[Okay, what follows is the remainder of Outlaw’s Mind as I’ve written it so far. It’s quite a bit longer than just one section, but I’m tired of posting it weekly, as I am of most things, so here is the rest of what I’ve written so far. It may well be the rest of all that ever exists of it. I don’t know that I’ll ever write more of it. I may also post the entirety of The Dark Fairy and the Desperado as I’ve written it so far, a bit later this week–perhaps tomorrow–with a similar disclaimer. That will be even longer than this is. I hope you enjoy it, for what it’s worth. Sorry if I don’t finish it.]
When Timothy introduced the notion of going to the group meeting the following Saturday to his mother, he wasn’t surprised to see her show relief and amusement. She told him that she had indeed, as he’d suspected, been wondering what kind of surreptitious thing they could have been discussing that they wouldn’t want Rhonda to overhear. After laughing a bit, she said that she was fine with the idea if that was what he wanted, but she asked him to be honest in telling her how he really felt about it.
Timothy didn’t have to search his feelings long to be able to honestly reply that, though mildly nervous, he was also excited about the idea. He told her that he found meditation quite interesting, and enjoyed the process and the experience, and the learning about the landscape of his mind that came with it, and that he thought it might be even more interesting to do it for a longer period of time with the whole group around him. He didn’t mention Rhonda, not wanting to worry either his mother or himself, but he at least thought that she could hardly be a bother during a group meditation session when everyone was sitting in silence.
Timothy’s mother said that, if he was fine with it, then she thought it was at least a potentially useful thing to do, and if it turned out not to be his cup of tea, well, they could just revert to the current lesson plan as long as Mr. Maclean was willing. She smiled as she said this, clearly recognizing, as did Timothy, that Mr. Maclean was likely to go along with any reasonable course they desired.
Timothy thought he caught just a tiny bit of something new in his mother’s face and voice when she mentioned Mr. Maclean, and he wondered if she might just be slightly smitten with the man. A silly, childish part of him immediately entertained the fantasy of his mother and Mr. Maclean someday becoming romantically involved, perhaps even getting married someday. It would be nice for his mother not to be alone—apart from him—and in particular, it would be nice for her to become involved with someone like Mr. Maclean, who was so clearly the polar opposite in personality to Timothy’s father. Though, on this last estimate, Timothy recognized that he was being unfair to his father’s memory—memory which was, in his case at least, entirely third person, since he had no clear recollection of his father being in his life, and only knew the man’s face from photographs.
He chided himself, not unkindly, for his romantic fantasies about his mother and Mr. Maclean, and he did not actually become hopeful, let alone anticipatory, of any such developments. Life was rarely so convenient or so cliché, as far as he could ever tell. Still, it was nice that she actually seemed to like the man who was teaching him meditation, and that Mr. Maclean was such a down-to-earth person. It would have been so easy for someone a bit more woolly-minded to have put his mother off the idea of meditation completely, and Timothy wouldn’t have wanted that, at least now that he knew what it was like.
This prompted him to ask his mother what she’d meant about meditation having already started to do him good, since he couldn’t recognize anything in himself that should have shown on the outside. His mother smiled quite broadly at this and told him she’d figured he couldn’t tell, but that he seemed more relaxed and at ease—happier, if it could be put that way—than his usual self. She confessed that, as Mr. Maclean had said, he was such a serious boy, and she worried that he was perhaps not having as much fun with life as he ought to, especially at his age. She hoped that, as meditation continued, he’d continue to be able to be more at ease, maybe come out of his shell…maybe even bring some friends home to hang out from time to time.
Then, she added, with a blush that surprised Timothy, that she wouldn’t have minded getting the chance to meet a girlfriend of his at some point, if such a thing happened.
That admission both reassured and saddened Timothy. He didn’t like that his mother worried about his relative social isolation, which he knew was mostly deliberate on his part. And though he had normal teenage hormones and interests in girls, he was extremely cautious about considering approaching anyone or thinking about dating. He supposed that in itself wasn’t too unusual; the prospect of dating was obviously a pretty emotionally tense one for people his age, with a few inexplicable exceptions. But his experience with the girl who had become enamored of his violence in such a seemingly twisted way, and his fear of becoming an abuser like his father had been, made him quite hesitant about even close friendships, let alone romantic entanglements.
Still, who knew? If meditation allowed him to get a handle on his rage, maybe he could have a more normal social life, and could even find someone he’d want to date who would in turn want to date a stick-in-the-mud like him. He was able to be honest when he told his mother that, if meditation continued the way it had been going, it might just be possible that he would fulfill her wishes, though he couldn’t make any promises, since there was no guarantee of finding anyone who would be interested in dating him.
The look of joy on his mother’s face when he spoke those few words was worth every second of the meditation he’d already put in and would have been worth a hundred times as much.
Timothy recalibrated his timer and undertook two more thirty-minute meditation sessions at home that day, and three on Sunday. The longer time did seem to have at least some relative effect on how “deep” he went, if that was the correct term. He found himself more and more often tending toward that peculiar state of feeling that he no longer had a body, that he was merely a mind floating in some greater, but quite different, space from the rest of physical reality. He didn’t forget his troubling feeling from a few weeks before, of being in a bleak, icy landscape and catching a glimpse of that horrible nocturnal face of the creature that had sat on his chest at night, but he was able to reassure himself that that experience had not taken place during a meditation session, but in the middle of a moment of tension with his mother that had been more taxing than any other he could recall. It made sense that his thoughts would be in an unusual, and quite disturbing, state at such a time. It was also, as he became more used to exploring and simply observing the contents of his own thoughts, recognizable as simply another transient mental state that came and went, as so many others did, all the time, throughout the course of every day.
He only wished he could easily let go of the troubling sense it gave him. But he supposed that scary and disconcerting things always had a stronger hold on people, for reasons he wasn’t quite sure of, but he wished that he could be as good at simply allowing them to slip away. Perhaps, when he had enough experience and skill with meditation, it would become comparatively easy to make that happen.
He wondered whether, perhaps, in the fulness of time, he might even decide to study and teach meditation himself, as Mr. Maclean did, and make a profession of it. It didn’t seem like an outrageous possibility, though he thought his mother might not exactly approve. Still, who knew? Maybe if meditation did as much good for Timothy as they all hoped it would, she would not find such a prospect at all disappointing of whatever hopes or dreams she might have for her only son. Probably, her standards had been lowered by his issues, and she would consider any life in which he didn’t either go to prison or get killed in a brawl to be at least acceptable.
These thoughts all arose during his second Sunday meditation session, and it took a while before Timothy realized that he was lost in them. When he did, though, he did not become angry with himself, but was actually amused by their content and by how stealthily they had grabbed his attention. The mental landscape was certainly less predictable than the physical one, and one truth that he seemed to be discovering was that it was nearly impossible to sit still in it. The currents of whatever flowed through it were simple too strong to stay in one place.
With that secondary and nearly again distracting thought, Timothy turned his attention back to his breath, and to the feel of the chair against his body, the floor against his feet. It was, somewhat surprisingly, necessary to apply some real concentration to discovering his own physical existence again. And this was a fascinating thought that came and, with comparative ease, went away.
Though he was forced to restrict himself to fifteen minutes of mindfulness practice in school in the mornings before class, Timothy didn’t find it a chore to get up a bit earlier still in the morning to be able to do a half-hour session before his morning shower. He found, to his pleasure, that it worked to wake him up and prepare him for the day even better than a mug of heavily sweetened and milk-inundated coffee that he occasionally drank. He also did two more sessions after school, one upon coming home, while he was alone before his mother’s arrival from work, and another in the evening before bed, which seemed to help him relax and get to sleep more easily.
He’d had a minor worry about the time required causing trouble for his homework, but thanks to his generally good habits in that regard, he found it no serious challenge to keep up with the material. In fact, he suspected that he was concentrating better than usual, and that it was taking less time for him to complete his assignments than it would have in the past. This, however, was not certain, and he knew—or recognized—that he could easily be fooling himself about it, since it was what he wanted to believe. He was not the sort of young man who told himself what he wanted to believe because it made him more comfortable. If anything, he erred in the other direction, being harsher with himself than others might ever choose to be with him, or with themselves for that matter. In sober, meditating and near-meditating moments, he realized that this was as much an injustice as its opposite, but he was willing to pay that cost, if necessary, to avoid allowing himself to slip into a self-indulgent mindset that might make him more prone to outburst of anger.
On that Wednesday morning, the girl to whom he had spoken so harshly only a comparative short time before, and with whom he now exchanged casual and polite greetings, trying to make up for his earlier cruelty and—just maybe—to give her a slightly better opinion of him, spoke to him as he finished his pre-class meditation. It was a little more than five minutes before first period began, and the class was a noisy bustle of activity. The girl usually tended to spend the morning in casual conversation with her little group of friends, but it seemed that at least one of them was absent that day, and one of the others had her face pressed almost completely down to her desk, clearly working on some math problem that stymied her, or which she had left too late.
After Timothy shut off his watch timer, blinking his eyes a bit in the revealed brightness that existed beyond their lids, he heard the girl say to him, “You do that every morning, huh?”
Surprised, but still quite even keeled from his meditation, Timothy quickly figured out that the girl was indeed speaking to him and understood what she meant. He tried to smile as pleasantly as he could, though it was a skill in which he was less practiced than at meditation already, and he said, “Well, only for a few weeks now, but yeah. It’s…a lot better than other ways of doing things.”
He knew his comment might well seem cryptic and puzzling to the girl, but she seemed to take it in stride. Looking at him quite directly, and with an almost penetratingly interested gaze, she asked, “What is it, like self-hypnosis or something? Like, to help you get your mind ready for class and stuff?”
Timothy didn’t really know enough about hypnosis to know how much alike or different from his current habits it might be, trying very hard to be exceptionally patient with this girl in particular. He said, “Well…not exactly. At least, I don’t think it is.” Thinking back to scenes of hypnosis from movies and TV shows, he added, “There’s no…words or anything. No, like, commands or suggestions or anything.”
The girls seemed mildly surprised, as well as more curious. “So, then…what is it? I mean, you sit there really quiet—even for you, I mean—and sometimes it looks like you’re barely even breathing. Sometimes it’s like I almost literally can’t tell you’re there…like you go into some kind of stealth mode so I can hardly even see you.”
She gave a tiny chuckle as she said this last sentence, so Timothy judged that she was exaggerating for effect. He noted with some surprise her comment about him being very still even for him. Those words, and some of the other things she said, made it seem that she’d been paying a lot of attention to him. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, given how cruel he’d been to her when taking the Paxil. He hoped his stillness was at least giving her an improved comparative impression. It could hardly have been much worse.
Hoping to enhance that—and fearing that he might seem to be some kind of space cadet—Timothy decided to try to give as clear an explanation for his habits as he knew how to give. He said, “Well, lately I’ve been trying to learn and do this stuff called ‘mindfulness meditation’. I guess the official word is Vipassana, but I think that really just means the same thing in another language. It’s basically just learning to try to just…well, not really to quiet your mind, but to just be aware of it, and to try not to get lost in thought and get judgmental about them, but just to learn, or to see, or whatever you’d call it, how your mind really works, and…in my case, anyway, to try not to let parts of your mind…get away with you.”
Timothy felt himself getting embarrassed by the thoughts of what he was explaining, but he was fascinated to realize that embarrassment as a thought, and he could even note the blush he felt arising almost clinically, and it was both fascinating and amusing. That fact made him feel slightly proud…and he was amused and curious to note that he noted that too as an arising though. And he was able to let those thoughts go after only a brief instant of embracing them affectionately.
The girl looked mildly puzzled but rather intrigued. Timothy expected her to ask him what the meditation entailed, but instead she asked, “Why did you start doing it? I mean, what got you interested in it? How did you find out about it?”
Now Timothy felt greater embarrassment, veering toward true shame, and he found it harder to be quite so detached as he averted his gaze toward the top of his desk and replied, “Oh. Uh, well, I…I have this…this sort of…problem with my…with my moods, I guess you’d say. My doctor thinks it’s something…medical, you know, not just…not just like I’ve got a bad…personality, or whatever. He’s…we’ve tried to look for, like, physical stuff, but we couldn’t find it, and we even tried…medication. But that didn’t go so well. So we’re trying this, now, and it seems a lot better.”
Timothy didn’t look up yet, expecting the girl to prompt him to give more of an explanation about what “mindfulness” entailed, but he was frankly mortified even to be orbiting the subject of what he had been like when on Paxil. Thus, he was surprised and a bit frightened when the girl asked, “Was that what was going on last month when you…well, said those things about me and stuff?”
Now Timothy raised his head, his mouth slightly open, fearful and ashamed, worried that the girl would be glaring at him with accusation in her face, a stern judgment declaring that any excuses he might give were summarily rejected and he was found guilty. To his amazement, though, the girl’s expression was open, curious, and even kind. Her head was slightly tilted, and she leaned slightly toward him, as if eager for his reply.
Timothy wasn’t sure he could trust her apparent openness. Though it seemed sincere, it could be some manner of trap. But then again, what sort of trap could it possibly be? And, perhaps more importantly, he thought that if this girl wanted somehow to embarrass him or otherwise punish him, then she certainly had that right. He was a bit surprised to realize, with his growing awareness of the nature and character of his own thoughts, that if this girl were to call him names or humiliate him in front of the class—even if she were to throw some disgusting fluid on him or slap him or worse—he would not be angry. There would be no danger of his rage exploding at her.
It was quite an interesting thing to realize…to know.
This process took barely a second, and Timothy forced himself not to keep her waiting any longer before he said, “I, uh…yeah, I guess. If that’s what you’re talking about. My doctor thought maybe I had some…some weird kind of depression or something, so he tried me on some…on a really low dose of Paxil. Well, the generic, I guess, but I don’t remember the name.” He probably could have recalled it if he had tried, but the less time and effort he spent on the stuff that had made him feel like a demon, the better.
The girl was nodding soberly, seeming not at all surprised, and indeed her next words were, “I thought it had to be something like that, that you were on some kind of medication.”
“Really?” Timothy asked, though he suspected she was just being kind.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “First of all, you looked…I don’t know, just really not healthy. Like you’d just been throwing up or something. I mean, your eyes were really wide, and your pupils were, like, big and dark, and you were a little bit, like…hunched, I guess. And you looked like you had this…I don’t know, I guess a sort of sheen or something, like varnish. I guess it was sweat or something, but it didn’t look like sweat from just…I don’t know, running to get to school on time or something. It reminded me of the way people look when they’ve been throwing up.”
The girl’s description was plainly not intended to be insulting, though it was of course far from flattering. Timothy was more than a bit mortified to know how obvious his physical response to the medicine had been. However, compared to its effect on his mind, on his behavior, and on his attitude toward people, toward animals—toward life and the world—physical effects, even disgusting ones, seemed almost pleasant.
Not able to meet the girl’s gaze for the moment, Timothy said, “Yeah, that…it made me feel…pretty queasy. The first day, I thought it was something I ate, but it wasn’t.”
“Well…it was sort of something you ate, wasn’t it?” the girl said, smiling at her minor joke. “I mean, you took it as a pill, right?”
Blinking in surprise and looking back at the girl’s face, feeling strangely disappointed that she did not in any way seem to be teasing or attacking him, Timothy finally said, “Well…yeah, I guess you’re right. I never really thought about it that way, but…I guess you do eat medicine, don’t you? I mean, unless it’s a shot. I never realized it, but…I’ve always thought of them as like…totally separate categories.”
The girl nodded, apparently understanding both his guided epiphany and the state that had preceded it. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “I only kind of started thinking about them that way when I started taking birth control. It made me feel really nauseous the first couple of days, like I’d eaten a bad egg or something, but I’d hardly eaten anything at all, so I knew what it had to be, and I kind of put the two ideas together in my head for the first time. It makes sense, though. A lot of medicines come from things people used to eat, or drink, or whatever.”
The girl trailed off, and Timothy realized she must have noted the surprised look he wore in response to her revelation that she was taking—or at least had taken—oral contraceptives. Now she finally blushed and, with rather more intensity in her voice, though with lower volume, she said, “I take the pill because I had really irregular and painful and heavy…‘monthlies’, if you know what I mean. Though they weren’t really ‘monthly’ for me. And I also got really…bad PMS before…just depressed, and angry, and hyper-reactive. And I also got cold sores and nasty stuff like that. And since they were irregular, it’d hit me, like, out of the blue, I wouldn’t know when it was coming. And neither did anyone else. So my doctor got me on the pill to keep everything regular and…and sane, I guess. And it’s really helped. It wasn’t so I could, like, sleep around or anything. I’ve never had sex with anyone.”
She seemed then to realize that she had shared perhaps more than she should, and her blush deepened, and her mouth hung just slightly open. She looked at Timothy with obvious fear, vulnerable and clearly knowing it. Eager to reassure her, and frankly unable to tolerate the notion that she might think he would use her words against her, Timothy quickly blurted, “Me too. I mean, I’ve definitely never had sex with anyone, believe me.” From the corner of his eye, he thought someone nearby heard his rather overloud declaration, but he supposed that, if anything, was good. He went on, “And it’s…it’s good to know that sometimes, for some people…for you, I mean…medicine really can help make you feel better. Probably because you’re a good person. Nothing ever really works like it’s supposed to for…well, for someone like me.”
These last few words seemed to distract the girl from her embarrassment, at least. Her brow furrowed, and she leaned a bit forward again and asked, “What do you mean, someone like you?”
Timothy, glad to have diverted the subject from the girl’s distressing revelation, gave a mordant chuckle and said, “Well…I mean, you saw what I was like when I was taking something that’s supposed to make people feel…better, less depressed, whatever. I was…I was like a psycho, or something.”
The furrowing of the girl’s brow deepened, and she said, “But…that wasn’t like you. I mean…the reason it was so…I don’t know, noticeable, was how much it wasn’t like you. And how sick you looked. Heck, for a second, I thought you had low blood sugar.”
This last tidbit distracted Timothy, reminding him of some of the tests he’d had, checking whether he might have diabetes, and the test where they had given him insulin when he’d gone without eating overnight. His blood sugar had apparently dropped then—as expected—and he had felt absolutely dreadful, nothing at all like the almost joyful cruelty he’d celebrated on the morning he’d spoken his evil toward this harmless girl. At that time, in fact, he’d felt quite good, though not in the ethical sense—which, if anything, highlighted the fact that feeling good, in a simple, animal way, was not a good way for him to be.
“No,” he said, gently shaking his head. “It was nothing like that.”
“Oh,” the girl said. She puzzled and thoughtful as she went on, “Because I saw this old movie where this woman had diabetes, and in one scene she got a big…like, her blood sugar went really low, I guess, and she got all shaky and said these really nasty things to her mother. I think it was her mother. But her mother knew what was happening, and got her some juice or something, and once she felt better, she was really sorry, but her mom was, like, cool with it. She knew it was just the blood sugar. You didn’t look exactly like her, but, well…that was a movie.”
“Huh,” Timothy grunted, idly wondering what movie it might be. “That’s…but, yeah, no, I…my blood sugar wasn’t low. I think…I think I’d had Pop Tarts for breakfast that day, now that I think about it. So my blood sugar wouldn’t have been low, that’s for sure.” A funny notion occurred to him, and he commented, “Pop Tarts and Paxil…the breakfast of champions.” He didn’t know if the girl would recognize this last quote; it was apparently the slogan for Wheaties cereal, or it had been in the past; his mother used to quote it ironically, and she had told Timothy what it was.
Whether the girl recognized the phrase or not, she seemed to appreciate Timothy’s sarcasm. She smiled and chuckled a bit, then said, “Yeah, really. It sounds as good as it turned out to be for you. Because, really, you’re not anything like that. I mean, I knew something was really wrong with you. I mean, I was kind of…well, I mean, for a second, I was mad, but then I thought, Jesus, he looks like he’s gonna throw up or pass out or something. And I thought about that movie. I kept watching you, like, out of the corner of my eye, to make sure you didn’t…I don’t know, fall out of your chair or something.”
Timothy blushed, wishing something so ordinary could have happened. Realizing how surprised he was by the direction the girl’s response had taken, he said, “That was nice of you, to be…worried about me, when I’d been such a as…such a jerk to you.”
Smiling again, the girl replied, “Well, come on, it was really obvious that you weren’t…well, weren’t yourself, that you weren’t feeling good. I mean, later on, my friends and I were talking, and we all agreed, you looked and acted like something was seriously wrong with you, because normally you’re, like, one of the nicest guys in school. Lori said she was worried that you might have a brain tumor, that’s how weird the way you acted was, compared to how you usually are.”
Timothy had trouble even processing, let alone believing, that he could be characterized as “one of the nicest guys in school”, but he was at least able to force a smile as he said, “Nope. I don’t have any brain tumors. They’ve checked.”
The girl’s eyebrows lifted precipitously at this comment. After a second, softly, in a voice that sounded honestly sympathetic, the girl said, “Wow. I guess you really have been going through some…rough things, huh?”
Grimacing, Timothy replied, “Well, it’s rough for the people around me, anyway. Like you. And my mom. And anyone who’s too close to me, I guess.”
The girl’s brow furrowed again, and she looked almost angry, as though she were about to scold Timothy. Whatever she meant to say, though, died unuttered, for just as she opened her mouth, a high-pitched, piercing sound briefly drowned out the noise of the many arriving students, notifying everyone that it was officially time for homeroom to start. The already significant tumult of their arriving classmates crescendoed sharply in its wake from the mad scramble of late arrivers to take their seats. Their homeroom teacher, never overly strict, ambled into the room, making no motion to call the class to order yet.
Looking urgent now, glancing at the teacher and then back, the girl said, “You’re Timothy, right? I mean, you go by ‘Timothy’, not by ‘Tim’ or anything?”
“R…right,” Timothy said with a nod, a bit surprised that the girl knew this.
“Are you on, like, Facebook, or Instagram, or WhatsApp?” she asked abruptly and intensely.
“Uh…no,” Timothy replied, not sure why he’d had to think about his answer. “I don’t even have a smartphone.”
The girl looked disappointed, almost frustrated. With another glance toward the teacher, who still merely looked bored as the class noisily settled itself, she said, “I’m Emma. Emma Gray.”
Timothy realized he had known this already, though he hadn’t so much as thought the girl’s name before that moment—perhaps wanting to distance himself mentally from someone to whom he had been cruel. “Right,” he said, trying to convey his prior knowledge so she wouldn’t think he’d been unaware of the name of a classmate to whom he’d spoken in a truly horrible fashion. He didn’t know quite why, but he felt that not knowing her name would have seemed to make what he’d done even more horrible.
The girl, Emma, smiled broadly, perhaps a bit surprised, then added, “Most of my friends just call me ‘Em’. So…you know, you can, if you want to.”
Before Timothy could reply—which was good, since he had no idea what to say—Mr. Siddons, the homeroom teacher, finally told everyone to quiet down so he could take attendance.
At the end of homeroom, Emma wasn’t able to talk more with Timothy about meditation—if that was what she might have wanted to talk about—because almost before the beeper sounded, her friend who had been face-deep in a math problem grabbed her attention, apparently hoping to discuss the very problem with which she’d been struggling. Timothy gathered that Emma must be a pretty good math student, based on what he overheard of their conversation, and that algebra or pre-calc was their first full class of the day. That explained the girl’s urgency and frustration.
Timothy thought Emma looked mildly irritated by her friend’s insistence, but he might have been imagining it, for she quickly turned her attention to her friend even as she picked up her book bag to head to their next class. However, as Timothy rose and picked up his own backpack, he was surprised to hear the girl—Emma, he reminded himself—say, “Have a good day, Timothy.”
After briefly freezing in minor surprise, Timothy blinked, nodded, and said, “Thanks. Uh…you, too. Have a good day.”
Emma smiled, her expression a mixture of simple pleasure and—Timothy thought—mild, affectionate amusement at his surprise. Emma’s friend observed the interaction with irritable indifference, clearly too preoccupied with her mathematics woes to care about, let alone to join in, any ordinary social interactions. Timothy respected her priorities, but he was deeply gratified to be in a situation where he could be on friendly terms with the girl to whom he’d been so truly horrible during his brief trial of Paxil. He recalled sardonically his transient fantasy of romance after he’d first apologized to her, but he had no such wish or fantasy now. He was more than pleased enough simply to be friendly with her, and she with him. It felt like a windfall he couldn’t possibly deserve but which he had no desire to reject.
Emma shared no other classes with Timothy, so he didn’t see her again that day, but that was fine. Their conversation had buoyed his mood, and he was mindful enough to recognize that fact and not to feel that he should resist it.
That afternoon, during his thirty minute after-school meditation, Timothy found that the train of thought most prone to steer him away from his breath was indeed the thought of the girl, Emma, asking him about meditation. He imagined trying to teach her a bit about it, perhaps referring her to Mr. Maclean, perhaps even bringing her with him some weekend so she could see what it was like. He was charitable with himself on the several occasions in which he found himself getting lost in these thoughts. If he didn’t achieve quite as peaceful a state as he sometimes reached, he nevertheless felt quite good and clear-headed. The evening’s last meditation session went similarly.
For the rest of the week, things were much the same. He did his morning thirty minutes, which helped prepare his mind for the day. Then, at school, before homeroom, he did his fifteen-minute session. He realized only now that, when he began those intervals, the girl in the next seat—Emma—was never present, but she was always there by the time he finished. Now, she greeted him upon his completion of his mini sessions, though their subsequent conversations didn’t veer into such deeply personal matters any more than week. Emma also now always wished him a good day before they left for their regular classes, and once, near the end of the week, even her friend—who was Lori, Timothy thought, though that might have been the other girl, who returned after being absent for two days—waved slightly to him. Timothy found the gesture oddly touching, though he couldn’t have said why.
Timothy realized that when he was meditating, especially in his short session before homeroom, thoughts of growing acquaintance with the girl one seat over were some of the most likely things to draw his attention from his breath. He usually caught himself fairly quickly, and he was able to keep from feeling too frustrated, but the nature of the distraction was particularly insidious, because some of the thoughts centered on the notion that meditation must be doing him quite a but of good, since he was socializing more, and with someone to whom he had been very unkind. That had to be at least some evidence of benefit.
Of course, the most important proof of that particular pudding would have to be him going for a long time—ideally, the rest of his life—without losing his temper and becoming violent. He had not done so since starting meditation, but it still hadn’t been an unusually long time, and he hadn’t encountered any typical situation such as might have set him off.
Even with that concern, he found the process gripping in its own right. He explored the landscape of his mind with fascination, trying not to get too enthusiastic, lest that become a distraction in and of itself. He still felt a mild fear about stumbling into the frigid, heartless place he’d encountered after his first Saturday, and he recognized that fear as a thought whenever it arose, but so far it was fine. He had noticed no significant dip or rise in his mental temperature.
By Thursday evening, he had decided that he wanted to accept Mr. Maclean’s invitation and try to join the group at least on that coming Saturday. It seemed like an experience worth having, even if he never repeated it. When he broached the subject with his mother that evening for the first time, she did not seem surprised.
With a half-cautious smile, she asked him, “Are you sure? You’re going to be the only high schooler in a group of older people. Some of them are probably going to be quite a bit older.”
Timothy shrugged and said, “That’s okay. I get along better with…grown-ups, I guess, than people my own age, anyway. And besides, everyone’s gonna be meditating. It’s not like…I don’t know, going to a party, or joining a club or something.”
His mother cocked her head and responded, “Well, it’s a little bit like joining a club.”
Timothy supposed she was right, but that didn’t change his point. “What I mean,” he said, “is it’s not like we’re gonna be, like…socializing or whatever. I mean, yeah, I’m sure everyone’s gonna introduce themselves and everything, but after that, it’s just gonna be meditating.
His mother eyed him carefully. He got the impression that what she was doing now was along the lines of a kind of “due diligence”, a concept he’d encountered in his personal reading and rather liked. It wasn’t that his mother didn’t want him to participate in the meditation group, but she wanted to be sure that he had considered any possible negative aspects to the process before he committed himself. She said, “If you’re just going to be meditating, then why do you even need to join the class, or the group, or whatever you call it? What’s the difference? Why not just do it on your own, or there in the morning with Mr. Maclean?”
Feeling more cleverly quizzed than he ever tended to feel in school, but also feeling quite motivated and in command of his subject matter, Timothy replied, “Well, there’s a reason people do these things all together, I guess. I mean, at least I assume there is. Because groups of people do it all over the place, all the time, and I guess they always have. They even have these…retreat things, where people go away for days or even weeks or whatever and just meditate together. I don’t know if it’s just that…being there in a group of people all doing the same thing helps people focus better, or to concentrate harder, or there’s less distractions…or, I don’t know, maybe there’s more distractions, so people get better training at staying focused and everything, even when there are more things taking their attention. I don’t know. But there’s a reason people do it together, and the only way for me to find out if it’s…better for me, or helpful for me, or whatever, is to try it out.” He paused, feeling a bit breathless, though he hadn’t really spoken for long. Then another thought occurred to him, and he added, “Oh, and also, there are group…I guess, discussions, too, I guess. Like what I do with Mr. Maclean afterwards and between meditation. And…well, other people are gonna think of things I might not think of, and maybe have…I don’t know, problems, or…experiences I haven’t had yet, but that I might have sometime later. And this way I might…learn from those people before things like that even ever happen to me.”
His mother’s head had leveled off, and she regarded Timothy directly, with an even expression that bore just a trace of a smile, as if she were trying to suppress happiness, perhaps troubled by its unfamiliarity. Her voice was clear but quiet when she said, “Well, I don’t have to worry about you not fitting in with people who are older than you are.”
Timothy was puzzled that this was what his mother chose to say in response to his arguments. That puzzlement must have shown on his face, and it must have been rather comical, because his mother laughed and smiled and said, “What I mean is, you’re a very mature and…adult person. Adult in a good way, not like ‘adult films’ or whatever. I mean, you’re more…I don’t know, grown up than anyone I know at my office, or see on the news, or whatever.”
Timothy thought he knew what she meant, and that she meant it as a compliment. It felt, strangely, like not an entirely positive assessment, maybe because someone his age shouldn’t be—or shouldn’t need to be—so mature. It was as though it seemed unnatural. But Timothy was okay with that. He knew why it was important for him to be old beyond his years, and if that was a sacrifice, it was one he would make gladly. Trying to reinforce the positive aspects of his mother’s comment, he said, “Well, I guess I’ve just been raised right.”
His mother’s smile showed that she was pleased that he had turned her observations into a compliment for her, but that he had also just proved her point quite strongly. “There’s no need for flattery,” she said. “I’d already decided it was fine for you to try out the class. I just wanted to make sure you’d thought it through and weren’t…jumping in too early. But it looks like I didn’t have to worry. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, but it looks like this meditation stuff might just do the trick…or at least be good for you.”
Timothy remembered thinking the “proof of the pudding” metaphor earlier that week, and about roughly the same subject. He supposed it shouldn’t surprise him, since much of the way he tended to think would, of course, be learned from his mother. In recognizing the saying, and the thought, as well as its character, he realized that he was analyzing his mind in ways he might not have before starting Vipassana. That was an interesting thought.
But he let it go gently flying away as his mother, starting to turn to some other task, said, “It’ll give me a little extra time downtown. There’s some little bookstores and things I’ve been kind of wanting to look at.”
“Book stores?” Timothy asked, surprised and distracted. “There are bookstores downtown?”
His mother cocked an eyebrow, looking back over her shoulder as she turned away, and said, “Yes, bookstores. Real, paper and ink, mom and pop bookstores. Your Amazon hasn’t driven them all out of business, you know, and it’s good to support them.”
Timothy was far from sure how Amazon had become “his”, but he was intrigued. “That sounds cool,” he said.
“Well, I’ll do recon this Saturday, and if it looks like there’s anything you might like, I’ll bring you there next time, okay?” his mother proposed.
Amused at the concept of doing “recon” on a bookstore and recognizing that amusement as a thought in his mind, Timothy replied, “That sounds cool.” He was hopeful and happy that his mother, too, might get something good out of his meditation, even beyond it potentially helping her son.
The next morning, Friday, Timothy had another conversation with Emma, his seat neighbor, after his brief morning session. Well…the session was comparatively and objectively brief, at least from the outside, but while he was meditating, Timothy found that, sometimes, his sense of time was altered. He never had the experience of feeling that the meditation time went by too quickly—not exactly. If anything, the time he spent seemed to endure beyond what could possibly have fit within his thirty-minute sessions, let alone the fifteen minute one before classes began. But it never felt like something that had to be endured; it never seemed to require patience for him to get through it to the end. Rather, it felt like a kind of bonus, like he’d been granted a form of superpower. In his head, he was like that X-men character, Quicksilver, who could move superfast, and to whom everything else looked like it was happening in slow motion. He didn’t get the feeling that he could use the phenomenon to, say, do his homework faster, even if he could somehow recall it well enough to imagine it vividly in his mind. Perhaps, though, he could use the time to ponder particularly challenging concepts, assuming he ever came across such a thing in his remaining high school career.
Still, it was remarkable. He felt like he was experiencing more time, quite literally, than was passing in the slow world outside his head. It was somewhat analogous to the feeling he had that within his head was a vast world, a universe that was in some ways larger than the one in which his body resided, partly because it had more directions, more ways to move. At times, he felt that he could almost literally imagine objects with four or even more physical dimensions. This did not seem merely like a mental illusion, though he could not reproduce the phenomenon when he was not meditating. He tried not to get lost in such thoughts, intriguing though they were. He was able to let them go with only mild effort, and with an inner smile, which he supposed was not quite the full dispassion that was the ideal response to such distraction, but which seemed better than frustration.
It was during such a thought Friday morning that his alarm went off, surprising him both because it was so soon and also because it felt that he had been in his mind for so long that he had nearly forgotten that any other world existed. As he calmly turned the little chime off, he heard Emma’s voice asking, “Did you think of something funny?”
Timothy realized that the question was directed at him, because Emma’s two friends were together, leaning over some problem or project, a few rows away, and it was apparently something Emma wasn’t involved in. Still, though he recognized that much, he didn’t grasp the meaning of the question. “What was that?” he said, hoping that was a broad enough counter-question to make clear his ignorance.
Emma chuckled briefly then said, “You were smiling just as your alarm went off. It looked like you might have thought of something funny while you were meditating, so I was wondering if that was what had happened. It…well, I wouldn’t think someone who was meditating would think of something funny, but I really don’t know much about it.”
“Oh!” Timothy said, perhaps slightly too enthusiastically, because Emma gave an exaggerated little jump in her seat. “Sorry,” Timothy added, though it was clear that Emma had been acting a bit for comic effect. “No, well, I, uh…well, I didn’t exactly think of something funny. It’s just…there’s some things, some thoughts, or…experiences, I guess, that can happen when I’m meditating, and they’re so cool and interesting that it’s hard to just…let them go, I guess, like I’m supposed to, but I can do it, once I catch myself…and it’s kind of neat to have those kinds of thoughts, or experiences, and also to be able to let them go, even though they’re so interesting. So I guess I was smiling at that.”
“Okay…” Emma said with a soft laugh. “That’s…way over my head, but it sounds pretty cool. I think.” She cocked her head in a way that reminded Timothy of his mother and asked, “You really like it, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess I really do,” Timothy replied, happy to be able to give such a positive answer without hesitation. “It’s different from anything else I’ve ever done, and it feels like I’m…I guess, learning things about my mind that I don’t think I’d have ever known otherwise. Also, I’m a little excited because tomorrow I’m gonna be joining the morning class with the other people, and I’ve just been getting private teaching so far.”
“Huh,” Emma said with a nod. Then, after a pause, she asked, “So, you do those lessons, or classes, or whatever they’re called, on Saturdays?”
“Yep,” Timothy replied. “My mom takes me downtown and, like, goes shopping while I do ‘em.”
Emma nodded again, looking thoughtful for a moment before asking, “What else do you do on the weekend? I mean, do you hang out with your friends or go out to clubs or anything?” She had a bit of laughter in her voice as she asked the last part of her question, so Timothy guessed she didn’t expect an affirmative response.
Laughing a bit, himself, Timothy said, “No, I, uh…I think I’m too young to go to any clubs or anything. Unless you mean, like, chess clubs or something.”
