Story by: Ashley Belanger
(inspired by excerpted case studies in Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations)
Didi Frances had a date tonight. That’s why she was heading to her sister Moira’s house now. It was their rule: If Didi went out, she had to check in with Moira before and after. Because of the circumstances, Didi had agreed not to break it. Luckily, it took just two blocks for Didi to get from the simple second-story apartment where she lived to the family home where her sister lived. Before Moira had married, she’d lived in the same apartment as Didi, and together they had split the rent and taken turns taking care of their mother until too quickly she fell ill and passed away. It had been six summers since Didi had thought of her sister’s house as her mother’s house and her apartment as their apartment.
Standing outside, she surveyed the exterior of the old family house. Moira had made so many changes: knocking down walls, adding on in every direction, painting and repainting, and first things first, putting in a pool. Where their mother had laid cream-colored wall-to-wall carpet, Moira had installed bright orange terrazzo tile. The biggest change was personal: Where as a girl Didi had once set up her first science lab in a large unclaimed closet, wasting away hours inspecting collected specimens of things like tadpoles and Spanish moss, Moira had since converted the space into a two-car garage too tight for anyone to spend more than two seconds in. Forgetting this, Didi walked past the garage and up the path to the door. Then, as she’d done all her life, she turned the knob without knocking and let herself in.
At home, she moved quickly down the hall to the living room and went straight to the couch, sweating from her walk and grateful for the swirling fans above her. She glanced about the room she was sitting in, mentally noting any new changes. In front of every chair were new footstools, recently embellished and sparkling so much from embroidery thread that Didi didn’t dare raise her sneaker to the one nearest her. On the wall opposite her hung a massive accent piece made of pearly pink shells that shimmered from every angle. Her sister had even hand-painted the walls behind it with delicate small flowers in the exact shades of her handsome sturdy furnishings, using small chunks of sponge she’d diced up herself to mimic the precise texture of petals on the flowers she’d planted outside.
Having had enough of her sister’s world, Didi closed her eyes to block it all out and immediately this pacified her. It was true that most times, Didi preferred the dark. But it was also true that Didi usually loved being in her sister’s house. She decided her date was to blame. That, and the stress of trying not think about it was wearing on her. She just wanted to use this time to relax, rest her eyes and focus on feeling all right.
It wasn’t long before Didi was deep in the trance-like state that is sometimes referred to as “prisoner’s cinema.” She’d induced it by closing her eyes and engaging the darkness, using her eyes to see things within the dark of the backs of her eyelids. Before long as she laid there, the outside light began to bleed through, and shapes started to form. Sometimes it looked like TV static made up of tiny bright spots, but after a short while, those spots began to break out into geometric patterns. Squares folded out into an accordion. Hexagons joined into a honeycomb. Simple shapes were common enough, but for some people, and Didi w
as one of them, these patterns could eventually configure into more complex shapes, including human forms. Each dark figure that emerged against Didi’s eyelids was as faceless as the next. She sat there and met them all, nestling into the anxious experience of it, until finally her eyes tired and the whole scene zapped away.
Didi liked to escape this way, because in one way you could say she actually was a prisoner and these people she met against her eyelids were her silent sympathizers. It all came back to her eyes: Traitors, both of them. She rubbed them and cursed them. Diagnosed with a mutant kind of polyopia, Didi suffered from hallucinations where her vision would divide, often replicating the world in front of her into rows and rows of duplicated hallucinations. She rarely went a full day without having to make sense of details within every scene multiplied. It’s as if, doctors explained, Didi saw the world like a fly. A literal fly on the wall, Moira had joked. At the time, Didi’s mother had cried. To Didi, neither response seemed right.
