looked really good. There were strawberries, grapes, sliced apple, pineapple, and mango, along with some melon cubes. The center of the plate held a hefty amount of yellow and white cheese cubes. Home run!
While I kept my gaze on the movie, I started popping random fruits and cheeses into my mouth. That’s when I heard it. A tiny whisper registered right above the noise coming from the TV. It stopped me mid-munch, mouth still propped open. I couldn’t make out any words, but it sure as shit was there. It was like trying to understand someone talking behind a wall.
With the shock finally washing over me, I slowly closed my mouth and looked around, still too freaked out to move. The voice was near, but it was unintelligible, so it made it really hard to pinpoint. Just when I was about to gauge the location of the whisper, I heard a soft giggle. What the fuck?
My mouth dropped open again as my eyes fell to my hand, holding two grapes. For a second there, I thought the grapes were talking to me. Tears welled up, blurring my vision. As badly as I was freaking out, there was a small part of me that was curious about the whole ordeal, still trying to figure out where the voices were coming from. My mind was reeling, not from fear, but anxiety.
I closed my eyes and tried to center myself and take back control of what was happening. Looking inward, I let out a small gasp as another voice joined in with the other two. And another, and then another. That’s when I realized that the voices were coming from within. They were coming from inside my head, and that calmed me down strangely enough. Once I knew where it all was coming from, I could concentrate my energy there.
Taking a deep breath against the now multitude of voices in my head, I let myself relax and closed my eyes. I tried to gather myself with every breath, starting small and building my strength from within. I pictured myself growing bigger and bigger, making the voices smaller. My breathing became deep and steady. I was going to fight this from the inside.
A voice that sounded just like mine, but was not exactly mine, rang out with some unknown power in my mind. “You will not prevail here. I am the master of this domain.” For a quick second, my heart skipped a beat out of fear because the voices rose in volume, but just as quickly, the volume dropped. Using the momentum, I kept repeating the same thing over and over again like a mantra, and sure enough, the voices died down completely.
Feeling the calm wrap around me like a blanket, I took one more deep breath and opened my eyes. I felt disoriented and looked around, trying to figure out why I felt so displaced. I realized that it was a bit brighter than I remembered it last. I tapped my phone to check the time and did a double-take. It was almost six in the morning, and the sun was coming up. Apparently, I must have fallen asleep while concentrating on shushing the voices. At least, that’s what I was making myself believe. Definitely a lot better than the alternative.
Not only was I wide awake, but I was full of energy, so I decided to find a way to burn it. At first, I walked around the suite, just visualizing the gameplay for the finals in the evening. I ran through strategy, counter-strategy, loadout options, synergies. I weighed all the variables and trying to predict the opponent’s play style was daunting, especially the seasoned veterans to Esports like Team Pale Zombie. I was sure we could take them, though. It wasn’t just a feeling. I just knew. And I was getting fucking pumped already.
Getting this worked up with still almost twelve hours to go was no bueno. So I decided to take a dip in the pool. I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed an oversized towel. As I headed out of my suite, I saw Gerry come out of the elevator, head down, talking on his phone. He looked up at me and waved frantically as his face beamed.
“Dee! Just the person I was looking for. I have some amazing news, amazing news!”
I smiled back at him and nodded my good morning. “Hey, Gerry. Amazing news, you say? Did the zombies forfeit the finals?”
“What? No. That’s not the news. It’s even better than that! We just got offered a spot at next week’s Chicago Invitational! Win or lose in the finals we’re already in. And the purse is hefty! Fifty grand just for participating, and the winner gets half a million dollars!”
I just stood there soaking it all in. My first thought was that it was an amazing opportunity to make even more scratch, something we all needed. My second thought was of the conversation Gerry and I had the day before. About trying to figure out what was going on with me after the finals were over.
Gerry was just standing there, a big smile on his face. Yet I could sense something else, too. Trepidation? Fear? I couldn’t tell exactly, but it was there. He was standing there, waiting for a reaction, so I decided to share my first thought and bury the second one.
“Wow, that’s great news! We could make a lot of cheese in Chicago. Does everyone else on the team know?”
“Not yet, but they will soon. I’m heading over to their suites to tell everyone in person.”
“Awesome. I’m gonna go for a dip. Catch you later.”
“Sounds good. Enjoy your swim!”
Gerry’s eyes never left me until I reached the elevator. Even though I couldn’t see him staring at me, I could feel it, and that made my anxiety spike a bit. What the fuck was this all about? As I made my way down to the pool, I couldn’t get the idea that something was wrong here out of my head. Thankfully, it was still early and a bit chilly, so I had the pool all to myself.
I took my shirt off and laid it on a lounge chair, threw the key-card on top, and dropped my towel over both. I slipped off my sandals and stepped down into the calm water. The pool must have been heated, because it was much warmer than the cool morning air. I dipped forward and swam a few laps at a slow pace.
Once my muscles loosened up, I leaned back and closed my eyes, letting the water lift my legs and carry me around. With my head half-submerged, all I could hear was my own breathing and the gentle trickle of water bouncing every surface around. I loved floating like this. It made me feel like I was part of the water. Like seafoam on a gentle wave. Seafoam!
The word struck me like a slap in the face, and my body jerked. The sudden movement was enough for me to lose the dance of balance with the water, and I got dragged under. On instinct, I took a deep breath before sinking down toward the bottom. I tried not to panic, since I knew the water was not too deep. All I needed to do was put my feet under me and push up. That was the plan, anyway.
I pushed up with my hands, bringing my legs under me again, and my knees found the bottom of the pool. Just when I put a foot down, ready to push up, I heard a female voice humming a slow tune. Without realizing it, my body went rigid again, like the night before, trying to trace the source of the voice. It was circling around me, but it was getting closer and closer with every turn, like a shark stalking its prey.
Just when I was about to push up and out of the water, the humming stopped. My lungs were already complaining about the lack of air, but I chose to stand still for a few more seconds, unwilling to even open my eyes. Then the voice spoke to me. It was strong but gentle, commanding, yet full of kindness. And it only uttered one word.
I had no idea what Nisos meant, and I had no clue why my mind replied with whatever that word was, but it physically stunned me. I gasped, forgetting that I was in the water, and my body convulsed instantly. My eyes flared open, my vision blurring from the pain in my lungs and the chemicals in the water. I tried to push up with both feet, but they kept slipping.
I blinked rapidly and looked up at the water’s surface. It was just a foot away from me. In my panic, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. My feet finally found their footing, and I turned my head toward the shape as I kicked up. Was that a….woman with a fishtail?
I tried to take a deep breath as soon as my head broke the surface of the water, everything moving in slow motion. I wanted to inhale and cough at the same time. Then everything went black.
I didn’t want to, but I eventually decided to open one eye, and then the other, and then looked around in the dusty warehouse. I sat up slowly, trying to shake the cobwebs from my mind, then stretched languidly with a big groan. “Ohhhh, my head,” I said to myself, just to be sure I could still talk. “I don’t know who, but someone definitely spiked the punch last night.”