“How’s the view here?”
It was a question the waitress was unprepared for. He could hear her clear her throat, the soft tap of an anxious foot, the quiet inhale as she finally noticed the cane in his elbow. “Oh! Well...there’s the lake by here! Sunrise is about over, but you can see a lot of the redwoods from here. And uh...couple of fishing boats on it, I guess?” She laughed, “Sorry, I’m not much good at describing landscapes.”
“Hey, don’t put yourself down. You did a fine job. I’m sure it’s a weird request anyway.” Nelson looked towards her voice, “Just a coffee for now. Plenty of sugar, please.”
“C-course! Coming right up!”
Nelson glanced towards the cooler area by him, carefully reaching until his fingers touched glass, the cool touch of the morning’s condensation leaving his fingers damp, trying his best to picture it. A quiet little place by a lake. Probably close to the campground. A few early morning fishermen drifting across the lake as the redwoods loomed behind them, the sun shining up on a sunny spring sky. If he reached down a little further, he could start to feel the wood making up the place, and the idea of it looking like a cabin helped paint a better picture in his head.
He couldn't even begin to imagine losing his sight growing up. The way it stood now, he had been incredibly lucky it had gone when it had. It made it easier to paint a picture in his head, one that couldn’t be tarnished by anything beyond what he thought. What would that picture look like if he’d had no idea, besides a sound, a description, a texture to go off of…
The coffee gets set by him loud enough for him to hear, and he thanks her and focuses on a view he can’t see, shutting his eyes and leaning on his hands as the coffee cools to something he can drink. It’s when he first sets some sugar cubes in the mug and stirs does the door jingle, and a voice reaches his ears, “Ah! Sorry Margot-gardening! Dirt on the shoes-I’ll hit the doormat on the way out, I swear.”
The happy-sounding man goes quiet for a moment, the silence undercutting the sleepy morning vibe of the place, a quiet “Talk to you later,” uttered, the soft sound of some easy listening artist crooning on the kitchen radio as the chair opposite him is pulled out, Jim Ingraham taking up the free space, “...Hey.”
“Hey.” Nelson takes a sip of coffee, seems to consider it, then adds a few more cubes of sugar. “The waitress was telling me there’s a lake around here. Doing any, ah, fishing these days?”
Jim gave a soft chuff of a laugh, “I mean, if anybody invites me along, maybe. Not quite at the “own a boat part of my life” yet.”
Nelson gave a guilty smile, “Probably a good call. It takes...a lot of work.”
He could hear the soft sound of papers shifting, fabric rustling as Jim sets a small object on the table. Nelson just gives his coffee a few more sips before the man seems to finish, feeling Jim’s stare on him before he set the mug down, “Okay we should, uh...get to it then!...You know what we’re doing here, right Nelson?”
“Yes.” Nelson reaches over, moving his cane to rest between his knees, one end of it leaning on the wall as he sits up a bit straighter, “What I want to know is if you’re okay doing this. The risk of re-traumatizing and all-“
He could hear Jim’s breathing go shaky for just a moment, then the quick puff through his nose, “I’m… aware of the risks. They uh, said this might get personal for me. That’s why I was the best person for the job.”
“Beginning audio statement of Nelson Tethers, regarding his encounter and subsequent disappearance caused by the influence of a higher power. Statement taken by Jim Ingraham for the Usher Foundation. The date is…” Jim faltered, pausing for a moment.
“Right! February 10th, 19XX. Statement begins.” But not before Jim clicked off the recorder for a brief moment to groan into his hands.
“They’re not even gonna notice, Jim.”
“They’re definitely gonna notice.”
“No, no. Forgetting dates is common. You’ll be fine. Never heard me leave any dates in mine, did you?”
“No but they have a whole system going on and...ughhhh…”
“Just keep it going.” Nelson reached until he felt a warmer elbow beneath his, the soft give of flannel under his thumb as he rubbed a spot. “You’re doing fine.”
For a few seconds his hand was allowed to linger, before the arm drew back out of touch, a tape recorder clicking on once again. “Mr. Tethers, tell me your occupations.”
