"You seem happy."
"I am happy."
"Because all of this was a dream. Kinda. Sorta. It's odd, but I feel better knowing I'm insane. What I've been through; what I thought I've been through, is pretty scary. I sure hope the afterlife doesn't work like that."
"Yes, well, that's not all of it." Enquist had finished quizzing me on what I thought I had been experiencing this past year. Then he proceeded to tell me what had actually happened. The root cause of it all could have been a faulty gasline. Yes, there was an explosion, a small one. The concussive force had given me minor burns and knocked me over, apparently hitting my head in the process. It was said I refused bystander's pleas to wait for medics to arrive, and ran off. I don't remember this at all.
"This might correspond to your visit to the "0091 Research Lab" as you call it," Enquist explained.
"Alright. I follow."
After that, I had gone into mood swings, acting strangely quiet, even for my demeanor, or unusually excitable. I kept claiming, almost (to them) in jest, that I was seeing stuff that shouldn't exist. I was a little shocked at how differently the me of their story was acting compared to the me that I remember. If I was in a different state of mind, I would have become conspiratorial, but the stress was overmuch. And, as I said and will say repeatedly, they were right, and my memory was at fault. Some things aligned, the everyday processes of eating, sleeping, homework, greetings. Even major events were not so far off - I had gone to college at Castor, I had taken an internship at the Aster Building, although I was working with, ironically, psychological and social research data. While my world had dissolved around me, to the world I was the one dissolving, turning into a paranoid freak. They refrained from exposing some of the wilder behavior I was engaged in, for the sake of my feelings I guess, but their hints and tone made me sound like a raving mad man. They had finally sent Elizabeth out to fetch me to the medical center, where we were now located.
It made sense, except for one nagging question.
"What about Clair?"
Awkward glances. Curious, pained looks. Something, at last, felt wrong.
"Why don't you get some rest? We have a room prepared for you, and CT scans scheduled for tomorrow."
"But what about Clair."
"Don't worry about that, please. Go get some rest."
"I'm not that tired. Don't tell me Clair was fake too? Don't-"
And suddenly I was reminded of whose presence I was in.
"Do as Dr. Enquist tells you." I nodded, and slipped off, following an orderly. The room was a hospital room, nothing to note otherwise. I contemplated the details of my ordeal for awhile, avoiding, as requested, that one special subject as best I could. Sleep, at least, came without dreams.
I woke up tired. Yesterday was rather bright, today was gloomy and threatened to drizzle. Breakfast was already waiting on the bedside, courtesy of the nurse. It was cereal and milk only, leaving me hungry. I set myself back on the bed, leaned back, and relaxed. Relief had finally come.
Relief is a strange feeling, though. I thought I would be happy when I was relieved of this mess. Instead, I felt nothing. The whole time I had convinced myself, that I felt nothing when I was not being childishly emotional. Yet it really wasn't nothingness. It was a malignent apathy, a state of mind defined purely by its opposition to emotion.
Feeling nothing, was, just, nothing. I could not smile. I could not frown. If I had an emotion, it was the passive, indifferent curiosity in the mean details of my surrounding. I contemplated, without analysis, a bird cowering outside my window, shielding itself from the rain.
The bird is black with white flecks.
The bird has narrow legs.
It flits from side to side every minute or so.
It flicks its wings. Tiny droplets spray from them.
It cocks its head about, looking for stuff.
It never looks inside the window.
It preens its feathers with its beaks. The head checks its surrounding every few seconds still.
Its eyes are beady.
It flew off suddenly.
This resembled the strain of thoughts I had throughout the morning. Minute observations, or abrstract philosophizing, on matters that had no connection to myself or my situation; indeed, matters that had little import to anyone else in the world.
If anything, I felt tired and hungry again. I lay my head back to sleep till lunch was to be served. Again, slumber was blissfully dreamless.
A knock on my door rose me.
"Lunch," they called.