Timothy didn’t really suspect that Emma had meant anything like a chess club, and her smile in response made it clear that he was correct. “No,” she said, “though I guess there’s nothing wrong with a chess club, if that’s what you’re into. But they have those, like, sixteen and up clubs that people go to. They don’t serve alcohol or anything, but there’s music and dancing and stuff.”
“Really?” Timothy said, honestly and thoroughly surprised. “There are nightclubs for teenagers?” Somehow, he imagined that such a thing would be frowned upon, as places where kids might get involved in drugs, or fights, as well as have issues with pregnancy and other sexually transmitted conditions.
His grim thoughts must have shown on his face, because Emma said, “Yeah, sure. They’re not so bad. I’ve been to a couple a few times, with some of my friends.” She nodded toward the other two girls, who were engrossed in whatever their project was. “The dancing is fun. And there’s never been any trouble in any that I’ve heard of. I think probably since there’s no alcohol served or allowed, people aren’t really so…prone to trouble or whatever.”
“Huh,” Timothy said. He was worried that he might sound stupid, but not too worried. Emma had seemed vaguely aware that he was a good student. He was mainly just still shocked that there were nightclubs for teens. It would never have occurred to him to imagine such a thing. Part of him was mildly horrified by the notion, though he was not sure why. Another part of him thought it was truly a nice idea, and quite positive for teens to have places they could go to dance and socialize without having to try to sneak into “grown-up” clubs.
Still, such a place was likely to be a poor option indeed for Timothy. With so many young people around, in close proximity, with loud noise and general chaos, it felt like the sort of place tailor-made to get him into trouble. Also, if he was honest, it didn’t really sound like his kind of fun. A meditation class was definitely much more his speed.
“So, I guess you don’t go to those, huh?” Emma said, her tone making it clear that she knew she was stating the obvious.
Timothy shook his head, smiling in what he hoped was a self-deprecating way. “Nope,” he said. “I didn’t even know they existed. I guess I’m pretty out of touch.”
Emma shrugged, smiling, but dignified Timothy’s disparagement of himself no further. Instead, she said, “So, what do you do? I mean, do you and your friends, like, go to the mall, or watch movies or shows, or play games?” Her inquiry felt casual, but Timothy thought she really did seem interested in finding out more about him.
He was sorry to disappoint her, but he had to say, “No, I, uh, really don’t do any of that stuff. I mostly just…read, and get online, watch videos and stuff. Do homework. I help my mom out around the house, that kind of thing. I don’t…I don’t really have anyone that I hang out with outside of school.”
This seemed to surprise Emma significantly. “Really?” she asked. “But…how come? I mean, you’re, like, a nice guy, you’re easy going, you’re…easy to get along with and, well…interesting.” Timothy noticed that saying this last word seemed to embarrass Emma, but he couldn’t have guessed why it might be so. “You seem like you’d be a…good person to hang around with.”
Timothy shrugged, then smiled sardonically, saying, “I guess I’m a good enough person from a distance. But if someone gets too close to me for too long, I’m…well, not a very good friend.”
This seemed to puzzle Emma mightily. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Why not?”
Timothy took a deep breath. He was unwilling to get into too many details, but he didn’t want to stonewall Emma, who seemed honestly curious and well-meaning, and who also seemed mildly distressed by his declaration of friendlessness. After a pause, he said, “Well, it’s…it’s what I’m doing the meditation for. And what I tried to take the Paxil for, and all that. Who knows…if the meditation works, maybe it’ll be okay for me to have friends to hang out with? Maybe not to go to clubs with, but…who knows?” He shrugged.
Emma seemed slightly confused, and she said, “Wait, I don’t get it. Are you, like…just shy outside of school, outside of, like…regulated social situations? I mean, do you have, like, bad social anxiety disorder or something?”
Timothy was truly and thoroughly surprised by that conjecture. “Um…no,” he said. “I don’t really have too much trouble with that. I mean, sure, I guess sometimes I feel shy, like in some situations, but not, like, any kind of disorder or anything.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Emma said with a nod. “But I don’t really know much about those things, I just…read about them.” She waited, as if expecting Timothy to elaborate on something, but when he didn’t, she asked, “So, what is it? Because people don’t get put on, like, depression medication, or…or get checked for brain tumors just because…I don’t know, but not for something little. So, what’s been going on, what’s…what makes it hard for you to have, like, friends you hang out with on the weekends?”
About this subject—about telling Emma too much about his problem—Timothy did feel shy. He knew she was an understanding person, going by her easy forgiveness of his episode of vicious verbal abuse, but there were limits to anything, and it would be hard to tell in advance what they might be. He wasn’t really at the point of thinking of Emma as a friend—certainly not a full-fledged, hang-out-after-school friend such as she had inquired about—but she was a good acquaintance and was perhaps becoming an “in class” friend, anyway. He didn’t like the thought of her being horrified by him, but if she were to learn that the verbally cruel aspect that she’d faced was laughably benign compared to the physically destructive person he could become, she might stop even talking to him at all.
He had given her hints, of course, but nothing close to full specifics. She just knew he had a problem—something so severe that he had been tried on medication and had been checked for brain tumors and for low blood sugar. But that didn’t clarify much. It certainly wouldn’t sound like something that would make him a danger to other people. It might even seem tragically romantic to the right kind of person. Emma didn’t strike him as quite so flighty as that, but then again, she had been seemingly devastated by the breakup of a boy band she liked. Timothy wondered, looking back through his undrugged, meditative eyes, if her distress had been more of a performance than a literal expression of her feelings. Still…she was a teenager.
But maybe that meant he should give her as clear a picture as possible. He didn’t want her to become his classroom friend based on some misconception about his…well, his illness, he supposed he could call it. Maybe full disclosure was the right thing to do, or at least reasonably full disclosure. It wasn’t fair to lie to her by concealing facts, especially when she’d been given hints that might make him seem mysterious and interestingly benign.
Yes, that was the right way to go. His troubled thoughts must have shown on his face, because Emma was regarding him with a concerned frown. He finally forced himself to say, “Okay, well…I have these…I don’t know, ‘fits’ I guess, where I lost my temper. I mean, it’s not out of the blue, there’s always something triggering it, but…but it’s out of proportion. Usually, anyway.” He added this last footnote when he remembered chasing the car that would have hit the freshman boy if Timothy hadn’t grabbed him. That driver had well and truly deserved his anger, though ironically that was a case where his fury had been impotent.
Moving on, he said, “And when I lose my temper, I mean I lose it. Not like when I was nasty, here, to you. I don’t…I don’t talk. I just get…violent.”
Emma’s forehead furrowed and she asked, “What do you mean? Violent how?”
Deciding to share the worst, since this explanation was about why he had no friends to hang out with, Timothy said, “Well, like, I had this friend before, and he was…teasing me, one time. He didn’t mean anything by it, it was just one guy busting another guy’s…chops, you know what I mean?”
“Sure,” Emma replied. “I mean, I don’t get why guys do it, but you see it all the time.”
“Right,” Timothy said. “It doesn’t mean anything. And he was my friend, and I know he didn’t think I’d take it very seriously. But he did it at just the wrong time, in just the wrong way, and I just…lost it, and I started hitting and hitting him, even when he was down and saying he was sorry. I just wanted to…I don’t know, keep hitting him until there was nothing left. If it hadn’t been for the…the door, and the window, I might’ve killed him.”
Emma shook her head. “What do you mean?” she asked. “What door, what window?”
“Well, we were outside, for gym,” Timothy said, forcing himself to be ruthless. “And there was, like, this side entrance door nearby. And I had to hit something, so I ran over and…and hit it. My hand went through the safety glass, and I cut myself pretty badly.” He looked at the scars on his right hand as he continued, “But I didn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I even broke a bone in my hand, but I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t care about the bleeding or anything, I just kept trying to hit it. If the wrestling coach hadn’t grabbed me, I might’ve completely broken out that window and…bled to death, I don’t know. And I wanted to keep hitting the thing even when the coach had me in, like…a head lock or something. So, anyway…I’m not a very good friend.”
“Wait,” Emma said, “what does that have to do with you not being a very good friend? I don’t get it.”
Timothy was surprised by this question, but perhaps he hadn’t made his case clearly enough. He must have spared himself somewhat without even realizing he was doing it. He said, “Well, I mean…I got mad at my friend, even though he was my friend, and I just started…hitting him. Trying to hurt him. I mean, even though he was my friend, I didn’t, like, cut him any slack or anything like that.”
“But you said he was teasing you,” Emma pointed out. “I mean, would you have started hitting him if he hadn’t teased you?”
“I don’t know,” Timothy replied, confused and thrown off his mental course by her unexpected responses. “Maybe. Because he didn’t do anything that should’ve made me so mad. Who knows what might’ve set me off? I don’t know what causes it, so I don’t know what might trigger it. Or if it might get easier to trigger if I don’t do something about it.”
“But you are doing something about it,” Emma said. “You’re studying meditation.”
“Yeah,” Timothy allowed. “That’s true. And it’s a good thing, I think, even if it doesn’t…help my problem. But still…anyway, I’m not really friends with that guy anymore. And I haven’t made any new, real friends since then. I don’t want to…I mean…well, if the wrestling coach hadn’t been there, I might’ve hurt him pretty badly…or…or killed him.”
Emma frowned deeply, and she was clearly about to make some comment in response, but just at that moment, the intense, loud, piercing beep that served for their school bell sounded, and those students who weren’t already in their seats began to scramble and crash toward their places. Timothy blinked in surprise. The combined time compression and expansion had perhaps followed him out of his meditation session, because he couldn’t decide if the class “bell” had rung far too soon or if it seemed to have been delayed unnaturally.
Emma looked as irritated as Timothy was surprised, and she looked almost capable of becoming violent with it, could it only have been personified and brought before her in that moment. She drew her lips together briefly into a thin, tight grimace of frustration, then she turned to Timothy and, looking almost stern, said, “Why would you say that you could have killed him?”
“Because I could’ve,” Timothy said. “I mean, if the teachers and the wrestling coach hadn’t been there, I might’ve just kept hitting him until he was dead. Or even after.”
Emma shook her head. “You said the wrestling coach stopped you from hitting the window in the door. After you’d punched through it enough to break the glass and hurt your hand. Which means you started doing that before they got there, right?”
Not sure what Emma’s point was, Timothy said, “Well, yeah. I mean…I had to hit something, and it was better to hurt the door and myself than to hurt him.”
“Exactly,” Emma said, so forcefully that she drew quick glances from nearby students even over the noisy chaos of all the others getting to their seats. “You decided to stop hitting him, because you didn’t want to hurt him. So, you hurt yourself—and a door, I guess—instead. And it’s hard to feel too sorry for a door or a window.”
Timothy shrugged, unwilling to be as forgiving of himself as Emma seemed to wish him to be. “Okay,” he said. “But that’s not exactly…healthy. And I had to go to the emergency room and get stitches, and my mom had to leave work, and I got suspended. It’s not a great thing, and it sure isn’t healthy.”
“No, fine, I’ll agree with you there,” Emma said. “It’s not healthy…for you. And it’s definitely good that you’re doing something about it. But I don’t think it makes you a bad friend.”
Just then, Mr. Siddons made his casual but firm call for the room to be quiet. After a quick glance at the teacher, and in a lower, but still quite intense voice, Emma said to Timothy, “I think you were a better friend than your friend deserved.” Then she turned to face the front of the class with a stern, almost triumphant look on her face.
Timothy was confused. He didn’t think that Emma had meant to imply that Earl—Timothy didn’t think he had even mentioned his former friend’s name—would have deserved for Timothy to continue beating him rather than choosing to hit the door. But he was not sure what exactly she did mean.
Soon, the business of school drove his puzzlement—mostly—from his mind.
The rest of that Friday in school passed without anything else even remotely unusual happening. Timothy’s afternoon meditation session was good, marked only slightly more often than usual by distractions, generally thoughts about the next day. One time he found himself trying to follow thoughts about his morning conversation with Emma, but he recognized that distraction quickly, allowed it to go along its way and disappear, and returned to the breath.
Later in the evening, his mother checked to see if he still wanted to try the full class experience the following day, and he didn’t hesitate at all before confirming his desire.
His mother smiled at his resolve, but he thought that something in her smile seemed sad, or perhaps hesitant. He tried not to dwell on it too much. She was his mother, but even for him, her deeper thoughts could be difficult to read. Also, now that he had formally committed to joining the group, he finally began to feel a bit nervous. He was fine doing meditation by himself; indeed, he felt it was becoming easier and more natural for him, and he found the guided sessions in Mr. Maclean’s presence also to be effective and reinforcing of his concentration. But he wasn’t sure how he would function in a group that was also meditating. He had been told—and he had read it, as well—that meditating in groups tended for most people to make the process go better. Part of him thought this seemed odd, that in fact it missed the point of meditation, that it meant that the presence of others was having an effect that shouldn’t exist if one were really meditating properly. But he was probably overthinking things.
He wondered how old the other meditators would be. Would he be that out of place? The woman, Rhonda, had said that she was the youngest member of the group, not counting him if he joined, but was she an extreme outlier, or was she just the lowest of an even and not too broad group?
He hoped that she wouldn’t be sitting too close to him; her intensity and the feeling of having too much energy for comfort made him worry that she would be distracting if she sat too nearby. Unfortunately, he couldn’t truly imagine himself asking Mr. Maclean to place them apart—if he even gave any input on seating. It would feel too rude and presumptuous.
Timothy’s evening meditation session was slightly marred by these jitters, but he was at least pleased to note to himself that he could recognize his nervousness as it happened, and if he wasn’t quite able simply to let it go on its way, he was at least able—for short periods—to recognize his nervous thoughts for what they were and to look at them and let them go. They returned frequently, but the fact that they returned, and that he noticed when they returned, at least reassured him that he was letting them go in between.
Something else that arose during that evening’s meditation surprised him at first, and almost distracted him greatly. He had been in a fairly calm state for a time when abruptly his mind was filled with the image, and the feel, and the sound, and even the smell, of the time he had attacked Earl. He could all but feel his fists striking his former friend’s torso, could almost literally hear the resonant thump of his knuckles reverberating in Earl’s chest, as well as the sound of his friend plaintively saying that he was sorry.
In his mind, he then immediately transitioned to the harsher, much more physically painful, and yet much more satisfying feeling of his fist striking the safety glass of the school door. He somehow still could not recall the feeling of his skin being sliced by the broken glass—apparently that pain had been so suppressed by his rage at the time that it hadn’t even left a memory—but he could see the blood, he could feel the coach putting him into a full nelson to control him even as another teacher called 911. It was not literally like reliving the events; he was aware that he was seated in his bedroom. But in some ways, the experience was purer, more distilled, by the fact that it was happening in the world of his mind, as though all distracting irrelevancies had been whittled away from it, and only the purest remnant of the event was left.
It took him a moment to recognize this as a thought, even though it didn’t fool him into believing he was doing it once again. It was too intense, it seemed to want to have a life of its own, wanted to conjure a full conception and identity, then go wandering off into his mental landscape to take on a life of its own. It was very difficult for him to draw back from it, and to recognize the self-loathing he experienced along with it—and the accompanying vicious joy he felt at the memory of his own injuries—as thoughts without separate existence. It was hard to let go of his judgements of himself.
What helped this was when he wondered why this event was recurring to him and he recalled discussing it with Emma before class. Of course, that explained it. He’d told her about that occasion, when he’d attacked the person who’d been closest to him in the world apart from his mother, and he had just been meditating moments before he told her. It was connected in his mind, then, and so it came up again while he was meditating, since he was keyed up about the morning. The stress, the tension, even the positive anticipation, probably made him prone to recalling such things.
And as he did, he recalled Emma’s points in rebuttal to his statement that he was not a good friend; he remembered her surprising him greatly by telling him that she thought he was a better friend than Earl deserved, something that made no sense at all to him. But his confusion at that remark provided a welcome distraction from his memory of attacking his friend, and he used it as a sort of two-step maneuver to return his concentration to his breath, with the thought of Emma and her comment pulling him away from his memory because of his confusion, and then recognizing his memory of that morning’s conversation as a thought in the present and simply letting it go.
His meditation wasn’t as deep that evening as it had been that morning, he thought—ironically, it felt not even quite as deep as his in-class meditation—but it still was calming, and he still felt the curious stretching and compression of time that he was now tending to experience regularly. He began to get a very strong feeling again that the interior of his mind was a real landscape, albeit one whose surfaces were not confined to the ground below his feet, or even to parts of a merely three-dimensional manifold. At times, he felt that there was no surface at all to his mind, that instead it was an open space of some kind, with more than the usual three dimensions of the external world, but with this fact not being terribly salient, since he could move through it unimpeded.
He recognized that even by thinking of himself as moving through his mind, he was in a sense allowing himself to be distracted, as if he were a being or person residing within his mind, rather than being the whole mind itself, in fact. This was a curious thought to realize, and it came to him now because he found a strange landscape appearing to him—if that was the correct term, which he thought it was not—with paths meandering over what looked like ground, but which did not follow any course of gravity. Or, well, there was some equivalent of gravity holding him on the surface on which he was placed—though he had no awareness of any representation of legs, let alone the rest of his body. But the path or the ground swooped forward, up and around, looping over top of itself and twisting, forming what should have felt like a closed cave-like structure, but which nonetheless felt open, because even though it ended up closing all three normal dimensions off, the space in his mind was not constrained merely to those three. He supposed it was rather like the feeling a bird must have—the ground was below in all places, forming a curved but otherwise two-dimensional surface, but at will, a bird could take flight and maneuver in a direction the ground knew not.
Timothy was even freer than such a bird, for there was no limit to the atmosphere through which he could fly; he was not constrained by height or weight, of which he had none, nor of air resistance or breath, for even his awareness of his own body’s true breath was distant, and it did not affect him here, other than to provide his focus of concentration when needed.
His mind meandered through itself, surrounded by a seemingly encompassing network of paths and surfaces that reminded him of tunnels drawn by Dr. Seuss in an old children’s story he’d had some years ago. But though it surrounded him on all sides, he could simply move orthogonally to it at will, and though it remained all about him in space, it became more distant, rather than closer, as he rose through the hyperspace of his mind.
As he did this, though, he noticed something surprising. He began to feel a temperature in this newer dimension. And that temperature was cold.
This didn’t alarm him at first, just intrigued him, and he even tried to fight the prospect of being intrigued—though fighting wasn’t the right term, really, since it was not a violent process, but the antithesis of violence, a letting go of the very prospect of intrigue by letting it wash over him and pass by, diverted as if by mental aikido. He did this dispassionately, not caring whether or not he succeeded, feeling neither triumph nor worry, nor any satisfaction. He just followed his awareness, which was aware of itself as the awareness of which it was aware, and he curved along the courses of the impossibly twisting tunnels of his mind, lit by consciousness itself, and as close or as distant as he might care to be.
But as he floated through upper dimensions—perhaps more than one beyond three, perhaps even something which numbers had only limited ability to define—it got colder. He did not feel the temperature as if on the surface of his skin, for he had no skin, no flesh, no bone, no body of any kind. He was merely awareness, and the awareness was aware of cold, and that cold was increasing. And, though there were no nerves upon which the cold could impinge, it was nonetheless uncomfortable.
Then, Timothy felt a sense of familiarity, and the three-dimensional, twisted, impossible cave of that portion of his mind faded, and he was again in an open area, a plane of sorts, but still in something other than merely two dimensions. And it felt like someplace he’d been before.
His dispassion began to fade a bit. There was a strange, distant drumbeat that he just began to notice. It was deep, dry, and faint at first, slow and not quite steady. He felt he was moving across this new mental plane, but it was not changing in any visual way. It was, however, becoming colder still.
The drumbeat became more resonant, and it began to beat more quickly. It made his awareness vibrate just ever so slightly. There was no air, but there as sound, and there was frigidity. Growing frigidity. Familiar frigidity.
He was curious and puzzled but tried not to let those sentiments become identified with who he was. They were simply things happening, not personal to him except being in his brief awareness. He squeezed them mentally, acknowledging them, and released them.
They did not quite leave, however. And they were accompanied by something else. A sense of anxiety, a sense of fear, rose with the increasing cold, with the increasing rate of the drum’s beat. He was frightened—not of the drumbeat itself, not even of the cold, for that could do nothing to harm a being without any physical body. No, he feared something else, something he couldn’t quite recall or recognize.
The cold increased, the drumbeat became faster, louder, more resonant, shaking him with each pulsing thud.
Something about where he was in his mind was alerting him, trying to remind him of something, some danger, though he could not think of what it might be, and indeed, he tried not to let it trick him into thinking too much, into indulging the fear. He tried not to fight the fear, at the same time. He tried merely to know it, to recognize it. It was just an emotion, merely a state of his being, something happening to him. It was not him; it did not define him.
But it wanted to define him. It wanted to replace everything else, it wanted to scream at him with his own voice that he was in danger. But what danger could there be in his own mind?
Then, suddenly, he realized what was familiar about the place. An association, now noticeable, rose up, and he felt a memory of sitting in the car, his mother in a terrifying mood, telling him that she was going to go home and kill herself if he would not promise, and mean it, that he would never kill himself, not ever, not for any reason, not even to protect other people from himself. He was now in the cold mental landscape into which he had wandered during that dreadful conversation.
And what dwelt in that landscape was not just the memories of that terrible confrontation and the oath he’d taken in the face of his mother’s plainly serious threat. There had been a face, off in the mental distance, a face with a vast, arcing slit of a mouth lined with countless needle teeth, a flat nose, and red, laser-pointer eyes.
He tried to look around, but he caught no sight of the thing he had once awakened to find sitting on his chest, in what Dr. Putnam had said was an episode of sleep paralysis. But he felt that it was near. He could not truly say that he smelled it, for he’d never experienced an odor associated with it, but some manner of spoor was nevertheless beginning to waft into the mindscape in which he resided.
And now the drumbeat’s identity became obvious. It was the sound of his heart, heard from within as if from without. It grew stronger and faster as his cold and his fear grew.
He feared to flee, knew not which direction in which to go, for the thing, the creature, could be behind him in any of a number of directions, in directions that weren’t even whole numbers of dimensions.
What was he to do? He did not want to encounter the thing.
Then a shriek arose, a repeated, high-pitched scream, and he thought at first that it was he, himself, screaming rhythmically in terror as that creature was perhaps coming up from behind him, though there could be no space closed to his perceptions.
Then he recognized the scream, and it shrunk to normal proportions, becoming his alarm, notifying him that his meditation session was over.
With that recognition, he found his escape from the icy realm in his mind into which he’d wandered. He simply opened his eyes, and he found himself in his bedroom, his little portable clock and alarm blaring on his desk, where he’d placed it, merely a few feet in front of him.
He looked around his room, confirming to himself that it really was what it seemed to be, since there had been at least that one occasion, when he’d awakened after stopping the Paxil, and had found that creature on his chest. It had been his room in a sense, then, but it had not been normal.
Now, though, there was no sign of any intruder, whether from within his mind or from anyplace else. The light from the overhead, supplemented by his desk lamp, lit the space well and clearly, both turned on because it was evening, and the sun had already all but completely set for the day. His book bag was on the floor near his desk, unopened, since he didn’t tend to do homework on Friday evenings. His bed was only a few feet away, as familiar almost as his own hands, and more of a source of comfort. The curtains of his window were drawn, but though he remembered his fear on the occasion of his sleep paralysis, the thought that if he were to push them aside, he would see an alien landscape, now he had no such misgiving. The front yard, such as it was, lay beyond the window, and the street beyond that. He suspected nothing else.
Feeling oddly foggy, which was not typical after meditation for him, Timothy shook his head. As he reached to turn off his alarm, he noticed that his hand shook ever so slightly, a tremor that pulsed with the rapid beating of his heart. He also noticed, in the same instant, that the skin of his arm was covered with goosebumps, the hairs standing on end, his skin color slightly mottled. It looked like it was reacting to cold air, and now that he saw it, he realized that he did feel cold still. It was not exactly the same as the sensation he’d felt in his meditation mindscape, but it was there. The skin of his arms—and of his face and neck, now that he paid attention—felt as if they had just been in chilly air, chillier than the air outside would be even in the evening at that time of year. He half expected to see his breath fog as he exhaled, but of course it did not.
That was remarkable. He’d been so immersed in the mental sensation of cold that his body itself had responded appropriately, raising his hairs and constricting blood vessels, as if to conserve blood and protect vital organs preferentially in frigid air for which he was not adequately dressed.
“That’s amazing,” he said to himself out loud. His voice at least sounded normal—quiet and measured, rational, a clever teenager soberly reacting to a remarkable mental phenomenon, in which his internal sense of cold had been so vivid, so intense, that apparently his nervous system had tried to adapt to it as if it were real. He felt the slight urge to rub his forearms with his hands, as if to work heat into them by friction, but this urge, at least, he did not indulge. One did not need to physically counter chilliness that was entirely a mental state.
He was pleased to note to himself that these reactions kept him from being too alarmed by the fact that he’d wandered back into that chilly, dreadful mental landscape to which he’d gone during his mother’s ultimatum, and which also seemed to house a remnant or memory of the truly horrible thing he’d awakened to find on his chest not long before his first meditation experience.
And, thinking of being alarmed, he recognized that he’d not yet deactivated the alarm. It was no longer a scream, as it had seemed to be when it had jarred him from his mental diversion, but it was still quite loud, and was of course designed to be grating. Smiling at the recognition that he’d been reminded of it by a mental pun of sorts, and finding that thought briefly surprising and distracting, Timothy finally continued to reach forward, and he grasped the little timer he used.
He stopped before touching any of its buttons, before deactivating the alarm as he usually did. Something was not right, and he knew right away what it was, though it could not be real.
The surface of the timer, which was a combination of metal and plastic, felt cold to the touch—colder than was explicable merely by the fact that metal always felt cool. Was he fooling himself? Was his nervous system, which had already adapted his skin as though it had actually been outside in frigid air, going one step farther and sending him misleading impressions of the usual feel of the timer? Or perhaps that wasn’t in the nerves of his hands but in his mind itself, his brain interpreting normal messages in abnormal ways because of the combination of the meditation experience and the gooseflesh on his arms.
Not yet deactivating the alarm, Timothy tilted it up, looking at the LCD screen, which flashed “0:00” over and over again, telling him time was up, his countdown was over, and for goodness’s sake he needed to shut off the alarm.
The numbers were slightly blurred, slightly fogged. The little plastic screen was marred by condensation. It was as if he’d had the little timer outside in the winter, then brought it into warmer, moister air, and tiny droplets of water had stuck to it, like the glasses of someone who had been in a strongly air-conditioned car stepping out into humid summer air. The timer screen was fogged as if because it had been cold, as if the seeming chilliness Timothy felt in the device were not merely an illusion of his interpretation.
But…the timer was not part of his body. A confused nervous system could raise the hairs on his arms as if in response to chilly air—or to fear—and it could even make a cool, metallic surface feel as if it were cooler than it should be. But…but it could not make the mild humidity of the air condense onto a plastic screen! That was a physical, purely mechanical process, utterly divorced from Timothy’s perceptions. Windows and glasses fogged with water vapor even when there was not a soul around to notice. Timothy’s mental state could not affect such a thing.
Could he be imagining it? Could it be a species of hallucination, as had been the creature he’d once awakened to find on his chest at night? Or could this, indeed, be what the screen always looked like, slightly fogged because it was not new, but so familiar that Timothy had never noticed it before now, and only now he interpreted it in an unreasonable way?
Still not deactivating the alarm, Timothy passed his thumb across the little plastic screen in front of the numbers. Some of the apparent condensation cleared, smeared, streaked under his thumb, making the numbers slightly easier to read but with a few little stripes of residue, perhaps some oils from his skin, some dust from the air that had condensed with the water on the screen. In the rest of it, where he had not passed his thumb across, the slight mistiness persisted, and there was a plain difference between that and the mostly clearer arc along which his thumb had passed. There was not enough moisture for him to feel anything, but the number screen, like the rest of the timer, felt cool. And the screen was not metal. It did not, as far as Timothy could recall, normally feel cool to the touch.
“What the fuck?” Timothy whispered in dismay, so startled that he cursed even though he was at home, something he usually avoided.
As if in response to his minor infraction, Timothy suddenly heard a prominent tapping on his bedroom door, and then, without waiting for a response, the door opened, and Timothy’s mother stood behind it, looking in. Far from being accusatory about profanity, though, her face was slightly drawn, her eyes wide, and she seemed mildly frightened. When she saw Timothy holding his alarm, though, the tension left her face and she even seemed to shrink perhaps a quarter of an inch in height as her frame relaxed. Timothy didn’t know what had frightened her, but her expression distracted him from the timer.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. “What’s up?”
His mother let out a breath that sounded like a sigh of relief, and she said, “I just…your alarm was going and…and you didn’t shut it off, and it’s been maybe a minute or more since it started, and I…I was worried that something was wrong, that you’d…that you were sick or something.”
Timothy was surprised. Surely his alarm hadn’t been blaring for more than a minute. True, he hadn’t yet shut it off, distracted first by his gooseflesh and subjective chilliness, then by the apparent coolness of the timer and finally by the seeming fogging it had borne. But that had all lasted perhaps only ten seconds or so. Not a minute.
Nevertheless, his mother was plainly distressed, though her relief was just as plain. Before saying anything else, not looking any more at the screen, Timothy pressed one of the buttons that deactivated the alarm. Then, grimacing slightly, he said, “Sorry, mom. I…got distracted, thinking about something, and just kind of…let the alarm go for a while.”
His mother, the fear not completely gone from her face, looked supremely puzzled. “What were you distracted by that would stop you from shutting off your alarm?”
Timothy considered, for a tiny fraction of a second, being completely honest with her, telling her about his mental experience, about the mere feeling that his mind was cold translating into raised hairs and mottled skin, and even mentioning the inexplicable but seemingly real coldness of his timer. But just as quickly, he realized that such a report would be far too peculiar. His mother would think either that he was overdoing it with the meditation, or—perhaps worse—that he might really be unlocking something disturbing in his mind, and either way, she might reconsider letting him join the group the next day. She might even reconsider letting him continue to meditate at all. He didn’t want that, despite how curious and disturbing his recent experience had just been. So, instead, he said, “Oh, I was just…actually kind of interested in how the alarm felt when I was meditating, if you know what I mean.”
His mother cocked an eyebrow and said, “Um…no, I don’t think I do know what you mean.”
Timothy couldn’t help but laugh a bit at his mother’s expression and her obvious puzzlement, which she clearly intended to be at least a bit funny. He said, “Well, it’s like…normally when I hear a timer go off, or my alarm, there’s always a little bit of, like…not fear exactly, but really getting startled, you know? Like it always makes you jump?”
Now his mother looked like she was on familiar ground. “Sure,” she said with a nod. “I’ve never had a morning where I didn’t feel like my alarm was going to give me a heart attack.”
Pleased with himself at finding a good, resonant story to tell, though disturbed by the notion of his mother having a coronary, Timothy said, “Well, just now for the first time…at least the first time I noticed it…the alarm didn’t, like, make me feel jumpy. It was just…a noise, just another kind of sensation, like, that I was experiencing while I was meditating. And it was kind of interesting to feel that way, so even though it got my attention, and I knew I was done meditating, I was kind of just…well, not really enjoying the feeling, but sort of…watching it, you know?”
“Huh,” his mother said, plainly a bit surprised and intrigued, though it seemed just as plain that she got Timothy’s point. She even looked impressed, which gave Timothy a pang of guilt, since he’d made up the reaction that he’d described to her. “That’s…well, that’s pretty interesting,” she said. “That meditation must be…pretty powerful stuff.”
Timothy couldn’t argue with that last sentiment, not even in the privacy of his mind, given what seemed just to have occurred. “Yeah, it is,” he said.
Blinking and shaking her head a bit, his mother said, “Well…I’m a long way from that, I’m afraid, and when your alarm keeps going without you turning it off, it makes me worried that something’s happened to you. So…be mindful about that, if you’re being mindful, please, and remember to shut it off before you make me lose a couple years of life next time.”
“Will do, Mom,” Timothy said. “Sorry about that.”
His mother shook her head and said, “No need to apologize.” Then she added, “Sorry to bother you. I’ll let you get ready for bed, or whatever you were going to do next.” She began to back out of the room, but then she stopped before closing the door, looking at nothing in particular before asking, “Did you have your window open just now?”
Puzzled by her question, Timothy looked toward his curtains, which were quite still and steady, as usual, confirming—enough for his purposes, anyway—that his window was closed, as it should be, since he certainly hadn’t opened it that day. “No,” he said, honestly confused. “Why?”
His mother pursed her lips a bit and shrugged. “Nothing,” she said. “It just felt…a little cooler in here than the rest of the apartment, and there’s a…a funny smell.” She sniffed deliberately, then said, “Or maybe not. But it does seem cool. Are you getting too cold in here at night? I don’t know if there might be an issue with the heating and A/C ducts or something. It’s an old building.”
Now Timothy felt a chill that had nothing to do with external sensations, imaginary or otherwise, but he fought not to reveal it to his mother. Perhaps the meditation he’d already been doing so far helped, because he was able to keep a steady voice as he replied, “No. No, I’m not…I haven’t noticed it being especially…cold in here.”
After a few seconds more, his mother shrugged again and said, “Okay. Well, I guess it’s not that unusual for an old building like this to have a bit of uneven heating. Maybe it was sunnier out when the sun was on the back of the building than when it was on the front today.”
Not sure if his mother’s speculation made sense, Timothy nonetheless said, “Yeah, that’s probably it. I…I think that’s happened before.” Then after a moment, he added, “I think I will get ready for bed, though. I want to be rested up for class tomorrow.”
His mother smirked slightly at this, and she said, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to be taking any tests, but it’s nice to know that you’re a good student even when there’re no grades involved. Let me know if you need anything, otherwise I’ll see you in the morning.” She began to back out again, but once again stopped, this time to say, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth before you go to sleep.”
“Already did,” Timothy truthfully replied, and he gave an exaggerated grin, baring all his teeth to show her.
“That’s my boy,” his mother said, smiling much more naturally. “G’night.” Then she finished backing out of Timothy’s room and shut the door behind her.
Timothy’s grin, which had been fake in any case, slowly melted from his face and he turned back to face his desk, and the little portable digital timer that lay on it. It looked just as it always did, though at its present angle, he could make out the dry remnant of the streak he’d made with his thumb on the readout screen. Otherwise, though, there was no sign of anything atypical. He touched it again, but it felt only faintly cool, like any room temperature artifact would feel when compared to the warmth of human hands. He tipped it up and looked at it, not sure what trace he might expect to find beyond the one he’d already noted. There was nothing. It was just a little digital timer, sitting on his desk. The desk itself, likewise, looked just as it normally did, with no residual traces of any recent temperature drops. He wasn’t sure what such traces might be even if they had existed. He had no idea what, if anything, might provide a clue or evidence that there had been an unnatural chill in the room.
The hair on his forearms, and the skin that bore it, had returned to normal. There were no more goosebumps, though Timothy felt far from completely calm and serene.
His mother had thought that his room felt cold…and she’d even thought, at first, that there was a peculiar smell. She’d seemed to dismiss that thought quickly, but Timothy couldn’t help but recall the notion he’d had when meditating, when he was in that cold mental zone, that the creature from his sleep paralysis might be nearby, because something that wasn’t really an odor—but which didn’t seem to match any other possible description—had begun to be noticeable.
But that was crazy. It was bad enough to think he’d imagined a mental odor warning of the approach of that nightmare creature, but that had been in his head, where almost anything was possible. How could his mother have noticed such a thing? How could she have noticed the cold?
He must have been imagining all of it, overthinking, fitting his mother’s innocent remarks into a narrative he’d created in his mind. She might have made comments about the temperature at any other time, in any other circumstances, and he would not have even remembered them. For all he knew, for all he could recall, she had indeed made them on prior occasions, perhaps many times. And what teenage boy’s bedroom didn’t have at least a trace of odor that a mother might occasionally find unpleasant?
But then what explained the cold of the timer, the condensation? Did that sometimes happen also, without him noticing it, while it was running? Was there a freak configuration of circuitry that, from time to time, when the thing was running, turned it into a tiny, very weak refrigerator?