“...right.” Nelson folded his hands together, “For most of my professional career, I served as an agent for the FBI. When I decided to investigate a closed case on my old time, I was eventually fired for my actions and picked up by an agency called the Psychonauts. For about one year I worked under their agency until the incident occurred.” Nelson looked up at where he hoped Jim’s face was, “Then for the last year or so, I served as an envoy for the forces of madness and paranoia.”
“I see…” Nelson could hear Jim scribble something down, “What did your...envoy job entail?”
Nelson rubbed his thumb along the rim of the mug, “It was...interesting, I’ll put it like that.” He looked up, brows raised, “Does...do the people getting this need an explanation about the whole “forces of evil” thing?”
Jim seemed to shuffle the recorder on the table, “I mean, it’s a little hard to believe, even with my department and all…Maybe just a refresher?”
“Do you just need a refresher, Jim?”
Silence for a moment.
Nelson gave a hum, “...Guess you do. Alright. Think of it like this.” He felt around the table until coming across his utensils, setting his fork and knife on the table between them, “We’re here, in the...fork dimension. Now, in the fork dimension, there’s people, animals, and minerals. Living things all working together in harmony. There are some inconsistencies-creatures like Bigfoot, Mothman, and… gnomes. Maybe. But it’s solid. We’re on solid ground, so to speak.”
He held up his butterknife, “Now the Fears-they’re over here, on the knife. The fears find little tears-little ways they can get over to our side. They act like a parasite and feed off of strong emotions. With this in mind, they go for people like me.” He took the knife, setting it in his coffee to slowly stir, “Let's say this coffee is my mind. They will find a crack to enter and from there, they’ll start to take advantage of those emotions. That fear. And the first one was the Eye.”
“The Eye is a weaker entity. If I had to put a name to it, it’d be like...comparing the DMV to the CIA or FBI. The fear of being monitored, of being watched-it’s common. It’s
Lots of people come into this world wanting answers. Lots of people feel like there’s someone looking over their shoulder or cover their webcams with tape just because they don’t want to risk it.” Nelson breathed in, letting it out slowly, and folded his hands together, “That’s probably why I fell into it so fast.”
“I was put into a situation where my last resource, my last line of defense, was to find some sort of answer for the situation at hand. Some sort of solution...it was an answer to a puzzle, and I willingly stepped up with my own pieces to shove into place.” Nelson chuckled, a sound that lacked any real mirth, covering his mouth with folded hands again, “I was so desperate for an angle, for something to hang onto… You don’t even realize it’s happening until you see others. How they respond to your questions.” His brows knit, “...how much it hurt them to hear it coming from you.”
“But you said you had two of these?” Jim had scooted his chair forward, just an inch or two, Nelson wincing at the idea of how the sound might transfer onto the tape but holding his tongue. “So...what was the other one?”
“I’m...I’m getting to that.” The other one was harder to talk about, admittedly. He felt around the table till he settled for his spoon again, holding it up, “When I couldn’t find any answers with the Eye, I began to think on it more. Started to consider that it was probably hiding things from me too. I needed more. I needed a better way to help the people close to me in a way I wasn’t accomplishing with the Eye alone.” He stuck his spoon in his coffee and stirred. “So I went to the Spiral.”
“The Spiral was simpler, but stronger then the Eye. The Eye wants to know everything about reality, while the Spiral does everything it can to break it. My fellow agent, Agent Threepwood was pulled into the Spiral partly out of his own power. It twisted his mind, caused him pain and confusion, and it made the other entities take notice of the Psychonauts. A building full of powerful psychics dealing through their own traumas...it was like setting the table for the buffet.”
“So...you knew that this...this Spiral caused your friend to become like this.” Jim started, Nelson listening to the soft clink of a spoon on mug as Jim stirred his own coffee, “Why would you offer yourself to it?”
Nelson gave a sad smile, “That’s a question I should have asked, huh?...why did I give myself to it…” He rolled his shoulders and leaned on the table, “I wish I could say it was a noble cause. I became so convinced that these were beings whose influence could be divided, who could be turned against each other, who could be controlled in any meaningful way-that I truly believed taking them on would spare my partner some of the hardship he faced.”
“...” His shoulders slumped, “It’s funny how easy it is to believe an idea is good. That it’s for some noble cause. Course it might have started out like that, but that wasn’t how it ended.” He folded his hands together, “I would say to myself, every single morning ‘I’m doing this for them’. I asked questions for them, I hunted for them, I fed for them and I was satisfied with them. And in a way, I was right. It was just the ‘them’ that changed. The ‘them’ that didn’t say consistent.”
