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  EXIT

  a near-future thriller by

  Thomas Davidson

  "Black Mirror fans will be drawn in by Thomas Davidson's engrossing, hallucinatory tale of a screenwriter who stumbles into another dimension...Davidson has more in common with the Black Mirror screenwriters than a novelist like Ray Bradbury. That's because his story is actually about the way we live now, and perhaps, the way we may live soon if we're not careful." -- Bella Wright, BestThrillers.com

  "Amazing. Impressed beyond words; this is THE best read in the form of electronic media that I've read all year." -- Amazon customer review for EXIT

  EXIT, a near-future thriller, is loosely based on my short story, "Exit," winner of the San Francisco 2013 Litquake Booktrack Halloween Short Story Competition.

  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  The first half of EXIT was previously published as FLOATERS (novella; 35,000 words). I wrote a sequel, but couldn’t release it as a standalone without the reader knowing the back-story. So I combined both parts into a novel (73,000 words). EXIT is centered on three dark days in the lives of two struggling screenwriters who make the mistake of going to the movies. Because at this theater…you never go out, the way you come in. Partly set in an alternate world, EXIT is a peek at what may await us in a near-future that's as impersonal and invasive as a security-camera image. Think of it as a preview. Coming Attractions. Coming Soon.

  Now it’s time for the feature presentation. So turn off your cell phone, dim the lights. It's showtime.

  EXIT is dedicated to the stellar staff at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital. Cosmic kudos to these three medical magicians: Dr. David Wu, Dr. Cynthia Qi’An and Dr. Peggy Chang.

  EXIT is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Names of real public persons, living or dead, are used for fictive purposes only.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Thomas Davidson.

  Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Davidson

  CONTENTS

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Part Two

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  About the Author

  Also by Thomas Davidson (novel excerpt)

  PART ONE

  EXIT

  you never go out…

  the way you come in

  “I don't want to be alone, I want to be left alone.”

  ― Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993)

  "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

  — Scott G. McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc, 1999

  CHAPTER 1

  October 30, Devil's Night

  Maybe it was a Halloween stunt.

  The cashier inside the theater's box-office resembled a psychic from a traveling carnival. She sat on a stool, not saying a word behind the window, staring at the street with vacant concentration. Her empty eyes suggested she was a million miles away.

  Tim Crowe took a half step back on the sidewalk in the gathering gloom. Dead leaves skittered past his sneakers. He closed his left eyelid and looked through his right eye, his good eye. For the last week or so, his world had rotated on his right eye.

  Crowe faced the ticket booth, an oblong structure the size of a large coffin. Glass, chrome, wood. It took a moment before the image clicked. The booth reminded him of a coin-operated fortune-telling machine in an arcade where, behind a window, a mechanical mystic named Zoltan or Esmeralda would stare at you with glass eyes, and speak your fortune via a hidden record player. Or pass you a slip of paper with your fortune written on it in language so cryptic you didn't know if you were blessed or cursed.

  Zoltan creeped him out; here, Esmeralda had a similar effect.

  She had wireless, blue-tinted glasses, her pale skin smooth as a ceramic bowl. She wore a gold shirt, black vest, and a turquoise scarf over her bowed head. The paisley design suggested swirling eyes. The booth had no interior light, just a lit candle. A shadow flickered across her face.

  The sign posted on the window read: Free Admission - Donations Accepted.

  Crowe withdrew a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and pushed it through the ticket slot. "Will that cover it?"

  The cashier responded by tapping the donation sign with her fingernail. Click.

  Crowe couldn't resist, and asked, "Are you a cloistered nun? I see you took a vow of silence."

  No response, but something dark flashed in her eyes for an instant. Not anger; something else. The vacant stare returned.

  Crowe looked up at the wide marquee: Gateway. Below the theater's name, the featured movie: Gone. The theater had been around since the 1920s, judging by the architecture. The Gateway appeared to have recently changed ownership. It now offered more independent and off-beat fare. Not to mention eccentric employees, eccentric pricing.

  The cashier slid a ticket across the wooden counter.

  Crowe looked through the glass with his right eye. Coins, dollar bills, and what appeared to be Tarot cards covered the counter. The Gateway was a theater. And this was pure theatrics.

  Crowe took the ticket, and heard someone singing and playing guitar. He turned halfway around. Across the street, a young woman with a glorious afro and a black hat stood on the sidewalk beside a corner church, a faded purple bandanna tied around her forehead, and an open guitar case by her feet. A teenage granddaughter of Jimi Hendrix. The two exchanged a glance beneath a streetlamp. The restless shadows of tree branches, stirred by the wind, tattooed the concrete, the dark shapes moving back and forth. She leaned back on one heel, and strummed a familiar song called Eye Seek You.