"Come in." 12:03 said the clock.
The nurse came in bearing a tray with a passable meal; a sandwhich, and a deli sandwhich at that, not the cheap bolanga sandwhiches made from grocery store stocks. Chips, too.
"Thank you," I said, taking them from the… and only then noticed it wasn't a nurse handing the food to me.
"You're welcome," said Clair, giggling.
"Hi." I smiled. Was I surprised? Maybe if I wasn't so wholly happy. It's the satisfaction in seeing something normal and right in a point of my life that has been the pit of hell.
"I don't know. Supposedly I'm insane. Are you a hallucination?"
"No," said she, also smiling. "I'm here. I've always been here."
"Well," said I, "Mmm, this is good," taking a bite from the sandwhich. Clair seated herself on the other bed. She let me eat in silence, as I made it very obvious how hungry I was from the way I chomped and chewed my way through the meal. Her eyes never left me, though. "Thank you," I said when finished.
"Rosie's Deli?" I asked.
"The beer store?"
"Atlantic Bread Company."
She had this funny, almost too happy look about her, and she was staring at me intently. "What's the matter?"
"Back? From where?"
"How much did they tell you?" she asked, referring, I guess, to the doctors and my prolonged episode.
"Do you remember any of it?"
"I don't know. They said I might, when I get better. They started putting me on drugs last night; I'll have to take them for awhile."
"Hmm." She's not satsified, or rather, she still had something on her mind.
"It was really strange, with you. You acted normal, except when you didn't. I mean, to a stranger, there was nothing wrong with you. Mostly. But for us, you… you weren't you."
"What do you mean by that." Her face was contorting ever so slightly. Bad memories?
"You acted like you'd never met me. When we were accepted to Castor I was so excited, but when I called you, you thought I had the wrong number, and then you called me a prankster. Then when we got together at graduation, you'd avoid me or anyone else."
"Huh." I remember graqduation, from my own point of view. I was still upset by Clair disappearing, the explosion, the general chaos, I thought I was alone.
"You kept avoiding me, you brushed past me in the hallways like I didn't exist."
"I'm sorry. I was sick."
"But… Well." No, the look in her face wasn't what I thought it was. There wasn't the squinching of the eyes, the tightened frown, the markings of pained memory. It was the loose frown, the relaxed eyelids, the averted pupils- the signs of sadness.
"You know, though, I thought you were gone. I thought a lot of crazy things. I can't empathize, a little, with certain crazy people. They're not so crazy, just reacting normally to terrible, but imaginary, circumstances."
"That's how you reacted to your nightmares?" she asked. Accusingly? A little, but softly.
"I don't really know what you and the others would see, because I don't know how I really acted. The doctor told me it's possible for the conscience mind to divide itself. One side, the one that makes memories and acts like our true self, the one that makes us us, was creating false information and then remembering things that it thought it did, but never actually happened. That was me. The side you saw, I feel completely disconnected from. It was making decisions on its own, and never letting me know about it. That's kinda how to explain it. Though, it does not good to say this, but I'm still really, really sorry that everyone was hurt by me."
"It wasn't… all bad," said Clair, tentatively. "Do you remember the day we met?"
"Yes." I can say that without doubt, without even an instant's thought. It's the clearest memory of my childhood.
"Eric, pay attention! Eric! This way!" My mother was in a grey sweater, grey skirt, high heels, a formal outfit. Her was nice too, because she had spent half an hour alone on curling it. I knew that, because she made me sit on her bed the entire time. To stave off the boredom I watched TV. It was a talk show. Now she was prim and perfect, and leading me by the hand.
"I'm hungry," I complained.
"We're having lunch after the ceremony, Eric. Be patient."
"Yes mom." I was also well dressed, as well as a pre-teen could be dressed. My hair had been gelled into place too, but that was an hour ago and it was already falling out. Mother blamed the cheap hair gel, but in truth, I didn't like it and kept playing with it.