“So...two entities...how did that affect you?”
“The eye enhanced my precognition, yet left enough pieces away from me that I’d ask for them from whoever I could find. When the Spiral came into play, it got...sinister. The questions became more personal, more damaging. I’d look at their idea of their reality and my job became asking just the right questions for me to flip it on its head.”
As Nelson spoke, his hands trembled, just slightly. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, having to take a second to swallow and clear his throat.
“My body would often…twist. Unspool in ways it wasn’t supposed to. Mostly when I hadn’t fed for some time, or when I was adjusting after the deal went through.” He waved a hand loosely over his arm, “I can’t do it now and show you, but it was like...paper. Or thin spools of tape. I don’t know how I didn’t die from going through that alone...probably because they didn’t want me to.”
“...I guess they just...clicked. When I made the deal, I made it thinking I was doing something to drive a wedge in. I thought...well, I assumed that the fears had competition with each other. Rivalries to worry about...I thought that conflict might make it easier for myself and my teammates to eventually escape, long as we played up.”
“...And you guessed wrong?”
“Now you see the pattern.” Nelson sat back in his chair, “The fears aren’t warring governments or a cat and mouse. They’re not things that can be controlled or reasoned with. But they do have alliances. And it happened that their alliance in me was less like gaining a spy for the other...but more like an engagement ring. It fit together almost too perfectly-Seeking out answers and driving questions into a person so deeply that they’d go mad from trying to fight it. I didn’t outright kill for either of them, but I did cause many people to suffer.” He brought his hands back together and clenched until his knuckles began to turn ghost white. “At first I tried to go for people I assumed had dirty hands...but after a while, I gave up on that. I would go from one town to the next, find a person, and make their lives a living nightmare. And I would record every conversation, every detail, every little strained intake of breath until I’d had my fill of it.”
He heard a soft rattle of metal on China before Jim pulled his hand back off his coffee spoon, “You had these tapes when the boat was recovered, I understand.” Jim swallowed, “It was...a pretty big collection.”
Nelson nodded, “...Have you looked into any of the names yet?”
“Not yet. There’s...a lot to get through and not a lot of us to do it.”
Nelson could start to hear the quiver in Jim’s breathing, a few more swallows like he was trying to clear his throat of something in the way. “We can take a break if you need to-”
“No.” Jim swallowed a third time, went for his coffee to help clear his throat, and set down the empty mug. “I’m...fine. I’m fine.” He could the soft shuffle of hair moving, figuring Jim must be running a hand through his. “Just...it’s really a lot to take in.”
Nelson shrugged, “It is.” He rubbed his thumb across the handle of his mug, “There’s nights where I feel like if I go to sleep, I’m going to wake back up on that boat. When you got used to it, it could almost be...peaceful, in a strange way.”
“...” He heard Jim sigh through his nose, the slight creak of the table like he was leaning on it, voice closer when he spoke again, “I still don’t believe that was you.”
Nelson frowned, his shoulders slipping an inch lower, “You had my DNA on your glock. You didn’t test it?”
“I didn’t need to because that wasn’t you , Nelson.” He shifted in his chair, “I’m talking to you right now, I know that, but that man on the boat wasn’t Nelson Tethers. These...things, they gave you a choice, but...I can’t buy it! You’re the guy who couldn’t let one missing person case slide by just cause there was somebody out there who’d miss him.” He shifted papers across the table again, “This person who took all these recordings was not you. It’s just...not possible, Nelson.”
Nelson had thought it over since that day. While his head stung and all he could think in the moment was how relieved he’d felt seeing Guybrush. It had taken a bit for the thought to seed itself and sprout, rooting its way through him. Had he really become someone else? Or did he choose every action and victim himself? Had he always been a bad person and just...waited until he had the opportunity to take full advantage of it?
“...” Nelson shut his eyes a moment, reaching up and taking off his sunglasses to set and fold on the table, knitting his fingers together as he looked up towards Jim’s face, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who that man was, does it?”
