Walls of Paradise
Olivia heaved her blankets further around her shoulder, the humid night air tickled the back of her neck, giving her chills. One eye was buried in her pillow, the other fixated on the door across her room. It looked miles away, and yet she knew if anything passed through it, it would already be far too close. Her heart beat like relentless knocking, startling her with each pulse, but she dared not move. She could feel someone looking down at her, waiting… anticipating her every move, her every breath. She felt them, fully present, but she knew if she looked she would see nothing.
Falling asleep was her only chance to find them, to be rid of them, but it petrified her to even close her eyes. A tear rolled down her cheek (or was it sweat), please let them go away. Let them leave her alone. She regretted ever coming here… for building this damn house and losing herself inside of it. She thought it would be her escape, but it would be her prison.
It had never been about the technology for her. It was the opposite, in fact. Olivia had been born into the clutches of nostalgia. If she ever had her nose pressed against the scratched glass of her twenty-fifth floor cube, it was because she was looking at the ghosts of flappers and top-hat wearing gentlemen strolling the sidewalks below. The technology was just a tool- like a looking-glass to the past where the ghosts of her imagination were as clear as day.
The project started out simply enough. She was going to reconstruct her Aunt’s dollhouse, but full size, so at last should could walk around its old victorian corridors. She slipped in and out of the simulated house, adjusting scale where she needed to and combing through the details the original craftsmen had included. Their work was admirable, but once she stood inside, there was an unusual coldness to it. It felt like a stage, an imitation of a home only meant for display.
It was beautiful, however, and there was no shortage of things to occupy herself with. Olivia extended the simulation to include a colorful garden, which always could use more attention. She started painting the walls, enjoying the simulated feel of an old-fashioned brush in her hand, and moving the furniture to better suit her comfort rather than display. She even started moving her files into it, hanging pictures on the walls in ornate frames, and filling the shelves with dusty books. It was so comfortable to read them here, with warm sunlight casting through the windows and a gentle breeze freshening the air with the smell of daisies.
Dozing off in a chair or in the four poster bed would inevitably pull her out of the fantasy. She would wake up in her box of an apartment, where everything seemed distant. Food had no taste, walls had no color, and the city pulsed outside the window like it was a looping image on a flat screen TV. Every break for reality was dismal recurring dream, where the best she could hope for was that she pass invisibly by the people packed into the boxes surrounding hers.
Olivia was arranging flowers from the garden into vases around the house when she first felt it: a tingling on the back of her neck. She slipped out of the simulation to check the connection, and noticed a shadow at the crack under her door. It stepped away before she could open it. There was a handful of people bustling past in the hallway, it could have been any one of them. The janitor scrubbing the scuffmarks from the doorframes, the teenagers carrying bags of take out, or the man checking his phone on his way to the staircase.
The next time she felt it, Olivia tried to ignore it. She tried generating a tree to climb, but the tingling continued to get more acute. It was more than a tickle, it was like she was being watched, though there was nobody else sharing the sim. It was not even connected to a network. She spent the evening looking at one of her books but not absorbing a word, as her mind raced at every tiny creak and movement in the house. She put on a record until she fell asleep with the book on her lap, jumping back into reality, and hoping there would be a clear answer to the feeling.
She only found her apartment door unlocked. She shivered, even though her air conditioning had been broken for months.
The longer she stayed in the house, the more she inevitably started to replace. Every part of it was crafted, though and it seemed like such a waste. She began filling the attic with old files and decorations that she had since improved on. She heaved a box up through the trapdoor and began climbing the wooden ladder behind it. As soon as she climbed up enough to see the dusty room, she felt the overwhelming sense that someone was with her. Someone was in the attic- or were they in reality? She shuddered, feeling her throat tighten. Please go away. Please just leave me alone.
Then something grabbed her leg.
Olivia yelped, falling from the ladder and spilling onto the hardwood floor. She desperately looked around, but there was nobody. She scrambled to her feet but it felt like something was clutching at her skirt. She yanked it away from the invisible fingers. “Stay away from me!” She shouted, knowing whoever was there couldn’t hear her. Her body was paralyzed, helpless, while in her mind she ran to her bedroom, eyes thick with tears.
Go to sleep. Just go to sleep. But her heart was pounding, and she couldn’t slip into sleep with the sense that someone was standing above her. Every detail of the room that she had crafted became a cruelty, another bar in the cage she built for herself. There was no comfort in the illusion anymore, it only felt like blinders.
Let me go… let me go. She begged the walls of her own creation.