Alone- A short Story by SLV Student Jesse McMilan

I believe I can accurately say that I am the only person alive who is completely and utterly invisible.

When I leave my home, my body fades and only my mind is left, rendering me a passive observer among an active world; a floating consciousness that is all-seeing yet devoid of power, all-knowing yet at a loss about how to share that knowledge. I can listen, but I cannot speak. I can know, but I cannot be known. And just as I cannot affect the world I live in, its people in turn have no power over me—or at least they wouldn’t if I wasn’t so vulnerable to their interactions; their chaotic whirlwind of everyday exchanges, so close, so blind, so real. If I could enter that world for just a second, a moment, for only a sliver of mortal love…

It was in that metaphysical realm between waking and sleeping that she found the void. The sky and the earth were no identifiable color, just sort of an opaque blankness through which one could see everything and yet nothing, for in this place there was nothing to see. Both the sky and the earth faded into infinity, into a definitive horizon in the center of her sight which was vividly apparent, yet shouldn’t have been among the ambiguity of color under the invisible canvas of the sky. It was not by one of her physical senses, she determined, that she separated the sky and the earth, but rather by a sort of intuition. Still, she perceived the horizon as if through sight, for lack of a better way to comprehend it.

She found that she had begun to use the horizon as a touchstone in this otherwise featureless world. In a place where there was nothing to grasp, she had decided to base the entirety of her new existence on this indistinct line that would have been a mere silent wisp in the world she knew. But she already felt she knew this world just as well, or maybe even better, than she did her previous world. It was so simple. It consisted only of a horizon, and nothing more—besides her, that is, who happened to be the zenith without which the horizon wouldn’t exist.

I live in a hotel. My hotel. Or maybe somebody else’s. To be honest, I don’t really know whose hotel it is, or why I’m here beyond the fact that I’m the only one here and I always have been. But something tells me I’m still only a visitor.

It’s a nice hotel, I must say. The lobby is large and atmospheric, the buffet is always full, and when I return to my room there are always fresh sheets on my bed and clean towels to use for my bath. It’s a life of luxury here, but luxury is not the same as happiness. I can never dispel the sorrow that settles upon me as I carry a full plate of food from the buffet to a table, noticing all the while how vacant the other seats are. I sit in my chair for a minute gazing thoughtfully at the empty tables, adorned all in white; and they gaze indifferently back at me, their places set for nobody in particular. Trying to ignore them, I dig into my food, the chink of my fork on the plate echoing throughout the chamber. I try not to look up, but it is impossible to resist with the unnerving presence of the empty tables. I’ve tried to count them, under the delusion that doing so will somehow ease my pain, but it is hopeless. There are so many, and even if I did succeed in numbering them all, I doubt it would make much difference when I, once again, sat at my table and tried to eat my meal in personal peace.

This is how I eat, I sleep, I breathe, tormented constantly by the absence that pervades every aspect of my existence. The void is inescapable. And the worst part of this is the fact that I am alone in my torment, which, as circular as it is, serves as the root of all my pain.

She was eternally falling. Accelerating downward at an immeasurable pace. She was exactly parallel with the horizon, which was still fixed in the center of her vision and her reality. Somehow, through some strange convolution of her mind, she had turned the entire plane of existence on its side. There was no wind, no roaring in her ears, no gut wrenching vertigo to confirm that she was, in fact, falling; but she knew she was because of her newly acquired sixth sense, the intuition which had been bestowed upon her when she entered this world.

Her world.

~*~

I know what room is mine because it is the only room without a number. There are halls upon halls, floors upon floors of rooms, and yet there is only one I have ever entered. It’s not that the others are locked, as far as I know, but every time I try to enter one a sudden sense of dread overwhelms me and my world turns to gray. I simply lose the will to open the door, or the will to do anything, for that matter.

So I’ve given up on the idea of exploring any of the other rooms in my vast, empty, lonely hotel. I am confined to what I know, as well as the rest of this relentlessly ignorant world. It’s funny, how I have the entire world at the disposal of my anonymous, limitless viewing, and yet I feel the greatest mystery is what lurks behind the door of the room next to mine; a room with a number.

So once again, I find myself entering my room, preparing for a dreamless sleep after a day of passivity.

But what’s this? As I enter the room, I am not met with the usual vacancy and neatness that is regularly waiting to greet me, but rather a girl in her teens, sprawled awkwardly on the bed and hopelessly tangled in the sheets; she looks as if she chose the place for a landing pad after a rather drastic fall.