That seemed ridiculous. Timothy had at least a vague understanding of how refrigerators and freezers worked, and though he did not know how the electronics of a timer worked, he couldn’t honestly conceive of how such circuitry could reduce the thing’s temperature noticeably, enough to lead water vapor to condense onto its screen. If such a thing were even possible, and so possible that it could happen by chance in a little timer, surely some brilliant scientist would have figured it out already and become a billionaire.
He tipped the timer up more, then wiggled it back and forth, so the ceiling light played across the small gray rectangle of its readout. The smudge he’d made was alternately more prominent and then disappeared, depending on the angle, but it didn’t go away completely. Timothy had the urge to untuck his tee shirt and first spit on, then wipe that little screen, removing if he could all evidence of the bizarre occurrence. But he would not let himself do that. It wasn’t in his nature to spare himself, to try to hide from unpleasant facts of reality.
What could have happened? What could explain what he had just experienced? If it had merely been the thoughts in his head and then the mottling of his skin—even if his mother’s comment had followed—he would have thought it all just a curious mental phenomenon, and rather interesting at that. His mother’s comment, after all, could still be merely coincidental.
But what could explain the apparently physical coldness that had touched even the little kitchen timer, and which—possibly—had cooled the room enough that his mother had noticed it, if only in passing? It couldn’t be what it seemed to be; it couldn’t be that the coldness he’d encountered in his head had been so profound that it had seeped out into the physical world. That was ridiculous. Timothy was young, but he was far from flighty, and magical thinking was not one of his habits. He didn’t believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy—could not even recall when he’d last thought they might be real—and he did not believe in ghosts or in alien visitors, did not believe in the Loch Ness Monster nor in Big Foot. He didn’t think he even believed in any God, at least not in any simplistic, prayer-answering notion of one. The world had always seemed quite hard and rigid and practical to him.
Yet something had happened. Something had made his timer get cold, so cold it had collected dew from the air, at the same time Timothy had been wandering through a frigid mental landscape inhabited by the most terrifying thing he had ever experienced other than himself. What could have done it?
Not even the beginning of an answer revealed itself to Timothy’s mental questioning. He was pleased, at least, that the whole situation, the puzzle, the mystery did not so much frighten him as leave him confused. That was probably because he’d been meditating, he thought. Otherwise, he’d have probably felt much as his mother had when she’d heard his alarm not stopping. He would have felt reflexive fear, would have started up and tried to race either toward it or away from it, mentally at least. But, of course, if he had not been meditating, there would have been nothing to startle or frighten him in the first place.
He shook his head, and his entire upper body went along with the shaking a bit. He didn’t see how he was going to find any answers just trying to think of things and go over them. Maybe the next day, before the class started, he would talk to Mr. Maclean and see if he’d had any experiences of seemingly physical effects of mental states. He wouldn’t mention the timer or the fact that his room might have seemed cold enough for his mother to notice—he didn’t want to give Mr. Maclean the impression that he might be a budding New Age oddball of some kind. But he could certainly mention the fact that, upon stopping meditating, he’d noted that the hair on his forearms had risen on end, and it was mainly due to a feeling of cold, though there had been a tiny bit of fright in it, too, because of the dark part of his mind he’d entered.
That last part, at least, was certainly something he would like to discuss with Mr. Maclean. He’d read of people finding dangerous states in their minds when meditating, or at least frightening ones. It apparently wasn’t as common as people having scary experiences when they took psychedelics, but it wasn’t unheard of. So, Timothy didn’t think Mr. Maclean would be too worried about it, especially if he was careful about how he worded it.
And, thankfully, his internal reaction was still much more curiosity than fear or even worry. It occurred to him, even as he was thinking about discussing things with his teacher the next day, that finding his way into this cold, frightening region of his mind might just be related to the very issue that had led him to seek out meditation in the first place. Perhaps that was why he felt that the monster was in that space. Perhaps that monster, which had surfaced originally only as he’d been coming off his brief and very low dose of Paxil, was an internal representation of the rage that was triggered within Timothy and that led him to become so violent. Maybe that was why it had shown up then. He’d come close to giving it free rein with the Paxil, at least in some sense, and then had removed that point of escape for it. Maybe that part of his mind had been angry at the rest of him.
He smiled at himself and shook his head more gently this time. He was personifying his own internal states just a bit too much. He’d read that there were people who thought that the human mind was really a combination of smaller “minds” within, but he didn’t think that was literally true. He was probably overthinking things.
Still, overthinking was more pleasant than fleeing in fear from his imagination, and he still very much felt mindful of those thoughts, recognizing them as what they were, even as he thought them now. And since he was planning on going to bed, it was probably just as well to allow those thoughts to pass for the moment. He briefly squeezed them, even the discomforting ones, and then allowed them to go on their way, then he stood up from his desk to get his pajamas out to prepare for sleep.
Much later that night—he could not have said how much later, for it was the first time he became even remotely self-aware while asleep—Timothy found himself having a vivid dream. Some part of him recognized what it was, which surprised him in and of itself. He didn’t think he’d ever before had a dream where he knew he was dreaming, though he’d read about such things in his reading about meditation. They were called “lucid dreams”, and some lucid dreamers found that they could even control the contents of their dreams when they became aware of them in those circumstances, indulging in fantastic adventures and experiencing things no waking mind could do. Timothy had always felt at least mildly skeptical when reading of such things but had tried to keep an open mind.
Now, as his sleeping blankness began to leave him, he recognized that he was not actually waking up but was instead entering some state of dreaming—at least part of his mind recognized it. But as the events of the dream unfolded, he found no evidence that he could change their course in any way. At best, some part of his mind was its own spectator, rather as when he was meditating. But it was not the only part of his mind that was active.
Timothy found himself standing outdoors on the school grounds, on a clear and slightly crisp day. He recognized the location as the general athletic field toward one end of the building, a place where gym classes went outside when the weather was good and when they were engaged in pursuits that merited the excursion. In his school, Phys Ed stopped after sophomore year, except for students who were taking electives, so he hadn’t been outdoors on the track for nearly a year.
He gazed around and was surprised to note that Earl was there, sitting on a bench and tying his shoes. Nearby stood two older students, stretching or otherwise preparing for their own class.
Earl, though, looked too small and young for sophomore or even freshman class activities. He was tiny, smaller than Timothy by far, looking perhaps no older than a seventh grader, and undersized even for such a boy. But Timothy didn’t think he’d known Earl at that age, and certainly they had not been in high school.
Now that he focused on it, Timothy thought that even the two older boys seemed younger than they should have seemed. They looked older than Earl, but not by much. Certainly, they were not as old as Timothy was now.
In fact, now that he paid attention to it, Timothy realized that he fairly towered above these other boys, and indeed, looking at the surrounding scenery, it seemed too low even for his present self. It felt as though he were not merely an adult, but quite a tall one—not, perhaps, the size of a professional basketball player, but certainly over six feet in height. And he felt big, in addition to being tall. His frame felt unnaturally broad to him.
He looked at his hands in the dream. They were big, thick, wide, like a lumberjack’s fists. They were practically lumberjack’s tools. They were also dry and calloused, especially along the knuckles of his first two fingers.
Timothy was distracted from his contemplation of his strange hands by the sound of a voice. At first, he didn’t recognize it, for it was high-pitched, younger than he remembered it being. But soon he realized that it was Earl, looking up at him and speaking in prepubescent tones.
“What?” Timothy asked. “I didn’t hear you.” His own voice was a low rumble, gravellier than he’d ever heard it before, with undertones of great grinding cog wheels smashing granite into pebbles.
Earl’s diminutive form looked up at him from his perch, so far down, his hands still on his shoelaces. “I said ‘your name is funny,’” he repeated, and now Timothy realized that was indeed what Earl had said before. “It’s a funny name. It’s silly. It makes me laugh.” Then, instead of actually laughing, Earl said the words, “Ha. Ha.”
The two older boys gasped theatrically, then in unison they said, “Ooooh!” their tones teasing and mock-accusatory. They looked up at Timothy, asking, “Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?”
And suddenly, rage exploded in Timothy, rage without words, without reason, rage at the audacity of this little stunted creature mocking him, making fun of him, rage at the older boys for egging it on. He hated teasing, he hated when people made fun of other people. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. The world was a hard enough place, it was challenging enough for people to try to learn to feel good about themselves without other people bringing them down just for their own gratification.
He felt his own lips—gigantic, thick, and rubbery—pull back in a snarl from teeth that were far too large and broad. He balled his monstrous fists, leaned forward and down, and struck at the tiny form of Earl before him in the temple.
The little boy’s head recoiled, making a hollow sound, and only the back of the bench kept him from going over backwards. His upper body bounced him back forward, right into Timothy’s second blow, with his other first, which connected with young Earl’s face.
Timothy felt the crunching, impossibly vivid sensations of Earl’s nose breaking, shattering, beneath his monstrous fists. He heard the sound of a muffled scream of pain, a young, frightened voice shouting in surprised agony. Earl’s tiny-looking arms began to come up as if to protect himself from further blows, and this seemed outrageous to Timothy. How dare this person try to defend himself, when he had been the one to make an unprovoked attack upon someone who should have been his friend, whom he should have defended? The audacity, the gall, was inexcusable.
Timothy crouched and leaned and drove his next blow into the small Earl’s midsection, overlapping his lower ribs and his upper abdomen. The breath whooshed from the boy’s body, and some vomit came out with it. Timothy’s next blow landed more on the side, and he felt a pop as a few ribs there gave way, mere twigs struck by a sledgehammer.
Earl’s words were interrupted, but he continued to bleat like a pathetic little goat, and now there was a wailing character to his noise—at least once he regained his breath from the blow to his belly. As blood poured from his face, it was joined by tears, the boy crying in what was no doubt already severe agony.
If he expected this to elicit sympathy from his gigantic attacker, he was foolish. Again, Timothy found it outrageous that the little creep had the gall to whine about being in pain that he had invited by dealing out pain with his words. Timothy swung his left fist, intending to strike the side of the little shit’s head, but Earl ducked and partly raised his arm, so Timothy’s blow hit him mainly in the shoulder. Timothy felt, and even heard, the shoulder give way, popping loose from its mooring, and he thought he heard a crack as perhaps the collar bone broke. In any case, that arm quickly fell limp, and rather than following up with his right fist to the other side, Timothy drew back his own left arm and swung again.
Earl was unable to defend himself this time, other than to try to duck, which was not terribly effective, his movement constrained by the bench. Timothy’s gigantic fist snapped his former friend’s head to the side, and he felt the skull cave inward just ever so slightly. There was a coughing, hiccupping interruption to the crying, and blood and snot were splashed from the front of the boy’s face.
Now Timothy brought his right arm in. He considered an uppercut but feared that it might break the little Earl’s neck, foreshortening his well-deserved suffering. Instead, he brought it down in a sort of hammer blow to the top of the punk’s head. Again, he felt the skull partly cave in—just a little, just a tiny bit of give, with a satisfying accompanying crackly feeling of the bones breaking just a bit. Earl’s head was bounced downward into his neck and upper body. His skull wobbled; blood poured from his nose and mouth.
And now he cried again, he screamed and yelled, incoherent partial words seeming to alternately beg for his mommy and to beg Timothy to stop, to forgive him.
The nerve! The bloody nerve of the little piece of snot, to ask for mercy, to request forgiveness!
Timothy would drive the breath from him to shut up those hypocritical moans. Earl’s right arm was almost limp, and his left flailed confusedly, since apparent he couldn’t see well. Timothy leaned further in and struck directly in the middle of Earl’s chest this time. His fist seemed to be as big as the whole center of his former friend’s ribcage, and more so than the skull, the ribs pushed in, bending to absorb some of the blow, since they were still young ribs and supple with their youth.
But they were not supple enough. Timothy couldn’t hear but he could feel the popping as several of them were at least dislocated and possibly broken. Again, Earl’s breath was forced out in a huge expulsion, with blood and spit a larger proportion of it this time. A whitish object came out with it, bouncing on Earl’s leg before striking the ground, a molar that had been knocked loose when Timothy had hit the right side of Earl’s head.
Now that the bleating was interrupted, Timothy could focus. He pounded more directly at little Earl’s face, blow after blow, crunching and pulping the features, snapping the little neck backwards, pulverizing bone and cartilage, squishing the brain behind it all. A dozen blows, a score, more than this followed, and soon Earl was not merely completely immobile but hardly recognizable as ever having been human. Timothy’s hands were smeared with blood and mucus, and more teeth had joined the first one, though these were mainly loose within the pulverized mouth, behind the broken jaws. The tiny form had long since stopped resisting, was not moving, was not breathing.
Incredible! Unbelievable! That little piece of shit had the nerve to die just to get away from punishment for being so intolerably nasty to his own friend? How dare he? How dare he?
Timothy hit him again, but it gave only a squelchy, mushy response, and did not satisfy. He looked toward the other boys, but they had been backing steadily away, aghast, horrified, and at Timothy’s glance, they turned and ran full out, toward the other end of the athletic field. They were too fast for his hulking form ever to catch up with them.
There were no teachers in sight. There was only Timothy and the remains of little Earl.
Timothy growled a shout of frustration, then he looked in the other direction and saw the emergency door, or teachers’ entrance, or whatever it was, nearby on that side of the building, with its rectangle of safety glass and its metal panel.
The window, though transparent, revealed no hallway of any kind. On the other side of that window was a deep blackness, as though a fire had broken out in the school and filled every air space with thick, dense, black smoke.
Timothy found that he couldn’t care less about the fact that the inside of the school was black—he knew it wasn’t usually that way, but he couldn’t be bothered with worrying about it. Instead, his ropey lips pulled back in a snarl that was almost a grin, and he turned away from the bench and from the pulped, oozing, bloody remains of the young version of Earl, and he strode toward the door.
Though he knew he was taller than he ought to be, the door seemed to have expanded somehow to match him. Its proportions relative to his own were just right, as was the school around it. That was interesting, but only in passing. Perhaps, once he was done with his present, waiting task, he would think on it more fully.
But, no, he knew that there would be no subsequent follow-up. This wasn’t real, not if he could remember correctly. This wasn’t actually happening. Was it?
He shrugged away the intrusion of attempted rational thought. That was irrelevant. He had to deliver his rage, he had to destroy and destroy and destroy until he had destroyed everything that he could, everything in sight, everything in the world, if he had the endurance to do it. If he destroyed himself in the process—well, that would be fine, too. That would be just right.
He raised his massive, almost misshapen fists, both of them coated with blood and spit, both bearing some scratches from where they’d contacted bone or tooth while beating Earl to death. There would be bruising on the knuckles later, also, but there was no pain in either hand, not yet. The rage drowned out all other input.
He swung his right fist, leaning into the blow, not holding back, and it connected against the safety glass windowpane. He felt this blow much more than he had any of his strikes against poor little Earl’s pathetic body, a jarring vibration that rode up his fist through his knuckles, to his wrist and forearm, then his upper arm, finally jarring his shoulder. He heard and felt a cracking noise, and though he saw a spider-web of damage spread in the safety glass from his point of impact, he knew the noise had not solely been from the door. Some of that cracking had taken place in the bones of his hand—despite him being larger and thicker than he’d ever been before, the window was also harder, less elastic, its substance thicker.
And with that noise, Timothy felt the tiniest twinge of pain in his right hand. It was hard to tell where exactly he had damaged himself, the pain was too vague and diffuse for that, but he knew, quite clearly, that once his rage left—if he survived—there would be pain.
In the face of that realization, Timothy’s grimacing snarl turned more toward being a smile. The inanimate could not suffer, but he had to cause something to suffer, and he was only too happy if the suffering was his own.
He considered bringing his left fist into action, but for now he wanted to concentrate his attack on one spot, especially given the surprising durability of the safety glass, which was not as damaged as he’d expected it to be. His angle would be odd if he tried to strike the same spot with his left fist. Besides, if he continued to use the same hand, it would suffer more damage—perhaps permanent damage, perhaps damage that would haunt or even cripple him for the rest of his life. He was right-handed. Best to ruin his primary hand.
He roared in satisfaction and rage, pulled his arm back and swung again, hitting the door even harder than he had before. The door panel shook slightly, though it was metal, and its hinges were thick. The modest pattern of spider-webbing that Timothy’s first blow had created now spread a bit. It had not reached the edge of the window, but it was more than a foot across in its largest dimension.
Timothy felt stronger pain, though he didn’t hear any new cracking of bone this time. The initial damage must have created enough give that the window didn’t do quite as much harm back to his hand as his hand did to it this time.
Timothy’s lips curled downward. Even windows were not doing what they ought to do; they were taunting, were being cruel, were being cowardly. Everything in the word was unsatisfactory. The Buddhists were right about that much, anyway.
That’s right, he’d learned a bit about Buddhism, just in his casual reading about meditation. That learning had been real, even though this…
He snarled to himself to shut up, and he pulled his fist back again. There was a trace of blood on the window, but Timothy was almost sure it was merely Earl’s blood, not his own. He hadn’t done enough damage to himself to draw any significant amount of blood.
It was so frustrating!
That frustration became increased fury, and this time Timothy’s blow was stronger, harder, more severe even than the first two blows had been. He might have been able to convince himself that the school building itself had shaken with the contact. Certainly, the door shook. The window caved inward ever so slightly, its elastic qualities finally coming into play. But even as it gave, the spider-web pattern of cracks spread, much more so than before, at least two feet across now, on the right and at the very bottom reaching the edge of the window frame.
And pulling his fist back, Timothy saw that at least a tiny bit of the center of his blow had cracked all the way through the window, and maybe—just maybe—there was a tiny hole in the glass. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought that there was a bit of oozing darkness coming out of that hole, seeping into the outside world from within the school. It did not really act like smoke. It was too thick, too viscous. It was more like cuttlefish ink in the water, like he’d seen on YouTube videos, like black dye mixed with phlegm.
More importantly, he’d felt much more pain in his fist that time. He thought he could localize it to the knuckle of his middle finger, thought it had given a satisfying, if small, crunching noise of its own when his fist had struck the safety glass.
That was going to hurt. That was going to hurt a lot when he really started to feel pain again.
His snarl stayed a snarl, but there was dark, horrible joy in it, nevertheless. Maybe once he was done with the window, he would spread his attack onto the concrete structure of the school itself. He would see which would give way first, the school or his body. He suspected it would be his body but, if necessary, he would batter the entire building to rubble to assuage his fury.
He glanced over his shoulder as he pulled his fist further back, ready to throw even more of his being into the next blow. Some part of him expected teachers to be running toward him, summoned by the fleeing other boys, but he saw no one. Not even the boys who had goaded him, who had goaded Earl, were in sight. The entire field was deserted, the whole region was deserted. There were not even any houses or other buildings in sight, just open, dry brown grassland, flat and level and cold, heading off into the distance. That was not the way it had been a moment ago. The only visible part of his surroundings that stood out was the bench on which the battered remains of Earl slumped, enraging Timothy further by no longer being able to feel the pain of his punishment.
It didn’t matter. If he had to, when he’d finished battering everything in easy reach, he would turn his fists upon the Earth itself, and he would see if even the grass and the ground could be shattered by enough blows and enough fury.
Even as he turned back again toward the door, Timothy swung his arm, swung his entire body along with it, and with beautiful precision, he connected almost perfectly with the center of his previous blows’ marking. The window bowed in just a bit more this time, though it bounced back just as fully as before. Because of the window’s give, the door didn’t shake as much at first this time, though it vibrated slightly as the blow finished and Timothy pulled his fist back, sharply feeling more pain this time, the metal panel acting like a plucked violin string.
That was interesting. It was behaving almost like a real, physical door, obeying normal, physical laws, even though this was clearly a…
“Shut up!” he grunted at himself.
He looked at the center of where his blows had struck, and he saw that in their middle, the radial spokes of cracks that he had induced, which now reached to the right lower edge and the lower right edge of the window, just avoiding meeting in the corner, became a network, almost a mosaic of cracked safety glass. And there was no doubt that, in the center, a piece or two of that mosaic had broken inward, falling into the school, leaving an irregular opening perhaps a quarter of an inch by an eighth of an inch in largest dimensions.
From that hole, more clearly now, there oozed the blackness from within the school, wisping more like food color in water than like smoke in the air. It seemed to spread into thready extensions, not far from the origin of the hole, not obscuring anything, but looking very much present.
Timothy wondered idly if it could have even gotten on his hand. He looked at his throbbing fist, and though he saw no trace of the black stuff on it, he did see that the skin over his knuckles had split in at least two places, and now there was no doubt that some of the blood on his hands was his own, mingling with the fluids from his execution of Earl.
He wondered if it was possible that he might even catch some manner of infection from Earl; maybe the little scum had been a carrier of that MRSA stuff people talked about. Maybe, even if Timothy survived after battering the school down and then battering away the grassy Earth itself, he would finally be claimed by a rotting, pus-filled infection in his fist.
That would be appropriate, he thought. But it wasn’t important now. The glass of the window was giving way. Soon he would be able to punch through it completely, to punch it away. That was what was supposed to happen next.
He swung his right arm again, unerringly hitting the same mark as before, the glass shaking, not quite as elastic now, its structure compromised. He thought, just maybe, that he could feel the hole he had already made on the skin of his knuckles as they connected, though that was probably an illusion. There was too much impact, too much pain now, in his fist. In addition to the glass cracking, he felt that his knuckles had also cracked at least a bit more, that whatever bones he had already damaged had their own lines of fracture extend, though not as impressively as they extended in the glass of the door. Now it really hurt. It was a sharp, piercing pain, overlying a tearing in the tissue and the ache of impact. The pain did not make him feel like hesitating. Quite the contrary. The pain goaded him, further enraged him, and it whetted his appetite for his own damage, just as satisfying and even more appropriate than damage to the guilty world around him.
The blackness was oozing more noticeably now, little swirls of black goo in the air. There was no wind, but the movement of Timothy’s fist as he pulled back disturbed the stuff, though it still showed no tendency to stick to him.
The hole was bigger, and the pattern of cracks around it was both finer and more mosaic-like than web-like now. Soon a hole big enough for even his giant fists to go through would be created, and what must happen would happen, when his skin met the edges of the hole he made.
Now he truly grinned, a mad, slightly open-mouthed rictus. This was indeed what must happen.
He swung again, perhaps harder even than before, not holding back, not focusing his blow at or even just slightly beyond the surface of the safety glass, but well beyond it, well past its surface, as though he expected his hand and arm to pass completely into and through it, coming well out the other side.
Slightly to his surprise, that was just what happened. The central cracking of the glass beneath his blow gave way, scattering inward in countless pieces, and his thick, gigantic fist passed into the glass, past it, well past his wrist and more than halfway up his monstrously long forearm. As he had expected, the remaining safety glass around the hole he’d just finished creating was not as fragile as what he’d put his fist through, and though it was not true, ordinary glass, its edges were nonetheless sharp enough to snag his skin, to rip through it, tearing more than slicing. This time it was not merely his hand and wrist that were cut, for his arm went in much further than it had the time he’d done this before.
Wait. He’d done this before. That was right. This was a kind of weird, distorted replay.
No, this was the proper happening, this was the way things should have been. Earl had been beaten to death, and now Timothy’s hand and arm passed into the school through the window, deeper, doing more damage to himself and to the window. This time there were no interfering coaches or teachers to prevent him from carrying out what should be done.
He looked into the school, into the place beyond the hole in which his forearm had gone, where it still was inserted, sharp, ripping pain flying up his hand and arm in response to broken skin and broken bone, blood dripping.
But he could not see the wounds. The blackness in the school was thick, dense. He couldn’t feel it as though it were a liquid, but it completely obscured his hand and arm beyond an inch past the inner surface of the safety glass, oozing around his forearm where the irregular hole allowed it passage.
He thought…he thought that, just maybe, his wounds stung where the blackness touched, worse than they would from mere air, as if they’d been immersed in slightly caustic fluid.
That was good. Wasn’t it?
He began to draw back, meaning to revel in the damage he’d done to the window and to himself, and then to do more of it. But before he could begin to withdraw, he felt something wrap around his arm, coiling, gripping, seizing him, tighter and more painful than the glass through which he’d smashed. It burned, burned around his wrist and the far part of his forearm, but it was not the burning of heat. It was cold. Terribly, terribly cold.
He looked into the blackness, the oozing, viscid substance so like and unlike smoke, but he could not see what gripped his forearm. He could tell, though, that it was huge. If it was hands, they were far bigger than his own massive fists. But it felt too broad, too uniformly flexible to be hands. What…how could…what had grabbed his wrist and arm? Was it the blackness itself, or was it something that dwelt in that blackness?
Or had it made the blackness?
Then the darkness was broken, just slightly, but piercingly. Directly across from Timothy, twin red laser-pointer lights sprang into existence, as though revealed by eyelids that had previously shielded them so Timothy would not be warned. They were wider apart than Timothy’s eyes, perhaps as widely spaced as his head, perhaps even more. When revealed at first, they were slightly below Timothy’s eye level, but they rose, as though whatever they came from had been crouched, hunkered down, waiting, but was now unfolding to something like its true height, and they now looked down on Timothy, as huge to him as he had been to Earl.
The twin scanning lights met Timothy’s pupils, and for an instant, pure, sharp red radiance filled everything in Timothy’s vision, drowning out all else, blocking it. It hurt. It hurt more than his broken hand, more than his cuts, more than the acidic blackness, more even than the frigid grip. It burned at his retinas, burned all the way up his optic nerves and into his brain, as though a fire had caught on the cells and was consuming them like dry tinder.
It lasted only a second, then Timothy reflexively shut his eyes and turned his head, leaving only a painful after-image of blue green in his mind.
He tried to crouch down, himself, as if carrying out some reciprocal dance with the thing that had grabbed his arm, him lowering as it rose. Its grip on his arm did not lessen, and indeed, he felt it begin to pull, to try to drag more of his limb into the school, though the hole he had made was not really wide enough for his upper arm to fit.
Forcing his eyes open, Timothy looked up, saw the two red point light eyes looking down, easily eight feet above the ground, glaring at him with some bizarre, inexplicable combination of emotions that he couldn’t have teased apart if he had hours to do it.
How could two points of red light even have emotions, how could they convey expression?
Then, as if in answer to Timothy’s mental question, the eyes came closer, near the safety glass on the inside, pressing up against the pane, still holding his arm. The blackness in the school parted just enough for Timothy to see something of the thing that had those laser-scanner eyes in the ambient light from outside.
The head that held those laser eyes was monstrous in proportions, as wide, perhaps, as Timothy’s already inflated torso. Its brow bulged over the caverns of the eye sockets, but no white, no orb was visible in them, only the twin, piercing, red points of light that illuminated noting but themselves. Below, a flattened, broad, oozing nose spread, with uneven nostrils and flaccid, pulsing flesh around them. If there were ears, they were too far back to be visible. There was no sign of hair, but around the rim of the head, the same shape and color as the blackness in the school hall, there were waves and paths of sinuous movement, as though something crawled beneath the skin. Or, rather, it was as if parts of the being were coming into view and then disappearing, as if there were more to the thing than could be seen with human eyes—even with the eyes of the mind—but that these parts existed in some other realm, only partly visible to human eyes, like some vast floating shape hovering over the surface of dark, still waters, with only the tiniest bits of it protruding below the surface at any time.
As it turned down to look at Timothy, he had the impression that the head, the nose, the eye sockets, all were not so much moving through space as shifting, showing him other parts that merely had the same configuration, and so still looked nose-shaped and eye-socket shaped.
And, of course, below the disgusting nostril was the vast, gaping slit of a mouth, an arcing slice in the skull that wrapped around and out of sight, obscured by the blackness in the school. Its lips were pulled back, and a cursory glance might have made one think that the thing was grinning, that it leered down at Timothy, taunting him. But Timothy could tell that this was not so. Its expression made too much sense to him, or at least was too familiar, for him to mistake it for any form of joy, even malicious joy. If there was sadism in this thing, it was an always-unsatisfied sadism, a cruelty without reward that nevertheless drove it forward to continue to do harm. Above all, the expression was one of rage, of hatred—and of hunger.
The teeth of the thing were razor sharp, interlaced, needle-pointed multiple rows, not capable of chewing, only of piercing in huge, double arcs of perforation and penetration. Such a thing could only tear away the flesh of a victim, never slice it, rather like the tearing of Timothy’s skin by the inner ring of broken safety glass.
Those teeth parted, and from behind them crawled a long, slimy, thick, snake-like protuberance of a tongue, slithering forward, smacking wetly against the inner surface of the window, seeking downward toward the hole through which Timothy’s arm remained stuck in place. It too moved not so much as if traveling through space but as if different edges of it were coming into the space in which Timothy dwelt, as if only a tongue-shaped cross-section of some much huger thing could be seen at any time.
And now, at last, Timothy recognized what he saw, or at least recalled seeing it before. He didn’t know how it could have taken him so long to realize that he had encountered this beast in the past. It was the monstrous thing that had lain on his chest when he’d had his “sleep paralysis” attack after he’d stopped his very brief trial of Paxil.
The shock of this realization—which was not so much fear as dismay and disbelief—was driven from Timothy’s mind by the sound and feeling of the window thudding as it was struck from inside the school. Up and to Timothy’s left from the hole he had made, the thing had slammed a limb against the inside of the window. It was not any sort of fist, but an open hand. The number of fingers, though, was hard for Timothy to count. There were many of them, and they ended in nails that were claw-like and scratched and squeaked against the inside of the glass, leaving marks but doing no appreciable damage. There were two thumbs, both on one side, and there were five other fingers. Or were there nine others? Timothy found himself unable to be sure. The fingers and thumbs were long; there were many, many joints along their length, so many that they could have bent almost like tentacles.
Timothy heard another thud, and another flat hand joined the first against the inside of the glass. This one had thumbs on opposite sides, rather than on the same side, but the length and multi-jointedness of the digits were otherwise similar, and the sharp, scraping claws were of the same type. They squeaked and pressed against the inside of the glass, but it did not give way except to receive tiny scrapes that did no damage.
The grip on Timothy’s arm did not lessen, but he clearly saw two hands—the arms to which they were attached were invisible within the viscid ink that filled the school—so the thing had at least three limbs with which it could grasp him. He tried to remember if that had been so when he had awakened to the thing on his chest, but he couldn’t recall.
He was surprised to realize that, though shocked, he was not truly frightened. This had not been the case when he’d had his earlier experience. Then he had been utterly terrified, more frightened than he’d ever remembered being before, and the fear had lasted well beyond the time when he’d truly awakened, and the thing had gone. Now, though, his recent rage was too dominant, and if anything, he was as much irritated and frustrated by the interruption of his mission as he was dismayed to see that the foul thing had returned.
He roared at it, incoherent, expecting it to roar back. It did not; it made no apparent utterance, though its hands and tongue made squeaking, squelching noises against the inner surface of the glass. It did increase its scrabbling, though, scratching at the surface, doing no damage. It pulled one hand back and thumped it against the glass again, leaving a smear of black, but doing no harm.
Timothy thought that, had the glass been bigger, it could have brought more hands to bear trying to press against it, but there was not enough room.
How many limbs did the thing actually have?
Its mouth opened further, and Timothy could feel its frustration, as great as his or greater.
Now it pulled at his arm, its strength immense, and Timothy’s elbow went through the hole, scratching against the glass, ripping, bleeding…and breaking a bit more of it away, to fall within the hall.
The thing’s laser eyes looked down at the place where Timothy’s arm went through the window, where the hole had been widened ever so slightly, where the black mucus-ink oozed around it. Did the redness brighten? Did it get slightly bigger? Was it truly as if the thing’s eyes had widened in realization?
Now it pulled him harder, and Timothy felt tearing pain in his shoulder as the rest of his over-massive body was yanked along by that one limb, again knocking a tiny bit more of the glass loose as his thick upper arm went through. His chest pressed against the door below the window, and his face came near the safety glass. He glanced up at the eyes, definitely brighter and sharper than before, saw the tongue seek out the rim of the hole he had made, felt it, slick and slimy, hot and cold, against his torn and searing skin, into which the blackness oozed, burning at him like lemon juice in his cuts.
A sudden realization came to Timothy, perhaps because he and the creature shared a sense of inchoate rage. He realized suddenly what it had realized.
It wasn’t trying to capture him, to feed on him—at least, that wasn’t its primary urge. It was trapped inside the school. Its blackness, powerful and horrible though it was, could do no harm to the glass from the inside, let alone to the doors and walls of the building. It did not want to bring Timothy in. It wanted to get out! And now that he had broken a hole in the glass, it thought it saw a way—just maybe—to do so.
Timothy’s face was nearly pressed against the glass, but he could see no deeper into the blackness than before, and his angle on the face, on the red laser eyes, was poorer. But he still felt he could read the thing’s intentions. He put his free left hand on the metal of the door, close to his chest, and at the same time tried to brace his feet on the ground, his knees bent forward, also pressing against the metal. He pushed, as best he could, with his left arm, using his knees and abdomen as much as he was able, trying to pull away from the thing.
His right arm came back barely a millimeter before he felt the burning cold grip on it tighten, pulling harder, trying to yank if it could, to get more of his shoulder against and into the cracked hole in the safety glass. He thought he felt just a little inward bend where his arm pressed against the rim of the broken glass, felt it pulling and giving where he had fractured it, but he didn’t think any more pieces broke free, though it dug into his skin, and new blood began to trickle, now staining the bit of his white gym tee-shirt where it had poked through the hole with his arm, though mostly it had bunched up on the near side.
The thing made no noise, not that registered on Timothy’s ears, but in his mind, he could almost have sworn that he heard a distant sound like a rumbling, whirling, hissing—a far off tornado but with the pitch of its noise lowered, as though it were a whirlpool in lava rather than a maelstrom in the air. He didn’t know if that was the thing’s equivalent of breath, of a growl, of a roar, or what other, indescribable function the utterance that was not sound might be. He only knew that it carried a sense of urgency, of frustration and rage. The thing ached to get out of the school, it ached to be able to batter the window inward, in reverse, to smash the whole pane out to make a hole big enough for it to squeeze through, to escape from the blackness in the school—or to bring the blackness with it, if the stuff was some excrescence of the thing itself—and to be loosed upon the outside world.
Timothy could respect one thing, and one thing only, about the beast; he could respect its rage. It was not whining, it was not leering, it was not self-righteous, it was not self-indulgent. It was simply angry at being imprisoned, by whatever perceived injustice had been done to it, and it wanted out.
But that was all he respected. Timothy had no sympathy for its aims; he did not care whether it was justly or unjustly imprisoned, he just knew that he had not been the one to imprison it. Because of that, the thing had no right, no right, to think it fair to use him, to use his arm, his body, to escape from its confinement. That was simply unreasonable. He would not be a tool, a macabre battering ram, for some disgusting, otherworldly beast to escape into the world. He was not going to allow that to happen. He would die before he would let that happen.
Now he brought his right foot up against the panel of the door, still bracing his left knee and hand, and he snarled back at the thing above and across the plexiglass from him. He balled his right hand into a fiercer fist than before, and he tensed the muscles of his forearm, his upper arm, and his shoulder, pressing outward against the burning, freezing bands of whatever flesh it was that held it, making the arm a firmer implement, and he pressed, yanking, backwards, trying to pull his arm out.
Searing pain exploded though his right shoulder, as he strained God only knew how many tendons and ligaments and muscles of his rotator cuff. The pain shot around to his back, up that side of his neck, and down into the right side of his chest. The force he applied, combined with the force of the creature holding him, was ferocious. It hurt, it burned worse than the blackness that ate at his cuts, more than the cracked bones of his hands, more than he thought anything had hurt him before. He made only maybe a quarter of an inch of progress—or perhaps it was regress—before the thing inside increased its own force and stopped his retreat, yanking harder, pulling more, causing more pain.
Maybe it expected the pain to dampen Timothy’s resistance. If so, it did not know with whom it was dealing, not in the slightest. The pain fed Timothy’s own rage, it energized him, both increasing his just fury at the creature and satisfying the murderous hatred he had for himself, for his own rage, for his self-responsive, self-created, nearly ironic hostility. Pain would never stop him. Not him. Nothing but his own utter destruction would stop him from fighting, not now, not ever. It was time the monster learned that fact.
