Consciousness

There was a man, not any particularly remarkable one. Pick any man of all men and it might as well be him. When I spoke to him at first, there was nothing to suggest to me that he was different. Nothing whispered that something was odd, nor stroked a warning finger down the hills of my spine. There was no way to know.

You would think, once you did know, that it would be more obvious. You would think that he would be frantic, afraid, sad. His eyes would bulge, or his hands would shake. When you meet him, though, he’s a perfectly ordinary man. Rather, he seems to be a perfectly ordinary man.

I am lucky. I never spoke to him for long enough to find out. That, I think, would have been worse. One of his friends, I suppose it must have been, walked over to me after I met him so briefly, and explained to me. I’m not sure why – out of a vindictive sort of malice, perhaps, but for no reason I can see.

After the stranger told me about the man, I went home. It was too strange to stay, and the tumbling in the bottom of my stomach gave me all the excuse I needed. I went home and went over the words. Here is exactly what I was told:

“That man you just met is not normal. You think of life as continuous, you know? He doesn’t. He doesn’t know how. His life has no present and no past. He lives just a bit farther away from time, outside the flow of it maybe. He lives in a single moment. It’s unattached to his past, to his present, to anything. He lives in the split-second of being conscious and when he’s not, he’s simply, I guess, not alive. This moment – this one, right now – is his whole life.”

I nodded at the words, and I packed up. I went home and I huddled into my sofa and I waited for the horror to fade. I’m not sure why it struck me so breathless. They’re not such inflammatory words. They ran through my mind until they seemed normal, and then I let myself sleep.

The man never showed up again. I’ve mostly forgotten, except for the four-o-clock ramblings like now. These times, when I wake up gasping and can’t sleep again for the thud of my heartbeat, I bend over a notebook and I write something down. Somehow that seems like I’m saving it, the shred of half-remembered dream or the feel of the breath slicing in my chest, and once it’s carved into the paper in blue ballpoint it will stay. That moment at least is preserved, as if I could go back to it.

That’s what bothers me the most, of course. When I think too closely about the words I heard, my pulse skips and my shoulders tense. There’s a horror there that I don’t understand, and then what’s worse. If I’m thinking too hard about it, so much that it seems unexceptional, then I start to wonder. It stops making sense that this way to live is different from how anyone lives – from how I live. Then I’m trapped in the moment, shivering and wordless, and I can’t find my way out.

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The Second Half of the Story

I went to see Adam again. It feels like I need to be there as often as possible, just to make sure he’s eating and sleeping and whatnot. He’s a dreaming child stuck in this young man’s body, and he doesn’t have a mother to tell him to do his homework. He’s more emaciated than he was, which is really scary to see. He looks too tired and sad to walk, let alone write for hours on end. Not really sad, though – I suppose it’s that when I see his face, pared to the bone and grinning, it makes me sad instead of him.

The picture of Theo that he sketched is taped to the wall. Theo looks more like Adam used to look than Adam himself by now. Young, smiling, just handsome enough to deserve the word. I told Adam he needed to let Theo alone and get back to his own life for a bit. After all, the character would still be there after a meal, a shower and a nap. The expression on his face was so incredulous, for a moment I felt like I had actually said something crazy. The way he’s working, it seems that he thinks Theo will dry up and disappear the moment he’s left alone, and the only way to keep him alive is by feeding him words constantly.

It’s becoming part of my daily routine to drop by Adam’s place after work. I fix him some food, drag him protesting into the bathroom and then tuck him into bed. It’s a bit like being someone’s parent for a few hours a day. I certainly worry enough about him. Mary says I look worried all the time now, and my forehead is beginning to feel tense and scrunched. I can’t remember how to relax my face, to not look anxious. I suppose Adam feels like this, but more. And instead of worrying over a friend, he’s worrying over a person he invented who lives only in his mind. It’s so frustrating – something has to change.

***

I just got back from Adam’s place. Adam wasn’t there today.

When I pounded on the door – usually he leaves it open for me – nobody answered. I kept on, and eventually I heard a muffled voice. The door clicked and swung open, but instead of a skeletal jumpy Adam I found myself looking at some man I’d never seen before. He looked vaguely familiar, so I thought perhaps he was a friend of Adam’d whom I’d only met once or twice. He smiled to see me, though, so I smiled back and went inside.

I asked him where Adam was, hoping that he was sleeping already. It was a guilty sort of wish that I wouldn’t have to deal with him at all today. This man just looked confused, though. There was nobody in the bedroom, and the silence was stretching. There wasn’t an answer.

I looked everywhere – in all three rooms, not that there were so many places to look, and checked the closets. Adam was nowhere. I felt an irrational paranoia, an unease that whispered perhaps Adam had collapsed, was in the hospital, had simply died and was twisted at the bottom of a river or someplace similarly lost and hidden. The feeling was growing and halting my breath, fluttering against my heart. The strange man was just looking at me, calmly and curiously, as though I were something new and odd to him.

I thought maybe he would have answers, so I asked, “Who are you, then? I mean, why are you here and he’s not?”

He looked relieved that I had spoken first, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s different. I mean, I came from here, or someplace like here. But I don’t know this place.”

That was not helpful at all, so I went into the kitchen. It occurred to me that Adam might have left for something, and stuck a note to the fridge. He’d done that once or twice before, and it would be a good sign. It would mean he had left the building for groceries or errands or some other normal human thing. There was no note anywhere.

The realization that the man hadn’t answered my questions swept over me, and I turned to him. “You never actually did tell me who you were.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “Sorry. I’m Theodore. Call me Theo.”

I left after that, and I won’t go back.