Douglas Wamboldt stared at the scrap of paper in his hand, careful not to crumple it. The words “Noodle Palace” were inked onto the paper in his associate’s flowing handwriting. The cool night wind blew steadily, sending discarded newspapers and flyers down the deserted street. He stood in front of his destination hesitantly. The sign flickered, illuminating the words “Noodle Palace” for just a few seconds before flickering off. This was the place.
Douglas hurried toward the door, desperate to get away from the biting chill of the evening. He pushed open the door to be assaulted with different aromas of food. The restaurant was steamy and surprisingly nearly empty. Five booths lined the far wall and a few small tables were squeezed into the space. He approached the woman behind the counter nervously. Her eyes were sunken, and hard and grey like stone. Her dark hair escaped her bun in coarse, thin strands that hung limply around her face. An old scar lined the skin above her right eyebrow. Douglas fidgeted with his tie and the scrap of paper.
She watched him impatiently before Douglas leaned forward and whispered to her, “I’m here for the goggles? The imagination goggles, I mean. The ones that let you—”
“Shut up,” she snapped at him. “Follow me.”
She swung herself over the counter with ease and latched onto Douglas’s wrist, her fingernails digging into his skin. She led him to the back of the store, past the bathrooms and through a door. This door opened up to a stairwell, which she dragged Douglas down quickly. At the bottom of the stairs, a man at a desk sat waiting.
The woman shoved Douglas toward the desk and hurried back up the stairs.
Douglas rubbed his sore wrist and neared the man at the desk, so far confused with his treatment as a customer.
The man sported a buzz cut, dark skin, and an intimidating stature. “Name?” the man inquired.
Douglas stood up straighter, collecting any pride and resolve he had left. “Douglas Wamboldt.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know a Celia Spencer, would you?” Douglas added.
“Unlikely.” The man shook his head.
“But, you see, she’s been here before. She told me about it.”
“Most of our customers tend to feel unsafe leaving their real names with us.”
“Oh,” Douglas responded. “Is there anything for me to sign?”
“Regarding the legality of this business, no. However, going into this, you should know that these goggles are not toys. They are basically untested technology and can be dangerous.”
Douglas stiffened, beginning to feel very apprehensive and regretful. “I see.”
Still, Celia had recommended it as a way to get out of his head and escape his many anxieties, for a change.
“That being said, loosen up. Have some fun, Wamboldt. Youth is precious. Not everyone gets a second go at being a kid.”
He nodded again.
“Right this way, then,” the man guided him.
They walked down a dimly lit hallway and paused in front of the fourth door on the left. The man pulled out a ring of keys from his pocket and searched for the right one. “You’ll be going into Kitchen 2. It looks like your basic kitchen, but with these…” He produced a pair of thick-lensed goggles equipped with dials and gears installed in the frame. “It’ll look like a whole new world.”
Douglas swallowed his fear and delicately grabbed hold of the goggles. “How long do I get?”
“As your friend, I’d recommend under 20 minutes for your first try, but as a businessman, I’d recommend 45 minutes,” the man answered honestly.
“Can’t I do any longer?”
“We don’t know what’ll happen after an hour. We want to keep you somewhat safe.”
Douglas cocked his head in confusion. “What could be so bad about the innocence of imagination?”
Ignoring his question, the man unlocked the door. “Remember, we’ve enhanced the overactive imagination of a child, so time will also feel exaggerated. We’ll give you a stopwatch. When it beeps, your time’s up. To turn them on, just say ‘activate’ and say ‘deactivate’ once you’ve finished.” The man set the stopwatch and placed it on Douglas’s wrist.
Douglas nodded, beginning to tense up in anticipation. “How much is it?”
Douglas placed the folded bills into the man’s palm.
“Best of luck, Wamboldt.” The man began to count the money. “The door will lock automatically once you’re inside to keep you safe.”
Douglas gulped and placed the goggles on his nose. He took tentative steps into Kitchen 2 and took in his surroundings. The kitchen had a traditional white tile floor, along with a pantry, a microwave, an oven, a counter, several cabinets, and a table with four seats.
“A-activate,” Douglas stammered. He cleared his throat before trying again. “Activate.”
The goggles flickered, startling Douglas. The click of the lock sounded with finality. The experience had begun.
Before him, the kitchen seemed the same, but his eyes felt different. They were supercharged with excitement and playful energy. He felt the youth coursing through his body, all the way down to his fingertips and toes. His eyes sought out entertainment in the room. They were almost hungry for it. It didn’t take him very long before the young eyes latched onto a broomstick that was leaning up against the floral wallpaper. His mouth stretched to form a rare smile and his legs were ordered by his eyes to move. He gripped its plastic handle, and just like magic, he was no longer standing in Kitchen 2. The setting of his adventure had switched like a slideshow. A dense and hilly forest now surrounded him. His suit had transformed into an explorer’s uniform. In his hand was a sleek rifle, waiting to be fired.