  "Eye seek you in the morning

  Eye seek you at night

  Eye see you soon…"

  Crowe listened as he reached into the pocket of his green, army field jacket, fingering aside his plastic vial of Vigamox, one of his three eye-drop drugs. As a reminder to take his medicine, his girlfriend had taped a small picture of a mirror on the front of the pocket, and wrote on it: medicine cabinet. Crowe took out his cell phone, thumbing a number while looking down the street with his good eye. Chinese restaurant, bookstore, Starbuck's, watch repair, parking lot.

  Three rings. Then a recorded voice, smooth as honey: "Rayne." A declaration, an answer, and a smoky-voiced invitation—all rolled into one.

  Crowe squeezed the phone and said nothing. Several seconds passed. Before the connection died, he said, "It's me. I've been locked up for a week, and had to get out. I stopped at the movies. I'll be back in a couple of hours or so." After another pause, he said, "I'm sorry for being such a pain in the ass. I miss you."

  Click.

  He put the cell phone into his pocket and withdrew the medicine. He shook the vial, uncapped it, tilted his head back and fingered his eyelid down.
The liquid drop stung for a moment and his eye watered. He blinked several times. This daily routine was annoying, particularly if his hand was unsteady and the dropper hit his eyeball. Within minutes the drug would migrate from his eye socket, leaving a bitter taste at the back of his throat.

  Across the street, the busker sang:

  "…Eye see you soon

  Real soon."

  Tim Crowe opened a glass door and walked alone across a faded red carpet, past a closed refreshment counter with an empty shelf. On the wall behind the counter was a poster of a condemned prisoner sitting in his cell with a priest, eating his last meal—a paper bucket of movie popcorn. Tim glanced at the poster, then at the empty popcorn machine on the counter. And where was the ticket taker? Perhaps the donation policy precluded the need for one. The musty foyer was filled with dim lights and vintage movie posters of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy. He thought of Rayne as he passed through a doorway and left the light.

  Crowe sat in a dark theater with few people on a Wednesday night. Empty seats, with their rounded backs visible against the silver screen, suggested rows of moonlit tombstones in a cemetery at night. On the wide screen, the opening credits rolled up on Gone. Soon he was watching a grim story about an alternate world that almost mirrored his own.

  During the movie, his thoughts kept drifting back over the events of the last two weeks.

  #

  Tim Crowe began to go blind in mid-October.

  One morning a spider suddenly appeared in his left eye. Soon another spider appeared, along with floating dots. Floaters were common, usually benign, and would eventually disappear. But his spiders soon morphed into a dark shade that, within a couple of days, steadily closed over his eye from the bottom up. An inverted window shade. Half of his field of vision disappeared. The shade continued to rise. Half became 75% and counting. And then, presto, 90% of the eye went dark. Gone. As if the ceiling light inside his skull were being dialed down with a dimmer switch. The remaining 10% at the top of his eye was a blur, similar to looking through a dirty windowpane.

  A visit to a local clinic put everything into focus: get thee into an emergency room. Or lose the eye. You have a detached retina. Hurry.

  Within an hour he had checked into Massachusetts General Hospital, the Eye and Ear Clinic. A female technician in a black lab coat and black boots stood before him in a small room and asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

  Crowe, sitting in a chair, raised his head and looked through his bad eye while thinking, "Finger? That's funny, I can't see the hand. I can't see the freaking technician."

  The next day Crowe lay under a surgical drape, a blue plastic sheet that covered his head and torso, similar to a burial cloth. The sheet had one small hole for his left eye. Anesthesia flowed through a catheter in his left hand. A drug was shot into the side of his head. The heart monitor beeped in the background. He was 28 years old—a high school substitute teacher by day, a struggling screenwriter by night—and for the first time in his life he got an unbidden glimpse of his own mortality. Lying on a gurney will do it every time.

  "Your retina is like wallpaper," the ophthalmologist said. "It's peeled down. We have to roll it back up."

  Two surgeons went to work, rolling up the wallpaper. The operation included a gas injection into his eye, creating a bubble that pressed against the retina, keeping it flush against the back of the eye.

  He hoped that it wasn't too late. He hoped they could save his eye.

  #

  Tonight, at the Gateway Theater, random images of the hospital rolled through his head, as if a list of credits rising and disappearing. His left eye still had the gas trapped inside. The dark blue bubble looked like an eye within his eye, unblinking, watching him round-the-clock. Whenever he moved his head, the bubble moved in sync, vertically or horizontally. As the gas dissipated over time, the bubble would diminish. The strange blue eye would finally disappear.

  For two hours, Crowe sat within the glow of the screen and watched Gone with uneven attention. Earlier events clouded his thoughts. His argument that afternoon with his girlfriend, Rayne, still echoed in his head. He'd been in an irritable mood all week. Post-op instructions: he had to stay face-down because of the gas. If he lay on his back, the bubble would move away from the retina. So he slept face-down. He had put a TV on the floor and watched it face-down. Same for the computer monitor, on the floor. He drank with a straw. Being face-down day and night, he looked woefully depressed, the most disconsolate man in America. His bowed head felt as heavy as a barbell, but he shouldn't have taken it out on Rayne.