Jim had thought about those red eyes from the moment he saw them. Concerned, maybe even a little worried for his friend, but mostly just inconvenienced. Like a parent trying to soothe a child having a meltdown over something so small, it was almost laughable. They’d pierced into his dreams like a chilled ice pick, staring him down as he ran through metal corridors and rusted doorways in a panic. But Nelson didn’t have those eyes.
He didn’t have any eyes.
There was still a bit of red in there, but it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of it. Just two, small pin-pricks that stuck in the back of his sockets, and it took Jim a minute to realize they were veins: star-like little points that twitched and moved when Nelson spoke again. “It was still my body. So...it had to be my choice.” He leaned his face into his hands, speaking into his palms, “At least stopping it for good was also my choice.”
“...Did it hurt?”
Nelson considered it, looking towards the slight, cool draft off the window, “Not as much as I would have thought. They ran some tests when I first got back.” He moved a hand to wave in front of his face, “Reportedly, they’re still in my head. They should still function as eyes, but...my mind locked them down.”
Jim blinked, “Can uh...you elaborate on that?”
Nelson tapped the side of his head, “I say my mind but I guess I mean my powers.” He rubbed his temples, eyes shut a moment, “From what I gathered, it’s a sort of advanced invisibility. Trauma-induced... The way eyes work is taking light and reflecting it in order to make an image you can understand. But if the eyes in this case are transparent, well…”
“Nothing gets reflected back?”
“Essentially making me blind, yes.”
“But…” Jim leaned on the table again, Nelson feeling some air hit his face, the close proximity of Jim’s hand before his eyes, “If the eyes are still there, they can still fix it, right?”
“They could.” Nelson took his mug and sipped the last of his coffee, making a face when a few grinds mixed in at the end, “But I won’t let them.”
Jim’s chair gave a loud creak when it scooted back a bit, “Huh??”
“You were talking about choices and...well, this was mine.” He dug around in his shirt pocket, finding a piece of gum and unwrapping it as he continued, “I made a choice to hurt people. And now I make the choice to keep them safe.”
“Nelson...if these fears were that powerful, you can’t take all the blame onto yourself! You weren’t fully in control!”
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Nelson put a hand to his mouth, brows knit as he nodded to himself, “The fact that I lived is all I should be thankful for, frankly. I’m a very lucky man.”
“If they could do something to help-“
Nelson hated how his voice sounded for a moment, clenching his eyes shut, and opening them with a soft sigh, “I said I made up my mind…”
He could hear the other man struggle with such an idea, with Nelson feeling like he had to sacrifice so much to make amends. It took a few good minutes before he could finally offer something as a rebuttal, “But…” Jim paused for a beat, “...what about puzzles? You need your eyes for those...and you love puzzles!”
“I do.” Nelson gave a half laugh as he popped the piece in, “I really do… But there’s more to life then just puzzles.” He glanced up towards Jim’s face, “Was there anything else you needed to ask?” He took a half glance down towards the still-running recorder, blowing a gum bubble in the meantime.
Jim had gone quiet again, drumming his fingers on the table now, the sound of idle cafe chatter and the running tape going on in the background. “I guess, just...motive.” Nelson could feel Jim now, offering a hand to him across the table, one arm folded across his chest for table support. “Why did you go through all this?”
Nelson popped his bubble, chewed, and seemed to think it over, “...Do you know why it doesn’t bug me that I can’t do puzzles anymore?” After a second or so of thought, he’d taken Jim’s hand to squeeze lightly. “When we got out of the medical ward, we all needed some form of rehab. Mine was mostly physical, learning to walk with a cane and reading braille. But most of my friends needed something to ground themselves after so long, dealing with isolation and being constantly confused.
Eddie needed someone close by to know he couldn’t hurt anyone, so I gave him one of my old riddle books to read for me. When Manny quit smoking, it was my concentration games that gave him something else to focus on. I still have my old Rubiks, but Sam and Max needed something to give them that rush of success like a chase would, and I usually got pretty thrilled with my sudoku.
And Guybrush…” Nelson had a fond smile on his face now, “Crosswords helped him put together the words he still lacked. I don’t need to see his face to know how happy he gets when he figures one out without me butting in.”
Nelson blinked when Jim had gone quiet again, giving a more nervous laugh, “That uh, went on a bit...but my point is, I guess I’ve got people to do the puzzles with now. So...I’ll take being blind if I can keep them smiling.”
