Sunday, August 10, 2014

Age Seven

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Have you ever wondered why our memories can never go past the age of 7? Of why the first seven years of our life seem like a blurry pictures, where at best our memories only come in a brief snapshots, rather than a complete episodic view of an event? I have. 

The science community at large casually dismiss the phenomena on the assumption that our brain has yet to mature during that age, that the reason why we have trouble remembering our early years is because our neurons were not fully developed yet. Such naive fools. Because I know better. Because I have seen it. Something that those scientists could not even begin to grasp. 

A truth that is usually dismissed as a myth by them, confined into the dark shadows of the supernatural. The things that we usually associate with the unknown, to psychics and mediums, myths and rumours. One should count themselves as lucky for not having to go through what I've experienced. Because some truths are never meant to be uncovered, and better left alone as myths. 

I started my working life like many others. Graduating from a renowned university with the highest honours achievable, I was eager to make my mark in the world. To sort of contribute, you could say that, or to be recognized, which is another way of looking at it. With a degree in psychology, I have always been fascinated with the development of children. My thesis was specifically about them, examining in depth the phenomena of make believe and imaginative stories in children.

Children have always been extremely icreative in their stories, almost every parent can tell you that. They can create tons of imaginary friends out of a whim, come out with different settings and plots in which their stories take place. My thesis examining the nature of make believe was well received in the academic circle shortly after it was published, and my supervisor, Professor Wee, wanting to further examine the mechanics of make believe in children, asked whether if I would be interested to continue my work.

“A masters would be waiting for you if everything goes well,” was his promise, as well as all the funds that I would need for my research, plus some allowance. It was too good an opportunity to pass, so I said yes straight away. 

The first briefing was held at Prof Wee's office, as how I usually call him. It was located next to the main university campus, where I usually attended class. His office was a place that I had already knew very well from my frequent consultation hours with him, back during my thesis days.

I pushed open the glass door leading to the hallway where the host of Psychology Department offices are. The cold air from the air conditioner welcomed me, while the white fluorescent lamps greeted me indifferently. I walked a few steps forward to the third wooden door on the left, a door already known to me by heart. The golden embossed name on the door read "Professor Wee Ka Shiong, PhD." I knocked three times on the door, rubbed my feet against the carpeting on the floor as I have usually done, and pushed it open when a voice inside said come in.

Two other figures whom I did not recognize was sitting across Prof Wee when I entered, and they turned and smiled lightly towards me. One of them was a balding middle aged man, his face stern and serious, the kind of person that you wouldn't want to mess with. The other lady had curly hair, dressed in a lab coat. Prof Wee smiled to me, as he motioned me to the empty chair beside the two guests.

"So now lets get things started, shan't we," the professor said with a twinkle. He introduced me to the other two person next to me, two of them both professors as well. One from engineering, specializing in the building the brain scanner machines, such as the ECG and MRI machine, while the lady was from the Neurology department, speacializing on the study on human brains. They nodded gently when Prof Wee introduced them, their expression not changing much since the start. I could only wonder why I was the only graduate student caught in the midst of three professors.

After the introduction, Prof Wee turned his attention back to me.

"As I was saying over the email, the reason I've contacted you is because we're looking to conduct a deeper research into your thesis," he waved his hands towards the other two professors as he talked, to indicate that they were the "we" that he was talking about.

"Particularly on the section in which you described as unsettling in your discussion part," the professor added, as I felt my body tense up at the mention of "unsettling". It was something that has always bugged me during the research period of my thesis, something which I have always tried to brush it off, to ignore in the process of writing. I had completely forgotten about the part of my thesis that I would never want to talk about, let alone research about it. A small part of me wanted to just reject the professor's idea straight away, and head back into my limbo of unemployment. But I stayed seated, as the uncomfortable memories of my thesis started flooding back.

As colourful as children's imaginary world may sound, with all the happy things like unicorns, rainbows and candies, there is also this  disturbing part to a child's imaginary world. The imaginary friends who are not so imaginary. The ones who inhabited a realm completely different than us. The ones whom we usually refer to as ghosts, or spirits.

It's easy to brush off the scary part of a child's imagination as the product of their developing neurons firing. I did so too, during the initial phase of my work. Whenever I encountered strange stories during my data collection, I casually shrugged them off as mere coincidences. It wasn't until these coincidences began to pile up that I began to pay attention.

I still remember that day. There I was sitting in a school lab, with this girl, Ashley, who is about five in the lab, while her parents waited outside. It was the same procedure like thousand of times before that. I asked her if she had any imaginary friends and how they looked like, what is their name, the boring details like that. I will record these conversation down, then transcribe it and analyze its contents.