Timothy roared, matching and exceeding the monstrous, distant, other-dimensional rumble of the thing that held his right arm. His left foot joined his right against the door, and he pulled, pulled, yanked, with all the power of his thighs, his calves, his arm, his torso, every bit of his body, including the arm itself, to yank away from the creature.
Its grip on his arm was frozen in place, though, and it was no more willing to give up than Timothy was. Finally, with all the pulling, the horrible tension, what gave was the tissue of Timothy’s shoulder. He roared more loudly, still in rage, not in dismay, as the tearing in his shoulder intensified, and he felt himself pulling first gradually, then much more quickly back, finally practically launching himself away from the door. He was free from the creature.
But his arm was not. The searing, ripping, tearing pain in his shoulder changed, but oddly, became less, as between the two of them, Timothy and the creature ripped his right arm from its very socket. Timothy launched away from the school, his back, his left shoulder, and his head moving to strike the pavement of the walkway that approached the door, spraying blood behind him like rocket flames that spewed from the ripped remnants where his arm had formerly been.
He looked at the hole where he had punched through, and even before he hit the ground, he saw the white head of his humerus and the red and pink meat surrounding it pulled into the school, suddenly released from tension by its structural failure. The laser eyes twitched and pulled back, the creature perhaps not flung away as much as Timothy, but certainly caught by surprise.
Then Timothy’s head and body struck the pavement, the thudding on his skull disorienting him briefly, sending lights flashing through his mind. He felt almost nothing of that pain, for it seemed that all of his mind’s ability to process such things was dominated by the searing, aching, empty agony in the remnant of his right shoulder. He could almost have sworn that, somewhere in that pain, he could still feel the cracked bones in his right fist, but he knew that must be an illusion.
He skidded quickly to a halt, and the lights in his head faded, darkening, even as the world around him seemed to begin to lighten as if it were being bleached.
Quickly, he looked back toward the door, toward the window, and toward the monster behind it. It had pulled his arm back into the blackness, and for the moment he could not see his own limb. But he could see the face of the creature pressing against the glass, its nostrils widened against the flat surface, its lips squeezed against its teeth where it pressed, its laser eyes reflecting back within both surfaces of the transparent material, even as it glared outward. The mouth split open, but Timothy could not see within it through the blackness. He could hear an increase in the distant, whirling thunder of its roar, and he knew that it was a sound of redoubled frustration.
Its tongue slithered down to the hole where Timothy’s arm no longer blocked its access. Some of the darkness oozed out, more now than before, but it did not spread much, only diffusing quite gradually, seeming not to mix well with the air outside. The tongue felt around the inner rim of the hole, then one of the flat hands of the thing came away from where it had pressed, and it moved through whatever space in which its main existence happened, shifting itself down to the hole, several of its clawed nails scrabbling at the inner rim. But they seemed not to make so much as a wiggle in any of even the nearly broken bits of safety glass that lined the opening. Timothy wasn’t quite sure how many digits it was able to bring into the broken edge—it seemed almost as though it was not even a whole number, as though fractions of fingers could feel at the glass—but none of them seemed to disturb the stuff.
With a new surge in its distant rumbling growl, the thing drew back a bit, and then Timothy heard a real-world thud, and he saw pale, white, blood-smeared flesh bounce against the inner surface of the glass, spraying a bit of red on the inside of the window from its far end—an end that had been nearest to Timothy’s center when it had been part of his body.
It had swung his dislocated arm at the window like a club, perhaps hoping that, if its otherworldly flesh could not affect the substance that held it, then perhaps Timothy’s dismembered body part could.
But though it vibrated with the impact, the window showed no sign of giving at all. It seemed, somehow that most of the force the thing was able to bring to bear was spread across whatever number of larger spatial dimensions it lived in, all of them at right angles to every direction in Timothy’s world. Not so much as another chip of safety glass was knocked loose from the hole.
Timothy saw the thing’s jaw widen, perhaps trying to roar at him, or at the window, or at the circumstances, but still most of its sound was lost, like the force of its attempted blow, now that it was no longer in real, direct contact with Timothy’s living flesh. The thing, the window, the door, the sky—all were becoming lighter, fainter. Timothy looked to his right. He couldn’t see the remnant of his shoulder, just his mostly empty short shirt sleeve, soaked now in red, some of which squirted outward with his pulse—though not as impressively as he had seen simulated in the few gory movies he had watched. It was a much less dramatic spouting of blood, not the buckets full one saw in slasher films, but was plenty, and it was real. It both sprayed and spread on the light pavement on which Timothy lay, strikingly vivid against the concrete, though Timothy had a bad angle. He found it easier to lift his head and look toward the door than to his right. Maybe some of the muscles that turned his head that way had been torn along with the roots of his shoulder.
He felt a bit of nausea, and he felt cool verging on truly cold. The world was becoming more distant. He looked toward the window in time to see the creature make another futile club-strike against the inner surface of the glass with his former arm. As his world faded, Timothy could hear more clearly the furious, frustrated growl of the thing, its hope for escape foiled.
As he heard that sound, and the more distant thud of his own erstwhile arm against the window, Timothy surprised himself by smiling.
He smiled without restraint, without ulterior motive, without attempt to communicate to any other being. He smiled not in gloating joy, but definitely in triumph and satisfaction at having stymied the thing in the school. He smiled so fully that it made him think he had never actually, truly smiled before, not ever in his life, save perhaps when he was an infant. His pain was fading with the world around him, as his blood no longer supported his nerves, but now he was no longer frustrated by its lack. Above all, his rage, his fury, his violence and his temper, were gone. They had become a mist far finer than the spray of his blood, far more tenuous than the blackness in the school; a breeze had come and simply blown them away, scattered them across all the realms of the Earth and beyond, until they were more vanishingly thin than the gravitational pull of a mote of dust on the other side of the cosmos.
He was dying. He was almost dead. He could no longer see the monster clearly, could barely see the school and the door and the ground. He had no view of Earl’s poor, battered remains, if they even existed anymore. But somehow, impossibly, he could see his own face, and though it was larger, more adult, than it had been ever in his life, it looked peaceful, innocent, unmarred by worry or fear. It did not merely carry an expression, but it was an expression of pure, simple, peaceful joy.
As the rest of reality faded around him, the last thing Timothy saw was his view of his own face, that beautifully content and satisfied expression, the smile without malice, the look of pure acceptance and beneficence. When he died, that smile was his entire being.
Then, Timothy woke up.
The room was dark around him, but though he thought he had just been in broad daylight, where he had died, his eyes seemed to have adapted to the darkness already, as though he had been lying in it all along. The bit of light leaking under his bedroom door from the bathroom seemed glaringly bright. He blinked, trying to equilibrate, not quite sure what had happened.
He looked to his right, and to his surprise, he could see his arm there. He raised his hand, flexing his fingers and then opening them again, feeling them, surprised to be connected to them. What was more, there was no pain—not in his shoulder, not in the skin of his arm, not in the bones of his fist. Though the hand no doubt still bore the scars of previous injuries, they were not visible in the night of his room, and they certainly gave him no noticeable pain.
But wait…his hand, his fist, his arm, were not merely all attached as they should be—they were far too small. They looked just like the hand and arm he remembered, from when he was young, a teenager, when he had gone to bed.
And now the part of his mind that had been dreaming connected with the part of his mind that had already realized that it was dreaming. He remembered recognizing what he had experienced was a dream at its beginning, before the events had become too powerful for him to notice what they were.
He was almost astonished to realize that he felt no fear, none whatsoever, though surely what he had experienced should have counted as a nightmare. He didn’t even feel any residual rage, though he had certainly felt it in full during the process of the dream, as palpable, as tangible, as it had ever seemed in real life. He felt calm, almost detached, and as his mind came awake, he was able to recall that it had not been completely asleep, even during the dream.
Most of all, his mind retained some memory, some distant semblance, of the peace he had felt at the end of his dream, the calm release, the joy of tension’s absence, as he had died bleeding on his back outside the dream school.
Now, finally, he sat slowly up in his bed, surprised to feel the blanket and the sheet shifting around him, mildly surprised to hear the squeaking of his mattress. He looked down at both of his hands, which he opened, palms up, in front of his body. In the dim light from the hall, he could see them fairly well. It felt strange, still, to have his normal sized hands, after he had so recently, so vividly, had massive, adult fists, big even for a fully grown man.
But the most striking thing, despite the quietness of its character, was the feeling of peace he’d had when he was dying in his dream. That was, he felt sure, the most remarkable thing he had ever experienced in his life. It was not ecstasy; it was something far purer and finer. It was acceptance, it was release, it was the dropping of all barriers within and around himself.
He could not literally feel the sensation now, he could merely remember that he had felt it, but he knew it was a taste of the complete acceptance of the dissolution of his own ego. He wondered, now that he thought about it, whether that had been the point of the dream, the substance of it. He had read about notions of a figurative death of the self that could be achieved through meditation, and how that was, in many ways, the goal, the enlightenment that was sought ideally through the process.
Had that dream been a kind of premonition of the enlightenment that was available, a metaphor of the battle with his rage and frustration, with his destructive feelings, and the ultimate possibility of his release from their prison by eliminating—even if only for brief periods of time—his sense of having a separate self?
If that was the sort of thing meditation could offer, he was only too glad to be going to join the full class in the morning.
Thinking of that, he looked at his bedside clock, where he saw that it was only a little after three a.m. He had some time left before the hour came to wake up and get going to see Mr. Maclean and the others. That time would pass more readily, more easily, if he went back to sleep.
He didn’t think he’d ever quite so consciously determined the process of his own slumber before, but in the wake of his lucid dream, it felt all too possible simply to decide that he would go back to sleep. He expected that he would be able to do so without difficulty, though he had never really paid attention—even since he’d started meditating—to the process before, nor expected to be able to steer it in other than blunt and coarse ways. He did not fear the return of his dream, nor the occurrence of any other troubling nighttime vision. What had passed in his dream had resolved itself, completely and convincingly. His mind was not concerned with anything else at the moment other than rest, a normal, restorative slumber, to prepare him for and to pass the time before his class in the morning.
He was borderline mindful at first as sleep took him in response to his invitation, but that process quickly became disjointed and incoherent, as it always had upon sleeping, though he had never quite noticed it before. Then his consciousness dissolved in a way utterly unlike that which happened at the end of his dream, and he passed into deep, dreamless sleep that might have persisted unchanged until his alarm went off, for all that he knew or could recall afterward.
When Timothy and his mother arrived at the Vipassana center the next morning, they found Mr. Maclean waiting, the door unlocked, and with a cheery, pleasant smile on his face. There was a smell of tea in the air that Timothy found much preferable to incense, but he noticed it only in passing. He smiled at Mr. Maclean and said good morning, and his mother, slightly less at ease, greeted the man as well. Looking at her, Timothy realized that she was nervous on his behalf about him joining the larger group, since he no longer felt nervous about it himself, thanks to his dream.
Mr. Maclean clearly sensed her mild anxiety, and he held slight tension in his own features in response, even as he listened to Timothy’s mother—to whom Timothy automatically deferred the announcement—confirming that, yes, Timothy would like to try joining with the larger class that day.
With a tilt of his head, Mr. Maclean expressed reserved satisfaction with that plan, and after looking closely at Timothy’s mother, he turned more fully to Timothy and asked, “Do you feel pretty sure about this? I don’t mean you to think it’s anything scary—it’s certainly not—but I want to make sure you’re comfortable.”
“Sure, yeah,” Timothy replied. “I’ve been thinking about it all week, and I think I even dreamed a little bit about it last night…at least partly about it, anyway. I want to try it out. I think…I think it’s gonna be a good thing for me.”
“I think it may well be,” Mr. Maclean replied with his calm, unforced smile. Then he looked back at Timothy’s mother and said, “I think you’re a little…well, nervous isn’t quite the right word, maybe, but less certain about it than Timothy is.”
Timothy’s mother chuckled with obvious embarrassment, but her voice was firm when she said, “Well, you’re right, nervous isn’t really the word. It’s not as though I’m worried about anything bad happening to him. It’s not like it’s a karate class or something. I just…don’t want him to be disappointed.”
This surprised Timothy a bit, but Mr. Maclean seemed to take it more in stride. He tilted his head again and asked, “Is there anything in particular that you think he might be…disappointed by, or about?”
After taking a slow breath in, Timothy’s mother said, “Well…I know he’s felt that he’s getting some good out of this, coming to learn from you and talk to you, and doing the meditating, and doing it on his own. He’d been very dedicated and disciplined and positive, and I do think it’s doing him some good. Who knows whether it’ll do…well, everything that we hope it will? But any good is good, if that makes any sense. And I guess it’s natural for him to expect that joining the bigger class will do even more, or be better, or be more useful, or whatever it might be. And I don’t want him to get his hopes up and then feel bad if it’s not what he hopes it’ll be.”
Timothy was surprised to hear these concerns as his mother expressed them, and was both surprised and touched when she added, “He’s had enough disappointments. More than he deserves. I’d like to try to avoid too many others.”
Mr. Maclean looked like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to reply to that notion, but that was just as well, because Timothy wanted to reassure his mother directly. He said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I know not to get my hopes up more than I ought to. It’s good to…well, to act without expectation, like something I read said, and just to see what happens, not to try to…I don’t know, to try to make bargains with the future or something. But you can’t gain anything if you don’t try, and I’m never gonna be able to avoid every disappointment in life, right?”
“No, of course not,” his mother replied, looking both amused and rather impressed. “I know the whole ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ bit. And I know that the…well, the risks involved in a meditation group are pretty low. And I know you’re smart enough and mature enough to deal with what happens. But you’re still my son, and this is important to you, I know. So, I don’t want you to be…” She stammered to a halt, clearly not sure what she wanted to convey.
Mr. Maclean offered, “Disillusioned?”
Timothy’s mother seemed unsure that was completely correct, but she shrugged and said, “Well, that’s probably as good a word as any. I know it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic, but, well…I don’t know, maybe it’s just my own defense mechanism or whatever to be prepared for the worst so the world doesn’t surprise you. Or if it does, it only surprises you in a good way. If you don’t particularly expect anything good, life is only going to give you pleasant surprises. At least, that’s the theory.”
She sounded self-disparaging as she spoke, but Timothy thought, with a bit of heartache, that she was speaking the truth of her approach to life. He didn’t like to think that his mother needed to defend herself by assuming that only bad things would come her way. Certainly, she never seemed fatalistic or depressed, but it was a fact that she was rarely terribly enthusiastic or cheerfully anticipatory. He didn’t think she was unreasonable to have that attitude, given some of the things she had been through, but he would very much like to be able to do his part to allow her to have a different approach to her life in the future.
Mr. Maclean nodded, plainly not judgmental or dismissive of her thoughts. “I think it’s perfectly normal for a good mother to be protective. No one could possibly hold that against you. And I want you to feel as comfortable as you can, not just Timothy. Would you like to stay here during the class time? I don’t expect that you’ll want to join in—though you would be welcome to—but if you’d like to wait here while we do the group work, that would be fine. I don’t imagine anyone else in the group is going to mind, and if they do…well, that’s just something they’ll have to accept. It’ll be good meditation practice for them.”
Timothy’s mother laughed at this obvious partial joke, but she shook her head, saying, “No, that’s okay. I’d worry about distracting Timothy, and frankly…well, I think I might get bored and fidgety. I’d be more likely to be judgmental about the class than anyone there would about me, and that’s not a good thing.” With a wry half-smile, she added, “No one’s meditation is going to be helped by having a nervous mother lurking around the outside of the group in case anyone messes with her kid.”
Mr. Maclean chuckled and shrugged, saying, “Well, whatever you prefer.”
“Yes,” Timothy’s mother said. “And anyway, there was a bookstore I passed last week on my way back that I’d like to go take a look at, a few blocks north of here. I figure today’ll be a good day to do it, since I’ll have some extra time. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to just stand around in a bookstore looking at all the books I want to look at.”
Mr. Maclean looked interested. “Is that McCaffrey’s?” he asked.
“That sounds right,” Timothy’s mother replied. “Have you gone there? I mean, are you…I don’t know, familiar with it? I didn’t go inside, but it looked interesting.”
“That’s a good word for it,” Mr. Maclean replied with a smile that Timothy had a hard time characterizing. “It’s got a heavy religious slash spiritual bent, of sorts, so I’ve checked it out more than once. They do have a decent selection of books dealing with Buddhism and Hinduism and some other books about meditation. Most of that tends to be a bit…well, New Agey for my taste, but some of it’s not bad. It’s very eclectic, I’ll say that much. And they definitely have a broad notion of the spiritual, if you will.”
Timothy’s mother looked puzzled but intrigued. She asked, “What do you mean by that?”
“Well…a fair amount of what they have might be considered even…well, ‘occult’ in a sense. Nothing sinister, of course. You’re not going to be able to find some rare copy of the Necronomicon or something, even if the book really existed.” He laughed, but it was plain that Timothy’s mother did not recognize the reference, and Timothy had no familiarity with it himself. Mr. Maclean waved a hand dismissively before continuing, “But they do have books about everything from medieval style witchcraft to far east demonology to Mayan, Inca, Aztec and other native American mythology, with a pretty clear focus on spooky stuff. And there are even some books there that seem to take the Cthulhu Mythos seriously, rather than as just a fictional invention. It can be amusing.”
Again, it was clear that Timothy’s mother had no idea what Mr. Maclean was referring to, any more than Timothy did, himself. She blinked and raised her eyebrows, saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t go there after all.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Mr. Maclean said. “I don’t mean to be unfair to them or put you off. That’s just part of the stuff they have. Like I said, there are legitimate books about everything from Buddhism to Jainism, to Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity…I mean, there are some really interesting volumes about Christian mysticism from the Middle Ages, hierarchies of angels and demons, all sorts of things like that. And there are legitimate books about meditation and the nature of the mind, some of it from a very scientific point of view. The fiction section is mainly fantasy and horror, with some sci fi as well, but they have a very good selection of it, including some things that are otherwise out of print. And, of course, there’s a good assortment of the silly but harmless woo type stuff, like books about crystals and Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and UFO’s and whatnot. But it’s actually pretty fun. In fact, when I was scouting out places to open this center, the fact that McCaffrey’s was there and seemed to be thriving was one of the things that convinced me that there was a market for my classes here.”
Timothy wasn’t sure that Mr. Maclean’s attempt to rescue the bookshop’s reputation had quite succeeded, and his mother still looked mildly skeptical. He knew she had very little patience for some of the more far-flung notions of New Age type things, though the fact that she had gone along with Timothy learning meditation showed that she was not completely closed-minded about it. Still, she looked more amused than irritated, and she finally said, “Well…it should be interesting at least to take a look there. If I don’t like what I find, I can always go over to the Wal-Mart or Target.”
Mr. Maclean smiled, looking slightly embarrassed, and he said, “That’s always an option.”
Something about the way Mr. Maclean said that seemed to strike Timothy’s mother as particularly funny, though Timothy could not quite grasp what it might be. In any case, his mother laughed with surprising force, and she said, “Always.” Then she looked up at the clock on the wall, which Timothy never could seem to hear except when he was meditating or about to do so, and she said, “Well, I don’t want to eat into your time before the rest of everyone gets here too much.” She patted Timothy on the shoulder and said, “You have a nice time in the group, if you can. And if you don’t like it and want to leave, just give me a call. I have my cell phone with me.” Something seemed to occur to her as she said that, and she looked more seriously at Mr. Maclean, saying, “Do you have a phone he can use if he needs me to come early?”
“Absolutely,” Mr. Maclean replied. “The ‘house phone’ is available as needed.”
“Great,” Timothy’s mother said. Then, she half turned to start walking toward the door, before something obviously occurred to her and she turned back, saying, “Oh, right. What time should I come to pick him up otherwise?”
“Oh, right,” Mr. Maclean said, clearly not having thought to mention it any more than Timothy’s mother had thought to ask. “The morning class finishes right around noon, and we’re pretty consistent about that. Everyone usually seems eager to go get lunch.”
“Right,” Timothy’s mother said. Then, with a wry half-smile, she added, “I guess some worldly things never can be let go of, huh?”
Mr. Maclean laughed amiably, and he said, “Too true. The mind is in the body, after all.”
Timothy’s mother nodded, giving a pseudo-serious pursing of her lips, and she said, “Very deep.”
“Probably about as deep as I go, anyway,” Mr. Maclean said with another small laugh. Then, with a nod of his head that was almost a bow, he said, “You enjoy McCaffrey’s. I think it’ll be better than you might think from my bad advertising. I think Timothy will enjoy the group session, and…well, if not, he’s welcome to give you a call. We’ll see you at noon.”
Timothy liked the confidence implied by that last statement. It seemed to make clear Mr. Maclean’s expectation—not a cocky one, just a sensible one—that Timothy would be fine. Timothy himself felt no misgivings. He couldn’t honestly imagine why there would be an issue that would require him to leave early. He wouldn’t have said he was honestly excited about joining the larger class. That would have been slightly odd, and even might have gone against the point of the whole affair. But he felt a calm interest and curiosity, a nearly clinical sense of anticipation. He was curious to see what would happen.
His mother said her temporary farewells, finally leaving the Vipassana Center, looking back over her shoulder with a smile as she did—more at Mr. Maclean than at Timothy—then letting the door swing shut behind her.
Timothy and Mr. Maclean did not say much before sitting down to do a first, brief guided meditation session, a bit of a fifteen-minute warmup of sorts. Timothy found it relatively easy to get into a reasonably concentrated frame of mind, and the most prominent aspect of the brief initial session was that he noticed again the ticking of the clock, which made an almost better subject of focus even than the sensation of his breathing. He did find his mind wandering briefly, imagining his mother going to a bookstore that, in his head, looked dim and darkly-colored, lit—for some unclear reason—by oil lamps and candles rather than electric lights. He recognized the thought for what it was before long, though, and he was able to let it go and return to the breath.
After the brief session ended and Timothy gave a quick report of his minor distractions—Mr. McLean assuring him that McCaffrey’s was quite a normal bookshop, with electric light and reasonably modern shelves and furnishings, just as one might expect from an ordinary commercial establishment—Mr. McLean took up another subject, somewhat to Timothy’s surprise.
“So,” he said, “a bit earlier, you mentioned that you thought you might have dreamed about joining the group last night. Do you mind if I ask what sort of things you dreamed about it?”
Timothy was caught a bit off-guard, but he remembered his dream and his mention of it quite clearly, so he was not confused for long. “Oh, yeah, right,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added, “But it wasn’t really, literally, about the group meditation. I mean, I think it was about…well kind of what I hope I might get out of it eventually.”
Mr. McLean gave his tiny smile and said, “Well, dreams are very rarely literal or precise in what they’re about. And I’m no expert in them, if such a thing exists. But would you want to tell me about it, and what you think it might mean?”
“Umm…sure,” Timothy said. Now that it came to it, he felt a bit hesitant, since his terrible—but somehow not terrifying—dream had revealed or at least recalled some distinctly unflattering aspects of his character, or his nature, or whatever it might be called. But Mr. McLean was the meditation teacher, after all, and Timothy had mentioned it. Also, he was not one to spare himself embarrassment over negative things, not if he could help it, at least if it was important.
So, with a bit of stammering at first, he described what he recalled from his vivid, semi-lucid dream, including the fact that, as it had begun, he could tell that he was dreaming, or at least part of him could, though he explained how that aspect had faded rather quickly into the background.
He told of how he had found himself huge and Earl tiny, too young and small to be where he was. He told how Earl’s dream insult was not much like the real teasing that had led Timothy to start hitting him in the real world. Yet it had elicited profound, murderous rage, nevertheless.
He did not go into every blow he dealt the poor, tiny Earl, since he felt terribly guilty about battering to death someone so much smaller than he, even in a dream, but he made it plain that he had beaten Earl to death, and indeed nearly to a literal pulp.
He told of how his rage had been unabated, how he’d had no chance to catch the fleeing “older” boys, and that no one else was present, so he had—rather as in the real events—attacked the window in the nearby door. He told of the impenetrable blackness within the school, which oozed out slightly when he first made a tiny hole, but which did not act like smoke. He told of his strong urge to put his hand through the window and lacerate it, hoping to harm himself at the same time as the window.
And then he told of the thing that had gripped his arm once he had penetrated the glass. He didn’t give much description of it except to say that it was huge, dark, and had shining red eyes and many limbs…and that it was the same creature that had lain upon him when he’d experience what Dr. Putnam had told him was sleep paralysis. He told about how it had tried to use him to batter in the window so it could escape the school, but how, in their unholy tug-of-war, he and the monster had torn his right arm from its socket, frustrating the creature’s desire to escape, and leading Timothy to lie out on the walkway that led to the door, bleeding to death.
Lastly, he told Mr. McLean of his feeling of true joy, which he could not fully recall, but which he knew had been real, as his awareness of himself faded into death.
When he finished, he realized he’d been looking down into his lap while speaking, because only then did he look up to see how Mr. McLean was reacting to the story, to the dream.
The tiny smile was entirely gone from Mr. McLean’s face, and a prominent crease of puzzlement or concern had grown between his eyebrows. “Wow,” he said with a strong exhalation, as though he might have been holding his breath. “That sounds like a hell of a dream.”
Timothy smiled very slightly and said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“It sounds…terrifying,” Mr. McLean added, and his look of puzzlement deepened.
“Well, the weird thing is…it wasn’t,” Timothy replied. “Or, at least, I wasn’t scared. Mainly I was just…mad. I mean, really mad, like the way I get when I have my…attacks, or whatever you’d call them. Even when the thing grabbed my arm and tried to drag me in so it could get out, I wasn’t scared. I was just…mad that it meant to do something so…I don’t know, unfair, unjust, whatever, to get out of its cage or whatever. You know? I mean, I wasn’t the one that got it locked up there, so it didn’t have any right to use me to get out. Does that make sense?”
“I…think it does,” Mr. McLean said. “It’s an unusual and quite…well, philosophical way to think, particularly in a fit of rage, in a dream, when confronted by what sounds like something truly…horrifying. But in you, it doesn’t surprise me.”
Timothy was pretty sure Mr. McLean meant these last words as a compliment, but they were not accompanied by his habitual little smile. He said nothing, himself, because it looked like Mr. McLean had more to add.
He was right. After a further brief deepening of the crease in his forehead, Mr. McLean said, “So, you didn’t feel afraid, just angry. Until you…tore your arm off and fell back. Then you said you felt very relieved and happy. Was it because you had…thwarted the creature, or…something else?”
Timothy suspected that Mr. McLean knew this was not the correct answer, though he wasn’t sure just how clear he had been in describing the end of his dream. He smiled, perhaps in memory, and said, “No, that wasn’t it. I mean, that was a good thing, but it wasn’t important. Not very important, anyway. It was just the fact that I was…fading out, you know…that I was dying that was so…I don’t know how to say, but…like, a relief.”
Still unsmiling, Mr. McLean said, “But you said that this dream was possibly about what you hoped to get out of meditation. In the long run. Now…I don’t want to be too…well, alarmist or anything, but given some of the things Dr. Putnam said you had considered, or at least contemplated, I don’t want to…well, I would rather err on the side of caution. So, are you…do you think that you expect that learning Vipassana might help you one day to find the strength or calmness to…well, to arrange your own death?”
Mr. McLean looked honestly and deeply troubled, and now Timothy understood why, and he supposed he could sympathize. Mr. McLean had no way of knowing about the truly terrifying confrontation he’d had with his mother about the concept of suicide. He suspected that his own face fell a bit, and his voice was certainly soft and steady as he replied, “No. Nothing like that. That…that option is…isn’t available anymore.”
He wasn’t looking at Mr. McLean’s face when the Vipassana teacher asked, “What do you mean?”
Now Timothy looked, and he saw that some of the worry had left Mr. McLean’s face, but now he seemed much more puzzled, and he was leaning slightly forward in his chair—more so than his usual posture of polite attentiveness.
Timothy felt the urge simply not to answer. He didn’t hold it against Mr. McLean, but the man’s words had been the triggers of the horrible moment of confrontation and ultimatum between him and his mother. Still, he felt that if he simply stonewalled, it might just distract Mr. McLean, make him more curious than he already was. So, doing his best to be direct and convincing, he said, “I…promised my mother that I wouldn’t kill myself. No matter what.”
It was clear to Timothy that Mr. McLean recognized that there was much more to the situation than that simple statement revealed. After all, there were many kinds of promises, and many people made them lightly—even about things as consequential as what they were discussing. However, Mr. McLean obviously knew Timothy well enough at least to see that such was not the case with him, and that when he said that option wasn’t available anymore, he meant it as a pure, hard fact about physical reality.
This also plainly relieved Mr. McLean, though Timothy could not have said the same for himself. Still not smiling, but with a clearer brow, Mr. McLean asked, “So, what was going on, then? What do you mean by…well, thinking it had to do with what you were hoping to get, or thinking you might get, out of meditation?”
Caught briefly off-guard by the switch back to the earlier topic, Timothy was nevertheless grateful to be able to say, “Oh, that. Well, I was thinking…I mean, it’s not about feeling happy about dying, or thinking it could be anything about that. I mean, how would anyone know what death is gonna feel like, even in a dream, right? But I was thinking it might be like, a feeling of what it’s like to have that thing I read about, ‘ego death’. Like, when someone just…loses or gets rid of the feeling that they’re separate and different from anyone or anything else. I don’t know very much about it, and I…well, I guess obviously, I haven’t had time to look it up since I had my dream, but maybe I kind of…got a little taste of what it might be like. And…and you can’t get angry if you don’t have an ego, right?”
They were both silent for quite a long moment.
Mr. McLean cleared his throat, then he said, “Well, that is certainly a phenomenon that is described among many kinds of meditation practices. Also in the psychedelic literature, for that matter. In fact, I think it may be more appropriate in the latter than the former. Meaning, the psychedelic experience. Because in meditation, I don’t think it would be thought of as ego ‘death’, perhaps, so much as ego…dissolution. It’s not permanent, and its not involuntary, except to the extent that everything our minds do is, from a certain point of view. With psychedelics—so I’m led to understand, anyway—it’s very much something that is happening to you, rather than something achieved.
“As for in meditation, whether Vipassana or Zen, or any of the others, it’s something that happens from time to time, especially amongst experienced meditators. Usually quite experienced meditators, though I think you’re prone to make more rapid progress than average, so I wouldn’t necessarily think ordinary tendencies apply. But it doesn’t tend to be something that happens and then…well, and then stays that way. For the most part, it seems to be something that is experienced from time to time in meditation, while meditating, though there are situations in which it can also appear in more ordinary life, such as when people are in a state of what they call ‘flow’, when they’re immersed in something skillful for which they no longer need conscious thought to carry out.
“And it is quite a wonderful thing. When I’ve experienced it, it’s always been very much a relief, which is somewhat like what you’re describing. A sort of dropping of all the…tensions that the world and the ego entails. But it’s not what I would call ego ‘death’, because it doesn’t go on forever. It doesn’t…well, it doesn’t continue on its own once it’s been achieved.”
Timothy felt a minor pang of disappointment, but somehow, he felt that Mr. McLean was hedging a bit. So, he asked, “It never lasts? No one’s ever been able to kind of, like…hold on to it. Or keep letting go of it, or whatever you’d call it?”
Now the tiny smile appeared again on Mr. McLean’s face, and was slightly broader than usual, in fact. He said, “Well, you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head, there. To lose one’s ego is, in a sense, the ultimate loss of ‘effort’ if you will. And, of course, to ‘hold on to it’, so to speak, would be evidence of its absence.”
Timothy felt mildly frustrated by what he felt was a bit of hair-splitting. He said, “Okay, maybe that’s not the best way to put it. But hasn’t anyone ever…maintained it, or well…just stayed in that kind of…situation once they’d gotten there? Maybe it’s not right to call it effort, but just been able to, like…let go of themselves so much that they didn’t even need to pick themselves back up, but just sort of…stayed that way?”
After a deep breath, Mr. McLean replied, “That’s hard to say. I know I have never maintained a state like that for any prolonged period of time. There are, of course, historical or mythological figures who have been said to have done so. The Buddha, of course. But, of course, he’s a religious figure, and so it’s hard to tease out fact from legend. And there are, supposedly, occasional people who truly reach nirvana, as it’s called, and lose all attachment for the world…for themselves, anyway…but who remain in the world as guides for others, to teach, to save others from suffering, to guide them along the same path. They’re called bodhisattvas.
“But there’s a certain bit of…well, not danger, really, but just caution regarding having something like that in mind. In general, the notion of having a goal with respect to meditation…at least with respect to advanced meditation, not just people trying to learn techniques for relaxation and stress relief…is considered something that will get in the way. Having a goal is a kind of…attachment in itself, if you understand what I mean, and can often interfere with a true letting go of the self. Because goals, of course, can’t really exist without ego. The goal is the path, in sense, not the destination.”
Timothy thought he understood what Mr. McLean was getting at, but part of him thought it was a bit mumbo-jumbo, though another part of him recognized the points being made as valid. However, he could not help but point out, “But I’m doing this all with a goal, anyway. I mean, the whole point of me taking meditation class and all that was to try to do something about my…rage attacks or whatever you want to call them. Maybe it’s not just learning about stress relief or whatever, but in a way, it kind of is.”
“Well, that’s a fair point,” Mr. McLean said. His easy smile seemed firmly back in place, which struck Timothy as almost a physical metaphor for the more fixed detachment he sought. “And I certainly don’t want to discourage you from at least keeping in mind the possibility of such an achievement. I suspect that, if you keep going with meditation as you’ve been going, it will be something you experience, at least from time to time. And if it helps with your problem, then I would certainly consider that a…well, a win-win situation.”
Timothy was pleased with the concession, at least, but he was slightly disheartened. While it certainly sounded good—better than nothing, anyway—to be able sometimes to achieve the state of what he still wanted to call “ego death”, even if it didn’t last long, it was not going to be the solution to his problem. Not as far as he could tell. For it would not be in periods of meditation that he would be at risk from having his anger take him over. And while it was true, he thought that the meditation was improving his equanimity even between sessions, he could not rely on that. At least, he wasn’t certain he could rely on that.
“So,” he said, “you don’t…you don’t think that anyone has eve really gotten to that state of boe…bodi…”
“Bodhisattva,” Mr. McLean offered.
“Right, that,” Timothy said, thinking he might have read the word before, but that it wasn’t spelled the way it sounded, and the way he’d sounded it in his head was not quite correct. Time enough to sort that out later. “So, you don’t think that any real person, any sort of non-legend person has ever really gotten to a point of, like…I don’t know, sustainable ego…dissolution, I think you said.”
Mr. McLean shrugged, clearly not dismissive. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “I know I’m not one of them, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never met one. I think it would take a…well, a rare mind indeed to reach a state like that and persist in it, without effort, so to speak, for any great length of time, though there are probably people who achieve it more often and for longer periods than many other people.”
Timothy, trying hard not to sound like he was being egotistical—how ironic that would be, after all—countered with, “But you…you’ve said that you think I have a…well, an unusual mind, kind of, right?” He heard his voice sounding quite child-like, and he supposed that was better than sounding pompous and defensive, but he didn’t like it much either way.
Mr. McLean, however, seemed to take it well. “You’re right about that,” he said. “And I’m not one to say that you couldn’t do it. If anyone could, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was you. But I just…don’t want you to get hung up on trying to seek that state as your primary goal, because it may lead to tension that could impair you in meditation.”
Timothy supposed that this was a reasonable enough caution, and he intended to follow it, but his spirits lightened just a little bit. In any case, though, Mr. McLean might be correct. If thinking about his goal distracted him, it might get in its own way.
As if speaking Timothy’s own thoughts, Mr. McLean said, “Well, we can talk about this at other times, of course, but before the time when the group starts to arrive, I’d like to do another, slightly longer session with you…to get your frame of mind a head start, so they don’t distract you. And also, considering what we were just talking about, remember to…well, not to try to avoid thinking about your ideas of the goal of loss of ego, or about your dream, but simply to be aware that they may come up as distractions, and try to notice them if they happen, and then, of course, to redirect toward the breath.”
“Right,” Timothy said, pleased to be on the same wavelength as Mr. McLean. He was also mildly amused to note that thought itself as a thought arising in his head, and—perhaps benefiting already from his immediate prior fifteen-minute session—was able to let it go, even before he closed his eyes.