Father and mother had talked with me the night before, trying to explain what was going to happen. I didn't understand most of it, except for the outcome-
"What does it mean?" I had asked.
"You know that Mom and I are married, right? And you know what marriage is, right?"
"Kind of. It's when two grown-ups are always together, kinda?"
"And more. They live together, they agree on everything, they work together, and they love eachother. They also have children and raise them together. Like how we raised you."
"To you, we're Dad and Mom. But to me, Mom is 'Wife' ("and dearest" mother piqued in). And to her, I'm 'Husband'. Marriage is spending the rest of you life with one person, because of love."
"Ah." I sort of understood. Between that and observation, I could guess what being married meant. I didn't know the details, like, for instance, why you'd get married, to a girl none-the-less. Later that evening, thinking it over, I did manage to solve that part (or so I thought). Every kid had a mommy and a daddy, I couldn't conceive of not having one of each, so that's why people paired up two by two. This was both incredibly insightful on my part, and incredibly stupid; at that point I had not been introduced to sex, sexuality, love-love, or even single parenthood.
The following morning, after the fuss of dressing up, we had gone to a communal festival, complete with a small mass, a picnic, and scheduled right before lunch, a small, traditional Lunwythe cetemony (named after a medieval myth, where two lover's tryst into the moonlit night is discovered, but impassioned pleas by the couple soften the parent's heart, who compromise and ask the couple to wait for the rising of the full moon). The pastor was there, as well as an assemblage of our two families, some confused, some amused, most happy and excited. They loved the air of tradition and the trappings of the elite class that two of their sons were now attaining. Uncle Mitt, and Grandpa Joel, looked very happy indeed, greeting everyone with a smile and bragging about their son/brother's good fortune and intelligence.
The place was the lawn of the church, where seating had been arrayed, and an arched lattice had been decorated above a small shrine and altar. I was taken to the altar and told to kneel. A figure was brought beside me, but I couldn't look to see who it was; I was under very strict orders, by Father, to not move, to act exactly as they told me, to be the perfect angel on earth, for those ten minutes. The pastor loomed above us, speaking to the crowd about dedication, the budding of romance, the dangers' of infedelity, and the importance of standing firm against the toils of living in a situated household. He then blessed me and my mysterious figure. Then the wrinkly man in his golden robe asked us to stand up, turn around, bow before the crowd, and then face each other, which we followed to the letter.
As he droned a last prayer and solicitation, I got my first look at the person in front of me. I had to keep from laughing, because she was a kid, but had white hair like my grandmother. A little smile gurgled up anyways, but I stiffed it down into my stomach. The only one to notice was the granny-headed female staring back at me. She hadn't a clue what I was laughing at, so I saw her stiffle a giggle too.
"May God bring you ever closer, that you may accept the happiness, love, and dedication he will bestow on your mutual affection, in anticipation of the day that you shall be united in all things. Amen."
We walked down the aisle behind the pastor,
"Hi," said I.
"Hi," whispered she.
"What's your name?"
It was as simple and unclever as that, our first words to each other. We giddied on over to our stations, soon to be joined by our parents. Lucnh was served in the community hall. Our parents led us to our own table with a placard saying "Reserved for the Future Family". Me and Clair were emphatically shuffled over to the end. My father began discussing what to do with Debbie. Me and Clair mostly stared blankly at each other, and chewing our finger food with open mouths.
"You and I are going to be married," stated Clair.
"Yes. Like mom and dad."
"My parents said it's like being a princess."
"Are you going to be a princess?"
"No, that's boring."
"I think princesses are boring too."
"My mom and dad kiss. Are we going to kiss?"
"Maybe? In, like, ten years. Maybe."
Our conversation buzzed on merrily from there. She talked an aweful lot about her parents, and then her hobbies, and then other random, unrelated crap. I doled out opinions like a movie critic, trying to act mature, but my 11-year-old logic would have been obvious flawed, even to a teenager.