The diagnosis upset her then and still upset her now, but Didi wasn’t self-absorbed about it. She knew it wasn’t just her who was hallucinating. It was nearly everyone in the world, including Moira. What happened to cause the hallucinations was this: The convenience that cellphones had afforded humanity led to increased demand for more devices that incorporated easy, adaptable features through a touchscreen. They called this progress, and “the Internet of things.” As everything from refrigerators to front doors got screens installed, the amount of time people spent staring into screens increased exponentially, almost overnight. Nobody could’ve seen the hallucinations coming, except, of course, the researchers who had cautioned manufacturers.
Pointing fingers was figured pointless when resources were needed in discovering solutions, because by the time the public had picked up on these risks, it was too late for many, including Didi, Moira, and their late mother, too. It surprised even the manufacturers when this seemingly small ethical oversight immediately led to an epidemic of severely impaired vision that struck every home nationwide. People weren’t blinded, but they were nearly all hallucinating, in some form, all the time. The experience of these hallucinations was different for everyone, but for Didi it was dire. She didn’t just “see things” like most people did – not colorful dancers from another culture in the street, or crocodiles lunging at her throat, not birds or insects or faces where there shouldn’t be faces, or dead bodies beside her in the bed. She didn’t see any of these warped things that other people experienced daily.
No, for Didi Frances, the world just repeated, sometimes infinitely, so that one door before her was suddenly 20, then 2,000, and trying to enter any of them usually proved futile. In these moments, without fail, Didi always lost sense of what was up and down. Her eyes dramatically skewed how she read distances and frequently failed to interpret distinct figures in a space. It made it hard to trust herself to even move, and the alternative was to just shut down frozen in place. Neither was a good option, since exhibiting symptoms of experiencing hallucinations often drew predators: theft, bullying, violence, assault, rape, murder. Hallucinators were just a new class of weaklings to prey on.
Didi had been attacked more times than she could count. She hated her hallucinations, but Moira didn’t hate hers. She was pleasantly hallucinating right then, under the very same roof. Didi opened her eyes, heaved herself off the couch and walked into the next room to confirm what she guessed would be true: Moira was hypnotically staring off into a corner of the room like a comforted child transfixed by a TV. Didi cleared her throat to ask her sister then, “Whatcha watching?”
Moira glanced at her sister distractedly, then briefly gushed, “It’s these adorable, tiny, I’m talking really little, fantastically small pink men. I can’t believe they came back!” She squealed and wiggled in her chair, watching a parade of tiny pink men, the tallest no taller than seven inches, marching along her glinting orange floors.
For Moira, hallucinating wasn’t a matter of dealing with a menace that dramatically skewed her reality. She always knew she was hallucinating, and it never bothered her. The opposite, she thought it offered her a nice vacation from her day to day. Her hallucinations appeared for her almost like a silent movie projected from her obstinate brain, which refused to accept vision loss from too much screen time and instead added all these random details to her life, such as now, when she could see at least one of the small pink men was leading a proud radiant pink ox. She longed to move closer to study the stitching on his shirt, but vowed to wait until Didi left. Moira looked at Didi then and sighed, judging her sister still attentively glued to her phone, even without the screen to absorb her. Moira was endlessly proud that she had managed to give up her screen by choice.
What had actually happened in Didi’s world was this: Her phone had buzzed to remind her of her upcoming date, and she’d tried to click a button to dismiss it, but instead she pushed the one that triggered a voice in her earbud to say, “Currently engaged to: Bron Johnson.” Didi rolled her eyes and button-mashed her phone to make the sounds stop. She kind of hated using the Clickmate dating app, particularly because the language it used was exhaustingly prude. But then, how would she meet anyone? Maybe this one’s different, she thought, surprising herself by feeling genuinely blithely. This was actually her third date with Bron, and Didi was enjoying the time they’d spent together so far. They were meeting at the same place they’d had their other dates, which was standard procedure through the app. Clickmate was touted as “the first step towards America’s future,” promising to help hallucinators find “love at first soundbyte.” It allowed users to upload short audio clips up to 20 seconds long, as many as they wanted, and that made it really easy to get lost in learning about someone. Didi liked listening to people’s recordings more than anything else about using the app so far. Her finger slid along the side of her phone, which was the only way she really ever engaged with it anymore.