The session they did before the group started to arrive was a fairly good one, from Timothy’s point of view. He came no closer to anything like the “ego death” or the related joy that he had experienced at the end of his semi-lucid dream the night before, but then again, he didn’t encounter the icy terrain he’d wandered into before that in his last night’s meditation, either. He tried hard not to get caught up in impatient and forward thinking urges regarding his possible goal of losing his sense of separateness completely, to recapitulate what he’d felt at the end of his dream, but then he recognized that his trying not to get distracted was a distraction in and of itself, and so he smiled to himself in his mind—his amusement a minor thought diversion of its own, but always a quickly passing one—and he took hold of the resistance thinking, allowed it its brief moment as a phenomenon in his head, and then let it go on its way, returning to the breath.
He found himself a bit more aware of the clock on the wall ticking. It sounded so loud in the near silence of the room, which was broken only by Mr. McLean’s occasional suggestion and remark. It was remarkable that it was a sound entirely lost on him when he wasn’t meditating, but which was so prominent at times when he was. For a brief period, he decided to try to focus on the ticking rather than on his breath, and he thought it might work as well as—or perhaps even better than—the breath, but before he’d been trying for long the session was over.
He briefly discussed this fact with Mr. McLean after he finished, and the Vipassana instructor thought it was interesting, but didn’t seem to feel strongly about recommending it or recommending against it. He thought it might be worth a try, but that it might be unreliable, since it was an isolated sensation, and breath had many components on which one could center one’s mind.
They hadn’t gotten far into their discussion when Rhonda walked into the shop, the first of the adult students to arrive, as seemed usual. Timothy didn’t bother looking at the clock to see if she’d come earlier than before, since there was no possible incursion into his time with Mr. McLean. He was staying for the duration.
At that thought, he felt a slight rise of anxiety, realizing that Rhonda was the only member of the bigger class that he had met so far, and he wasn’t sure how many others would be there. He tended not to have trouble getting along with adults—it was easier than dealing with his peers, normally—and Rhonda was supposedly the youngest member of the bigger group, but he hoped there wouldn’t be a lot of questions about why he was here, or what he was doing. He thought he could probably count on Mr. McLean to prevent that, but it was possible it wouldn’t occur to the man to intercede.
Rhonda herself looked quite tense and intense as she came in, though she didn’t appear distressed. It just seemed that her set point, whatever that might be, was higher than other people’s, like she was a machine that ran at a higher number of revolutions per minute than most did. Nevertheless, she looked cheerful, and as she walked in, greeting Timothy after greeting Mr. McLean, and looking around quickly—maybe wondering where Timothy’s mother was—she seemed consciously to be trying to avoid something. Timothy thought the subject she was working not to initiate was whether he was going to be staying for the full class or not. The notion that maybe she was trying to hold herself back to avoid inappropriateness was a nice thing, in a way. He found himself feeling a bit more well-disposed to her than he had in the past, and so when Mr. McLean told her, after she made some clearly random remarks, that Timothy was going to be joining the group that day, Timothy was quite pleased to be able to concur and say, “So, for today at least, you aren’t going to be the youngest.”
He half expected her to fairly explode with joy and enthusiasm, maybe even jumping up and down a bit and clapping hands. Thankfully, she did not do this, and in fact, her reaction was a slight but pleasant surprise.
Her smile widened a bit, showing a bit more of her teeth, but she remained still as she said, “I think that’s a very nice thing. I know it might feel a bit…intimidating, I guess, but I know that I tend to get a better experience out of the group meditations even than the long ones I do on my own. I hope you do, too.”
Timothy was so pleasantly surprised by her restrained response that he wasn’t sure if he was imagining a sense of tension actually leaving her body. He noticed only now that her shoulders always seemed a bit raised and hunched—just a bit, just a touch—because now they seemed to shift slightly, relaxing a little. And it was not that she slouched at all, but that her posture seemed ever so slightly less rigidly erect.
He was probably imagining things, though. Rhonda was clearly an enthusiastic person and was clearly interested in having him join the larger group, perhaps feeling a bit of an outsider, herself, but it was hard to think that his presence was such an important thing to her that it would have produced such tension, and that its confirmation could give her such serious relief as he was imagining.
“Well, I guess we’ll…I guess I’ll find out,” he said. He tried to give his most mature and collected smile, but he felt he might still have been a bit stiff and nervous. He decided to forgive himself for that, given the circumstances, and he did his best to do so.
“That we will,” Mr. McLean said. “But don’t be surprised if, at least for the first few minutes, you find the presence of others mildly distracting. It shouldn’t last long, but for a moment or two, you might be distracted by the sounds of other people breathing, and the thought that you’re among them.”
Timothy was not surprised by this notion, but he didn’t think it would be a problem. He said, “Yeah, maybe a little. But I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. I meditate in school before class in the mornings, and high-school kids are lot noisier than a meditation class will probably be, and I’ve never had any trouble not getting distracted by them.”
“Wow,” Rhonda said, again not seeming quite as pressured in her speech as she had been before. “That’s pretty impressive. I always had a terrible time with distractions in my school. Nearly every day. I wished I’d learned about meditation earlier.”
Timothy could well believe that.
Before he could comment, Rhonda went on, perhaps a bit more alert and sharper, but not at the level of her intensity in prior weeks, saying, “So, you’ve been pretty…committed, I guess to meditation, if you’re doing it at school, even. And you’ve only been coming here for, what…”
She trailed off, and Timothy, not really knowing the specifics of the clarification, said, “About a month, I think. Maybe not quite.”
“Right, that makes sense,” Rhonda said. “So, I guess you…I mean, are you getting any…I mean…how do you like it so far?”
Timothy felt almost amused by Rhonda’s difficulty getting her ideas out, but he didn’t like that amusement much, as it smacked of teasing and bullying, so he pounded it down rather than merely letting it go, of course immediately realizing that he’d done something rather counter to mindfulness but forgiving himself for the lapse. He replied, “I like it a lot. I feel like I’m a lot more…aware of myself, and how I think, than I ever was before.”
Mr. McLean, who had stayed standing nearby, chimed in with, “Timothy may have a bit of a knack for Vipassana, and for meditation in general. He may end up teaching me a thing or two before too long.”
“Wow,” Rhonda said, seeming honestly impressed. “I don’t…I don’t know that I have anything to teach anybody else about being mindful. Maybe about other things, but not about that. I don’t know. But that’s pretty…cool.”
There followed an awkward pause, in which Timothy felt unable to think of what to say in response to the complimentary words spoken about him. Mr. McLean then said, “Okay, well I’m going to bring some cushions over to the open area.” He turned, then stopped himself and said to Timothy, “Oh, by the way, we generally do the main class seated on cushions, not in chairs. Most people seem to prefer it, but I know you’ve not been doing that. Do you think that will be all right?”
Surprised to be asked, Timothy replied, “Sure. Yeah, I’m fine. I’m not especially, like, attached to chairs. I probably don’t even need a cushion, unless the floor’s cold or something.”
Mr. McLean laughed slightly and said, “No, it’s not particularly cold. But I think cushions are better for now, at least until you’re used to it. Don’t want people to get too distracted by any pressure spots from the floor. With experience, those can even be points of concentration, but it’s better to walk before we run.”
Timothy wasn’t sure he followed the argument, but he didn’t see any problem with cushions in any case. He smiled and nodded, and Mr. McLean headed to the corner where his goodly supply of cushions mainly rested, and he started bringing a few over to the larger area of open floor. Timothy was about to offer to help, but Rhonda, sounding almost hesitant and demure, said, “So, you’ve been doing pretty…I guess, intense meditation for someone who’s a beginner. Have you had any…I don’t know, interesting or surprising experiences?”
Timothy wasn’t sure what sorts of things she might mean by her question, but he was reminded of his sensation the previous night, that he’d stumbled into the beast-inhabited cold spot in his mind, and it had even—or had seemed to—spill over into the real world. Then, of course, there had been his dream, which had seemed perhaps related. But he didn’t want to go into any of that with Rhonda, since she seemed the sort of person who might be too easily intrigued by the uncanny. So, fishing for something to give her rather than simply stonewalling, he said, “Well, it is interesting how much time seems to…change when I’m meditating. Like, it seems like it’s lasting a really long time, but it’s not boring or anything, but then when my timer goes off, it can still feel like it happened way too soon. You know what I mean?”
Rhonda smiled—Timothy thought it might be the first legitimate, straightforward smile he’d seen on her face yet that day—and she said, “I know what you mean. It’s amazing. It’s like, all that…intrinsic time sense that we have gets kind of thrown out of alignment when you’re meditating for a while. I mean, I know that people can sort of feel time internally—like, a lot of people wake up before their alarms go off, and things like that—but supposedly there’s not a real, like…timing circuit or whatever, in the brain, and I guess that’s why, when you’re meditating, it’s not obvious how much time is going by, and whether it’s a lot or a little. And maybe parts of your brain think it’s a lot because they’re doing a lot, and other parts are more laid back, so they think not much time has gone by or something.”
Timothy was not at all sure that he followed her, but he said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Rhonda now hunched her shoulders a bit, and she looked honestly embarrassed, if only a little. “Sorry,” she said. “I kind of…read a lot of books about the brain and the mind, and neuroscience and stuff. I’m…I’ve got some slight issues that make it a point of interest for me. You can probably tell.”
Timothy wouldn’t have thought of it that way, so he said, “Um…not really. I mean, I guess it makes sense for someone who’s learning about meditation to be interested in the mind and stuff. And believe me, I’ve got issues, too. So don’t feel bad.”
Rhonda grimaced, and she looked slightly tense, but she regarded Timothy very directly, for a bit longer than felt comfortable. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess everyone does. I mean…why else would two young people like us want to learn about meditation…in America, anyway?”
Timothy really hadn’t thought about things that way, but it did occur to him now that Rhonda mentioned it that there might be cultures in which it was normal for people to start meditating at a young age, as an ordinary part of everyday life. He would have thought that cultures like that would tend to be better than most of the modern world, at least in some ways, but he wasn’t aware of anyplace on Earth that seemed particularly enlightened. Maybe there just were not such cultures. Maybe meditation was a luxury that most people couldn’t afford most of the time.
With a sigh, he replied, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Rhonda seemed to sense that he was having troubling, or at least serious thoughts, and she gave a less natural but not too pressured smile and said, “Well, I’m gonna go put my stuff down in the corner and then sort of…I don’t know, mentally limber up, like I usually do. Relaxing isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me, so I like to get to it in stages.”
“Right,” Timothy said, finding that to seem quite a candid and truthful statement. “Got it.”
Mr. McLean was now bringing a few cushions over toward the bare area of the floor, but he could plainly only carry about three at one time. Seeing this, Timothy could not restrain himself from asking, “How many do we need, total?”
Mr. McLean hesitated for a moment, then smiled and said, “Let’s see…you, me, Rhonda, the Pattersons, Gina, Collin and Christy…Sharon. I think that’s nine, if I’m keeping count right. So, if you could grab three, I’ll grab three more, and we’ll be set.”
Timothy walked over to where the cushions were, and he and Mr. McLean brought the remaining cushions over, Timothy following Mr. McLean’s lead in spacing them out a bit. Even as they placed the last cushions in a loosely spread cluster, with one cushion set in front for Mr. McLean, the door to the storefront opened.
Through it walked a young middle-aged appearing woman with longish red hair, starting to go gray, tied into a loose ponytail. She wore glasses and was dressed casually, almost as if for working out. She looked mildly surprised to see Timothy, but said nothing, greeting Mr. McLean and Rhonda. Mr. McLean returned her greeting then introduced Timothy to her, saying her name was Gina, and telling her that Timothy was visiting the class for the week to see how he liked it. Timothy took her as a mildly nervous person, though far from the same type as Rhonda, but she seemed pleasant enough, and offered her hopes that Timothy would enjoy his experience. She carried only a plain brown purse, and this she kept with her, unlike Rhonda with her bag.
In short order, the rest of the class arrived—apparently the whole group, since all told they matched the number of cushions Mr. McLean had said were needed. The Pattersons were a middle-aged and pleasant-seeming couple, who told Timothy to call them Mike and Diana, which Timothy thought was beyond him, at least for the moment. They were a real contrast to Rhonda and Gina, seeming utterly at ease with themselves and the others. Sharon was, in turn, slightly older, or had just allowed her hair to go all the way to iron gray without bothering to dye it. She dressed in somewhat flowy clothes, almost like pajamas, though the top was tie-dyed. Timothy thought this was almost too cliché; she even wore sandals, though it did not seem at all a good time of year for it. Timothy idly wondered whether she dressed like this when it wasn’t time for the Vipassana class, but she seemed utterly normal when she spoke, and she greeted him with a handshake, the only one other than Mr. Patterson to do so. She struck him as quite together and at ease with herself, unlike some of the others, and he wondered if she had been meditating for a long time.
The last two, Collin and Christy, looked to be perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties, and though they seemed to be a couple, they were apparently not married; Timothy saw no rings on either of their hands. They only introduced themselves by first names, greeting Timothy politely but perfunctorily, not offering handshakes. Christy, a slightly plump but pleasant looking, dark-haired woman with what looked like natural curls, was friendlier than Collin, who was almost a comically contrasted slender but fit-looking man, with a short, neat haircut and a square jaw. That jaw was a bit tight, and Timothy felt that the two might have been in an argument recently.
Indeed, as Mr. McLean called everyone to take a seat on the cushions, he heard Collin say to Christy—not quite quietly enough that the others couldn’t hear—that she probably didn’t need a cushion since her ass was getting so fat. He sounded as if he were trying to go the narrow course between seeming to be joking to the others but meaning quite seriously what he said to his girlfriend. He failed, at least in Timothy’s judgment. It was only too clear that he meant what he said, and what was more that there was malice—or at least anger—involved in the words.
The class was laid out in an irregular semi-circular row, the eight cushions forming a slightly uneven, broad arc, with Timothy on the far left of the group. Sharon was next, appearing quite comfortable to be seated by the newcomer, then Christy and Collin, then Rhonda, then the Pattersons, and finally Gina, who seemed to have taken her place quite pointedly, as if she didn’t feel comfortable in the middle.
Timothy noted this in passing, focusing instead on the oblique view of Christy’s face, which reddened in response to Collin’s jibe with what seemed more embarrassment and shame than with anger, unlike Timothy. He heard her, obviously trying to sound casual, say, “That’s not very nice, Collin.”
“Sorry,” her boyfriend replied, plainly not sorry at all. “I just…sometimes I wish we’d decided to take a yoga class, since it would at least get you moving some.”
Mr. McLean cleared his throat, and he said, “Okay, everyone, let’s try to put outside thoughts aside for them moment…or at least let’s not hold on to them.” Timothy looked at him and saw that the crease had again appeared on his forehead. It wasn’t as deep, perhaps, as it had been when they had been speaking earlier, but it was noticeable.
“Sorry,” said Collin again—again, clearly not sincerely, though perhaps he felt the censure of the group a bit—then he added, “I’ve just been trying to get her to come to the gym with me, but she won’t do it, and she’s getting flabbier and flabbier all the time. I keep telling her, it’s only going to get harder as she…”
Though Collin was obviously trying to sound chipper and clever and light, the tone of his voice made clear that he was deliberately throwing barbs at his girlfriend. Perhaps he was honestly trying to motivate her by embarrassing her in front of others, since maybe alternative approaches had failed. Perhaps they’d had an argument, and he was using this opportunity to score a point back against something she had said to him previously, however inappropriate that point-scoring was. Perhaps he was simply a bully, a perpetrator of psychological abuse, and his girlfriend was his victim.
None of that really mattered to Timothy, though at some level, his mind processed the possibilities. They were not relevant to the fact that, whatever his reasons, the man was bullying his girlfriend—surely the last person to whom he ought to be cruel—and it was pissing Timothy off.
He felt himself stiffen, and without thinking, he curled his hands into fists. His right fist throbbed in an almost delicious way, as if remembering the pain of his dream the night before, or perhaps of his earlier, true injury.
This was when Mr. McLean interrupted Collin. His forehead was more deeply creased, and his lips were pulled downward. His voice was somewhat stern—perhaps not very sharp, but the contrast with his usual demeanor made it more intimidating—as he said, “This is not the time or place for matters like that. This is a place of mindfulness and spiritual exploration. We’re here to meditate together, not to air grievances or trade complaints.”
Timothy was mildly distracted by the surprising hardness of Mr. McLean’s voice and the sternness of his face, and so his anger at least stopped growing. He was also very slightly mollified to see that Collin was plainly embarrassed and chagrined, though some of his expression might have been disgruntlement. Nevertheless, Collin had the good grace to say, “I’m very sorry,” and this time he sounded like he meant it, at least a little. “I’m…I’m a bit stressed out today. It’s not fair to take it out on you all.”
Timothy found it irritating that Collin was apologizing to the group as a whole, but not to his girlfriend. Had the man no sense of loyalty? Or did he not think he was required to apologize to her? Did he think she should be willing to be spoken to, and spoken about, as she had been?
Mr. McLean, in response to Collin’s apology, said, “It happens. It’s one of the things that being lost in our thoughts and identifying with them as our selfs does to us. And being less lost in them is why we’re here. So, let’s begin our first meditation today…not with that in mind, perhaps, but with the idea of letting go of that aspect of our minds. We can all benefit from lightening our burdens.”
Timothy was pleased to see Mr. McLean acting so plainly and naturally as the strong leader of the group, partly because it was such a contrast to the relaxed demeanor he’d always had around Timothy. He supposed that it was easy enough for someone to be a good teacher with a strongly motivated student, at least if the teacher knew his subject. But being able to rein in unruly behavior was another matter; it was something not all of his schoolteachers had mastered. His view of the Vipassana instructor, already quite respectful, went up further.
This was probably a particularly good thing in the present moment, since a good part of Timothy really was beginning to feel that he wanted to punish Collin. But that would not only be a bad idea—though the man’s age and fitness did not intimidate him in the slightest—it would be disrespectful of Mr. McLean, and of the other students in the group.
Timothy thought he noticed Rhonda looking pointedly in his direction, her gaze intense even for her. He could not read her expression, and she looked quickly away when he glanced at her.
Then Mr. McLean said, more gently, that they should all close their eyes.
The guidance Mr. McLean gave in this group meditation was barely distinguishable from what he usually said when in one-on-one sessions with Timothy, though there were subtle differences associated with pronoun choice and a general, broader, less targeted group of statements. As had happened to him before, Timothy wondered if Mr. McLean closed his own eyes while leading the group, but this was a fleeting thought, and it arose and passed on easily.
The experience for Timothy started much the same as usual also, though he noticed, without it being significantly distracting, the sound of the other members of the group breathing, and the occasional shifting of someone on their cushions.
He thought he heard, two people over, a less relaxed sound of breathing, a sound that seemed like someone deliberately taking deep and slow breaths, as if to try to soothe themselves and calm down. This would be Christy, based on where the group members were seated, and it occurred to him that she was trying to force herself to let go of the hurt or anger or sadness her boyfriend’s words had caused her.
He realized he was speculating and recognized the thought as a distraction that arose in his mind, and he briefly tried to give it its mental squeeze, then to return to focus on his own breath, then he recognized that, in response to Christy’s rather forced inhalations and slow exhalations, he was breathing a bit more deeply, too. His own breaths were perhaps also an attempt to calm down, since he was still quite angry at Collin, and he recognized it as the sort of anger that led to his outbursts if allowed to grow.
He thought of the real event with Earl that had been mocked in his dream the previous night. His anger at Earl had started with the first bit of teasing Earl had done, and if Earl had stopped there, if he had known the warning signs, Timothy thought the subsequent violence would not have happened. He still would have felt angry for a time, and it would have been easier to push him over the edge than usual, but it would have abated.
He recognized all this as distracting thoughts, as not allowing him purely to be focused on his breath, on the sensations in his body, and it was hard to turn from them loose—hard to relax enough to feel detached from the thoughts—when his own breath was mirroring and representing his own emotions. He also noted, this a bit more mindfully, that his right hand continued to throb slightly, though he no longer held it in a fist. He was aware of it as a symptom of his own elevated emotions, and it did not do a complete job of distracting him from them, though it was better than his own still-tense breathing.
At that moment, as usually happened when in the Vipassana Center, Timothy began to notice the ticking of the wall clock, and it felt almost as if it were ticking in time with the throbbing in his hand, which he knew was simply timed by the beating of his own heart. It seemed strange that his heartbeat should be so slow when he was angry, but maybe that would be good. The pleasant flow of air through his nose was now almost a burning sensation, and though he’d been told that sometimes even painful sensations could be used as focuses for meditation, he didn’t think he was up to that at the moment.
He continued to let himself be aware of his fist, and even of his breath, and of the feel of his legs crossing over each other, and the cushion below him, and the slight tension in his back which held him upright. But he focused more on the sound of the clock. As he did, he noticed, with some intrigue, that it felt as if it were becoming both slower and louder over time, turning into the booming of a great war drum, a drum echoing in the deep of some ancient, endless cavern, which might be just another way of describing his mind.
He did not grasp the thought, but allowed it to carry him, and he floated away from his body—though still distantly aware of it—and down into the caverns, the drumbeat of the clock timing his movements, the interval between beats feeling far longer than a second.
Briefly, he recalled speaking to Rhonda of the flexible nature of time while he was meditating, and he felt this must be an instance of that phenomenon. It was a momentary thought, and he did not even need to squeeze it to let it go.
He felt a bit as though he was floating through some of the massive, ancient caves from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, though the ones in his mind were less clearly made for walking…which was fine, since he did not need to walk, and in any case, gravity was not consistent, and seemed to follow his whims. He could walk on the walls, or the roof, on even hover above his own head if he needed to.
It was astonishing how quickly the sound of the drum—the clock—had taken him away.
The cavern was dark; there was no light whatsoever coming from it, certainly no torches or massive fires such as were in some of the movie caves these caverns at first made him think of. Yet he could see it all if he attended to it, and he could feel that its caves were not confined merely to the dimensions of the normal world, but that within one passage might lie a new system that would appear to double back and overlap the main one, but which would not in fact impinge on it at all. He also felt that if he shrunk down to look in one of the smaller holes, it would seem as intricate and huge as the larger ones did, with as many branches and tunnels and halls as those big ones had. And perhaps if he grew to fill the big halls, he would find that this was merely a tiny bit of a larger cavern system as well.
It reminded him of something he had experienced before when meditating, perhaps recently, but he did not try to focus on what it was. He merely allowed himself to experience. And he noticed that, despite the fact that he’d been able to divert from the room, from his tense breath, he still felt, with every beat of the drum in the deep, that welling of fury.
He needed to cool himself down. He tried not to feel that need as a desperate thing, as an urge, a drive, tried simply to let it be where his mind drifted, but he wasn’t sure that was successful.
He let himself float toward a chamber in his head that felt cooler, and he wandered along it, getting cooler and cooler still—now finally getting cold, though it was not unpleasant. This too reminded him of something, but again, he had no desire to find out what it might be.
That was good. Lack of desire was good. That particular lack of desire was particularly good. Wasn’t it?
The cavern he entered now opened up and spread out into a vast, gargantuan hall that could even be considered a plain, since soon the far walls and the ceiling drew back until even with his sight in the darkness, he could not plainly tell where they were, or even if they still existed. The floor leveled off, and the cold increased. There was now a wind, biting and harsh with the dropping temperature. It was, like the throbbing in his hand, almost a delicious sensation.
He even imagined he heard a far-off voice, leaking through from another universe, quietly saying, “The AC is turned up too much. It’s getting cold in here.” A cross-seeming “shh” followed, then a calm, male voice saying, “Don’t fight against sensations, even if they would normally be uncomfortable. Simply notice them.”
He thought the last voice sounded slightly unsure of itself, in addition to being in some separate realm beyond reality. Nevertheless, Timothy followed its advice. He welcomed, though he did not embrace, the sensation of cold. It felt good to be cold, even cruelly cold, but even the feeling good was irrelevant. It was simply what he was experiencing.
He sped through the plain that had been a cavern, now perhaps a limitless space of darkness above a flat, featureless surface. He might have been moving at a million miles an hour for all he could be sure; there was no sense of wind, or of anything passing by. Yet he felt that he was moving. He did not interrogate the feeling, he simply allowed it to be.
He noticed a sense of anticipation. It was hard to characterize, and he did not try much, but it seemed to be some combination of fear and eagerness. Also, the thought arose, that there was a sense of hunger and anger in the feeling. An anger at injustice, at meanness, at bullying, and a hunger to destroy the perpetrators of such things.
He recognized this sensation but did not probe it too deeply, and he neither fought nor embraced it. It was merely of passing interest.
But it did not pass. It grew. Though he had come so far through the caverns, then the space, within his mind, the drumbeat had not diminished. If anything, it was getting louder with each beat, though the beats did seem to be spreading, as though time was dilating. Perhaps he was approaching its source, perhaps he was approaching his very heart here within his mind. That seemed both inconsistent with what he knew about reality and utterly right as well. He was moving toward the heart of his being, or at least of the part of him that was currently operating.
He tried not to be excited about it, tried simply to watch. And then he recognized that even the trying was too effortful, and he moved toward letting himself relax, letting himself merely go along with whatever his mind was doing. The darkness was as absolute as ever, and yet his sense that he could see in it, that if he looked down, he could make out the floor, or ground, or whatever might be the best term for the surface over which he glided, merely inches aloft, at a speed far greater than anything he’d ever known.
He knew that he could see, because now, as he approached the booming heart of this plain of his mind, he saw a light up ahead, far away in the distance. He could make out no color or shape to it, but it was clear and vivid to him, and it was alluring. He wanted to know what its source might be, but he avoided embracing that desire, though he recognized and acknowledged it.
He then noticed that the light reflected off the surface along which he spread in a long, streaky ray, as though the ground was reflective but not quite mirror-like but was like the surface of a mildly wavy sea, fanning the incoming light out before reflecting it, so that above it was a point source, and below it became a line, one dimension hidden in and transformed into another.
Timothy noticed this fascinating little fact, something he’d never thought to realize about the real world before, and then he realized that the drum was getting louder still, becoming almost painful, even as it continued to spread and deepen. The cold intensified, and now it began to be uncomfortable. Timothy didn’t imagine that he could shiver in his mind—somehow that automatic function of his body in response to real cold ought to be irrelevant in this mental space—and yet, maybe, he felt he was near to doing so.
As he sped closer to the light, he felt also that he was shrinking in a way, though the sense of all around him did not change. The light itself, though, grew as he approached. It spread sideway a bit, becoming a flattened rather than a round dot, its reflection gaining just the tiniest amount of width.
A new, louder pound of the drum came, and with it, the light split in two, separating in an instant, though it may merely have been that Timothy had finally gotten close enough to see that it was not one light, but a pair of them. And now he realized what the color was, what it had always been. It was a single, pure, monochromatic, sharp red color. It was the color of a checkout scanner, of the toy laser pointers people sometimes even used as cat toys.
And now Timothy saw the separation grow more quickly, as his nearness to the source made the angle between the lights grow ever more rapidly, and he realized at last what he was seeing.
Now the darkness was different—at least the darkness before him was, though that which was behind and otherwise all around, which he could still sense, remained transparent though unlit. This darkness had substance, it had depth and viscosity, a turbulent, black, sticky fluid that almost completely obscured the form that was before him. Only its face was readily seen, and only part of that, and only because of the light of its own eyes, though they reflected not red on its features but a dark, charcoal gray that was nearly black itself.
This was the creature from his sleep paralysis, the creature from his dream the night before, and the presence of which he had sensed, off in the distance, on two occasions, in dangerous places in his own mind. Its broad face, its flat, oozing nose, and its vast, slit-like, gaping mouth with countless needle-sharp, conical, multi-rowed teeth were becoming familiar to him. Now, though, he did not have quite the rage he’d had in his dream the night before, and the thing frightened him…at least a bit. Not as much as it had during his first experience, but he could tell the thing was deadly, was dangerous.
And yet, unlike his dream the previous night, this time the thing did not seem threatening. Not exactly. Its danger was palpable, but it was not turned toward him. Now, he saw two limbs, not quite arms exactly, and not quite level with each other, as though the thing had more than two shoulders, on more than one spot below its head. They limbs spread and reached only slightly forward…almost as if it were inviting him into an embrace. It was opening its arms—some of them anyway—and asking him to come closer. For he had slowed and then come to a halt abruptly, and without any jarring, as he’d finally come within near reach of the thing.
The cold was immense, more and more frigid the closer he was to the darkness. He still thought he heard, or felt, fainter than before, and higher pitched, as though filtered through many layers of existence, the chittering of insect voices noting with alarm how cold it was, and how it was getting darker somehow. If termites in the walls of a house just being fumigated could begin to express alarm at the incoming lethal toxins they were just starting to notice, these were the sorts of sounds they would make.
Timothy could not pay attention to them even if he had wanted to, for his attention was riveted on the thing before him. Its form seemed fixed in place, both in the seeming air before him and in the reflection beneath. That reflection was distorted, changing the shape and contour of the thing, so even its eyes and mouth and arm and its enveloping cloak of physical blackness had different sizes, shapes, dimensions. It was not at all clear which was the real, actual thing. Was it the one facing him, the one beckoning him to come closer, that seemed to share the space with him, with the one below being a mere reflection? Or was what seemed to be a reflection the actual thing itself, and the picture before Timothy merely an image, a projection, a hologram?
Or were both really the creature at once, a contradictory existence that did not allow it to move on its own or approach him. For it did not come closer, and when Timothy stopped, it could only beckon. It was trapped in this multiple existence, this many-fold place where it could be neither one thing nor the other but must be stuck, held in the pincers of these multifold natures.
The pounding was vast, overwhelming…and exciting. Yet it did not speed up in experience, though to any listening outside it might have seemed to. From within, the perspective was so close in space and time that all else was barely happening.
The cold was severe, worse than freezing, worse than absolute zero, as if it was some strange anti-heat. It seemed as if the very blackness that enveloped the thing before Timothy drew in all light and warmth, that it was not merely a lack of them, but a hungry devourer of them. And then, its only outlet, that heat and light became the thing’s glaring, glowing, piercing laser eyes.
Now those eyes met Timothy’s as they had briefly in the dream, and he looked back at them. They were just as harsh and bright, just as overwhelming as before, but though they filled Timothy’s vision, they did not blind him, not here, not in his mind. He could look at them without pain and without losing the rest of his sense of sight of the darkness around, except where it encompassed the monster in front of him.
And now that he could see into it, and it see into and reach into him, Timothy thought he felt…communication. The thing had no words, it could not speak with its mouth, for that was a mouth built only for piercing, tearing, devouring. But there was a mind behind those eyes, and though it was as far from being sane as anything surely could be and still be called a mind, it had thought, and it was trying to convey something to Timothy.
It was making an offer. It was making a suggestion. It was trying to show him some notion of things that could be, things that he could do.
Timothy had a vision of himself embracing the creature, allowing it to take him in those misplaced, fractal arms, and then he saw himself flow into the creature, and it flow into him, donning each other like mutual armor. And then he saw himself back in the Vipassana Center. He saw himself rise, with the living blackness now oozing around him, and he turned, looking past Sharon and Christy, to the smug, bullying form of Collin, the verbally abusive boyfriend.
He saw himself reach out, and instead of pummeling at the man, who should have been bigger than he but was not, he saw himself grab the man in his hands—which now had more fingers, more length, and much more power—saw himself piercing the man’s chest above his collar bones and rib cage with his left hand while gripping under Collin’s chin with his right hand. He saw himself rip Collin’s head backward, tearing the flesh and separating the bone, shredding his chest and neck open, spewing blood across the area in front of them, splashing Mr. MacLean.
But Mr. McLean did not seem to mind. He smiled, smearing the blood along his cheeks with both hands as though washing himself with it.
And as Timothy tossed the remnant of Collin’s shredded corpse to the side, the rest of the members of the group looked up at him adoringly, and they applauded.
And Christy looked up with tears in her eyes and said a heartfelt thank-you.
Timothy knew that none of this had happened. But it could happen. This was what the thing before him was offering. And it was not merely justice against Collin that it was offering, but against anyone, against everyone, who might bully or abuse or threaten or take advantage of another person. He could shred and sever and savage them all, all those disgusting people that did not deserve to live because they caused pain and misery to innocent others. He would be welcomed, he would be revered, he would be adored by all those whom he protected. And he would not be killed in any bar fight by some man with a concealed gun, for with the creature as his partner, between them, they would not be vulnerable to such threats. Pain would only stoke their fury, and woe betide those who might evoke it.
Timothy felt almost as though the laser light that had shone from the creature’s eyes was now no longer shining into him, but was glowing out of his own eyes, piercing those around him, bringing fear to those who victimized, and bringing hope to those who suffered. It was terrifying and was ecstatic, it was tempting and repulsive. He might hate himself for the need to mete out violent death, but he would be compensated by the ability to punish and correct so much that was wrong.
But Timothy was not swayed. He closed his eyes and the connection broke. He was no longer seeing himself as the monster offered that he could be. He was Timothy Outlaw, floating before the monster in his mind, and he was familiar with the allure of violence, and more familiar with the shame that it brought. He could bear the shame upon himself, he supposed—if it was the only way, if it was necessary that he do such a thing—but he could not bear to see his mother suffer from his deeds. That was the worst thing about the rage and violence inherent in him and in this thing before him. It was bad enough that he had no right to take such action, that he could easily become just another bully, himself. He was already familiar with moral shame, and though it ached and eroded away at his will to continue, it was bearable. But he would not willingly harm his mother.
This thing before him widened its mouth, and it seemed almost to be grinning broadly, but Timothy recognized it as a snarl, as an expression of frustration at his refusal.
He realized he must have opened his eyes again. Or perhaps, in his mind, closing his eyes was never anything but a state of his consciousness, anyway.
The thing’s gaze glanced through his eyes again, but it was not communicating this time. Instead, it was seeing, it was trying to read what had led Timothy to refuse its generous proposal. Timothy knew what it saw. He knew that it saw his mother.
It turned its head and looked as if over its shoulder, as if into the blackness that shrouded it. As it did, that blackness parted, only slightly, not revealing any more of the creature, but opening a tunnel of sight in the darkness. Far off, far in the distance, Timothy saw, along with the creature, the figure of a person, lit from above by some weak, artificial light. The figure stood in one place, looking down, looking at something in its hands as if examining something it had found.
Timothy looked more closely, even as the monster turned and began to move away from him, both above the surface of the place and in its differently distorted other shape below. The two versions of the thing did not seem quite to match the rate of their movement, but they both began to move away from Timothy, though they had seemed fixed in place before.
The viscid darkness moved along with it, but Timothy could still see beyond it, could see the space ahead of them, and he followed, slowly, trying to discern what the thing was doing.
The figure in the distance slowly grew, and he realized that it was in a closed room, but a largish one, perhaps larger than the Vipassana Center, or at least deeper, if not as wide. It was lit only from above, by warm bulbs or some non-fluorescent light, and there were shelves and rows of things, rectangular, blocky things, all around.
As they came closer, the thing and Timothy both accelerating, moving impossibly through the space in his mind, Timothy realized that he was seeing books, the person was surrounded by books, books on shelves, in a long, narrow shop. The figure was looking down into its hands at a book it had picked up, and which it held open.
The figure looked down into her hands. For now Timothy saw that it was a woman, and what was more, he saw who the woman was.
The woman was his mother.
He tried to say, What? aloud, but no sound came, and he realized that this was because he was again hearing the booming, crashing sound of the clock ticking, its noise like a piledriver, like the crashing of a tsunami onto the shore. He felt it physically buffet him—which seemed impossible, because surely, this was not his physical body—and it got worse as he came closer to the monster, which was getting closer to his mother. His mother, however, was oblivious, standing in one place, thumbing through a trade paperback style book in her hands.
The beast crept up on her, towering over her and oozing and seeping below. Though it was facing away from Timothy, he could still see its face, for that face did not solely have a three-dimensional existence. It occupied spaces of higher and lower dimension, in addition to being both above and below the floor of Timothy’s mind. Its face, as he saw it, in both places, was merely a distorted, compacted shadow of its truer nature, a nature incomprehensible to an ordinary human mind.