  The movie ended.

  The screen brightened. A white rectangle without sound. He could see the silhouettes of a few heads. Then these words appeared in the middle of the screen:

  COMING SOON

  to a theater near you

  The screen darkened and an image emerged: the interior of a dark theater. The scene was shot in black-and-white, except for a single red exit sign in the left corner that offset the gloomy hues. Crowe stared, his attention focused for the first time that night—the theater looked familiar. He watched the trailer for an upcoming indie movie or documentary. All he could see were the legs and feet of people on a crowded city street, as if the camera were pointed downward at a sea of shoes. He could hear footsteps on pavement. Boot heels clicking, sneakers squeaking. The crowd hastened their pace, started to run. Then the camera swung upward just above the crowd, showing a quick shot of something suspended overhead against a blue sky. Written on its surface: DR1. Then a voiceover broke in. The weary tone suggested a soldier in a foxhole whose view of the frontline filled him with dread.

  "They are coming. They are here. Each week they invade our world. Some say each day. They walk among us. They look like us. Exactly like us. The invaders are coming and must be stopped. The lines are drawn. The battle has begun."

  A single word flashed on the screen. White letters superimposed on the image of a theater with a dark, empty screen.

  EXIT

  The trailer ended. Yellow lights came on, dimly glowing in the wall sconces. In the shadows, Tim Crowe rose from his seat. He could hear a half dozen people head up the aisle, shoes whispering on the floor.

  Something snapped on. A bright spot in the dark caught his eye. A red light appeared in the far left corner. The exit sign glowed for the first time. He thought of the trailer, the dark theater, the title. He thought of the cashier, the fortune teller in the ticket booth with the lit candle. Everything suggested Halloween, including this part of the show. He stood on the slope of the aisle and smiled, then descended toward the alley exit. Gravitational pull. Soon he put his hand on the crash bar and opened the exit door, passing beneath the glowing exit sign.

  For a second, he thought of a red traffic light. Stop.

  The heavy door clicked shut behind him.

  The alley was full dark. He took a step and felt something cold shiver through him, sensed a change. Was it the chill air of the night? Somehow the alley looked….wrong. His body tensed with hesitation. Perhaps he should have gone through the foyer and the front exit. He felt foolish but was alone. He turned back and gripped the cold, black metal door handle, but it didn't budge. Locked.

  He flashed on Rayne at the restaurant, waiting tables, and assumed she was home from work by now. He wondered if he should go to her place again tonight or go home and why did he feel so…lightheaded? So different?

  The alley was a tunnel of darkness beneath a starless sky, a city block running between buildings with no sign of lights, closed garages, and a cinder block wall. Dead leaves crunched under his heels. He moved toward the dirty glow of a flickering white streetlight at the mouth of the alley, feeling unsteady. Dirt and sand scraped and scratched beneath his boots. The pale streetlight loomed closer. He needed to go to Rayne's, go home, go anywhere but here. He felt inexplicably alone at that moment.

  He stopped, pulled out his cell phone and scanned his surroundings with his good ey
e. He thumbed her number. Muscle memory. She'd be home by now, and would have gotten his message from a couple of hours ago. He waited a second or two. Until he heard a flat, familiar, robotic voice bleached of any humanity:

  "We're sorry. The number you have reached is not in service, or is assigned in a different area code. Please check your area code and try again."

  Whenever Tim Crowe heard that familiar recording, it reminded him of the movie, Stepford Wives. He terminated the call, shook his head and wondered if his thumb had gone blind along with his left eye. He squinted in the dark and redialed. Ringing. Click. He couldn't wait to see her. She said:

  "We're sorry. The number you—"

  Tim froze, aware that someone or something was behind him, hidden in the dark. He heard—what? Something passed right by him. Over him? Something…

  "—assigned in a different area code. Please check your area code and try again."

  This time he didn't need to look; his thumb killed the call. Muscle memory.

  For a minute or so, Tim didn't move a muscle. He peered into the dark with his good eye, listening intently to his surrounds. Five mysterious words echoed in his head.

  Please check your area code.

  CHAPTER 2

  Something was wrong.

  Rayne Moore looked up at the security camera on her living room wall. The camera was aimed at the couch where she sat amid low lamplight. A sign was posted on each side of the camera. The red-and-white sign on the left announced:

  WARNING

  These Premises are

  Protected by

  CLOSED CIRCUIT TELEVISION

  24 Hour Video Recording

  She recalled a recent night when she and Tim had made love on the couch and she had read the sign over his shoulder. The orange-and-black sign on the right of the camera announced:

 
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