Ashley was a bubbly and animated girl. That day, she brought a soft toy with her, whom she named it Bubbles. She would go on and on about the things that she liked to do, about what she did over at school. I initially followed along, entertaining her, building rapport with her, so that she'll open up to me. After about 15 minutes into the interview, I broke out my question, the variable that I wanted to measure. I clicked on the recorder that was next to me, and asked, "So Ashley, you said you have a dollhouse at home, do you play it yourself or do you have any friends to play with?"

It was a question to see whether she had any imaginary friends. She was a single child from her file, and I wanted to see how would a child's imagination would try to make up for the lack interaction between siblings, especially when she was reported to be spending lots of time on her own by her parents.

"Oh, I got no friends to play with," she replied. I raised my brows.

"But I do have a sister, an older sister in fact, and she's called Angelina, but I call her Angie," she cheerfully replied. I responded the usual way with her. Feigning interest, asking her more questions to describe this "Angie". How they met, what they usually talk about, the appearance. Angie was seven, according to Ashley, and she said that Angie was her older sister. They would often play together at home, with Angie asking her about her day, how was school like and things like that.

"But Angie always seemed so sad," Ashley added.

"And she has this bright red mark over her neck," she said, running her finger in a straight line through her neck, to indicate where the red mark was. I chuckled in response.

When I shared briefly about the observation with Ashley parents, their faces immediately turned pale. Like they have seen a ghost or something. Curiously, I asked why, as it seemed abnormal for parents to react this strongly to their child's make believe story. It wasn't until they shared a crucial piece of information that I understood why.

"Angelina was the name that we're supposed to give to her older sister, who passed away at the time of birth, because of her umbilical cord which wrapped around her neck. And we affectionately called her Angie every time we talked about her before her birth," the father finally shared.

The family withdrew Ashley from the study the very next day.

There was a period of time where I was obsessed with these stories. Every time there was a bit of detail that closely resembled something that is eerily similar to real life, say a man with broken arms or a lady with a braids around her neck, I checked. I searched old newspapers, dug the archives. I wanted to see how the stories linked back to reality. Were they really a figment of imagination, or do they overlap with reality as well.

The man with no arms had his arms sawed off in a freak accident at home, where a cupboard that he was attempting to move toppled and came down on him, crushing both of his arms. He passed out from the pain, and because there was no one at home, eventually bled to death. His family moved out soon after, replaced by Matthew's family, whom I interview.

The lady with the braid? She tied herself up to the ceiling fan, and used her own hair when she could not find any ropes. It was not until a few weeks down the road in which her body was discovered by her neighbours, who were wondering about the strong stench from her hourse. The family that subsequently bought the house were overjoyed at the cheap price, not aware of the history.

Everywhere that I turned, I saw stories such as these. It scared me to no ends. While the bulk of my stories were producing interesting insights, it was these creepy stories that bothered me the most. I went to Prof Wee for advice, who twirled a pen against his lips as I explained the stories to him.

"Interesting," was the word that he used, though I doubted from his tone of voice if he really meant that. He asked me to stop my research and begin to report what I have found. He requested that I do not mention these stories in detail as of yet, because he has something planned for them. He promised me that.

Following the professor's advice, I gave up. I chose to throw the stories aside. I decided to put it in a safe box in my mind, and lock it up. In my thesis, these strange sightings were casually chucked under the future concerns, with me noting that more research was needed to look into the authenticity of these stories. Little did I know that future research was already being planned by Prof Wee, who invited me back just weeks after my graduation.

"We're looking to build something to test your theories, a prototype really, on whether children do see 'stuff' that you mentioned." I noted down the tone of the professor's voice when he mentioned "stuff".

"Particularly we're looking to sync your brain waves with those of the children," the engineering professor interjected, "so you could see what the children see."

I looked at them curiously, and then caught a glimpse of a weird looking machine behind Prof Wee, sitting by the window. It looked like the ECG machine that I was once strapped on to when I was still a freshman, trying to earn points for my research participation requirement. Except that the machine behind Prof Wee had two of the headgear, with wires linking the both of them.

A few seconds passed in silence as my brain tried to come up with an answer. I thought about all my friends who were still struggling to find a job. I could hear Prof Wee's voice through the phone again, with the mention of a masters and an allowance. During that moment, the thought about Ashley, Matthew and other stories took a back seat. I managed to convince myself that a masters was more important than the tingling feeling I had inside, so I said yes.

Allison was smiling on the first day we decided to trial our machine. According to her file, she has has this "grandmother" friend whom she talks often too, and her parents agreed to the experiment to see whether we can find out what's wrong with her. The engineering professor, Prof Mark as I call him now, worked calmly on his machine as I sat beside Allison, nervous about the entire thing. I secretly hoped that I was only being too sensitive, that in the end, my earlier observation could be simply dismissed with science, not some supernatural reasons that I was dreading.