If he had agreed to merge with it, could Timothy have comprehended it then? Perhaps he could have, he thought. Could his own sanity have survived? He doubted it.
He was not convinced of his own sanity even now.
That was not his major concern in any case. Even now the thing loomed over and beneath his mother, and the arms it had used to beckon came forth, and a third, almost sprouting from its center, with a thumb on either side of its many-fingered hand, reached more directly toward her, while the other two arms drew around to flank her. They did not touch her, were not even too close to her—it was more as if they were preventing any possible escape she might seek, as the middle one moved toward her, centered on her head, which was mostly turned away. That hand, too, did not touch Timothy’s mother, and she did not seem to know even that the creature was near her, let alone that her son was struggling to approach behind it. She stood, oblivious, perusing the volume she held, her own head tilted slightly as if in interested curiosity.
Timothy could not see much more than a vague sense of books and shelves around her, and a subdued light. He struggled, his mental feet not even touching the seeming surface below, and yet he felt that they slipped as he tried to keep coming forward, unable to gain purchase against the roiling waves of thunderous sound that were the distorted ticking of the clock. Or was it the beat of his heart? For it seemed, perhaps, to be speeding up, as though recognizing the need to hold him in place, and so bringing more of its pounding to bear.
He saw the light of the thing’s eyes, which he also could see from behind as though from the front, scan along the back of his mother’s head, moving down her hairline, focusing, for in instant, on her neck.
His mother took one hand from her book, and she scratched at the back of her neck where the twin laser eyes converged, as though perhaps feeling the touch of an insect on her skin.
The thing’s mouth parted, as if in eagerness. Timothy saw its tongue come slithering, appearing and disappearing and reappearing in a new position as it had before, moving toward his mother’s head. But it came no closer than the hand.
Nevertheless, the thing hunched forward, as if eagerly sensing some opportunity. It could make her feel its existence at some level. There was hope in its heart of icy darkness, that cold hope reciprocated in a rising heat in its laser eyes.
Timothy tried to shout, but again, his voice was as lost as the jingle of a music box before the roar of a tornado. He leaned in himself, urgent in a way quite different from that of the creature, but just as intense. It was trying to hurt his mother. It meant to do something to her—something—and it could not be anything good.
Timothy scrambled and strove, but still the pounding of the clock drove him back, as though he were trying to wade up a waterfall.
His anger, previously only present because of Collin’s behavior in the class, now grew. The thing in his mind meant to try to interfere with his mother. He knew, somewhere in his consciousness, that this could not literally be happening, that there was no way his mother was present in his mind, that her image was no more real than the creature itself could be. But whether this was merely the meditational equivalent of a nightmare, or a “bad trip”, did not matter in the slightest. Even in dreams, he could not allow some monster to lay one misshapen finger upon her.
He yelled, trying to drown out the clock, now surer that it was also the sound of his heart, for it grew in volume even as his anger grew, holding him back with the force of his own fury. It was maddening, and it was infuriating, but that did not help.
Timothy saw the form of his mother, this imaginary shape that looked so much like the real person—it even wore the clothes she’d been wearing that day—saw her now shake her head, still bothered, it seemed, by the looming presence of the thing’s hands, and its tongue, and the laser light of its eyes.
He could almost feel the frown she must be wearing now, her classic look of mild irritation. But he could not literally see her face. Unlike the creature behind her, she behaved like a solid human, and only familiarity allowed Timothy to all but know her expression.
As if in exasperation, Timothy’s mother snapped shut the book she was looking at; he could hear, in his mind’s ear, the flap of the pages drawing together. He saw his mother shake her head as if in puzzlement.
Then she turned the book, which she had held sideways, so that now she was looking at the cover. And now Timothy saw it, too.
Horror filled him, for he saw that, on the cover of what must be a horror novel, or perhaps some book about demonic legends—he vaguely remembered that she’d been going to visit a somewhat atypical book shop—was a hulking, black, shadowy form. It was not the same as the thing that loomed between Timothy and his mother, but it was not terribly different, and as with the creature in his mind, it was largely hinted, most of it hidden in shadow.
Most horribly, though, whatever was the monster on that book cover had been depicted with two point-like, vivid red eyes, without surrounding whites, without pupils, without any clear face or expression otherwise revealed. But these eyes were enough. They could almost have been a deliberate graphical representation of the eyes of the creature that shrouded Timothy’s mother.
The creature saw this, too, and its mouth parted farther, in eagerness, in vicious joy, and its tongue fairly danced in the air.
NO! Timothy yelled again, but though he was louder this time, his voice was still drowned out, and he could make no more headway against the pulsing of the vast noise of the clock.
The beast’s laser eyes scanned through, or somehow around, the back of Timothy’s mother’s head, and they met the eyes on the book she now seemed to be contemplating with some confusion. And when they did, they reflected off the red in those glossy, paperback eyes, and bounced directly into the eyes of Timothy’s mother.
Timothy thought he saw her stiffen as if in surprise, and her left hand clamped down slightly on the book. It was clear that she still stared into it.
Now the creature’s tongue and the middle hand that had sprouted from its shadow moved forward, as if it was preparing to seize and to taste the head of Timothy’s mother. But instead of touching her, both the hand and the tongue passed through her surface, penetrating her hair and skull almost as if they or it were merely illusory—though Timothy thought he saw just the slightest shift in the hair on the back of his mother’s head—and stayed there. Timothy almost thought he could see the hand clench into a fist.
His mother tensed, almost spasming, and she began to shake in place, but her left arm and hand were rigid, holding onto the book that stared back at her even as she stared at it. The monster’s other two visible arms—they were, Timothy was sure, not the only ones it had—drew closer to her head from the side, as if they meant to crush her skull.
LEAVE HER ALONE!!
Timothy’s voice was slightly more noticeable as his rage and his fear for his mother grew, and this drew a passing, fleeting glance from the beast, but it was a momentary distraction. Though he moved forward perhaps a millimeter, the pounding roar, the boom, of the vast drumbeat of the clock still held him back, the repetitive shockwaves of recurring explosions, pounding through Timothy’s form. He could feel each wave, and it began to hurt. But pain was no a stranger to him, and it did not tend to deter him.
The monster had never broken its gaze on the book and on his mother, even as it had nevertheless somehow—perhaps with the eyes of its lower form, the part of it trapped in its distorted reflection on the floor—looked at Timothy. But now it returned and redoubled its concentration on his mother, and more specifically on her head.
It now opened its mouth much wider than Timothy had seen it before, and though he could make out nothing within, the cold and the heat merged there, becoming terrible, foul and horrid, drawing in all light and warmth in a way more visceral and vivid than even the black ink cloud around it. Its head moved forward, its gaze still fixed on Timothy’s mother’s eyes through the ones on the book she held, even as its gaping maw with its countless piercing teeth approached, opening wide enough to bite her head in half.
She spasmed and shook in place as though she had grabbed hold of a high-voltage wire, but she did not drop the book.
Now Timothy simply roared, enraged, infuriated. He had to stop this, he had to protect his mother. He didn’t care what happened to him, but he couldn’t let this thing do whatever it meant to do to her. Its hand and tongue and the crimson light of its eyes were already in her head, and who knew what would happen if its other hands and its jaw met there.
It was the clock, the pounding sound of the clock that held Timothy back. He wanted to seize the creature, to beat it into nothingness with his clenched mental fists, he wanted to obliterate it until it never bothered him again, even in dreams, until he obliterated even the memory of it. But the damned clock kept pounding.
In his mind, he tried to look up at the source of that horrible, repetitive nuclear explosion of sound that kept pushing him back. He could not see it, but he knew it was there. It had to be before him.
He planted his mental feet, and he raised both his fists like hammers, and he closed his eyes, trying not to let his aim be thrown off by the shape of the thing before him and the threat of what it was about to do to his mother. He focused his anger, his frustration, his protective fury, on the sound, and with a new scream so loud that it seemed even to hurt his mental voice, be brought his fists down and against the surface of whatever the source was.
There was a terrible crash, higher pitched and more brittle than the noise of the drums, and a tinkling noise as glass or plastic fell, and a more metallic sound of something mechanical breaking. And there was the sound of people—not many, just a few—yelling in surprise, and in fear, and in confusion. And there was a sound, a remnant, nothing like what it had been at first, of Timothy’s own, real voice, yelling hoarsely.
He opened his eyes and found himself seated on his cushion on the floor of the Vipassana Center, with Mr. McLean and the Saturday class members. But things were not quite as they had been when he had begun meditating.
The air felt cold, a more literal feeling than he had felt in his head, and that had definitely not been the case when he’d begun the day there. He thought he saw the faint mist of his own breath, and in his peripheral vision, he saw a similar fog coming out of the mouths of the others in the class, and of Mr. McLean, as though they’d all walked into a very large, stand-up freezer. He would only realize later that he had goosebumps on his forearms, where they were bared by his tee-shirt.
This was all not primary in his attention, however, nor did it seem to be the focus of the rest of the meditation class. None of them seemed to be meditating any longer, and perhaps it had been some moments since they had been, for a few of them had at least partly risen from their cushions, and both Mr. McLean and Rhonda were on their feet.
Almost all of the other eyes in the room were fixed in the same direction, and for an instant, Timothy followed their gaze. They were all looking up at a spot near the ceiling on the right wall of the room. The clock, whose ticking Timothy had always heard only when meditating—and which had seemed to transform into something much deeper and stronger and more dangerous recently—was even now losing what must have been just the latest bit of its glass or plastic cover. Timothy could see a pattern of cracks throughout the remnant, which partly obscured the clock face, not quite like the pattern in the window in his dream the night before, but not completely dissimilar. Though it was probably not true glass, this front-piece of the wall clock seemed to have behaved like glass, and a few goodly chunks of it seemed already to have fallen to the floor below it. Timothy saw what was probably the last piece fall.
Behind it, the hands of the clock were slightly bent and out of place, and the face of the clock was dented inward in the middle, as if the whole thing had been blasted by some concussion centered on the point of attachment of the hands. It was not so damaged as to be anything but clearly a clock, but it was damaged enough that one couldn’t have known what time it had read when whatever it was had broken it.
Though she had been looking at the clock like the others, Rhonda quickly now turned and looked at Timothy, who—realizing her gaze and utterly confused—looked back at her.
“Are you all right?” she asked, even as others in the room were gasping or exclaiming, and Gina on the end was both hunched and drawn back, whisper-shouting the words, “What the hell?”
Timothy was confused. He was still seated, partly leaning back, his hands once again bunched into fists. The others looked at him and Rhonda briefly, but then they turned back to look at the clock. There was a grinding sound coming from within it, as though the motor that drove it was trying to keep it going but was facing some mechanical resistance, a broken axle, a dislodged gear, something of that sort.
“What…what do you mean?” Timothy asked, and he noticed that his voice felt slightly hoarse.
“You shouted,” Rhonda said. “Just before…before that.” She tipped her head toward the clock generally, though she did not look at it. “You sounded…I don’t know. Really upset.” Her gaze was intense, but her expression was unreadable.
Disjointed, Timothy could not coherently reply yet, and the other members of the group began to get to their feet, looking at each other and at the broken clock on the wall. Collin, no longer sounding at all cocky or arrogant, let alone aggressive, asked, “Do you think…could the air conditioning problem have somehow also made the clock…freeze up or something, and it broke?” He sounded far from confident in this hypothesis, but he was plainly trying to make sense of something that had surprised him.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Christy replied, now grasping his arm in what seemed an unconscious gesture of anxiety. Collin put his hand over hers as if to secure her grip in place.
Mr. McLean, standing, staring at the clock, now turned and glanced around and toward Timothy, maybe in response to Rhonda’s question and comment. Timothy looked back at him, thoroughly confused. He was not sure what had happened, he was barely sure where he was or what had been happening before, and he could not connect the comment about air conditioning or freezing to the clock or to what he was doing.
“Are you okay?” Mr. McLean asked gently. “You…you yelled something. I think it was…‘Mom’.”
With that prompt, Timothy’s memory suddenly came back together, and he recalled being in the deep cave-plain of his mind, encountering the creature, the thing that he had first met during his sleep paralysis, but whose presence he had sensed in the cold place near where his mother had demanded his promise not ever to commit suicide, and which he had sensed the night before and then met in his dream.
He remembered it stalking and then, somehow, attacking his mother in his mind, where she stood, apparently in a…a bookstore.
But…but she had been going to a bookstore! She was supposed to be in a bookstore at that moment. Had the thing in his mind known? Had it found her? Had it really attacked her there?
That was insane, of course, Timothy knew it. He’d been meditating, he’d seen all those visions just in his head, in his imagination, and he had seen her in a bookshop because he’d known that was where she was going. He had no idea what it meant, but if ever there had been a time when he’d been almost literally lost in his thoughts, that had been it. It had not been real.
But the clock was broken. He’d meant to shatter the booming sound of its ticking in his mind, and now, unbelievably, it was broken. And the air was cold, cold like it had been in his room the night before, where mist had collected on the surface of his timer.
If such things could leak from his mind to the outer world, could they have stalked and found his mother?
It was impossible.
But simply saying that did not dismiss the fear. Timothy jumped to his feet. “My mom!” he said. “I…I think something’s…I mean…I had this, this…I don’t know. I thought I saw something happen to my mom.”
Rhonda tilted her head, regarding Timothy more fervently than ever, her expression much more sober than he’d seen it before.
“Your…your mother?” Mr. McLean asked, clearly quite wrong-footed but doing a decent job of staying calm. The rest of the class had lapsed into a stunned silence.
“Yes!” Timothy said, feeling bad for yelling but continuing, “My mom is…I…I think my mom might be hurt.” He looked around in fear as if expecting to see his mother’s injured form—or worse—there in the shop. He did not see it, of course, but that didn’t relieve him. “Can I…can I use your phone? I know it’s stupid, but I…I want to call her to make sure she’s…she’s okay.”
Mr. McLean seemed surprised by this, but after only a second, he replied, “Of course. Please. I’m sure she’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with reassuring yourself, if you’ve had a frightening meditation experience.” He looked, frankly, as if he needed a bit of reassurance himself, and Timothy thought he could understand. After all, how did one process, let alone explain, the apparent drop in temperature of the place, and then what seemed to have been the spontaneous smashing of the clock?
But Timothy could not be bothered with that; it was at best tangential to his main concern, which was for his mother.
Mr. McLean nodded toward a phone that lay on one of the few countertops in the place, one Timothy had never yet approached. It seemed, perhaps, to be a place where payments were processed and bookings made, probably where class members paid for their memberships and signed up for individual lessons. At one end of it was an off-white, office-style phone. Timothy walked quickly over to it, and as he touched the handset, he drew back for just a moment. The handset felt cold, cold like the air of the room, but it was more noticeable because it was solid. Looking at the small area of electronic readings on the thing, he saw that there was a bit of condensation just as there had been on his timer the night before.
Not wanting anyone to notice or ask about what he was reacting to, Timothy forced himself to grip the handle again and pick it up. He half-expected to need to press some button to activate the thing, but when he brought it to his ear, there as a clear dial tone. The keypad was also entirely typical of modern phones, looking much like those in the school office, which he had seen too often for his taste, except in that it seemed to have only one line.
He did not need to struggle to remember his mother’s cell phone number. It was one of only two he bothered to know, the other being that of his house phone. He pressed it quickly, imagining himself misdialing out of fear, though he did no such thing. It took a seemingly interminable moment for the line to start ringing, but once it did, Timothy felt some sense of relief.
Soon, his mother would pull her phone from her purse or pocket, whichever place she had it at the moment, and she would answer it. He wondered if the Vipassana Center showed up by name on the caller ID, or if it would just be the phone number. No matter what the case might be, though, he knew his mother would answer. She was away from him; he was in the class. She had told him to feel free to call. Even if she didn’t recognize the number she would pick up.
It rang twice. Timothy didn’t expect her to answer on the first two rings. Even if she was at her most alert, it would take at least a moment for her to grab out the phone. She might be slightly irritated at having it go off in a bookstore. Were bookstores like libraries, places where you weren’t supposed to make unnecessary noise?
With the third ring, Timothy expected the line to connect at any instant. The sound of the pseudo-bell chiming was longer than usual, he thought, and it was irritating.
The fourth ring started. He knew his mother didn’t have her phone set to go to voicemail too quickly, but it was getting close. He didn’t think it would take more than six rings, especially given how long these ones seemed. In the background, he heard the other people in the class shuffling around, muttering about the clock and the cold, but they seemed instinctively to be keeping their voices down. In the back of his mind, he appreciated their courtesy.
The fourth ring ended. During the pause before the next sound, Timothy wondered if maybe his mother had dropped her phone or was having trouble finding it in her purse. She normally put it in her jacket pocket, if possible, to avoid that problem, but he couldn’t remember which jacket she’d worn that day.
He should remember. He had just seen her in his mind moments before.
But that was his mind. It wasn’t real. Who knew if it matched what she’d really worn? He just knew that he could remember neither the reality nor the imaginary form of his mother. He’d been too focused on other things.
The fifth ring of the line began, and Timothy feared that it would go to voicemail. If it did, he had no intention of leaving a message; he would just hang up and redial. Sometimes it happened. Sometimes she didn’t get to the call in time, but in those cases, she always got it the next time.
Just before the end of the fifth ring, a new noise happened. There was a sound of motion, some noise as if something were happening in the background wherever his mother was, and a woman’s voice said a hesitant, almost frightened sounding, “Hello?”
If there was something odd and off about the voice and its tone, Timothy did not at first notice it. This was his mother’s phone he was calling, and hers should be the voice that picked up, so his brain, his ears, assumed that was the case.
“Mom?” he said, hearing the nearly desperate tone of his own voice and feeling embarrassed, not wanting his mother to worry that he was having some trouble of his own. Then, rather foolishly, he thought, he added, “It’s me, Timothy.”
This was silly because, obviously, it was Timothy. His mother had only one child, after all, and she was alert for a possible call from him. The fact that he had said “Mom” should have left no reasonable doubt about who was calling.
A surprising pause followed, and then the voice on the other end, sounding hesitant, said, “H…hello. I’m…I’m sorry, may I ask you to repeat that, I didn’t quite hear who you were.”
Timothy heard more commotion in the background. He felt his own forehead clench, and his jaw tried to follow its lead, for he could now tell that it was not his mother’s voice on the other end of the line. Someone else had answered her phone.
What could she be doing that she’d asked someone else to answer her phone? That was just weird.
He tried not to think that there might be any involuntary reason for her not to answer, but he could feel himself growing more afraid, and he thought he could almost hear his pulse in his head, mimicking the thunderous, now-broken clock.
“I’m Timothy!” he replied, not sure why he was angry at whomever it was for not hearing him the first time. “I’m calling my mom’s phone! Who are you? Where’s my mom?”
He thought the person on the other end would think him rude for being so terse and peremptory with her, when she was probably just doing his mother a favor, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.
Far from seeming offended, the person on the other end said, “Oh, dear…I’m…I apologize. I’m Ginny McCaffrey, I…I run the bookshop where your…well, where I guess your mother is. I’m…”
Timothy thought the name was familiar, but he had no patience with the woman’s dithering, no matter who she was. “Where’s my mom?” he said. “I want to talk to my mom! This is her phone!”
“I…well, yes, of course,” the woman said, sounding almost frightened, but not as though of any physical danger. “I’m afraid…well, actually, it may be good to have you on the phone. Does your mother have epilepsy, and does she take or carry any medication for it?”
Timothy, recalling the investigations that had been done into his own head to see whether he might have some form of seizure disorder, recognized what the woman’s words meant, but he didn’t understand why she was asking what she was asking. “What?” he snapped, as if she had suggested something shameful about his mother. “No. Why would she…would you please put my mom on the phone?” He was trying very hard not to yell at the woman, conscious both of his own tendency to lose control and of the others in the Vipassana Center behind him.
The woman cleared her throat, and Timothy expected her to be mildly indignant at being spoken to by a young person in this way. Instead, though, she sounded subdued, and she said, “Well, I’m afraid…I’m afraid she can’t come to the phone right now. She’s…she all right, I think, there’s nothing too…but it seems…well, it looked to me like she had some form of a seizure.”
Timothy felt an almost cliché sinking feeling in his gut, as well as a surge of fear. After a pause, during which he paid more attention to the minor commotion in the background at the other end of the line, he said again, “What?” This time, his voice was barely over a whisper.
“She’s fine, I think,” the woman, whatever her name was, on the other end said. “Which is to say, whatever kind of seizure it was, it didn’t last long, and another patron was nearby who kept her from hurting herself when she fell, so she’s not injured. But she does seem…well, a bit confused and disoriented. But I guess that’s what happens with seizures, people…”
Timothy interrupted, his voice a bit stronger but still breathy. “Wait, what…what do you mean?” he said. “My mom couldn’t…my mom doesn’t have seizures. What are you talking about?”
He couldn’t help but think of what had happened in his mind while he was meditating, of seeing the horrible thing from the cold, dark plain in his psyche lock his mother’s head with its laser eyes, its tongue, and its impossible hand.
The woman on the other end sounded patient and less nervous now. She replied, “Well, I guess maybe…I don’t know exactly what happened. I’m certainly not a medical person, though I have a cousin who’s a nurse. But she seemed to have a seizure of some kind while standing up and perusing a book, and then after a moment, she dropped it and started to fall. I’ve never seen anything like that happen here before. We don’t even use fluorescent lights, and there are certainly no video…”
Timothy interrupted, his voice growing stronger as he became impatient with the woman’s meandering. He could feel how tightly he was squeezing the phone in his left hand; if it had been his right, it probably would have hurt where his old stitches and broken bones had happened. “Wait,” he said. “I don’t care about lights. Where are you? Where’s my mom? What’s going on? And why can’t she talk to me.”
Now, maybe just a little, the woman was slightly miffed, but she was still polite as she said, “Well, she can’t come to the phone because she’s a bit…well, befuddled, I would say. She’s awake, at least mostly, but she’s a bit confused at the moment. As I say, I understand that seizures do such things. But she’s here at the bookshop.”
“What bookshop?” Timothy snapped. “Where are you?”
The woman seemed slightly embarrassed to realize that she had not made herself clear. “Ah, my apologies,” she said. “This is McCaffrey’s Books. We’re at 616 Thornapple Garden Road, just east of the intersection with Innsmouth Boulevard. The…don’t worry, we’ve already called nine-one-one and the ambulance is on its way.”
“Right,” Timothy said, then almost as if parroting the woman, he said, “I’m on my way,” and hung up the phone.
Whirling, he saw that everyone else in the room was looking at him, apparently briefly distracted from the curious event regarding the clock and the temperature. In any case, no one’s breath seemed to be misting anymore, so whatever had gone wrong with the air-conditioning seemed to have corrected itself.
Mr. McLean, closest to Timothy, quietly said, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Instead of replying, he said, “You know where that McCaffrey’s Bookstore is, right? How do I get there from here?”
Clearly at a slight loss, Mr. McLean replied, “Uh, yes I do. Why do you…”
Timothy didn’t let him finish, saying, “My mom…the lady there said my mom had a seizure or something in the shop. She said she’s okay, but…but I need to get there.” He was already moving toward the door, planning to start sprinting as soon as he knew which way to go.
Mr. McLean looked shocked, a strange thing to see on his normally calm face. His mouth hung open for a moment. In the space of his silence, Rhonda, not too much further away than Mr. McLean, said, “I know where McCaffrey’s is, and my car’s parked just half a block away. I can take you there if you want. It’ll be way faster than trying to get there on foot.”
Only the slightest flicker of awareness of Rhonda’s slight quirkiness—if that was the correct term—went through Timothy’s mind before he said, “Thank you!”
Rhonda nodded, then all but sprinted to the corner where she’d put her bag down, grabbed it, and rushed back. As she did, the other members of the group were mostly silent, and Mr. McLean looked all but completely at a loss. Timothy found himself deeply grateful for Rhonda’s proactive nature, however over-intense she might seem to be.
As Timothy joined Rhonda, heading toward the door, Mr. McLean said, “Timothy, if you need anything, I’m here all day. Let me know.”
And then the slightly older, hippy-looking woman, whose name Timothy couldn’t even remember in that instant, said, “We’ll be sending good thoughts toward you.”
“Thanks,” Timothy said, more to Mr. McLean than to the woman spouting what felt like well-meaning but useless nonsense. Then he raced through the door. The only reason he did not go ahead of Rhonda was that he didn’t know which way to go, or which car was hers.
“This way,” she said, turning left as they exited, striding as rapidly as a racewalker. As they went along, she fished out a key ring from her bag, and after a few seconds, she pressed a button on the attached fob. There was a quick double-beep ahead of them, and headlights blinked on a compact car in a space about ten feet further on. As they got to the car, the make of which was unclear to Timothy, but which was a sort of tan color and looked several years old at least, Rhonda pulled open the passenger side door for Timothy before going around behind the car to get in the driver’s side.
Timothy noted that there were a few scattered books and papers in the back seat, but the front was clean enough, and there was no litter for him to move. He slid into the passenger spot, pulled the door closed—probably too hard—and then put on his seatbelt, more out of habit than out of any concern for his own safety.
Rhonda didn’t say anything, didn’t ask any questions about his mother, didn’t try to reassure him. She just turned on the car, looked to her left to wait for traffic to clear, and then pulled out expertly. Timothy might have thought her awkward in person, but clearly, she was not a hesitant driver.
Timothy felt his heart pounding in his chest, reminding him of the booming of the clock’s drum sound in his recent meditation. He could not think about what had happened there, he could not process it yet, nor even try to. His mind was nearly blank, and all he could think of was reaching the bookstore where his mother was.
Traffic, unfortunately, was quite bad at that hour on a Saturday in that part of town, and it seemed they barely moved twenty feet at a time before stopping for some light or stop sign. Timothy had the presence of mind to wonder if he might really have gotten wherever they were going more quickly on foot, but as they passed a few miles of travel, he realized that couldn’t be so. However slow and irritating traffic felt, it was far faster than walking, or even running.
He gripped the hand rest on the door at his side. This time, he did indeed feel an ache in his right hand, but he wondered if that was in his mind, if it was just because he was expecting it. Maybe he wanted the pain; it always seemed to feel appropriate to him.
His mother was sick, she was hurt in some way, and though he tried to tell himself it was a coincidence, that it could not possibly have anything to do with what he had seen during his meditation—that such a notion was frank insanity—he could not help but think it had been his fault.
And, after all, some part of him thought, Mr. McClean’s shop had gotten cold, as his own room had the previous night. And the clock had broken.
He pushed those thoughts back, not willing to entertain them. He needed to get to his mother.
As they stopped at another light, he asked, “How much farther is it?”
“Maybe half a mile,” Rhonda said. “If it wasn’t for all this traffic up ahead, we’d have been there by now. I don’t know what’s going on, it’s not usually this bad.”
Timothy found the fact frustrating, but it did not surprise him. Of course, things would be difficult. It was not as if he deserved for anything to come easily.
They came up to a corner where the traffic looked bad enough that there was threatening gridlock, but just before the light going their direction changed back to green, it seemed to open up ahead a bit, and so, finally, when the light turned, and after the two cars ahead of them went through the intersection, Rhonda was able to turn right, and things weren’t too backed up ahead.
Soon, Rhonda turned on her blinkers and pulled to the side slightly, drawing a honk from behind that she ignored. “This is the shop,” she said, nodding toward her right. “You go ahead and go in, I’ll find a parking space and join you there, so you don’t get stranded on your own, okay?”
“Thank you,” Timothy said, barely looking at her, then he opened his door, watching for the cars that were parked beside him, and hurrying so as not to inconvenience the temporarily stopped traffic, he stepped out and closed the door, careful not slam it this time.
He looked up and saw a relatively new-looking sign, made to look as though it were hand-painted, over a double-doorway that looked self-consciously old-fashioned. The sign read, “McCaffrey’s New and Used Books,” and there was a curious framing of overlapping lines surrounding the words between them and the outer edge of the rectangle of the sign. Timothy half-expected to hear the ring of a traditional, dangling bell as he pulled the door open, but all he heard was the whoosh of the air. Then he stepped into the shop, and he came up short.
He had not had a very clear impression of where his mother had been standing in his meditation session, when he had seen the monster from his mind go after her. But it had been a long, narrow, not-too-brightly lit store, with books on shelves that mostly ran along the length of the room, and that was just what he saw here, now. Even the overhead lighting, which was a series of hanging lamps with conical circular fixtures, cast a subdued glow that reminded him of what he had seen.
He tried to dismiss the recognition. He was thinking about this after the fact. He was fitting his memories to the current reality. He had known his mother was going to a bookstore, and so he had imagined a typical one, and the fact that this roughly matched the vision in his head should be no surprise. They only bookstore that would have surprised him would have been a wildly atypical one, surely.
He was not fully convinced, but the brief thought did not distract him much. He had more important matters to address. He looked about the room ahead of him, trying to discern where his mother might be. If she’d had what might have been a seizure, he would assume she had at least been seated on the floor, and that there would be people around her. The woman on the phone had said that they had called for an ambulance, so there should probably be EMTs around.
He saw none. Ahead, in the middle of the store, on the left, near what looked like a checkout counter, behind which were some displays of mainly hardcover books and a few book-related items like bookends and paperweights, there were a few people gathered, and they seemed to be talking somewhat animatedly, but he saw no sign of his mother, standing or seated, nor even flat on the floor, and certainly no one who looked like any medical professional.
A few of the people near the cashier’s station glanced up at him, and their gazes seemed to fix on him as soon as he came in. He probably looked agitated; he certainly felt it. He could not fathom where his mother was. Had he come to the wrong store? He didn’t think so. The woman had been very clear. So had the sign on the front of the shop.
Timothy strode toward the checkout area, figuring that someone there might know something. His legs felt wobbly, and he was unable to go very fast. The people near the register looked at him silently as he came up, and the woman behind the counter, a middle-aged, red-haired woman, looked at him almost nervously. She said nothing, however.
“Um…hi,” Timothy said, feeling foolish for the banal greeting. “I’m…I’m looking for my mom. They…the woman said she was here.”
A hint of recognition and maybe some sympathy lit the woman’s face, and her eyebrows constricted as she responded, “Are you the young man who called earlier?”
The woman’s voice sounded familiar, if only vaguely, and Timothy thought it must be the woman who had picked up his mother’s smartphone. He didn’t like the way she was looking at him. He was terrified that she was going to say that his mother had died and that either her body had already been whisked away so as not to pollute the shop or that it had simply disintegrated when her life had ended. He knew it was stupid, but he couldn’t help imagining it, and he thought he was starting to get just slightly light-headed.
“I…I guess so,” he replied. “I…where is she? Where’s my mom? You said she had a…a seizure? Where is she?”
Tightening her lips together, the woman said, “Well, I’m afraid…I’m afraid that the ambulance arrived barely a second after you hung up the phone. They…they seemed to think your mother might have had a stroke…I guess they thought it looked like she had weakness on one side…and so they very quickly took her away to the hospital.”
Timothy froze for a moment. He did not really know what a stroke was, but he had the idea that it was something catastrophic in the brain, much more serious even than a seizure. He’d seen billboards from time to time that said things like “A stroke is a brain attack,” likening one of the things to a heart attack, presumably to make sure people took them seriously, since—presumably—they could be life-threatening.
Unable to think of anything else to say, Timothy simply said, “What?”
“Yes,” the woman responded, as though Timothy had asked something more specific. “They…they said that, apparently, St. Theresa’s is the main, emergency stroke protocol location in the area, and they wanted to get her there as quickly as possible.” She looked mildly embarrassed while at the same time slightly smug, a combination of expressions that Timothy found distasteful, as she added, “They said that, since we called them so quickly and they got here so quickly, she had the best chance of…of recovery, I suppose.” Her voice dropped at the end, as she apparently realized what Timothy was already concluding—that there was a chance that his mother would not recover from whatever had happened.
He couldn’t understand. What had happened? He’d been meditating in the class, he’d been irritated—well, no, he’d been quite angry—about Collin’s verbal bullying of Christy, and somehow it had led him to go a dark place in his mind, where he saw the thing that had appeared in his dream and in his sleep paralysis. And that creature had, at least in his mind, gone to assault, or at least to molest, his mother.
It had shone its laser eyes into hers, albeit by reflection, and then had put its hand and tongue into her head. It had been prepared to do more than that, even, but Timothy had beaten at the sound of booming drums in his mind, and he’d risen from his meditation.
The room had been cold, and the clock had broken.
It had to be coincidence.
But he had seen his mother in his mind standing in a place that looked very much like the bookstore he was in now. It looked so much like it. But that had to be a trick of his memory.
He looked around the place, trying to confirm or deny his impression, but he couldn’t be sure. Looking back to the cashier lady, uncertain what the right thing to think was, let alone the right thing to do, he asked, “Where…where was she when it happened?”
The woman was clearly puzzled by this question, and Timothy thought he saw a man and woman, two of the people near the counter, look at each other in mild confusion. However, the woman at the register seemed to take his inquiry seriously, and she pointed over at the row behind Timothy, which could be accessed through a gap in the otherwise room-long line of shelves. “She was over there,” she said, “down about halfway. She was…she was looking at the section on myths and legends. She dropped the book she was holding, but I put it back on the shelf.”
Timothy wasn’t listening to her. He turned and walked toward the place she had indicated, moving slowly down the aisle. He looked only toward his left, for in his mind, this would coincide with where he had seen his mother. The rows of shelves were all at least head-high, and were stacked with books, many spine-out, but with some displaying their front covers. Timothy couldn’t know for sure how the woman at the register could tell where he was—maybe there were cameras he hadn’t noticed—but he heard her call out, “It was about there,” even as he was already drawing to a halt, his breath catching.
At just below shoulder height, there was a shelf in which it seemed that one book had been pulled out from where it had originally been placed in traditional, spine-outward fashion, but which had been hastily replaced on the shelf, its front now facing forward. It was a “trade paperback” sized book, and it bore the rather flamboyantly written title Demons in Myth and Legend: Shadows of a Reality?
Timothy paid little attention to the title, though. It was the cover that struck him, almost physically, certainly deep in his psyche. For it featured a dark, mountainous background with a sky only hinted at, and was dominated by a figure of blackness, something vaguely humanoid but hunched and menacing. The only discernable features on the thing were its eyes. Those eyes were merely points. They were points of bloody red.
“That’s…that’s not…” he muttered, unable to complete his sentence. It looked, for all the world, like the book cover he recalled his mother seeing in his meditation.
He picked it up, feeling his hand trembling slightly, but that gave him no more information…he didn’t know whether he expected still to be able to feel the warmth of his mother’s hand on the book cover, but it was, of course, cool to the touch as its glossy surface seemed to make likely. He looked at the shape on the cover. It didn’t really look much at all like the thing in his mind, but the eyes…the eyes were so much like the ones in the book he’d imagined his mother holding. As he looked at the red eyes of the cover art, he half expected to see laser light shining back at him, back into his own eyes, as had happened to his mother, as had happened to him in his dream and his meditation. But, of course, the laser light, if it happened, would come from his eyes before going back, surely, because surely the thing was a figment of his imagination.
But…but he had seen this book, had seen this shop. And his mother, his real mother, had had a seizure or a stroke or whatever it was, just at the time he had imagined it. Had he…had he done it to her? Had he caused this?
He felt as if he was about to lose his grip on the book, to drop it to the floor as his mother presumably had. To prevent that, he put it back on the shelf, this time replacing it properly in what had obviously been its previous location, so that its cover no longer glared out at the world.
His dizziness was increasing slightly, and he felt vaguely that the world was becoming unreal. He was worried that he was going to faint.
Then he heard the shop door open again, the sound not muffled at all by all the surrounding books, the noise of traffic leaking in briefly, then heard it shut again. He heard a voice, vaguely familiar, call out, “Timothy?” He recognized that it was Rhonda; apparently it had not taken her long at all to find parking.
Quietly, Timothy croaked, “I’m over here.” Then he turned, walking slowly back toward the gap in the long rows of books, slightly away from Rhonda at first. He didn’t know if she might have headed toward the end of his aisle nearest the front of the store—that would be the closest approach for her—but if she did, she changed her mind, and as he came back through the gap, approaching the cash register, he saw her striding up the wider, main aisle.
“What happened?” she asked. He saw her looking from side to side. “Where’s your mother?”