But her first topic, I still remember, but now that I think of it again.
"Do you remember your first question for me?"
"Yes." Clair was looking out the window, not at me anymore.
"What was it?"
"What's your name."
"No, you never asked that."
"I didn't?" she wasn't interested in the conversation. What was she thinking? What does she remember from our first meeting? I don't know why she brought it up, but now that it has, I have my own thoughts to share about it.
"You asked if were going to kiss. I said in ten years. It's been ten years, and we've never kissed."
Improbable, I know. But at most, we'd hugged, and held hands, and perhaps the most intimiate moment had been a kiss, on the day my grandma died and I was crying and she kissed me on the forehead, like a dear sister or mother. But kissed, lip to lip, never, not once.
"It hasn't been exactly normal relationship, I guess."
"Right," and now she turned back to me, smiling, but lazily, softly, as if reminiscing or thinking of a sad, but long past, tragedy.
"Did you want to kiss me?" I said, thinking back. All that time, all that emotion she had spent on me, had wasted on me, how I had only rebuked her so often it felt like a cartoon rerun.
"Did? Maybe, once."
"Something is different, now." If I could coax her to just say what is on her mind.
"I feel different."
"Clair, I think…" this was a little confusing to me, too, or awkward, or difficult, but- "do you still like me?"
She rose her eyes to mine, and said, "Yes. As a friend."
I leaned back, closed my eyes, accepted this for what it was. It was good, I was glad, to see at last what we both had.
"You're not upset?" she asked.
"A little, but not at you. Though, I wonder why. It always seemed like you liked me. A lot."
She sighed too. Then she crossed the gap and sat at the foot of my bed. In turn, I took a seating position, so that we were side by side.
"You don't really know, what you were like, when you were out of mind. You weren't really sick, I think."
"You acted, for once, well… alive."
"Huh." Odd thing to say.
"But, when you pushed me away, I got to see, what you really were like. And now, I guess… It's-"
I looked her, eye to eye. Clair looked at me, in my eyes, and earnest endeavor to tell the truth shown in it.
"I liked you, so much, but I realize I wanted to be like you." A tear was running in her eye.
"I'm so immature, most of the time. I'm emotional and hysterical and never think through what I'm doing. You're cool and level-headed, and in-touch, and never let things bother you. When I wasn't bugging you all the time, I could stand back and think about this stuff, objectively. And I know I'm not the kind of person you wanted. I wouldn't want the person I was. I tried to change myself, into you, really."
She tried to be me? But if she says she liked being a social outcast, an aloof jerk, that wouldn't- but wait. What I did notice of fake Clair, or so I thought she was fake, was her being cool and shy. Is that what she meant? Was there some truth to it?
"I don't want to burden you anymore. I want to stay friends, though, so I can still learn from you."
"Mine will understand. Yours, I don't know, maybe they'll just have to accept it." My mother would never accept it, but she's a blockhead who wouldn't understand. Father, he might, after seeing me like this, he might understand, even if he assumes it was for the wrong reason.
"Well, for me, I understand."
"You really do?"
I scratched my head, trying to figure out if I really understood what she was saying, even as I felt it was right to agree with it.
"Don't fault yourself, at all," I tried to reassure her. "What happened was a weakness of mine. Really, if you see any good in me, great, copy it. If you don't want to be my fiance, good, I'm not husband material. What happened…."
"Don't blame yourself either," she cried.
"I have to. Becausde, I think I know what triggered it."
"I didn't want responsibility. For anything. I gave up trying to assert some control over my life, and then pretended things like ghosts and curses existed so I could blame them for my own ineptitude."
We went on talking for another hour, just drifting in and out, random things, our lives, like the conversation we had the day we met, but now with a little wisdom. Mostly we remembered the childhood we had shared. It was a good childhood, I told myself, but it wasn't meant to last for life. The reason I never felt love wasn't because I was inhuman, but that I had simply never felt it. I did not feel love for Clair like Debbie felt love for her fiance, or my parents for each other, or any other romantic couple. But if it meant that I was normal, that I could love, then I looked forward to it.