"Is she here now?" Prof Wee asked Allison, referring to the grandma friend she had. She nodded her head, I think, from my peripheral vision. I was busy paying attention to Prof Mark, who was setting up the controls at the main machine. It looked like something out from a science fiction movie, with the numerous buttons and wires it had. Just about he was about to reach for the main switch however, I heard a low buzzing sound, and I could swore that I heard a growl beneath those sound. I think everyone heard it too, because I saw everyone turning around to find the source of the noise and Allison beside me went, "Uh oh".

Immediately after that, a spark flew out from the machine, followed by a small explosion. It caught Prof Mark completely off guard, and sent him staggering a few feet behind. Smoke began to rise from the equipment, as I quickly took off the headgear strapped to me head, and helped Allison with hers. A surge in power, Prof Mark would later explain, as we held our debrief. The experiment had to be cancelled. Prof Wee reminded that we still had other experiments scheduled, and I absent mindedly nodded my head.

The next few experiment did not went as planned either. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The equipment breaking down. Some of us getting injured. Prof May, the science professor, slipped and fell down the stairs on the way to the venue, and we had to cancel the experiment to send her to the clinic.  It was already the third experiment that we had to cancel due to things going wrong, and I was beginning to feel that something was not right.

It wasn't during the experiments that strange things began to happen. Our notes begin to go missing, the video recordings that we attempted to do returned only static recording, and we started to receive phone calls from each other, but it was never any of us who called. There was once when I was sitting in with Prof Wee during lunch, when I felt my phone vibrate.

"Why are you calling me prof?" I asked, looking at his name on my phone.

"What? I didn't," he explained, with a confused face.

"My phone went dead minutes ago," he added, as he took his phone to show me. But ringing on my phone was exactly his number. We looked at each other, before deciding that we will not be eating lunch for the day. We're not the ones who had strange happenings in our lives. Prof Mark and Prof May experienced too. They told us that they felt presence when they're alone, that there is someone constantly watching them. However, being scientific people as who we claim ourselves to be, we dismissed it all these incidences as tricks played by our minds. That we are tired from all the failed attempts, and now our brain is coming up with all these funny stuff. We carried on with the study.

"My friend says that he doesn't like you," Jamie said. He was sitting in our lab one Thursday evening. It was our fourth attempt to get the machine working, and his second time with us. The frustration from our earlier failed attempts and the strange happenings in our life were beginning to grow. Prof Wee had eye bags now, and all of us looked as if we had not gotten enough sleep in days. Prof Mark was there with us as usual, helping with the setting up with the equipment.

"Lets hope it work this time," I heard him mutter, as he went about his usual business. As I saw him set up, I turned to Jamie, who was staring at a corner of the room. During his first time with us, the lights in the room went on and off as we set up, and I could still remember him giggling mischievously, as if it was him who was playing the trick. We cancelled that appointment when we heard May injuring herself.

As I sat there next to him for the second time, I could not help but to wonder what I would be seeing if the experiment do finally work, and what is it that Jamie could see that we couldn't. And I wondered if the experiment would fail this time too, as it had the previous three times. However, my daydream was cut short, as Prof Mark yelled across the room as everything was good to go.

In an instant, I felt a surge of warmth inside of my body, and my brain was filled with tingling and prickling sensation. It was so strong that I had to close my eyes to adjust myself to the feeling. After what seemed like eternity, the tingling subsided, as I blinked and looked around the room. I wanted to see if there was anything different, and it did not take long to have my question answered.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a small figure run towards the equipment. Jamie must be seeing the same thing too, as I noticed his gaze following mine. The figure stopped at the machine. She was a small girl, I noticed, wearing a blue dress with a big red bow tie at her waist. I had to control myself from screaming when I saw the rest of her. He skin was pale, cold and skin peeled from it. Scars plastered her body. Her frizzy hair covered her eyes, casting a shadow over her face. A grin formed on her face. The pain in my head as she brought her hand down on the machine almost blacked me out.

"Another power surge?" I heard Prof Mark exclaim, as I heard giggles. Both Jamie's and the girl's.

It was close to eight at night when I arrived at the office building. But already the compound seemed empty, as people rushed off to celebrate the weekend. Prof Wee had called me earlier, sounding nervous over the phone. It had been a day since the experiment, and I could barely sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I could only see the girl. I wanted to tell the professor that I want out, and perhaps I could do so tonight. After seeing why the professor sounded so nervous on the phone.

I climbed the staircase to the Psychology Department, like the thousand of times that I did before. As I pushed open the door to the hallway however, I could not begin but to notice how strangely quiet the place seemed. Even though it was supposed to be a Friday evening, there would usually be a few eager students milling about, with the occasional cleaner. But if anything, the building seemed almost abandoned, the hallway filled with only the humming of the air-conditioner.