As Rhonda got closer, Timothy drew to a halt, slightly closer than the register to the front of the store, the cashier and her patrons all silently watching him and Rhonda. Timothy felt he was barely able to force the words out, but he said, “They…they already took her to the hospital. They think…they think she might’ve had a stroke.”
He saw Rhonda’s eyes widen in apparent surprised worry, but she seemed to restrain her emotional reaction, and she turned her gaze upon the shopkeeper—Timothy vaguely thought he remembered that the was actually named McCaffrey—and said, “Do you know what hospital they took her to?”
The woman seemed surprised, and Timothy thought she almost wanted to ask who the hell Rhonda was, but apparently, she thought better of that, and replied, “St. Theresa’s is where they said they were taking her. It apparently has the nearest emergency stroke unit…”
“Right,” Rhonda said, then she turned to Timothy and told him, “I know where that is. It isn’t far. I’ll take you there.”
Timothy blinked. “Huh?” he said, not so much because he didn’t understand what she meant as that he was simply overwhelmed. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s not walking distance,” Rhonda said, “and a bus would take…I don’t know how long. Come on. I’m sure she’ll be fine, it’s a good hospital, she’s young…but she’ll want you to be there, I’m sure of that.” She made a beckoning gesture, apparently recognizing, quite correctly, that Timothy was hardly absorbing her words, at least not completely.
“Th…thank you,” he said. He still didn’t move.
“Don’t be silly,” she responded. Then, waving her arm again, she said, “Come on,” again. As Timothy started to walk, barely able to think, barely able to process both the impossible and the banal and the kindly events that were happening, Rhonda called over her shoulder, “Thank you!”
“You…you’re very welcome,” the woman at the cash register said. Then, just before Timothy reached the front door, she called out, as if she’d only just remembered to do so, “I hope your mother is all right.” Timothy didn’t find these words at all consoling.
They walked down the block to the end, then crossed the street to a public, pay parking lot, which was apparently where Rhonda was parked. It occurred to Timothy that she might have had to pay for the parking, and he resolved to pay her back, but as they pulled out, back through the gate—which was manned by a real person, to Timothy’s surprise—the guard told her that she’d been there less than five minutes, and so there was no charge.
That didn’t seem right to Timothy, but maybe Rhonda had told the man about the situation. Rhonda said thank you and they pulled out of the lot and onto Thornapple Garden Road. Timothy saw that traffic was much clearer than it had been before.
Rhonda apparently noticed this at roughly the same time, and she said, “I guess now we know why the traffic was unusually backed up near here, at least. It was because of the ambulance.”
“Oh,” Timothy said, barely able to hear his own voice. “Right. That makes sense.”
He saw Rhonda glance over at him, apparently troubled by his tone, or the faintness of his voice. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I…I don’t know,” he replied, still unable to summon much force. “I…I don’t know what…” He trailed off.
“Listen,” Rhonda said, “your mother is going to be fine. I’m sure of it. Whatever happened is a fluke or something…she’s too young to have had a stroke, and anyway, she’d going to get the best care that’s available around here. She’ll be fine.”
“I…I don’t know…how much does that…cost?” Timothy asked, not sure where the question came from.
He saw Rhonda’s brow crease, but she kept her eyes on the road, seeming to know just where she was going. “I…I don’t think it matters,” she said. “It’s an emergency. Emergency treatment is…well, it’s emergency.” Then, after a slight pause, she asked, plainly hesitant, “Do you…do you guys not have insurance?”
Timothy shook his head, but realized that might be misleading, and he said, “No, we…we have insurance. My mom does. Through her job. It’s…I don’t know what the copay is going to be, or whatever that’s called.”
“Well, don’t worry about that right now,” Rhonda said. “Get out of the water, first, before you worry about drying your clothes.”
Timothy was a bit confused by her figure of speech, but after a few seconds he finally grasped her meaning. He stared now vaguely out of the passenger side window , watching the streets and buildings and people that they were passing, until finally, he heard himself say, “It’s my fault. I did it.”
There was a pause. Timothy wasn’t looking at Rhonda, so he didn’t know if she glanced at him again, or what the look on her face might be. He just heard her sounding thoroughly confused, as she asked, “What do you mean?”
“I…what happened to my mom,” Timothy went on. “It’s…it came from me. It was…while I was meditating, there was this…this thing in my head. I saw it. I’ve…it went after my mom, and I saw it happen. I saw the bookstore, the book she was holding…all of it. It’s my fault.”
He expected Rhonda to tell him that was crazy—he wanted to say it to himself, for that matter—but instead, she was silent for a longer moment than before, and at last she said, “Look, you can tell me all about that later. Whatever it is, I really doubt it’s your fault, even if you…saw it, or whatever. But right now, we’ve got to get you to your mom, so you know she’s all right.”
Timothy felt himself begin to choke up, but he bore down hard on that sensation, not willing to allow himself the luxury of feeling sorry for himself. Clearing his throat, but deliberately avoiding rubbing his eyes, he said, “I don’t…I don’t know if she is all right.”
“Don’t be silly,” Rhonda said, though it sounded reflexive and unconvincing to Timothy. “Your mom is young, and she’s healthy, and anyone can tell she’s a very strong person. She’s going to be fine.”
Timothy was surprised that Rhonda had such a clear impression of what, to Timothy at least, seemed certainly to be a true assessment of his mother. Though, of course, his mother had never seemed young relative to him, he knew that she looked younger and seemed more energetic and forceful than many adults he saw in the world, including most of his teachers. He tried to tell himself that this was enough, that it was perfectly reasonable to expect his mother to recover well and completely from any possible illness or injury, but he knew only too well that there were things that could happen that no one could resist. What was more, how could even the strongest of people tolerate an attack by some…some thing born in the mind of her diseased and defective son?
He could not convince himself that he was wrong to think that it was his fault, that the anger creature from his own mind had developed a life of its own and sought out his mother.
Why would it do that? Was it simply because he had refused to embrace it so as not to bring shame and heartbreak to his mother?
He shook his head, trying to fling those thoughts from his mind, unable to remember meditational techniques for the moment and unwilling even to consider using them.
Apparently, his motion caught Rhonda’s attention, and she asked, “What’s the matter? Other than the obvious, I mean.”
Timothy shrugged, not looking at her. “I…I don’t know. I guess I’m just freaking out.”
He could see Rhonda nodding out of the corner of his eye. “Well…I can’t say anyone could hold that against you,” she said. “But seriously, St. Theresa’s is a great hospital. My great aunt went there with pneumonia once, and everyone thought she was going to die, but they took terrific care of her, and she’s still going strong now. And she’s in her eighties. Still keeps track of her…well, her stocks and commodities profile, or whatever you call it.” She gave a self-deprecating chuckle and added, “I never could get the appeal, but she’s got a lot of money because of it, anyway. And she wouldn’t go anywhere but the best place for her medical care. So…if that makes you feel any better…”
Rhonda trailed off, which was just as well, because Timothy was barely taking in her words. He got the impression that her slightly tense, pressured aspect was trying to come to the fore again, and he could certainly not hold that against her. When it came down to it, he could hardly hold anything at all against her, frankly. He would have to make sure to thank her when he finally felt able to express those thanks well enough. Even if his mother had really had a stroke, even if it was something even worse…he still owed Rhonda thanks. When she’d learned what had happened, she hadn’t hesitated. She hadn’t even seemed to consider the possibility of not helping him.
The rest of the ride to the hospital passed in silence, or at least in lack of speech. Traffic didn’t seem too bad for a Saturday afternoon, Timothy idly thought, which was probably good. He paid no attention to their route, so as they approached the hospital—a big one, not one whose emergency room he’d ever had the displeasure of being in before—he was caught by surprise and realized he would have had a hard time getting back home from there if he were on his own.
Come to think of it, what about his mother’s car? How were they going to get her home from the hospital when her car was over by the Vipassana Center? Timothy knew how to drive, having taken driver’s ed in school when it was first offered, but he’d not yet bothered to get his license—quite unusually, compared to his peers—so he wasn’t sure if it would be okay for him to find his way there and get it to the hospital eventually, whenever his mother left…
…assuming she left.
He shook his head again, even as Rhonda pulled into the entrance near the signs marking the Emergency Room. As she moved slowly ahead, she asked, “Do you want to get out and go in first, or do you want me to park first, and we can go in together?”
Oddly touched that Rhonda took the trouble to ask, Timothy looked around quickly. He saw that there was a drive-up area before the main doors of the ER, and he said, “Just…you can drop me off there near the door.”
“Okay,” Rhonda said. She headed toward the area Timothy had seen. “There should be a reception desk or a triage nurse or whatever, something like that inside. Just give them your mom’s name and ask where she is and what’s happening. I’ll park and then come in.”
This caught Timothy off guard. He turned to her and asked, “You will?”
Rhonda looked honestly surprised by the question. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean…I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m not gonna leave you stranded here at the hospital in case your mom is staying overnight.”
Timothy honestly couldn’t imagine how someone could have something as serious as a stroke was supposed to be and not stay overnight, but he thought it wasn’t important. As Rhonda drew to a halt not far from the entrance, he said to her, “Thank you again,” even as he reached for the door handle.
“No need to thank me,” she said. “Just go on in and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Timothy opened the door and clambered out of the car. He was grateful that his threatening lightheadedness from before seemed to have dissipated over the course of the drive to the hospital. His feeling of unreality and confusion, however, remained.
The doors to the ER slid open on their own as he approached, and Timothy walked into an area that was both familiar and new. He’d been to the emergency room of the hospital closest to his school on more than one occasion, so it wasn’t as though he was unused to the general atmosphere of a hospital, and especially to such areas in hospitals. But this place was bigger than he was used to, and it seemed both newer and more used. It was brightly lit, there was a large waiting area with many seats, a hallway down to the right that looked like it led past a gift shop, of all things, and a coffee stand. Before him, however, was both a separated kiosk, manned by a woman who looked like she might be a volunteer—she certainly did not wear medical garb, but had a hospital name tag—and beyond was a longer counter, what must have been a nurse’s station, in front of a set of doors that must lead back to the main ER area, based on signage and warnings and just a general impression and atmosphere of importance.
Not thinking too much about it, Timothy simply walked past the kiosk and up to the nurse’s station, approaching a woman in scrubs who was working on a computer, but with a notebook style chart of some kind in front of her. She had a sturdy-looking stethoscope around her neck, and she looked surprisingly young, perhaps not much older than Rhonda. She had a name tag, but it was flipped over, so it wasn’t possible to tell who she was.
As Timothy approached, she glanced up briefly, not quite diverting herself from whatever she was looking at on the screen in front of her, and said, “Hi. I’m sorry, I’m not…”
Timothy wasn’t listening, and he simply began his pre-thought statement, saying, “I’m Timothy Outlaw. I…I think they brought my mother in here a little bit ago. They said they think she had a stroke.”
His words seemed to catch the woman’s attention, and she stopped whatever she had been about to say, looking away from the screen and more closely at him. Timothy wondered if she thought he looked ridiculously young, or flustered, or confused, or desperate, or even angry. He could not tell which of these notions dominated, but he thought all of them characterized how he felt.
The woman, tilting her head as if trying to recall something, asked, “What did you say her name was?”
Timothy knew that he hadn’t said, but he also knew that wasn’t really what she was asking. He said, “Her name is Marisa Outlaw. She…she was in a bookstore, and they think she had a stroke.”
The woman was nodding before he finished his second sentence, almost before he had started it. “Right,” she said. “I heard them call out her arrival on the PA. I only noticed it at first because of the name…it seemed a bit interesting, you know? Also, her age and the stroke announcement. That seemed unusual.”
Timothy was a bit put off by her apparent detachment, but he had an instant to realize that his atypical last name was good for something, at least. Still, he couldn’t help but push on with his concerns, hearing a tremble in his own voice that did not embarrass him at all as he said, “Do you know…do you know where she is? Is she all right?”
“Hang on,” the woman said, apparently sympathetic. She closed the loose-leaf style chart and clicked off whatever computer screen she was looking at, then stood up, saying, “They’ve probably already gotten the stroke team down to see her, but I can see if I can find the house staff who are assigned to her here. I mean, they won’t have gotten anyone upstairs down, but one of the ER docs will have been assigned. Not me, obviously.” She turned to her left, Timothy’s right, and began to make her way through the relatively narrow and currently otherwise unoccupied area behind the counter and toward one of the two big doors on the wall behind her.
Timothy scooted along in parallel to the woman, stammering, “I…thank…thank you, uh…”
“Oh, right,” the woman said, drawing to a halt as she cleared the end of the counter, just near the doors. “I’m Dr. Malak,” she said, briefly twisting her name tag so that Timothy could see a picture on it and, presumably, her name, before letting it fall again facing backward. “I’m one of the medical residents here. You’re lucky you caught me…I was catching up on some charting here, since no one was using the computer. Come on, let’s go back.”
This woman was easily as intense as Rhonda, but in an entirely different way. She was pleasant enough, and didn’t seem awkward, but she clearly was all business. Of course, since it turned out she was a doctor, working in the emergency room, Timothy supposed that shouldn’t surprise him.
She stood to the side of the door and pressed a square button on the wall. In response, the big double-panel swung outward with a whoosh, making Timothy wonder if it didn’t risk knocking people over, before he realized that the area in front of it was clearly marked off and there were warning signs about just that. He also noticed a sign that read “Authorized Personnel Only”, but since it was a doctor bringing him back, he figured that must be okay. Also, he wasn’t about to be too careful about obeying signage when his mother was ill.
He walked just half a step behind the woman as they went through the door. The area beyond it was quite a bit noisier than the outside had been. It stretched back quite a ways—Timothy wasn’t even sure he could see the far end of the big room—and was dominated in the middle by some desks and a sort of littler room with more than one entrance, and all along both sides were faux-enclosures, each of which had curtains that could be pulled around them for the facsimile of privacy. Many of the curtains were closed, and a few that were open had people in them, lying on modest beds and in various degrees of discomfort and confusion. Some of them wore gowns of some kind, but most looked like they were still in their normal street clothes.
Dr. Malak stopped when they were fully in the room, as the doors closed behind them, and then she turned toward one of the nearby desks, where a man who looked like he might have been about Timothy’s mother’s age sat, apparently entering information into a computer. Timothy wondered if this man was a doctor. He didn’t have a stethoscope, but he wore a scrub top.
As Timothy scanned the room, trying and failing to make out some sign of his mother, Dr. Malak said, “Hey, Tony, do you know who got assigned to the young woman with the CVA? This is her son, they’ll probably want to talk to him.”
The man looked up, a surprisingly deferential look on his face, and he said, “Sure thing, Dr. Malak,” as he clicked on his mouse and looked at his screen. “Right, right,” he said, as if berating himself for not remembering on his own. “That’s Dr. Parson. I think she was somewhere in the back, and so was he. Bed twenty-four, looks like.”
“Thanks,” Dr. Malak quickly said. Then, nodding to Timothy, she said, “Follow me,” and strode off along the right pseudo-hallway of the massive room, heading toward the rear.
As they walked, Timothy was barely able to focus on any one thing. There were many beeps and buzzes going on around, as well as some occasional, thankfully distant, sounds of pain and distress, presumably from patients. He wondered, idly, trying not to think of anything too important, whether bed twenty-four would be one of the higher-numbered beds in the area or one of the lower. For all he could tell, the ER might have room for hundreds or even thousands of patients.
Despite that impression, it took only a few seconds’ walking at Dr. Malak’s intimidating pace for them to reach the apparent back of the room, but then they turned right and came to a completely new area of the ER, one that, for all Timothy could tell, was as big as the first. There were too many people in and around the walls and the workstations for Timothy to make much sense of it, and he started to feel dizzy in a completely different way from before. He could feel that his mouth had dropped open, because his tongue felt quite dry already, but he didn’t bother to close it.
Dr. Malak walked along until they came to an alcove, or whatever one was supposed to call such makeshift enclosures, with wide open curtains and no bed. Looking up past the mounted instruments on the wall and the carts and rolling table near them, Timothy saw a small placard with the number “24” clearly written on it.
Where was his mother? There wasn’t even a bed here.
Dr. Malak, having seen just what Timothy had seen, craned her head around, then suddenly she called out, “Hey, Carl!”
Not too far away, Timothy saw a young man who was standing by a sort of workstation area, leaning against a modest counter and looking at what seemed to be some form of computer or tablet. This person was probably about the same age as Dr. Malak, and he had a stethoscope much like hers around his neck, but he wore a longish white coat over his scrubs.
He looked up when Dr. Malak spoke, but she was already walking toward him, and Timothy was following her. Not smiling, but looking at least not displeased to see her, this young man, apparently named Carl, said, “Hey, Eliza. What’s up?”
Drawing near and then stopping, Dr. Malak said, “Hi. This is your patient’s son. The woman from 24, the youngish woman who was brought if for a stroke? I figured you’d want to talk to him, and obviously, he’d want to talk to you.”
“Oh,” this young man blinked, obviously having been drawn away from something that required concentration. “Oh, you’re Ms. Outlaw’s son?”
Timothy, surprised to hear the title “Ms.” applied to his mother, blinked in return and nodded, saying, “Yes. Yes, I am. I’m Timothy Outlaw.” Then, after a moment, he asked, “Where’s my mom?” Though he couldn’t be too very much younger than the person he was talking to, he felt small and childlike indeed.
The man had already put his tablet down, and he held up a calming hand, saying, “She been taken back to CT so they can get a look at her brain and make sure there’s no bleeding before the think about using clot busters on her.” Then, after a moment, seeming to realize he’d been remiss, the man said, “Oh, I’m Dr. Parson, by the way.”
Timothy had guessed that much, and he had to restrain himself from stupidly repeating his own name in response. Before he could say more, Dr. Malak interrupted, saying, “I’m gonna go back and finish my charting, okay?” It didn’t really sound like she thought she needed permission, but she still turned to Timothy and smiled, saying, “Don’t worry. Your mother is in very good hands.”
Dr. Parson—apparently—smiled at this compliment, nodded at Dr. Malak and said, “Thanks.” Then, without any further ceremony, Dr. Malak strode off at her strong pace.
Timothy barely noticed her leaving. He said, “How is she? How’s my mom?”
Dr. Parson looked mildly hesitant for a very brief moment, then he gave a bit of a smile and said, “Well, her vital signs are perfectly stable and good, EKG is normal, all that good stuff. Her Chem Seven is all that’s back from the lab so far, but her electrolytes and glucose and kidney function all look perfect. So that’s all good.”
Timothy didn’t know specifically what all that meant, especially the last part, but he got the impression that Dr. Parson was giving him the good news before giving him the bad news. He didn’t like that much, because there was the implied bad news to follow, and to avoid putting off the blow, he asked, “Then what’s wrong with her?”
Dr. Parson sighed and said, “Well, it looks like she might’ve had a stroke.”
Before the man could say more, Timothy asked, “What is a stroke?”
Nodding, apparently glad to be speaking of something technical, Dr. Parson said, “Well, a stroke is caused by either bleeding, or—more likely—a blood clot in the brain. It’s a little bit like a…well, anyway, it’s obviously serious, but when it’s caught very early, if it’s a clot, the process can often be stopped and corrected, so no permanent damage is done. So it’s very good that she was brought here so quickly.”
“Damage?” Timothy asked. “What kind of…what do you mean?” He was beginning to feel wobbly again.
“It’s okay,” Dr. Parson said, apparently recognizing that Timothy was within a hair’s breadth of being utterly blown over by these notions. “We’ve already got the stroke team involved. They’re waiting for the initial CT scan of her head. She’d probably be in the scanner already, but there was a pretty big car accident on the interstate about half an hour ago, and they’ve had to do emergency scans on more than one person…” He looked glum and morose about this. Timothy, weirdly, took that as a good sign. This doctor was not jaded about people being hurt; he was not overly detached. He cared.
Surely that would have to be a good thing.
Something about what the doctor had said, though, rang a bell for Timothy. He remembered his own workup for possible seizures and tumors and whatnot, and he remembered how they had looked into his own brain. He asked, “Are they gonna do one of those…those MRI things of her brain?”
Dr. Parson looked pleased by Timothy’s knowledge, but he shook his head and said, “Well, not yet. The CT is our initial choice, partly because we don’t know her medical history yet, and so we don’t know whether she might have anything metal in her body. Younger people who have strokes sometimes have them because of heart problems, and people with rhythm problems can have pacemakers or implanted defibrillators, and those do not like being in giant magnets. Also, to be honest, CT scanners do an excellent job of showing fresh blood, so it’s easy to see if there’s been any…”
The doctor tapered off, apparently realizing that he might be saying things that were too graphic. Timothy wondered if his own face had gone pale; it felt like it might have, but he could hardly be sure. The idea of fresh blood in his mother’s brain was horrifying. Could the attack by the monster from his mind have drawn blood? Was that possible?
“But, speaking of all that,” Dr. Parson said, actually blushing just a bit as he caught himself in his momentary lack of tact, “it’s good that you’re here. We have no medical history from your mother, and she’s still just a little bit confused, so we’re…well, not sure we’ve got much from her yet.”
“She’s…confused?” Timothy asked. “What do you mean? Confused about what?”
“Well…what I mean is, she’s a little…well, out of it, I guess,” Dr. Parson said. “There was apparently some sign of seizure activity, so the EMTs gave her a bit of a push of Ativan. That’s a medicine that calms the brain down, which is a good thing in these cases, honestly, because the less active the brain is, the less energy it uses, and the less any blood flow problem can…well, anyway, it’s good. But she’s probably also groggy from the event, and she’s got a bit of modest left hand and mouth weakness, it looks like. It’s not clear, though, that could all be residua from whatever happened.”
Not following much of the doctor’s words, but trying not to get impatient, Timothy said, “What did happen to her? I mean…I mean what happened to her…her brain?”
Dr. Parson looked like he wanted to give a blanket reassurance; Timothy respected the fact that he didn’t go with that and instead replied, “Well, we’ll know more once we get the scan. It doesn’t look too bad, thankfully, and she’s in the right place, so that’s all good. But I wanted to try to find out why this might’ve happened.”
Timothy felt a brief surge of guilty panic. Had the doctor sensed that something of this had been because his mother had been attacked by a monster from deep within the mind of her son? Was his culpability obvious and implicit? What would they do about it?
“What…what do you mean?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound too guilty, but then berating himself for trying to avoid blame. If his mother was suffering because of him, then it was right that he be condemned; it was right that he should suffer.
“Well…medical history-wise,” Dr. Parson responded, looking anything but accusatory, “does your mother have any long-term health problems that might affect this? Any heart problems, valve replacements, rhythm disturbances, clotting disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes…anything like that?”
Timothy didn’t really have to try to follow all the things the doctor was asking, because he was readily able simply to say, “No. She…she doesn’t have any real medical problems. I mean, she gets a cold once in a while, like everyone, and a couple of years ago she got the flu pretty bad and had to take a couple of days off work. She hated that. But otherwise…no. She never gets sick, and never needs to go to the doctor much.”
Dr. Parson appeared to make a few notes, typing quickly at the screen of the tablet he’d set down. “And does she have a primary doctor?”
Timothy was slightly at a loss here. He didn’t know if his mother had a regular doctor she saw for those times when she needed more than home remedies. If she went to regular appointments, she must have done it during otherwise normal working days, and she didn’t talk about it. He didn’t want to stonewall, though, and so he said the first thing that came to his mind. “She…she sometimes sees Dr. Putnam. I don’t know how often.”
Dr. Parson’s brow furrowed a bit, as he apparently tried to place the name.
Embarrassed and even slightly ashamed, Timothy said, “I…I don’t know his first name. But I know his office number.” And he proceeded to rattle of the number he knew that connected to the receptionist’s desk at his doctor’s medical practice.
Dr. Parson blinked in obvious surprise, then he grabbed a nearby sheet of paper—it looked like it was supposed to be a form of some kind, but the doctor flipped it over to use its back, pulling a pen from his pocket, then said, “Hang on, could you repeat that?”
Timothy did, and Dr. Putnam wrote it down. He looked at Timothy out of the corner of his eye, and Timothy guessed he was wondering why a teenage boy would know a doctor’s number from memory. He said nothing about this, though, but commented, “Thank you, this will be really useful. Do you know if Dr…Putnam has privileges at Saint Theresa’s?”
Timothy, confused, said, “I…don’t know what you mean.”
Giving a self-deprecatory chuckle, Dr. Parson responded, “No, I guess you wouldn’t. Sorry. Stupid question.”
Timothy didn’t know whether it was stupid or not. For all he knew, it was brilliant. But he didn’t really see how any of it related to his mother.
“So…so what’s happening? Where is she? Where’s my mom? Can I see her?”
Dr. Putnam seemed to realize that he’d been insensitive and looked chagrined. He said, “Well, right now she’s waiting outside the CT room. Or she may be in the scanner already. Anyway, you can’t see her just yet, because visitors aren’t allowed in that area. But she will be back pretty soon. If you don’t have any more information about her medical history…or family history?”
Timothy felt his stomach sink, again worrying that the man might suspect his culpability. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, for instance, did either of her parents, or her siblings, or anyone along those lines have any clotting disorders of any kind? Heart conditions, especially congenital ones? Any family history of strokes?”
“Not…not that I know of,” Timothy replied. To be honest, he had little even indirect contact with his mother’s extended family. As far as he knew, she had no siblings, and his maternal grandparents were not much more a part of his life than his paternal ones were. But he’d heard of no such health problems.
Dr. Parson looked only mildly disappointed. With a plain attempt to give a reassuring smile, he said, “Okay, that’s fine. Well, I’m going to call your mother’s doctor’s office, and see if they can get in touch with him or his on-call coverage. I’ll probably get the answering service, but worth a try. In the meantime…” He looked around, but Timothy got the impression this was just for show. “…there’s really no place here in the ER proper for you to wait, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to be. Do you want to wait in the outside waiting room, where it’s quieter, and I’ll come get you when your mother’s back from CT?”
Though it was a question, Timothy got the very clear, though extremely polite, impression that there was really only one right answer to that question. He said, “No, I…I guess I’ll wait out in the waiting room place. It’s…I guess the person who drove me will be there, and she’ll probably wonder where I am.”
He felt vague and empty and confused, and he was terrified for his mother, but he knew that he, of all people, deserved no special dispensation when it came to waiting for her. It was his fault that she was here.
“Okay, well…fair enough,” Dr, Parson said, and he looked sad to have to have Timothy forced to leave, which Timothy appreciated. “I will come and get you as soon as your mother gets back from the CT, okay? And if you think of anything else that might be useful, please try to remember it or write it down. No one knows what might…” He caught himself up short and quickly tapped himself on the forehead and asked, “Oh, and by the way…does your mother smoke? I forgot to ask.”
“No,” Timothy said. “Never.”
“Good,” Dr. Parson commented, though he looked oddly disappointed, as if one potential puzzle piece had been found to be useless. “That’s good. Well…do you remember the way out?”
“Yeah,” Timothy said, surprised that the question needed asking. “Sure.”
“Okay,” Dr. Parson said. “Well, then, I’ll see you very soon, once she comes back. And don’t worry. Dr. Malak’s right, your mother’s in good hands, and they aren’t just mine. The stroke team is top-notch, and so is everyone here at Saint Theresa’s.”
Timothy nodded, not sure what the proper response to such calculated boasting, clearly designed to reassure him, and so suspect in its accuracy, would be. Without another word to the young doctor, he turned and shambled his way back, much more slowly than he had come, toward the front of the emergency room.
He found Rhonda already there in the waiting area. She was standing in a fairly open section and craning her neck to see the various people in the seats, but when the door to the ER proper opened up, she seemed to hear it and turned to see Timothy.
She walked toward him, moving more quickly than he was, and as soon as they were close enough, she asked, “How’s your mother? Is she in there?” She nodded toward the doors through which Timothy had just come.
Timothy, looking back as if to confirm just what place Rhonda meant, said, “Well…she’s not right there right now. I guess they have her back in the…scanner area, whatever they called it.”
“Is she getting an MRI?” Rhonda asked.
Turning back to look at her, surprised that she wondered the same thing he had, Timothy said, “No, I guess…they can’t really do those if they don’t know whether somebody’s got metal in them or something. I guess I knew that, from the ones I’ve had, but I didn’t think about it.” Then, remembering a disquieting thing Dr. Parson had said, he added, “I guess the other kind show fresh blood really well, too.”
Rhonda blinked, apparently puzzled by this remark, but she didn’t pursue it, instead asking, “So, did they say she’s…well, did they say how she is? Did you talk to her doctor?”
Timothy looked back toward the doors again, seeing if he could see Dr. Malak, who felt like a more reassuring presence than Dr. Parson had been. She was no longer there; apparently, she’d decided that doing her “charting” there left her too open to being interrupted and had gone somewhere else. Turning back to Rhonda, Timothy said, “Well…I talked to the one who’s taking care of her here, I guess.”
“What did they say?” Rhonda asked. “What happened?”
Timothy took a breath, trying to steady himself. He felt still on the borderline of wobbliness. Too much had happened in the last twenty-four hours—much of it inside his own head, it was true, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t wearing—and he was having a hard time thinking very clearly. “Well,” he said, “I guess she…I guess they think she had a stroke or maybe a seizure, or something like that.”
“They don’t know?” Rhonda asked, her expression making it clear that she knew little more than Timothy did about such things. In fact, given his own experiences with being worked up for biological causes of his anger, Timothy wondered if she might know less.
He shrugged and said, “I think they’re just trying to get enough information to know for sure.” After a second or so, he added, as it popped into his head, “I guess they said her blood tests look good so far.”
“Well…that’s always nice to know, right?” Rhonda said. Then, in the silence that followed, she looked around the seating area.
Timothy thought about what Dr. Parson had said, and he told Rhonda, “Her doctor here said he’s gonna come out and get me as soon as she gets back from the scanner…CT, that’s what it was, a CT scanner, whatever that means. I guess it’s a little like an MRI, I don’t know. Anyway, he said he’d come get me as soon as she got back, so I could go see her.”
Rhonda looked dubious, but she said, “Okay. Well, hopefully that’s true. If it’s not, we’ll make sure to be pushy about it. It’s easy for these people to lose track of what they’ve said they’re going to do.”
Timothy said, “Yeah. I guess they get pretty busy.” Then he added, again just as the thought popped into his mind, “I guess the reason the scan was taking so long was because there was a pretty bad accident nearby somewhere, and they’ve gotta take care of the people who were hurt. It must be a pretty rotten job.”
Rhonda looked surprised by Timothy’s last comment, but she said, “A hard one, at least, anyway. But don’t give them excuses ahead of time, though. You have a right to see your mother, even if there’s a hundred car accidents.”
“Sure,” Timothy said. “But just because someone has rights doesn’t mean they have a right to make other people suffer.”
Rhonda looked puzzled by this comment, but Timothy paid little attention to her reaction. He was now basically staring at the far wall of the waiting area, where a large, colorful, abstract mural was painted, and he was losing his concentration a bit. After a moment, Rhonda asked, “Do you want to sit down? You look pretty…I don’t know, frazzled, which is no surprise to anyone.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Timothy that sitting was an option. It likewise hadn’t occurred to him that sitting was not an option. He hardly felt a coherent thought in his mind, except when he was speaking. Everything else was just a wash of static, which was, at least, better than the mindscape in which he’d encountered the thing from his nightmare again. Looking slightly downward, so that he could see the actual chairs in the seating area, Timothy murmured, “I guess so. If you want.”
“Well, I think you could use it,” Rhonda said. She looked about again, then said, “There’s a couple seats over there, not too far from the entrance, so no one’s gonna miss you if they come out. And you’ll be able to see if your mother’s doctor comes out. You’d recognize them, right?”
As Rhonda steered toward the seats she’d indicated, gesturing Timothy to come along with her, Timothy replied, “I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, if I saw him right now, I’d probably recognize him.”
“That works,” Rhonda said, and she walked a bit more decisively toward the seats. “It’s not like you’ll have to remember him for long. Your mother’s going to be out of here in no time.”
She looked tense—even for her—when she made this last prediction, and Timothy could tell that she didn’t believe her own words. He took them as intended, as a reassurance and a motivator, so he didn’t hold her exaggeration against her. She was just trying to make him worry less if it was at all was possible. He wasn’t sure it was. Who knew what might have happened to his mother, or be happening to her? Who knew what damage the monster’s attack could have done?
They sat in two seats, with a third, empty one next to Timothy, and a small table next to Rhonda. There were many other people in the waiting area, but it was nowhere near full. Timothy supposed that was a good thing. While it was wonderful that there were hospitals and emergency rooms, it was also preferable that they not be inordinately busy. The fewer illnesses and injuries there were in the world, the better, he would say.
He leaned back and stared at the ceiling, which was made of collections of rectangular panels with lots of little dots that looked like imperfections in them. It reminded him of the ceiling of his school.
Rhonda, who he could tell out of the corner of his eyes was looking at him closely, asked, “Do you want to try to take a little nap while you wait?”
“No,” Timothy said immediately. “I don’t even want to close my eyes if I can help it.” Who knew if the thing in his mind, now that it had found its way out into the greater world—at least for a moment—would be able to return to his consciousness more readily? He didn’t think it had any external existence of its own; it was clearly just a part of his mind that he had found during meditation. But that didn’t make it any less frightening.
“Okay,” Rhonda said. “Well, rest if you want. I…well, I don’t know what to say, honestly. I want to tell you not to worry, that everything’s gonna be fine, but that’s a little stupid, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Timothy replied, understanding what she meant only too well. It was natural to try to reassure people when things were stressful, but it led people to say foolishly and obviously untrue things to each other. He didn’t quite know why people did such things; it had never been his mother’s habit, nor had it ever been his. But he did appreciate the impulses that drove it, the desire to help each other be as calm and unafraid as it was possible to be. He couldn’t fault people for that. It was certainly better than the impulse so many people had, and so often, to be cruel to each other.
After a long moment of silence, at least between the two of them, Rhonda, stirred a bit and began saying, “You said something in the car to me…” but she was interrupted by a funny little chiming noise, and she jumped in her seat in surprise, making a tiny yelp. Timothy was likewise surprised, more by her reaction than the sound, but he barely moved in response, just looking at her sideways.
Rhonda reached into a pocket in her loose pants, and she pulled out what Timothy thought was an iPhone, or maybe some other brand of smartphone. She looked at its front for a second, apparently to figure out who was calling, then she thumbed the screen, put the phone to her head, and said, “Hello?”
There was a second, apparently as she listened to the other end—Timothy could hear just a bit of the other voice—and then she said, “Hi, Bill. Yeah, I’m here with him. It’s…hang on, just a second.” She pulled the phone away from her head and looked over at Timothy while holding her hand over what might be the microphone on the lower end of the phone, saying, “It’s Bill, from the center. Do you want to talk to him?”
It took Timothy a few seconds to put together that Bill was Mr. McLean, and that “the center” was the Vipassana Center. It took him barely a few more seconds to decide to reply, “No, that’s okay. Sorry.”
Rhonda nodded, but before going back to her conversation, she asked, “Do you…how much do you want me to say about what’s happened?”
Timothy was utterly flummoxed by this question, but he shrugged and replied, “Whatever. Just…tell him whatever he wants to know, I guess. It’s not like it’s private or anything.”
Rhonda’s brow furrowed, and she tilted her head as she looked at Timothy and said, “But, it is, isn’t it?”
Timothy shrugged again and said, “Not that way, it isn’t. He’s…been really good to me. I don’t mind if you tell him what happened. I just…I don’t feel like talking to anyone right now.”
Rhonda nodded, still looking uncertain, but then she went back to the phone as she continued to speak, saying, “Yeah, sorry, Bill. I’m here at Saint Theresa’s Hospital with Timothy. The ambulance had already gotten her by the time we reached McCaffrey’s. I don’t…well, apparently, they told Timothy that they think she might have had a seizure or a stroke…I don’t know, maybe someone can have both. I mean, I don’t get the idea that it was too bad, but it…well, I mean, obviously it’s not a good thing. But I guess her bloodwork looks good.”
This last bit had such an air of clutching at straws to try to say something, anything, that was positive, that it almost made Timothy feel like laughing. He felt mildly guilty about not speaking to Mr. McLean directly, but he simply didn’t feel like trying to communicate over the phone in his current state of mind. It would be too hard not to picture Mr. McLean’s face with a worried expression.