I am not sure what to think. I am, first of all, overjoyed to know that I am no longer alone, but I can’t help it when I feel some irritation at the prospect of my privacy, which I have all my life believed to be impermeable, being invaded. And below it all opens a gaping chasm, the fear that comes with the knowledge that my life is about to change forever, after infinite sameness.

Not knowing what to do, what to think, what to feel, I let myself topple on the floor and fall instantly into a state of unconsciousness.

~*~

When she awoke, she found she had landed on an enormous bed in some sort of hotel room.

Had it all been a dream? Was there no empty realm, where the only feature was the horizon and time and space had no meaning? No, for when she turned her head and peered out the window, there was the vast opaqueness, waiting for her, reminding her that she no longer belonged to the literal world.

Well, at least she was in a place with recognizable features, she thought to herself. At least she was in a place with things she could see with her eyes and feel with her hands, a place which she could interact with and manipulate without turning gravity on its side. She still wasn’t in the world she belonged to, but she was in a world that could belong to her.

Feeling ready for some movement, some exploration, she sat up despite her body’s complaints and began to stretch. Her muscles soon began to cooperate as she worked the stiffness and tiredness out of herself. What reason she had to be so sore, she did not know, seeing as it wasn’t her body that had fallen but her mind; she assumed the only reason she perceived herself as having a physical body in the first place was because, without one, she would have no standpoint from which to act in this strange place. Perhaps the hotel was an illusion of some sort. Perhaps she was still out in the vast expanse of nothingness, and, having grown tired of not having a single relatable aspect on which to build, her mind had constructed this hotel.

She looked out the window again. She could not see the horizon.

Every movement slow and deliberate, she stepped lightly out of bed and proceeded to walk toward the door. But something was blocking her path. It was a boy, asleep on the floor, about her age. Or at least that was how she saw him. Or it. Or another incarnation of herself. But she was sick of such vague thinking, so she decided, with resolution, that she was herself, in a hotel, and this was an entirely separate human being in front of her. As if to reinforce this, she turned on her heels and went to shut the curtains that so inconsiderately revealed the ambiguous reality of it all behind only a thin pane of glass.

Having done so, she turned back to the boy. Stepping over him or waking him up was out of the question; she was too polite for either of those options. So, with effort, she flipped him on his back and carried him to the bed, where she positioned him as comfortably as possible. She looked sympathetically at him. He was quite thin, though not unhealthy looking. He was wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt that was buttoned all the way up to the collar, dark gray jeans and meticulously shined shoes. His face, framed by a sprawl of jet-black hair, conveyed great pain even in sleep.

On this note, she wondered what she was wearing at the moment, or even if she occupied the same face. She stepped into the bathroom, where the mirror confirmed that her face was still as she imagined it to be, and that she was wearing a somber dress, the same dignified shade of black as the boy’s shirt.

Reassured, she turned to continue her exploration of the hotel. When she opened the door, she held her breath in fear that the void might be waiting outside, ready to swallow her into nothingness a second time. But, much to her relief, she only found a hallway typical of any hotel. It was long, empty, lined with numbered doors and an intricately patterned floor.

Her first thought was to find an elevator that would carry her down to the lobby; there were bound to be some interesting discoveries waiting there. Then again, the most intriguing secrets were most likely asleep with the boy, whom she was hesitant to wake at the moment. Something told her that she should let him rise on his own. Ultimately, she decided not to take either of these courses of action, but rather explore some of the adjacent rooms down the halls, despite the discouraging connotations of a closed hotel room door.

She walked confidently to the door directly adjacent to hers. She discovered, with a quick turn of her head, that the room she had just left had no number on it. This one, however, had a plaque labeled “Room #1”. Number one was a good place to start. With more optimism than the situation called for, she reached out toward the doorknob; but as soon as she did, she might as well have been back in the void again.

 ~*~

I am awake now. It appears that the girl, whoever she may be, has arisen and carried me to my bed. And now she is gone. I seem to have achieved human contact, and somehow I slept through it. I missed the opportunity of feeling human hands, of hearing a human voice, and not just any human voice, but one that was speaking to me and me alone. A human being has acknowledged my existence for the first time, and because I could not handle the sight of a stranger sleeping in my bed I let the experience slide by without my noticing. Where is she now? Can I reach her?