My breathing echoed against the walls, as I headed towards the third door on the left. I cannot help but to feel that something was amiss. Something just did not seem right that evening, and half of me wanted to just go home right then.

I knocked on the door, and call out the professor's name, hoping to be back home as soon as I can. Or ask him out from this building. I just wanted to get out from the building, as my heart began to beat faster. I could almost hear them thumping against my head.

"Prof Wee?" I called, while knocking again. Still no answer. Maybe he was on the phone, I thought, as I tried to turn the knob to the door. Locked. From the window, I saw that the sun casted its final light outside, as the darkness of the night began to settle in. And there was I, standing alone in a fluorescent lit hallway, trying desperately to not panic.

The sudden vibration in my phone almost scared me to death, as I fumbled with it. The name on the phone brought a much wanted relief to myself. It was Prof Wee. Perhaps he has exited the building, and was waiting for me downstairs, I thought.

"Yes, Prof Wee?" I answered, expecting to hear his familiar voice. But all I could hear was only silence.

"Prof Wee? Are you there?" I asked again, this time sounding much more anxious. I could hear someone breathing through the phone, and I hoped with all my heart that this would just be a silly prank that my supervisor is pulling. And then, a giggle. The one belonging to the girl whom I saw before, Jamie's friend. The line went dead.

My blood froze. I knocked harder on the door again, this time screaming Prof Wee's name. Still no answer. Leave, my mind screamed, and I quickly turned towards the door. I could feel the adrenaline kicking in now, fueled by a fear that I have never felt before.

However, just as I was about to turn and head for the door, another giggle. This time it came from behind me. I whirled around, expecting to see the small girl, but staring back at me was just empty space. I scanned the area, heart pounding, sweat trickling down my face.

"Come out now!" I yelled. I cursed. And cursed again. That seemed to have amused the child, who giggled again. This time, it sounded more menacing, more sinister.

"I'm not scared by you!" I blurted out, in a vain attempt to console myself. I realized how stupid that sentence sounded when it left my mouth, because it would probably agitate whatever that was in the room even more. The girl was laughing now, an evil maniacal laughter. My body tensed in response. Never have I felt so much fear in my life before.

"What do you want?" I screamed again, my heart struggling to keep up. Every bit of my body was heightened to its surroundings. The laughter suddenly stopped, replaced by an uncomfortable silence. The sound of nails dragged across the wall, and I instinctively turned to the white walls in between the doors.

"There..." the message slowly began, as am invisible hand bore into the wall. It scraped off parts of the wall to make lines, curves, which eventually formed letters, then words. The sound of those lines drawn into the wall sends chills into my bones and I could only clench my fists in response.

"There are reasons why only children can see us." I stared slowly into the message. Word after word, etched into the wall. And they were at the height of a young little girl. I could almost see her scratching her nails unto the wall, her scarred grin taunting me.

"... and why we don't want you to." A force crashed into me from the front, and sent me flying to the middle of the hallway. I wanted to run for it but none of my body parts wanted to budge. It felt as if every bit of will was sapped from my body. Every bit of my mind was screaming for me to escape, to get out of that hallway. But I could not get eyes off the message. It wasn't long before blood began to ooze out from them, as the girl laughed again. I could feel the fear gripping me by the neck, choking me. I gasped for air as my head pounded.

With great effort, I forced my legs to move. One step, two step, as I inched closely to the exit. The unworldly presence in the office suffocated me. There were more laughters now, this time belonging to more than the girl's. I took one last look towards the door of my supervisor, his embossed name hung limply at the door, the carpet below soaked red. I cursed.

As I got closer to the glass door, I instinctively raised my hand to the door handle, unwilling to take my eyes off the surroundings of the hallway. And that's when I felt it. Instead of the cold metal bar that I had expected, my hand came across something oddly familiar. It was cold, but rough. Flaky. Bony. The texture of someone's skin. The feeling of skin peeling off the hand. Instead of warmth, it sent chills down to the very bottom of my soul.

I whirled around. A reflex action, an action that I would come to regret, because came it brought me inches from her face. The one that I briefly saw during the experiment with Jamie, when we briefly shared our brain waves. But this time, instead of just a passing glimpse, I could feel the stench of her filling up inside me. My eyes widen in shock as they came across her face, this time . Horribly disfigured, with blood dripping out from her eye sockets. Empty eye sockets, with nothing but darkness in it. Her hair frizzled, her mouth filled with maggots. I screamed, as her cold hands wrapped around my throat. From the corner of my eyes, I saw an armless man, a lady with her braids, and other characters that I had  collected stories about, standing behind the girl, grinning.

And then, blackness.


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