It would also be too hard not to visualize the broken clock, and to remember the cold in the meditation room, and in his own bedroom the night before. He didn’t want to think about any of that. Not right now. Maybe never.
Now, Rhonda glanced back over at him before continuing, “Well, I mean, he’s doing as well as anyone can be, I’d say. In fact, I’d say he’s tough as fucking nails, pardon my French. I mean, obviously, he’s stressed out, but he’s already talked to the ER doctor, and I guess they’ve got his mom in for a CT scan right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” After a pause, she said, “No, no, I drove him out here, and I’ll stick around as long as he needs me to. I’ve got nothing else going on today, anyway. No, I don’t think he really wants to talk right now. Maybe after he talks to his mom.” She looked at him with an obvious question on her face as she made this comment, as if to ascertain that it was correct, and Timothy responded with a combined shrug and nod.
“Okay,” Rhonda said. “Thanks for calling. I’ll keep you posted.” Then she disconnected the call and said to Timothy, “Well, Bill sends his good thoughts, obviously, and he says that the class is all there for you if need anything.”
Timothy, only idly caring about the answer, asked, “How could the rest of the class want to be there for me? I only just met them.”
He was a little worried Rhonda might take his comment as rude, but she chuckled as if completely understanding his point. “Yeah, well…I mean, I’m sure that if you did need something, they’d do what they could, but I think he really means he’s there if you need anything.”
This Timothy could well believe, but he hardly wanted to impose any on Mr. McLean, since the man had already been giving him instruction free of charge.
“Thanks,” Timothy said, in response to what he figured was Rhonda’s true estimate of Mr. McLean’s meaning.
“Don’t thank me,” Rhonda said, with a slightly forced smile. “I’m just the messenger.”
After a moment, realizing that he had indeed been slightly rude in his original intended meaning, Timothy responded, “Well, no. Thanks for driving me and waiting here with me and everything. You didn’t have to do that.”
Rhonda seemed slightly embarrassed, but she said, “That’s not a problem. It’s nothing, believe me.”
“Maybe not to you, but it is to me,” Timothy said. Rhonda didn’t respond, and Timothy was just as happy that she didn’t. He wanted just to clear his mind if he could, just to relax and let all his thoughts slip away. He felt as tired as he could remember feeling. At least some part of that was probably because he hadn’t eaten yet that day, but there was certainly much more to it than that. In any case, he didn’t have the slightest interest in eating or drinking anything, and if Rhonda brought it up, he would have told her so.
She did look for a moment as though she was considering saying something else, and she seemed almost nervous about it—which made it seem unlikely to be about food—but she appeared to decide to leave whatever subject alone, and instead turned to look at her smartphone. Timothy had no idea what she might be doing on it, but he supposed the hospital probably had public Wi-Fi, so she could really be doing nearly any web-related thing.
He wanted to clear his head, but he didn’t want to close his eyes, and he didn’t want to focus on his breathing, or do any of the other vipassana-related techniques he knew. He was afraid that, if he started to meditate, he would become caught up in the seductive flow of whatever had drawn him before and be brought to the same place in his mind where what was apparently a very dark part of him resided. It was true that he wasn’t angry now, the way he had been when he’d begun the meditation—it was even hard to consider being angry at the monster, since it was plainly just a part of him, really—but he wasn’t sure whether something else could lead him to find that awful thing within him or not.
He knew that to consider it a real phenomenon was borderline insane, but that didn’t impair his thoughts too much. He’d known for a long time that at least some aspects of his character were outside his ready control, and if that didn’t constitute insanity, at least in some sense, he wasn’t sure what did. His mind was clearly not entirely his friend. Or, at least, some parts of his mind were not friendly with other parts.
He tried not to think about the clock in the Vipassana Center, or about how cold it had gotten there, as it had in his room the night before. He studiously avoided even checking to see if there was a clock on the wall of the Emergency Room waiting area. Instead, he looked at the little specks or dots or faults in the ceiling panels and tried to distract himself by seeing if he could count how many there were in a given rectangle.
It was difficult to keep track of which ones he had already counted, since they were in no discernible pattern. That was fine, though. That made the process more distracting. He wanted distraction. He wanted to think of nothing important, but at the same time not to be in any mindful state, for as long as he was forced to wait for the doctor to come call him.
It was hard to tell how long he waited, but it was certainly more than just a few minutes. Rhonda kept silent, and was admirably still, though her phone no doubt helped with that, but finally he began to sense her getting fidgety, and he wondered how soon she would choose to recommend that they pester the ER doctors about his mother. He hoped to avoid that, if he could, though if it became necessary, he would do it. These people were taking care not just of his mother, but of numerous other people, all of whom were in various degrees of pain and suffering, some of whom might even be dying. It wouldn’t be right to intrude on them unnecessarily.
Before the point came to a head, he was startled by the sound of someone calling his name, “Timothy,” as if trying to get his attention. He looked toward the ER entrance, expecting to see Dr. Parson sticking his head out through the automatic doors, but they were closed, and no one was near them. Also, the voice sounded vaguely familiar to him, and he didn’t think Dr. Parson’s voice, or the voice of the man from the front of the ER, would be that way.
His confusion must have been obvious, because Rhonda nudged him and nodded toward the outer doors of the emergency room. Looking in that direction, Timothy was surprised to see Dr. Putnam walking toward him, looking quite concerned. Though he wore the long coat that Timothy had seen him wear before, but which he often seemed to eschew in his office, underneath it he wore what looked like a polo shirt and pale, casual trousers.
Timothy knew that the young doctor in the ER had said that he was going to call Dr. Putnam, but he hadn’t expected to see the man. Blinking, he rose to his feet, even as Dr. Putnam reached him, and Rhonda rose to hers next to him.
“Dr. Putnam,” Timothy greeted, almost unsure that he wasn’t dreaming. “I…I guess they called you.”
Stopping and standing a few feet away, not offering his hand, but looking supremely concerned and intense, Dr. Putnam replied, “Yes, they did. Or rather, one of the ER doctors called my answering service. I’m not on call this weekend, but the service knows me, and they conveyed the message to me instead of the covering doctor. I don’t actually have admitting privileges here, but they’ll be more than happy to let me kibitz. So, what happened? Have you seen your mother yet? Have they finished the CAT scan?”
Caught off-guard, Timothy said, “I…I don’t know. I guess not. They haven’t…she wasn’t in the emergency room when I went in, but the guy said he would come and get me when she got back.” Then, realizing suddenly that Rhonda was next to him, and almost being able to feel her vibrating with tensions and curiosity, he gestured toward her and said, “This is Rhonda. She’s in the Vipassana class. She…she drove me here when I found out what had happened.”
“Hello there,” Dr. Putnam said, polite but not distracted by the young woman’s presence. Remaining focused on Timothy, he asked, “So, what exactly did happen?”
“Well…I mean, as far as I know, my mom was in a bookstore while I was there at the meditation class, and she had a…a kind of attack or something.” He regretted the word “attack” almost immediately, since it reminded him of the imagined, literal attack he had experienced against his mother in his mind. He turned his thoughts away from that and back to Dr. Putnam, saying, “I guess they thought she had a…a stroke or a seizure or something. They called an ambulance and they brought her here.”
Dr. Putnam frowned, but he nodded also, saying, “Yes, that agrees with the message that I got. It’s…well, it’s quite surprising. Has your mother had any such thing before?”
“Not…no,” Timothy said, at first intending to hedge, but then realizing that there was no need. His mother had never experienced any major health issues he’d ever known of, and something like that would have come to his attention.
“And does she have high blood pressure, or any other…risk factors for vascular disease? Any family history?” Dr. Putnam asked.
“Not that I ever knew,” Timothy replied. “As far as I know, she doesn’t take any medicine on any kind of regular basis or anything. Just like some Tylenol sometimes, but not very often…unless she takes it at work, I guess. I don’t know anything about her family history. We’re not real close with my grandparents, ‘cause they live a long way away, and…and I guess they sometimes don’t get along.”
“I see,” Dr. Putnam said, still frowning.
Rhonda, who had been silent, having only waved when she’d been introduced to Dr. Putnam, began to speak up, saying, “There was one kind of odd thing, though, Timothy. You found out about what happened…”
She was interrupted as the powered doors of the inner emergency room opened and Timothy heard a voice called, “Uh…is the family of Marisa Outlaw here?”
Timothy turned toward the source of the question, as did Rhonda and Dr. Putnam. He briefly expected the man from in the ER, whose name he thought he remembered as Tony, to be the one calling, but he quickly saw that it was indeed the Dr. Parson, who was coming to call him in, just as he had promised.
Or so he assumed.
“Here,” Timothy said, feeling almost as if he were answering roll call in school.
Dr. Parson’s eyes lit up when he saw Timothy, and he smiled a surprisingly broad smile. He stepped out through the doors, allowing them to close, and he took in the picture of Rhonda and Dr. Putnam standing there with Timothy as he approached. As he got closer, he said, “It was Timothy, right? Sorry, I forgot to write it down.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Timothy said. “Is my mom back from the scan thing?”
Nodding as he drew up close, coming to a stop within a few feet of the group, Dr. Parson said, “Yes, she is. And I have some good news.” Before he revealed whatever the news was, he turned to Dr. Putnam, whose greater height made him look more significantly senior to the young doctor than even their plainly different ages, and he held out a hand, saying, “I’m Dr. Parson. I’m the medical resident assigned to Ms. Outlaw while she’s in the ER.”
Nodding, Dr. Putnam took and shook the proffered hand quickly, saying, “And I’m Dr. Putnam. I’m Mrs. Outlaw’s primary care provider.”
“I thought you might be,” Dr. Parson said, looking pleased. “I wasn’t sure if they would even call you in or a covering doctor in today. Are you going to be assuming care for her here?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have privileges here,” Dr. Putnam said. Timothy was puzzled by the repeated use of that term, but he decided he didn’t want to pursue more information for now. “I’ll be letting the house staff, or the hospitalists, or whatever your usual protocol is do the main care, but if you don’t mind, I’ll be…hovering.”
“Not a problem at all,” Dr. Parson said. “They’ll assign her to the on-call team upstairs—they’re also medical residents, with interns and students and an attending physician, of course—but I know they’ll be happy to bow to your preferences. It is a teaching hospital, after all.”
“Thank you,” Dr. Putnam said. Timothy was practically itching to interrupt and ask the men to get to the point, but apparently Dr. Putnam understood this already, because he said, “So…how was the CT, and how is Mrs. Outlaw? You look like someone bringing good news.”
“You’re very perceptive,” Dr. Parson responded with a smile. Turning to share his gaze between Timothy and Dr. Putnam, he said, “The preliminary reading on the CT scan has come back completely normal. No sign of bleeding, no early evidence of any infarct, nothing but a textbook normal head CT. And the rest of her labs are also all nicely within normal limits.”
Timothy supposed this was indeed all good news, but it puzzled him. It also frightened him, because if everything was normal, then any problem really was his fault. Hoping to find some other explanation, he asked, “But…if everything’s normal, then…then how could my mom have a…a stroke? Or a seizure?”
Smiling still, Dr. Parson replied, “Well, a seizure is still a question, but as for a stroke, I’m very happy to say that the left facial and hand weakness has resolved itself. She’s still a tiny bit groggy but is alert and oriented and doesn’t appear to have any lasting sequelae.”
Timothy was flummoxed, but Dr. Putnam nodded, looking at least modestly pleased. “So, it was a TIA?” he asked.
“Looks like it,” Dr. Parson replied.
The two men looked pleased, so Timothy thought this must be in some way good news, but he was quite confused. He asked, “What’s a TIA?”
Dr. Putnam replied, “It’s short for ‘transient ischemic attack’, which probably doesn’t tell you much more, there. But what it is, essentially, is a stroke that started…but then resolved itself. Meaning that there was, at least for a short period, an interruption of blood flow to some portion of the brain, usually a blood clot of some kind, but that the blood flow was restored by the body’s normal clot-resolving mechanisms before any permanent damage was done.”
Timothy thought he understood what Dr. Putnam meant. He was certainly no dummy, and of course, he’d read more than was usual for someone his age about medical matters regarding the brain. He wasn’t absolutely sure he understood it all. Nevertheless, he felt a significant lightening of his spirits, and he said, “So…so she’s fine? She can come home?” He had visions of his mother soon walking out of the emergency room, embarrassed by the incident, thanking Rhonda for bringing Timothy to the hospital, and then—still embarrassed—asking if she could give them a lift back to her car, which Rhonda would gladly do. Then, she and Timothy would go home, and his mother would relish the fact that, since it was Saturday, she could simply rest for the evening and the next day.
The look on Dr. Parson’s face in response to Timothy’s question deflated him somewhat. “Well,” he said, “we wouldn’t want her to go home just yet. You see, though she is fine, and there’s no need to give her clot-busting drugs of any kind right now, she did have a TIA, that seems clear.”
“Okay,” Timothy said. “But you said it’s gone now, right?”
“Well, this one is,” said Dr. Putnam now, clearly following the train of reasoning the younger doctor was trying to explain. “But it shouldn’t have happened, especially to someone as young and healthy as your mother. It’s always possible that it could have been a fluke, but that’s the diagnosis of exclusion. They’ll want to check for possible causes, because if another one were to happen, it might not resolve itself, and it might be worse.”
Timothy was feeling as if he were on a bit of a minor emotional roller-coaster, but he wanted to try to understand what they meant, and he wanted—he hoped—to rule out his own troubling guess about the cause of things. “So,” he asked, “what…what does all that mean, what are they going to do?”
Dr. Putnam glanced at Dr. Parson, apparently to see whether the younger doctor wanted to take the lead in the explanation, but Dr. Parson made a small gesture of deference, not looking in the slightest disgruntled to be giving the older man the place of prominence. Timothy idly thought that he liked the man’s attitude, even as Dr. Putnam said, “Well, I imagine they’ll probably want to do a carotid ultrasound, and an echocardiogram, both of those looking for sources of possible clots. You’ve heard of the ultrasounds they do to examine babies while a mother is still pregnant, haven’t you?”
After a few seconds’ thought, Timothy said, “Yeah, I think so,” but he didn’t think he’d ever seen what one was. “Is that…is that a big deal?”
“Not really,” Dr. Putnam said. “It’s non-noninvasive. They just put a little…well, a handheld device against someone’s skin, and it sends out sound waves that bounce off internal structures and come back, depending on the density of the tissue, and using some frankly amazing computing technology, it constructs a live-action image of the structures underneath. Nowadays, they even have ultrasound probes that can work with smartphones, or so I’m led to understand. I’ve never tried one.”
He smiled in Dr. Parson’s direction, and the younger man said, “I’ve seen them, but the ones we have here are quite a bit higher end than those, at least.”
“Good to know,” Dr. Putnam replied with a chuckle. Then, focusing back on Timothy, he said, “In any case, they’ll look for a possible source of clots in the heart, in the carotid arteries, and…well, probably they’ll look at your mother’s leg veins, because it’s rarely possible for clots to break loose from there and go through a PFO to go to the brain. But that would depend on the echo results, too, I guess.”
“Yeah, I think they’ll probably wait and see if there’s any evidence of that for any need to do the other,” Dr. Parson replied. “And we’ll also check her blood for any coagulopathies…that is, any clotting disorders that might be present. Obviously, she wouldn’t have any major ones without having known about it already, but there are some minor ones that can be less obvious. We’ve already got her CBC back, and she’s got a normal white count and differential, normal platelets, and isn’t anemic or anything, so neither infection nor anything related looks like it could be a cause.”
“Of course,” Dr. Putnam said. “Good point. And, of course, since there was a report of some seizure activity—maybe—I’m sure they’ll do an EEG, since local fatigue in brain cells from a seizure could cause a TIA-like picture. You’re familiar with EEGs, though, eh, Timothy?”
Timothy was not following much of what the two men were saying. He got the impression that Dr. Putnam was enjoying “talking shop” with the younger doctor, and though he appreciated the bone thrown his way by the last question, he was becoming slightly impatient—though, thankfully, not angry in any sense. “So,” he asked, “what does all that stuff mean?”
Dr. Putnam immediately sobered his expression a bit, and Dr. Parson followed his lead, then the younger doctor took over the explanation, saying, “Well, it means she’s probably going to need to stay in the hospital for a few days. Since tomorrow’s Sunday, some of the tests might not get done as quickly as they would otherwise. But then, I strongly suspect, she’ll be able to go home and be just fine.”
Timothy wasn’t sure if the man really felt so optimistic or was trying simply to buck him up a bit, but Dr. Putnam was nodding along with him, so maybe he was being straightforward. After a moment, he asked, “So…so, what happens now, then?”
“Well, now,” Dr. Parson replied, “if you want, you can come and say hello to your mother. She was asking about you, and she seemed surprised and happy that you were here. I think she’s slightly overwhelmed, as I’m sure you are, and it’ll be good for you to give each other a little support.”
Timothy wasn’t sure he would have put things that way himself but agreed with the sentiment.
Meanwhile, Dr. Putnam asked, “Mind if I tag along? I’ll hang out of the way until they’ve said hello.”
“Of course, please come,” Dr. Parson said. “I don’t think you really needed to ask.” There was a moment as he glanced over at Rhonda, who was obviously with the group, but who had kept politely silent during the whole exchange.
Seeing the eyes on her, Rhonda held up her right hand and said, “I think I’ll just…wait out here. I mean, I’ve met Timothy’s mother and everything, but it’s not like we’re close enough that she’d want me to visit her in the hospital or anything. It’s okay, I’ve got my smartphone here to pass the time.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Parson. “There are charging stations along some of the walls, so if you use up your battery, there shouldn’t be any trouble recharging it. And if you don’t have a charging cord, they sell them in the gift shop…for only a few times the normal price anywhere else.” He made this last claim with a sardonic smile, and Rhonda chuckled.
As they turned to head toward the ER entrance, Timothy made sure to say, “Thank you, again,” to Rhonda.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, seeming quite sincere. “I’ll be waiting here whenever you come back out.” She backed up and returned to the seat she had occupied before.
Dr. Parson activated the swinging double-door to the ER proper, and he led Timothy back toward the rear, side section where they had met. Dr. Putnam walked alongside Timothy, his gaze darting left and right, apparently taking in the view of this emergency room, larger and a bit more chaotic than the one in which he and Timothy had met.
They rounded the bend and walked toward the area where bed twenty-four was, and Timothy saw that the curtain around the space had been drawn a bit, so that he couldn’t see his mother as he approached. He had a terrifying notion that they would arrive, and that Dr. Parson would fling back the curtain with a sadistic smile—one shared by Dr. Putnam—and reveal that Timothy’s mother was actually dead, and show him her already decaying body, laughing at his horrified surprise.
Of courses, nothing of that sort happened, and Timothy berated himself for his morbid thoughts.
What did happen was in some ways almost as bad.
Dr. Parson spoke as he approached the bed area, saying, “Hi, Mrs. Outlaw. Your son is here to see you, and so is your regular doctor.”
Dr. Putnam held back near the center of the area, where the desks were, and Timothy cleared the edge of the curtain. He saw his mother there, with her head elevated with the upper part of the bed on which she lay. She wore a hospital gown, which they must have changed her into before taking her to get her CT scan—he knew you couldn’t wear regular clothes for MRIs because of the magnets, so he figured there must be similar issues with CT scans, but he didn’t know for sure. As he came into her view, and she came into his, he could see that her expression was happy but embarrassed, that she was trying to put on a stoic smile to hide her possible shame.
But then she looked at Timothy and her expression changed. She looked surprised, then puzzled.
Timothy stopped. “Hey, Mom,” he said. “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”
His mother didn’t say anything in response. She looked at him with a perplexed expression rapidly growing into one of alarm. Her eyes widened and her eyebrows contracted downward, her mouth opening slightly. There was no sign of any irregularity or weakness in her face, which Timothy guessed matched what the doctor had said, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen her with quite this look on her face.
She looked frightened, confused, stunned…and she began to look hostile.
Dr. Parson looked between her and Timothy, obviously a bit puzzled, and Timothy, who had meant to go to her side, stood at the foot of her bed.
“Mom?” he said. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
His mother seemed to be trying to make sense of something that was completely dumbfounding her. But Timothy could not imagine what it might be. He felt tempted to look behind himself to see if something bizarre had appeared there, but he knew there was only the rest of the ER. He had seen it seconds before.
His mother’s expression of fear and astonishment hardened, and she seemed to steel herself. She was clearly trying to be stern, but her voice shook as she asked, “Who are you?”
Timothy blinked. He thought he must have heard her wrong. “What?” he asked.
“Who are you?” his mother repeated, more aggressively. “What have you done with my Timothy?”
It was the sort of thing Timothy had seen done as a joke in sitcoms and movies, when people acted in ways that were outside their typical character, and other people jokingly pretended to think they were imposters. But there was nothing jokey about his mother’s face or voice, and Timothy certainly didn’t find her question funny.
Timothy sensed Dr. Putnam coming forward behind him, drawing closer, and heard the man say, “I’m not sure what you mean, Mrs. Outlaw. This is Timothy, your son. Who else would it be?”
Timothy’s mother looked at Dr. Putnam, clearly recognizing him. “Dr. Putnam,” she said. “What’s…what are you talking about? I’m…no, you’re wrong. That’s…that’s not…he looks like Timothy, I can see that, but…but that’s not my son. I know my son, and that’s not him.” Turning back to Timothy, she became more aggressive, raising her voice just slightly, and asking again, “What have you done with Timothy?”
Timothy felt the rest of the world fading out in his vision, and he could only see his mother’s form and her drawn, hostile, suspicious face, looking at him with an expression such as he’d never seen her bear before. She looked terrified, and because of her fear, she looked hostile and defensive. He could not understand.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Mom, it’s me.” He took a step toward her.
“Stay away from me!” she shouted, and several nearby heads turned. Dr. Parson flinched in clear surprise. “Don’t you come near me, you…whoever you are. You’re not my Timothy, and I don’t want you anywhere near me! What have you done with Timothy? Where’s my Timothy?”
Timothy could not comprehend what was happening. How could his mother not know who he was? How could she think he wasn’t himself? He’d had doubts and confusions about many things in his life, but his knowing his mother and his mother knowing him were facts that were as secure as laws of nature.
“Mom,” he said. “It’s me! I’m Timothy. Look at me!” He spread his arms wide as if to give her a better view.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, though she did not take her eyes off him. “No. I know you look like Timothy. I can see that. And you may have done a good enough job to fool Dr. Putnam, but you’re not fooling me. I know you’re an…an imposter. You’re not my Timothy.”
“What?” Timothy asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He felt he could hardly breathe.
Dr. Parson, looking as though he was thinking very quickly, asked, “Mrs. Outlaw…what is it that makes you think this isn’t Timothy?”
She looked at him, then back at Timothy, and she said, “It’s obvious. I mean, it’s obvious. Maybe not to you, you’ve never met Timothy before, but…but that’s not my son.”
“Does he…look different? Is he the wrong height, wearing the wrong clothes, are his eyes the wrong color? What is it that makes you say it’s not Timothy? Dr. Putnam seems to think it’s him.”
“No,” Timothy’s mother said, her voice absolutely certain, almost aggressively so. “No, that’s not…he looks almost exactly like Timothy, it’s not that. I don’t know…I can see why he might fool even Dr. Putnam, but it’s not him. I just know it. I know my son. I know my Timothy. And that is not him!”
The look she gave Timothy was one of pure hostility, though he could tell it was born of fear as much as anything else. He felt the world had been yanked from beneath his feet, and had he begun to fall through the floor as if it were as immaterial as mist, he could hardly have been more surprised.
Dr. Putnam and Dr. Parson exchanged astonished looks, but they were not as astonished as Timothy would have expected them to be. Dr. Parson, apparently very quick on his figurative feet, said, “Give us just a minute, Mrs. Outlaw. We need to…to look into this. I’m going to draw the curtain.”
“Where are you going?” she asked. She looked like she was about to sit up in her bed. “I need to find Timothy. What have you done with Timothy?” This last demanding question was directed at Timothy himself.
“Just stay right there, Mrs. Outlaw,” Dr. Parson said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.” He gestured Timothy backward, and Timothy obeyed, allowing the young doctor to pull the curtain almost completely around his mother, who also obeyed the doctor. Timothy’s last look at her face, as she regarded him with horror and hostility was perhaps the worst thing he’d ever seen, and he was glad when the curtain obscured her expression.
Dr. Putnam laid a calming hand on his shoulder, and he said, “Let’s go someplace a little ways away.” Timothy wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Dr. Parson or to himself, but Dr. Parson nodded and led the way toward a currently unoccupied area of the ER, where it looked like maybe another patient bed was supposed to be but wasn’t present now. They were far enough away from Timothy’s mother that she was unlikely to be able to hear them if they spoke in normal voices.
“Well,” Dr. Putnam said with a sigh, “it looks like maybe it’s not entirely just a TIA after all.”
Timothy was too stunned to say anything or even to think about what Dr. Putnam had said.
Dr. Parson said, “It looks like it. It’s that…what was that syndrome, was it…Gaspard’s delusion?”
Dr. Putnam, who looked as though Dr. Parson’s words had triggered a memory, said, “Capgras. Capgras syndrome, or delusion, or whatever the official term was.”
“Right, that’s it,” Dr. Putnam said. “Capgras. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or been around an actual case before.”
“No, well, frankly, neither have I,” Dr. Putnam said. “I remember reading about it in one of Oliver Sacks’s books, and I think it was mentioned in medical school. But even in my neuro clerkship, we never came upon a case.”
“No, well, me neither,” said Dr. Parson. “It’s not very common.”
Timothy finally found his words, though the operation of his own body seemed strangely alien to him, as if he were suddenly plonked into a vehicle made by some other species, or at least made to be used in another country, and was asked to drive it. “What…what are you talking about? What’s wrong with my mom? Why doesn’t she…why was she saying those things?”
Dr. Putnam sighed, and Dr. Parson looked at him as if deferring the conversation to him. The older doctor drew his lips back in a grimace and said, “Well, Timothy, I know you know a bit…more about the workings of a human brain than most people your age. Probably more than most people of any age, to be honest, given what you’ve been through. But you may or may not know that…well, the human brain processes faces differently than it processes other visual information.”
“Huh?” Timothy said, not sure where Dr. Putnam was going, and horribly far from being at his best. He felt as though his very soul had been washed in concentrated bleach and then dried on high heat, to the point where he was barely even present.
“Well, faces are obviously very important to us,” Dr. Putnam went on. “They’re how we recognize each other, after all, whereas for other creatures it might be mainly by scent or by call, or what have you. We’re even prone to see faces when they aren’t there, as when people see faces in clouds, or in shadows, or in the bark of trees or wood grain and so on. But faces are so important to us—and so emotionally salient—that we process information about them in slightly different areas of the brain than we do other things that we see.”
Timothy thought he understood what Dr. Putnam was saying but could not put all of it together. He just nodded.
“And because of the importance of faces, and the emotional content they convey to us, there are particular connections between our processing of faces and our emotional connections with the owners of particular faces, and the more important those people are the stronger they are.”
“Okay,” Timothy said, trying very hard not to be impatient, and finding it easier than he might have otherwise, simply because he felt utterly deflated and all but defeated. There was no clear, coherent train of thought running in his mind. The things that had just happened made no sense at all to him; they were outside the realm of anything that he would ever have considered.
“Well, in any case,” Dr. Putnam said, sounding like he was pushing himself to get to a point he wanted to avoid, “there are rare circumstances in which damage happens specifically to…well, to the parts of the brain that connect the visual processing of faces and the emotional valence of those faces. It can be caused by trauma, or disease, or by…well, by a stroke, for instance, if it’s in just the right place. And when that happens, the person can…well, they can lose the link between their recognition of a face and the emotional connection to it.”
He paused, as if he thought he might have finished his explanation. And maybe, at some other time, in some other circumstances, Timothy would have followed and processed and understood exactly what had been conveyed to him. He was certainly neither slow nor stupid. But he felt very much that his own brain was not working, and he even had a slight doubt that what he was experiencing was even real. It seemed and felt in some ways less believable than his grotesque dream reimagining of his incident with Earl from the previous night.
Dr. Parson, giving a glance at Dr. Putnam , apparently to make sure he wasn’t interrupting and stepping on the more experienced man’s toes, broke in and said, “There are rare cases reported of people having damage to that area of the brain who come to think…well, they can see certain people, and they know they look the way they’re supposed to look, I guess, but they’ve lost the connection to the part of the brain where the feeling of that person is, and so the appearance and the feeling get disconnected, and it’s sort of a…a cognitive dissonance, if you know what that is. And they seem to draw the conclusion that, somehow, this person, who obviously looks like the person they know, usually a loved one—because that’s where the dissonance is most powerful—must be an imposter, taking the place of the person they love. It…well, as I’ve heard about it, it’s been known to happen with spouses and other close family members.”
Between the two men, Timothy thought he was getting the point they were trying to make, but he didn’t like to believe it. “So…so, wait,” he said. “You think…you think my mom thinks that I’m a…a, like, a body-snatcher or something?”
“Well…perhaps, something like that,” Dr. Putnam replied, and he looked profoundly sad.
“But…but that’s crazy,” Timothy said, his near whisper belying the vehemence with which he wanted to deny the possibility. “I mean…I’m me. I’m Timothy. She’s my mom.”
“It’s not crazy, Timothy,” Dr. Putnam said. “It’s…damage. Very specific, very particular damage, in a very particular area of the brain.”
“But…but you guys said that the CT scan thing was normal,” Timothy countered, looking at Dr. Parson now and feeling almost accusatory and betrayed. “You told me she was fine, that there wasn’t a stroke or anything.”
Dr. Parson sighed now, his shoulders slumping, and he said, “Well…it is normal, as far as it goes. Meaning, the CT scan. But it only shows things at a relatively large scale, meaning it can’t see things that might be…well, damage that might be small enough not to be seen. And when they looked, when they read it, they were thinking of a right distal middle cerebral artery stroke possibility. That’s a specific part of the brain that can cause the more obvious signs that your mother seemed to come in with. It’s possible there could be some very small damage to the temporo-parietal area that might be too early to see, or too small to make out without a focused MRI.”
Timothy, not following much of what the man had said, simply grunted, “What?”
Dr. Putnam, giving what looked like a grimace that was trying and failing to be a reassuring smile, said, “What he means is, they don’t look for this kind of damage, and even if they did, a preliminary CT probably wouldn’t even show it. It could be tiny. And, it too could be temporary. This may just be a…a residual, a separate part of a TIA that just hasn’t quite resolved yet.”
This, at least, was something that veered toward being positive, and Timothy seized upon it desperately. “Wait,” he said. “You…you think this might be, like…like what they said she had before, like that face and hand stuff?”
Dr. Parson shrugged, and he said, “It’s possible. I can certainly report that, when she came in, her left hand and the left side of her face, especially around the mouth, were drooping, and she was slurring her words…though some of that could have been effects of meds and even post-ictal effects. But anyway, yes, those were there, and they have resolved already. It’s possible that this may be something that’s gotten…stunned, I guess you might say, but that will go back to normal.”
Trying to think quickly, trying to figure out what should be done if that were possible, Timothy said, “Well, then, should you maybe give her those…those clot breaking things or whatever? I mean, wouldn’t that help?”
It was clear that Dr. Parson was unhappy to disappoint Timothy, but he said, “I’m…afraid that’s not likely to be useful, and the risk would probably outweigh any potential benefit. This isn’t the sort of thing caused by any major arterial blockage. That is, a clot in any large blood vessel going into the brain. Past a certain danger point, there’s more chance of causing a bleeding stroke than correcting one. And on this small a scale…well, maybe aspirin or another platelet med would be useful, but I’m going to leave that to the neuro team…who, actually, I should get in touch with ASAP, now that I think about it. They’re going to want to know about this. But anyway, the point is, this could just be the last, lingering effect of the same event from before, and it may just be taking longer to resolve than the bigger stuff, since that was closer to the…well, the main route of blood flow, would be one way to put it.”
“So…so how long would it take?” Timothy asked. He didn’t want to allow himself to feel optimistic, but he was unable to help but feel desperate for this situation to correct itself.
Dr. Parson looked hesitant to make any guesses, which Timothy, without even thinking, found raised his opinion of the man. He didn’t like people who just told people things that they wanted to hear, especially about important matters. He glanced at Dr. Putnam, who gave a tiny shrug, and then the younger doctor said, “It’s very hard to say. Though, of course, the general rule is, if something hasn’t resolved within about twenty-four hours, it’s more likely to be a stroke than a TIA.”
Timothy looked around the walls for a clock, but that led him to flash back to what had happened in the Vipassana center, and he decided not to bother with the specific time. He didn’t know exactly when the attack on his mother had happened, anyway. Instead, he said, “But, it’s just been, like…I don’t know, a few hours, right?”
Dr. Parson nodded, still not smiling, and he said, “That’s true. If that. She was in a public place when it happened and was brought in immediately.”
“But…but why would one thing get better and not the other at the same time?” Timothy asked, hating to be thinking of bad things, but unable to spare himself from the thought.
Dr. Putnam took up the answer to this. “Well, as he said, the blood flow to different parts of the brain varies, and that can affect how they both take…well, take damage and how they recover. It’s a bit like…well, if you’ve done some exercise that involved muscles, some of which you use regularly, and others of which, not so much. It can take longer for the…unused, or weaker muscles to recover from the fatigue, from the lactic acid buildup and whatnot, than the ones that are used all the time. It’s…well, maybe it’s a bit like how you’re more likely to get a charley horse than a cramp in your thigh. Though maybe that’s not a very good analogy.”
Despite Dr. Parson’s self-deprecation, Timothy thought he understood the point. He nodded, slowly and carefully, as though afraid too vigorous a motion might make his head topple from his neck—it felt plausible at that moment—and he said, “So, then…then how do you find out if she’s better?”
The two men sighed, and Dr. Putnam said, “Well, the only way I can think of is to…well, to see if she recognizes you for who you are. When she does…we’ll know that this has resolved.”
“If she does,” Timothy said, unable to spare himself the possibility that she might not get better.
“Well…yes,” Dr. Putnam said, grimacing even more broadly, though Timothy wouldn’t have expected that to be an achievable goal.
“But,” Dr. Parson said, “there’s every reason to expect that she will get better. The other signs have already resolved, and she’s young and very healthy. It’s just like Dr. Putnam said, some parts of the brain will recover faster depending on blood supply and fatigue and so on. The fact that the weakness resolved makes me think that whatever the cause of the attack was in the first place is gone and is done with. So now it’s just a matter of your mother’s brain…well, just regaining its strength.”
“So…so what should I do?” Timothy asked. “I mean…should I go back now and see if she still doesn’t recognize me?”
The two doctors exchanged looks, and Dr. Putnam said, “Well, the odds of it having resolved in just the last few moments may be small…timing like that is a lot to hope for. But, if you want to try, you can, if it’s okay with Dr. Parson.”
The younger doctor looked mildly concerned, perhaps hesitant, but he finally nodded and said, “Yeah, I think that’s okay. But, if you don’t mind…I know it’s a lot to ask, but if she still thinks it’s not you…and there’s a good chance that she will for a while…I would ask if you could please, maybe…wait outside or away for a bit. It’s…well, I think it’s very distressing for her, as much as for you, as I’m sure you can imagine, and though she is young and healthy, it’s…well, she’s already been through a heck of a day so far. I don’t want to put her through more until she’s had a chance to rest a bit.”
Timothy had to admit to himself that this hadn’t really occurred to him. He was so flabbergasted by all the events of that day, and even of the night before, that he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he might have. Of course, his mother must be terrified. She’d had something attack her while she was in the bookstore, and she’d had what had looked like a stroke, or a seizure, or whatever it was, and now she saw this kid who looked like her son, but who she thought was an imposter. Which meant that, from her point of view, something had happened to him, and she had no idea what it was. That had to be horrible.
And it was all his fault, anyway.
“Okay,” he said. “I…I get it. But is it okay if I just…just check, though? I mean…if she’s already gotten better, I’d want to know right away, you know?”
“Of course,” Dr. Parson said. “Just…take it slowly, okay? I’d rather not surprise her, just in case…well, you know.”
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