Jim was still quiet. Nelson’s smile dropped as he rubbed across his hand, “Jim?...Are you still there, Jim?” He blinked as he felt something cool on Jim’s hand, rotating it idly for a moment before something warm and wet dripped onto his hand, followed by Jim giving a hard sniffle.
“T-that’s…” He sniffed hard, and gave a choked laugh as he began to cry, “That sounds like the Nelson I know…”
Nelson found his smile coming back, patting Jim’s hand as the fellow former agent hiccuped and rubbed his eyes with his free hand, rotating that one spot on his finger again and knitting his brows in concentration. “...” He straightened up in alarm, eye sockets seeming to get a little wider as he sat up, “You got married???”
Jim nodded quickly as he gave another sobbing laugh, “Y-yeah! We uh...met after the whole thing happened!” He moved his hand back, Nelson startling when he blew his nose loudly and laughed again, “He’s really, really sweet!”
Nelson gave a surprised puff of a laugh at that, leaning back to rub his wrist against one of his empty eyes, “Well! Guess one good thing came out of it...that’s...wow!”
“Y-you should meet him sometime!” Jim whimpered, “You two would get along g-great!”
“I-I mean...long as you’re inviting me!”
Jim blew his nose again, gave another soft hiccup, and stayed quiet a moment longer. After a minute or two, he gave a soft groan, “Ughhhh Nelsonnn…”
“There’s no way they’re gonna get any use out of this tape, is there?”
Nelson heard the familiar sound of a tape ejecting, Jim wagging it in the air, “This tape just has us giggling on it. And with my whole date slip-up at the beginning, there’s no way they’ll consider it professional enough, right?” He heard a soft hiss as Jim breathed in through his teeth, “I don’t even know what they were gonna do with it. Probably put it in some sort of vault or something, but, like...if it’s got all your friends names on it too…aghhhh it’s just REALLY unprofessional.”
Nelson blinked, “...But...this is your new job, right?” Nelson gave an unsure smile, “Reporting on me was a big case, right??”
“It waaaaaas ssssssss…” Jim hissed again, rotating the tape in his hand, “But...mostly because they had the biggest leads where you were. Now that I know where you’re at, well…”
“No reason they have to listen to me bumbling on some tape, right?” The broken cassette found its way under Nelson’s palm, “I’d just be wasting their time if I stuck around and kept asking folks a bunch of weird questions about spooky monsters, so it would be better if I give my notice now then get fired down the line.”
Nelson rubbed his thumb over the cracked plastic, looking up towards Jim with that widened look on his face. The small smile that came up was one of relief as he closed his hand over the tape to stick in his pocket. “You know, I was really sure I was at least getting arrested by the end of this…”
“Well...not exactly a cop, am I?”
“I guess not!” Nelson tapped a finger on the table, bringing his hand up to his face a moment, then finding Jim’s hand again, “I’m going to make things better.”
Jim gave a laugh, “I figured that much, special agent Tethers.” He stood up when Jim gently tugged on his arm, “Course, I’d definitely stop whoever that weird guy was if he shows up again, right?”
“R-right…” Maybe it was bad that Nelson could count on that, leaning on Jim while he got his cane set up, “I owe you a lot more then one this time around.”
Jim made a “pssh” sound, patting Nelson on the back, “Listen, we got time to make up for as is. We’ll figure it out, right Nelson?” From this close up, he could hear Jim shuffle his feet, his elbow bumping his shoulder as he moved to rub his neck, “Although...I still got your Puzzle Sensei magazines...and they’re pretty tough when you get to the later issues…my husband is a teacher too, so maybe you know...the two of you could help uh, yknow…”
Nelson smirked, “You need help solving them again, Jim?”
The other man laughed, “I mean, if you’re willing!”
Nelson started for the door of the cafe, “Seriously, you have to be faking not knowing some of those equations, right Jim?”
“H-hey! Look they really do get hard!”
As the two step out into the early morning chill, the birds chirping their songs from the pines and a quiet cafe becomes even quieter without the sound of nervous laughs and friendly ribbing now going on outside, a lone tape recorder sits forgotten and empty on the cafe table.
As the door shuts with a jingle, the recorder clicks off.