I propel myself out of bed and toward the door. I fling it open and look to either side of me. There she is. In front of room number one, her hand positioned over the doorknob, her eyes glassy, delirious. My mood instantly darkens. She has just arrived, and the first thing she must experience within this place is the greatest despair one can ever feel: the pain of wanting to open a door and yet being trapped outside, the only one preventing her entrance being, ironically, herself.

“I’m sorry,” I say weakly. Her head snaps around, jolted out of her trance by my voice. My heart flutters. She can hear me. A shiver runs down my spine as her hand drops strait down, her fingertips brushing the doorknob that has proven untouchable for me.

“I’m sorry, but…but you can’t go in there,” I say, shaking my head slightly. My voice is wobbly and unstable.

She turns to me, her strikingly blue eyes regarding me with curiosity. “Why not?”

“You’ve seen why for yourself.”

“Oh.” Her face is laced with disappointment.

“But there are many places we can go,” I say, trying to ease some of the tension. “Come on. Let’s get out of this miserable hallway.” I feel like my efforts to sound casual are not succeeding in the slightest.

She takes a step closer. Despite the joy of seeing her do so, her eyes locked with mine, I cannot help but take a step backwards.

“Miserable is not the word I’d use to describe this hallway,” she says.

“It will be once you’ve tried that door a million times and repeatedly failed.”

She slowly nods. “I believe you.” We stand in silence as she takes a few investigative glances around her. “I’m hungry,” she says, after what seems like a long time. “Is there a place in this hotel we can go to eat?”

~*~

The boy had taken her to eat at the hotel’s expansive buffet. They had both chosen a sort of pasta dish that, according to him, hadn’t been there yesterday; but that wasn’t saying much, he proceeded to explain, as the selection was always changing. It at first seemed to her that the changing menu meant there must be someone else, staying somewhere in the hotel. But on second thought, she realized this wasn’t necessarily true; the changes in menu could easily reflect changes in him, if those kinds of correlations existed here. This actually seemed the more likely story when she thought about it. Yet, if her intrusion into his home was having as great an impact on him as it appeared to be, wouldn’t it make sense that the entire menu should be completely overridden?

The boy himself seemed reserved, yet extremely grateful for her presence. She had a feeling that he had lived here for an indefinitely long time, but she was afraid to ask him just how long. If he wanted to talk about it, she would wait for him to bring up the subject. She didn’t know who, or even what, he was, but she did know one thing for certain: he needed her here. So she would stay for him as long as she could. She would be his friend. And, if he wished it, she would be more than that.

~*~

What should I say? What does one say who has lived years unable to express oneself, and is suddenly faced with someone who is so keenly receptive that it is impossible not to communicate?

I am trembling. I can hardly eat. I cannot seem to wrap my mind around the fact that I am no longer resigned to being only an observer. I am suddenly part of someone’s life. Her life. Can she see how abruptly she has overturned my existence? Can she see me tremble?

There she sits, directly across from me, finishing off the last of her meal with such calm, such ease. She looks up at me and smiles as if to say she’s full. How do I respond? Her every movement means something; she’s so subtle. Am I inadvertently telling her as much as she means to tell me?

It’s interesting, how acute my perception becomes when I’m directly involved in the situation. Before, I was only able to see what was immediately apparent. I could see the expanse of an entire forest, but amongst that forest I was not able to identify a single tree. Now I have been thrust into the forest, and every leaf can be seen with unforgiving clarity. And the girl, being perfectly adapted to the forest, seems to know exactly how that feels. She’s giving me time to adapt as she has, letting me take things at my own pace. Not a hint of impatience bleeds through as she sits opposite me, waiting for me to finish my dinner.

But I am not hungry anymore. I sit back in my chair a little to indicate that I am done. But where do I go from here?

~*~

The boy across from her seemed absolutely perplexed about whether or not he should be enjoying his first date. She wasn’t all that sure whether she should be enjoying this either, seeing as she was facing a problem of existential proportions, but nevertheless she was. “You done?” she asked, tilting her head to the side a bit.

“I suppose so,” he said.

She offered him her hand. He stared at it for a moment as if she was offering him a hundred dollar bill for no discernible reason, and he was trying to determine whether the bill was counterfeit. “It’s an affectionate gesture, not a dead fish,” she said, although she wondered immediately afterward whether the comment had been a little too snide. Tentatively, he reached for her hand, but he stopped about an inch away from contact. Slowly, as not to smother him, she reached forward and touched her fingertips to his. She was warmly received, and the touch of their fingers turned into a soulful embrace of hands. She smiled at him, and for the first time he smiled back, however weakly. They stood up, their hands still conjoined. And suddenly, he seemed completely unable to stay away from her. He enveloped her in his arms and, laughing and sobbing madly, let the emotions that had been pent up over an eternity be poured into her loving embrace. She stayed there, giving them the time and love he needed to discover his humanity.

