The Zonehopper's Guide to the Perception Range

ENTRY E: Apparently It's Foaming Season

Back again, are we? I hope nothing unfortunate has befallen your personal perceptual range since our last connection. Lots of wires getting crossed lately, you know.

Where did we leave off? Well, I'd just narrowly survived a river of mice vomited forth by a titanic cheese-man, so that was fun. I'm sure you got the "theme" going on there, too. The Big Cheese. The Rat Race. To this "day" I still don't know if human idioms, jokes and beliefs leak into the rest of reality or vice-versa. It might even be a two-way process, somehow, though it's also well established that our perceptions just construct everything in a way we'll understand or almost understand.

I'm getting sidetracked.

As I've explained previously, "different places" are kind of an illusion. I was, technically, still in the world I always knew, but I was now experiencing facets of it I couldn't experience before. It's difficult to break out of the mindset that you're slipping into "parallel worlds" or "alternate timelines" when you're branchinating, but that can be a dangerous mistake to make. More on why later.

So, what awaited me at the end of that long, oppressive hallway? What did I find through that door?

Not much, at first. I stepped out into an alleyway between my own local K-Mart and a McDonald's that should have been an empty parking lot. Not any unusual, messed-up outer layer McDonald's or anything, just a McDonald's that for whatever reason didn't exist on my original layer. There's a lot of things like that. Little differences that only show we're not all perfectly synchronized on the same layer in the same zone, we're just very close to something along those lines.

Things didn't get really weird until I tried to hail a cab and head home.

It was getting dark fairly quickly, and my mind was obviously rather occupied with the whole "giant cheese creature" debacle, so forgive me for not noticing anything unusual until I'd very nearly entered the bright blue, quasi-volkswagon that had pulled up to the curb.

It had taken me a moment to register that I hadn't heard any vehicular sounds as it approached; only a voice, crudely imitating the sound of an engine, the way a child plays with toy cars.

Where the taxi's front grill should have been were only teeth. Teeth and gums in a horrible, lipless grimace that may have been intended as a smile. Naturally, the headlights were a pair of moist, luminous eyeballs, and the whole thing smelled an awful lot more like body odor than car exhaust.

As I stared in only moderate disbelief - I had pretty much just seen weirder, you know - the passenger window slid down, and I found myself damn near leaping out of my skin as an alarmingly large, white object burst forth from the opening.

For a moment, I thought someone had stuffed one of those air-blown, inflatable lawn decorations into the relatively tiny space of the cab's interior. It certainly had the physics of a balloon, unfurling from the window and wobbling bonelessly as it turned to look me directly in the eyes, which was roughly around the point that I knew it was not a balloon.

Whatever the thing really was, it was rather poorly modeled after a human being. Its details were simple, cartoonish and completely colorless, with a head almost larger than its entire torso and pure black, 1920's Mickey Mouse eyes. Atop its bobbing cranium was a hat with bold, black letters simply spelling out one name. "MITCH."

"Whatsamatta babe? Aint'cha need no lift!?" said a voice reminiscent of Popeye the Sailor.

The balloon-man's lips didn't even move, and I didn't need any visual confirmation to know that the car was the one speaking.

I also, apparently, didn't need confirmation that any of this was real. I just knew, even if I didn't know how I knew. I'd later come to understand that this was just another function of the perception core. It knows what's real and isn't real before you do.

Unfortunately, I still had no way of knowing why or how this was real. I wasn't even over the cheese thing yet, and now some skeevy car monster was trying to drive me home and I didn't entirely appreciate its choice of language, either.

I was still working out my response when an almost deafening BANG ripped through the air, and "some sort" of piss-smelling, piss-colored liquid began to spurt from either side of the cabbie's rapidly deflating head.

"SHIT!" squawked the car, tires screaming as it peeled away from the curb and erratically raced out of sight, taking out a stop sign as it ducked down the next alleyway.

A completely and utterly normal, familiar yellow taxi pulled up in the creature's place.

"Mitches, am I right?" cracked the normal, human driver as he holstered his gun.

What followed was easily within my top fifteen, maybe top twelve most awkward car rides.

"So, um, that was some kind of a thing, was it?" was my natural and eloquent opening statement.

"Well, you know." The gruff but friendly little man shrugged. "They get hungry around foaming season. Comin' earlier every year."

"Right, right." I could tell by the man's tone that this was all fairly normal in his eyes, and I certainly didn't want to betray my ignorance. Brilliantly avoiding any further embarrassment, I changed the subject thusly:

"I got fired by cheese today."

The man's face scrunched up like one of those fat, wrinkly little dogs if it, too, had just heard something terribly stupid about cheese.


My "uh, nothing" would be our final exchange of words for most of the drive. In such a situation, I'd have typically pretended to be very invested in whatever was happening outside the window, but there wasn't much need. The scenery was fairly attention-grabbing.