Meanwhile, we also discussed how to deal with our parents, how college would go, how my friends and coworkers and the rest would deal with my sickness. She checked her phone, found it was almost time to go. We talked some more about school, and then it was the moment of parting.
"I'm sorry." I was. I wanted her to know it.
"I would say don't be, but-" she said.
"I'll say I still am."
"Exactly. So, I'll say: I forgive you."
"For everything. Except one."
"What?" I asked, guessing, futily, where I was still in err.
"You were unfair to someone, and hurt them, and you should make it up to them."
"Who?" My parents? The doctors? No- Lizzy.
"My sister is-"
"You know, you're mostly moody, even without me, but since you came to Castor, you've been better, and I've noticed, you've been at your best when around her. I heard from Elizabeth what you said to her. It wasn't fair. Go back, say you're sorry to her, and give her a chance."
"That's it?" I asked. Clair nodded.
"As a friend, I still care about you. This isn't just for Ether. I'm counting on your happiness too, Eric. God knows, you need to be happy, for once."
"Do you believe in love?"
She paused a moment, put her lips to my forehead, and said "I believe love happens."
The next week was less kind than that day. Dealing with everyone, from family to officials to the doctors, was a pain. My father did not take the news lightly. We had a quiet, but tense, conversation for hours, him trying to convince me to convince Clair to change her mind. At the end of of it, though, he stalked off for a glass of iced water. I found him in the kitchen, and he mearly said, "Alright. You're an adult." Mother didn't accept it, so much as she saw she was powerless to do anything about it. Later, much later, when I started supporting myself and acting my age, she became a lot more tolerable. I, in turn, figured out what an ingate of a child I had been, and forgave her of her motherly eccentricites.
My grades were essentially ruined by my warped state of mind and the time taken off. I had to accept a Withdrawel in 3 classes, a 67 in one and a 71 in the other. Next semester I will be on academic probation and will have to work my ass off to stay in school. No worries. I interviewed with my counsellor, who I tried very hard to impress my intellect upon. He was responsive and recommended student academic aid services to me.
And my job was even more compassionate, mainly because they were understaffed and desperately wanted my help (apparently, I had been doing a stellar job there, and my computer skills were earning praise… though I don't consider myself a programming whiz).
Someone else was also still working at the data research center….
"What should I say first? Hello, or I'm sorry?"
"I don't care." It came off as light-hearted and jokingly. She seemed glad just to see me.
"I'll accept that, depending on what you're sorry for."
We began walking side by side down the sidewalk. Uptown Castor was filled with small shops and local eateries, quaint, quiet places enjoyed by students and some tourists.
Ether kept glancing at me.
"What?" I asked.
"I liked you."
"I don't know. I don't want my feelings hurt anymore."
"That's part of being human."
"So why'd you call me up?"
Just spit it out, Eric!
I'm not that courageous.
"Do you still like me?"
My pulse sped up. I don't know why. My thoughts were trying to race to who-know's-where, even while I was struggling to slow down, to think first, speak second. What was this?
"The first thing I'm sorry about, is not knowing my own feelings, back then. I think…." Just say it! Say it!
"I believe I like you too."
And there we were, with the air of "Now what?" hanging all around us. Fortunately, I'm cool like that, and had it all planned out.
"Would you like to go on a date with me?"
"You're not kidding me?" she said.
"If I was teasing you, it'd only mean I liked you all the more."
"Sure. I'll go on a date. Where? When?" she asked, finally smiling.
I stopped exactly as planned, gestured to my right with one hand, held two tickets up with the other, and said, "They're performing "Endless World of Etherie" in ten minutes."
And she laughed, took my arm, and we entered the theatre together.