After the embrace had loosened a bit and his hysteria had subsided, she slowly began to guide him back to their room. He cooperated, still clutching her, putting all of his trust in her guidance.

~*~

We’ve reached the room. She guides me to the bed. Like a child, I let her set me on my back, neither cooperating nor resisting but rather su0ccumbing. With a strange, unidentifiable guilt, I realize that this is the second time today she’s done this favor for me. I can’t help but gaze up into her face, blurred to perfection by my tears. With reluctance, I let her take her hands from me and turn away. Out of unknown motives, she walks to the window and opens the curtains before sitting on the foot of the bed, gazing pensively outside at the nothingness outside. The nothingness that I have long ignored, for it is nothing, and will always be nothing, so why should it matter to me? But to her it seems to matter a lot. So I let her contemplate nothing.

I feel so cold now without her touch. In a matter of minutes, she’s turned me from a competently lonely spirit into an emotionally dependent human being. It’s like I’m an entirely different person. I was originally born into the world of self, but that version of me has run its course and died; and now I have undergone a new conception to the world of shared experience, a baptism into the vulnerability that defines what it is to be human.

And all this has happened to me because of her, because of the girl who just happened to permeate the invisible membrane that has imprisoned me for so long. But then a disturbing thought crosses my mind: how do I know she is from outside the membrane in the first place? She could just as well be a creation of my own mind, a product of my insanity. So, with the apprehension of being lucid inside a dream and fearing that it might dissipate, I ask her. “Are you real?”

Jolted out of her reverie, she whips her head around to face me. “Am I what?”

“Are you real,” I repeat, “or are you just an illusion I somehow procured out of my mind?”

“Funny, I was just wondering the same thing about you,” she says. Silence ensues. Finally she speaks again. “Are you from…you know…the physical world?” Her expression is unreadable.

“Define physical.”

“When you can look out the window and see something.”

“You have an interesting definition of physical,” I say, considering how to state my answer. “I can’t really say whether or not I’m from the physical world. The physical world and I definitely share a connection, if that helps.”

She turns her pensive gaze toward the ceiling as she lies back on the bed, folding her hands serenely over her stomach. “Can you enter the physical world?” She has a strange, distant glint in her eyes.

“Yes, but I can only observe. I cannot act there.”

“How do you pass from world to world?”

A sense of panic overtakes me. “You aren’t planning on leaving now, are you?” I put a hand to my mouth, realizing just how threatening that last sentence must have sounded.

“What?” I can feel her tense beside me. “No…no, I’ll be staying here for a while. I think.” She turns her gaze back to the window. Is she looking for something? How long will it take her to realize that she won’t find it, whatever it is?

“Did you come here willingly?”

“I don’t know. I might have, and just not realized what I was wishing.”

It is starting to become apparent to me how my original question is not being answered. So I start at the beginning again. “Are you and I separate entities?” I ask, my voice slow and deliberate.

“We used to be, but we aren’t now and we’ll never be again.”

“I was talking in the literal sense.”

“Seeing as events are proceeding, I think the literal sense is starting to become obsolete. Don’t you agree?” I bow my head slightly in confirmation. Though she faces the window, I can tell by the subtle contraction of her cheek that she’s wearing a small, wry smile. “I might be a projection of your mind, and you might be a projection of mine, or we might be two parts of a symbiotic entity. It’s impossible to tell.”

I think for a while. “True,” I say. She is still staring out the window. “What are you looking for?”

“The horizon.”

“We’re beyond any horizon you would know.”

“Then I’m looking for a horizon I don’t know.” Only now do I hear the fluctuation in her voice that was hidden so well before. She is crying, however silently. Now I understand. She isn’t turning her face toward the window; she’s turning her face away from me. Reaching over gently, I touch her on the chin and turn her head to face me. As I suspected, her countenance is streaked with tears.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m not as stoic as I like to pretend.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’re certainly handling this better than I am.” Now it’s my turn to reach for her hand. She graciously accepts the gesture. I feel the warmth seep back into me.

“Do you want to be here?”

“I don’t know.” She sighs. “Do you want me to be here?”
“Of course I do.”