I'd taken this route many times. I knew its landmarks. Some of them were wholly unchanged, others...slightly off. I'd never heard of any fast food chain called "100 FOOD MEAL," but they seemingly outnumbered the golden arches two to one. Their rotating, illuminated signs, a cartoon Hamburger with eyes, sent a chill through my spine I couldn't have rightfully explained at the time.

Where my old High School should have been was now, for whatever reason, a wastefully large and sprawling bowling alley with the same terrible dolphin mascot. I saw a peculiar number of people casually walking about on fluorescent green, metallic stilts for reasons I never did unravel. Police cars were a gaudy purple with green lights and there was something off about the moon that I just couldn't quite place.

Perhaps more alarmingly - much, much more alarmingly - were all the arms and legs.

Totally human except for their incredible size, a variety of arms and legs protruded from the ground every hundred feet or so, most of them sticking straight up among the usual trees and shrubs, six to ten feet tall and just sort of...twitching a little.

In a few places, they clumped and twisted together in large, wobbling heaps. In others, their careful arrangement implied deliberate use in landscaping.

Again, dignity won out over curiosity. If my driver wasn't disturbed by the hand trees, then he either couldn't see them or they were as ordinary in his eyes as any other part of the landscape. I imagined, for a moment, how I'd feel if a stranger in the back seat of my own car, who ostensibly lived and worked in this very neighborhood, abruptly demanded I explain what a telephone pole was. At that moment, I'd have died before putting either myself or my cabbie through awkwardness of such magnitude.

If I were really in some other world where giant legs grew in the dirt, I'm sure they'd have some nice books or internet pages about ground arms. Maybe about "Mitches," too.

Now, if you're in my situation, chances are these feelings sound familiar, but perhaps not the same details. The true, dead central grey-zone layer does not have those arm and leg things or the mitches, but maybe you've lived your whole life in a layer that did, like my cab driver, or maybe you actually don't have any idea what I meant by "telephone poles" because you're from one of those layers where what I'd call a "phone" is what you call a "crump louse." You would like phones, by the way, you feed them electricity instead of spit.

In any case, you'll definitely want to do as I did and pretend nothing's wrong. As long as you're still in the grey, zonal travelers are going to be rare enough that you're effectively alone, I'm sorry to say, and everything you think is new and weird is going to be completely ordinary to everyone you knew and loved, assuming they still exist on whatever layer you slipped into.

The freaky thing here is that they really are the SAME people. I gave you the video game allegory, right? This sure is hard to get across with only words, but let's talk a little more about this perception thing.

Say you're in my situation, and say you go home and ask your mom about the Mitches. On this layer, your mom knows exactly what those are. Children know what those are. She's going to think you're bonkers. Meanwhile, on your "original" layer, she doesn't know what those are, but it's entirely possible that she's still experiencing this conversation where you swear a taxi tried to eat you. She still thinks you're bonkers.

The problem here is that you have branchinated and your mother has not. You now exist on multiple layers, experiencing a wider range of things than you previously could, but your mom and the cabbie and most other people still technically only exist in one layer. From their perspective, nothing has changed and nothing is unusual.

How, then, is there this "alternate version" of your own mother who already knows about the Mitches and the legs and everything? That's a damn good question. I guess you could say it's as if she now has multiple heads, each head interpreting stimuli in a different way and none of them aware of one another. It's pretty weird, yeah, even weirder for the fact that those different heads basically only exist for you, specifically tailored to every later of your perception. If someone else just barged into your house who had branched into four more layers than you did, your mom would have four more heads to react to them with.

I'm probably losing you again, but this is why it's so important not to think you're in some distinct, different "dimension" or "timeline." Like I said, you're still in your own world, you're just loading the bonus content.

So...what happens if, like me, you've already decided to just play things cool, so instead of flipping out and asking your mom what's up with cheese monsters and balloon people, you make like everything is totally mudnane and you just casually drop that a Mitch tried to pick you up?

Here's where things get even weirder. On your current layer, as we established, that just isn't an unusual thing for your mom to hear. She's going to say something like "oh, Mitches" and roll her eyes, followed by a "must be foaming season" before switching to the subject of dinner or politics or her new skirt.

You're playing normal in this layer, so what are you doing in your original layer? Didn't you say the thing about the Mitch there, too?

Nope. You're playing normal, right? So on EVERY layer, you're doing whatever "normal" would entail. To your "original" mom, you just don't mention the Mitch whatsoever, or maybe you make up something else that sounds normal to her. Her perception of what makes sense remains uncompromised.

I guess the way that works, to use video games again, is that you've effectively pressed the "act okay" button, as I did, and it's working across multiple layers in entirely different ways to the same ultimate effect. What you're doing, or what others perceive you to be doing, can diverge that way all the time, and yes, it's as unpredictable and confusing as it sounds. Don't think too hard on it. When all else fails, just keep pressing the "act normal" button and things have a way of sorting themselves out.

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