Through the brush, Douglas spotted a fluffy hare a few feet away. He lifted the gun and fired, catching his target right in the chest. A brisk wind swept through the woods and Douglas let out a triumphant yell. He began to run, unable to bottle in his energy any longer. He whooped and hollered as he raced up the steep path ahead of him. Douglas paused as he came to a break in the trees—a hill that overlooked much of the forest. An instinct overcame Douglas. He was compelled to bend his knees and spring up into the air. The wind caught him with sturdy arms and he flew. His fingertips brushed the tops of trees. The rifle had vanished and his digits seemed to be morphing into fine, gold feathers. Douglas flew so fast that his breath seemed to be sucked away by the air around him. He laughed gleefully as he continued ascending, breaking through the cotton clouds. The atmosphere did not deter his climb and he was soon soaring above Earth and into the depths of space. He was invincible, and he never wanted to leave this dream that he was living.
To Douglas’s amazement, the moon loomed before him. The slide in the slideshow changed once again, placing Douglas in an astronaut suit and in a rocket on course for the cratered surface of the moon. The distant lights of stars twinkled cheerfully; the sun smiled at him. Douglas soaked in the feeling of being alive almost greedily, frightened that he might never feel it again.
As the rocket touched down on the moon, Douglas eagerly climbed out of the spacecraft and began to leap. He rose higher with every bounce and even attempted flips in mid-air. Once he was finished jumping, he noticed something strange about the rock he was standing on: it wasn’t rock at all! Instead, slices of Swiss cheese coated the moon in generous layers. Douglas smiled and then began to laugh like he had never laughed before. The laugh was a stomach-shaking, side-aching, breath-stealing, chest-heaving, all-around-hearty belly laugh that he really needed. It was a simple as that. Douglas needed to laugh (at cheese moons of all things).
And then there was beeping. Loud, incessant beeping that penetrated his astronaut helmet and rang in his ears. Beep!
Douglas didn’t know why he was so sure, but he told himself that the sound could only have one source: an alarm clock.
“Just five more minutes!” he called out.
However, the beeping didn’t stop. On and on it went, stubbornly insisting that it was time to go.
“I don’t want to go!” Douglas whined.
The man from the desk was waiting outside Kitchen 2. He was almost certain that 45 minutes had passed. Why was Mr. Douglas Wamboldt taking so long? He heard the beeping, didn’t he? Another few seconds passed before the man grew anxious. He called for his business partner, “Jia! I need you down here!”
She was downstairs in an instant, clamping her hand over his mouth. “What did I tell you about lowering your voice?” she hissed.
“It’s been 46 minutes,” he whispered in panic.
Jia’s tired eyes widened. “Control room, now.”
The pair dashed down the hallway and flung themselves into the control room. The man hurried from panel to panel, flipping switches nervously. Each switch was labeled with a four-digit number that Jia couldn’t decode. “They’re not working,” the man informed her.
“Let me try,” Jia reached out for the panel in front of her.
The man held her hand back. “No. They won’t work.”
Jia’s fingers twitched, aching for control over the situation. “When do the nightmares set in?”
The man’s frantic eyes didn’t leave his watch for a second. “After 53 minutes. We have—”
“Seven minutes,” Jia finished grimly. “We have to break the lock.”
“I’ll get the tools,” the man agreed.
Douglas sat in his rocket, trying to ignore the incessant beeping. “Shut up!” He screamed desperately.
To his great surprise, the beeping listened to his command. It was now silent on the moon. Douglas stepped out of the ship cautiously and looked around for any indication of what had just happened. At first, the moon seemed the same as it had been while the noise had been torturing Douglas. He squinted at the barren landscape. He saw nothing but miles and miles of craters…and a shadow. The shadow was so faint and distant he could almost have imagined it, but it was there nonetheless. It could’ve been an oddly-shaped crater, but as it drew closer, it became evident that it was something else. Perhaps, even a sentient entity.
The shadow sucked away the juvenile liveliness from moments before and Douglas’s knees threatened to buckle. He hurriedly sealed himself inside the rocket and shut his eyes, repeatedly murmuring, “Leave me alone.”
The shadow only drew closer. It didn’t listen to him like the beeping had. He couldn’t control it.
After a few seconds, Douglas dared to open an eye. Thick darkness had enveloped the rocket completely. The clear windshield of the craft was covered in layers and layers of shadow. He searched for an opening, a slit of hope in the shadows, but found none. The darkness seemed alive and almost triumphant. It had caught him. Douglas felt his throat close up. The darkness was so thick that there was no longer air. It was suffocating him with fear.
“Help!” he gasped. He lifted his hands to his throat, but it didn’t stop his attacker.
“Deactivate!” a female voice hollered.
The scene flickered and died. There was only the light of Kitchen 2. The woman from upstairs, and the man from the desk were watching him worriedly, waiting for his next few words.
“I want my old eyes back,” Douglas decided.