“What if I left?”

I find myself unable to answer the question. What if she left? What would happen to me? I remain silent. I have no answer.

But she remains silent also, and in the end, I decide upon an answer, though it pains me to do so. “You can leave any time you like. Simply will yourself out of this place. That’s what I do.”

~*~

She didn’t want to leave. But she couldn’t resist the pressing anxiety that fell upon her when he had told her how to escape. She needed to try, to confirm that it worked, despite the feeling that once she left she would never be able to return. “Simply will yourself away,” he repeated. She stole a glance at him. He looked like a child resigning to the fact that, yes, the bitter medicine was indeed good for him. It would be cruel to leave him, yet she couldn’t bear to stay.

So she put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

She felt a hand settle upon her waist as his lips moved to match the patterns of hers. She didn’t want the kiss to end; she wanted to be frozen in this moment forever, trapped like a mosquito in amber, saved from making the dreadful decision that faced her at the end of this long, passionate kiss, which was perhaps the only sliver of mortal love her lonely friend would ever receive.

But something changed. The boy’s lips no longer held the same substance. She leaned into him, trying to rejuvenate the kiss, but it just wasn’t the same. There was only a slight tickle where his hand had been resting on her hip, and her arms, which had been supported by his shoulders, now bore their own weight. She hardly dared to open her eyes. Desperately, she willed herself home.

The first sensation she felt was that of falling. And this wasn’t the kind of ambiguous falling she had experienced in the void. This was lucid falling, physical falling, the kind with roaring in her ears and wind tearing at her hair, the kind that could instill fear in the most primitive parts of her psyche, the parts that couldn’t even comprehend the eternal absence of the void.

And at once, her senses snapped invigoratingly awake in an effort to prevent her immediate demise. She flailed, her eyes wide, trying to right herself like a cat. Overcome with the imminent arrival of the ground, she forgot everything about the void, about the hotel, about the boy who had disappeared in her arms; for what thought can prevail when thrust unexpectedly into a situation which almost irrefutably involved one’s death?

So the ground came. And she landed painlessly upon it. Once again befuddled, her primeval components disappeared and left this situation to the more elevated parts of her mind, which were at the moment equally confused.

With time, she reoriented herself and identified her surroundings. She had landed in the middle of a narrow asphalt road, an indistinct mass of gray under the faint stars of a moonless night. She swiveled as a porch light clicked on, bathing her in garish yellow light. Shading her eyes with her hand, she squinted at the illuminated house. She did not recognize it. Indeed, she had been transported to her world, but she could be miles away from her own home.

A man stepped out on the porch in a bathrobe, garbage sack in hand. The sight was so blatantly normal she could hardly bear it. Still, she knew that she had some questions to ask if she was ever going to get home, and this person looked like he knew the answers to her questions.

Her questions. Where she was, if he could provide a place to sleep, maybe even if he could give her a ride to her house, if it by some miracle happened to be close. So mundane, so straightforward after the questions she had harbored only a few minutes ago. If only she had stayed long enough to ask them. If only he had stayed long enough to answer. But that was over now, and so she addressed the man in the most confident voice she could muster, even as she was fighting back tears.

“Excuse me, mister,” she called. No reply. Perhaps she wasn’t loud enough. She set her shoulders back and tried to ward off her shyness and sorrow.

“Excuse me, mister,” she tried again. His head downturned, he lifted the lid to the garbage can and dropped the sack inside, then let the lid fall closed with an echoing crack. He turned back toward the house. Urgently, she pursued him.

“Couldn’t you at least acknowledge me?” she cried, running after him. She tried to grasp his arm, but the limb simply slid out of her fingers. “What’s wrong with you?” she screamed. He remained oblivious. Without a word, he walked across the porch and disappeared behind the front door of his house.

She stood in the silence of the night, realizing for the first time why the man did not respond to her. She remembered the boy’s words when she had asked him if he could enter the physical realm: “Yes, but I can only observe. I cannot act there.”

The porch light shut off, leaving her in the meager blue light of stars. She was dumbfounded. Was this her life, now? Was she doomed to be a mute eavesdropper for the remainder of her existence? She could not move. She felt a pervasive cold spread throughout her body. Her body, which, she knew, was only a product of her imagination.

Somewhere, hidden in the darkness, a solitary cricket chirped.

When she returned to the hotel, it was no longer a hotel; it was a neighborhood, frozen in time under a blanket of stars.

-Jesse McMilan

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