Her “screen options” had been locked by her doctor. Unlike Moira, she couldn’t even use her screen if she wanted, and she resented this, because doctors and officials alike refused to ban screens for the safety of everyone, but they’d take them away from any one person they saw fit. When a situation’s like that, Didi thought, you know someone’s picking and choosing who has access. Denied access, Didi felt this overreach daily.
“What’s happening now?” Didi asked her sister, whose eyes were still locked on a corner of the room. Moira didn’t even look her way this time when she responded, “They’re just, walking around,” she said, her eyes wide and fixed.
“Intense,” Didi said, mocking. Moira smiled big like she was watching one of her own kids take their first step. “I wish you could see it,” she said to Didi quietly, for what was probably the thousandth time in Didi’s life. “Well, I don’t,” Didi said, closing her eyes again.
Moira’s temper flashed. “Well excuse me, Didi Frances, I happen to like my hallucinations, and furthermore, I refuse to apologize to anyone about it. This is my life, and I can’t help it either, and you know what, I deserve some down time, and if this is how I enjoy my down time, it’s perfectly all right. You hear me? It’s not like I asked for this condition, this experience, I’m just saying, as far as it goes, it’s not that bad, and I think if you actually tried to embrace yours, you’d start to see things more the way I do,” Moira said and huffed, more dizzy from her speech than from interacting with her hallucinations. Didi felt guilty knowing she really was taking Moira away from her hallucinations.
That didn’t mean Didi was ready to let up on her sister, though. “Really, Moira? I have a button on my phone to push in case my hallucinations hit in public and someone feeling a little violent notices. I’m pretty sure it’s not just about where my head’s at in the game.”
Moira laughed, gotten. “Yeah, yeah,” she said. She was already staring back into space. Didi looked at her sister, perched on her couch, her pants pressed, her hair pressed, her lips pressed. Moira had married the first man that Clickmate paired her with the moment her hallucinations began. Since then, she’d obeyed the general recommendation blasted over and over again in the government PSAs: Make your home your world. It was a cute way of convincing people to stay out of the public sphere. That was their big idea to reduce injuries and casualties: crate their constituents like dogs. Didi did admit, though, that Moira’s little family did work out pretty well for her. Clickmate had connected her to a kind man named Mark whose hallucinations were just simple, harmless flashes of gibberish he occasionally saw appear on the wall. That night, he’d taken their kids to his parents’ house for movies, games and dinner, giving Moira time and space so she could be alone with her hallucinations. Theirs was not a bad life, but Didi had already decided it was not the life she wanted. Moira knew it and by then, wasn’t bothered by it. For them, that’s what being sisters was, a lifetime of not wanting what the other had, but always having something to say about it anyway. They loved each other and talked often, bickering in that sisterly way as thick and comforting as breakfast food.
“Don’t go out,” Moira said then, shifting tones to sound stern, protective, motherly. “It’s too dangerous.”
Didi ignored her. This was their routine. “What are you going to do, huh? You’re a free woman!” she said.
Moira shook her head. “Stay in. Like we’re supposed to.”
“Seriously?” Didi groaned. “I swear, you were not this uptight in the apartment.” Didi didn’t trust Clickmate, but going out to her was a very fundamental part of living life. Plus, she enjoyed dating. She liked the companionship, the discovery, the chemistry, the precious easy moments that flitted away without the vicious attention of memory. Going out was the one way Didi knew to shake things up inside, to chase away the self-pity she loathed, to like what she saw and enjoy the way she felt. She wasn’t giving any of that up just because she met one acceptable human who could be okay to hole up with.
“It’s not a rule you just gotta rebel against, Didi. It’s a law based on tried and true advice. Good advice. From a doctor. Not just the government.” This was Moira parroting more PSAs. They always paired these messages with cute animal videos to make sure they reached moms like Moira.
It was Didi’s turn to rant, her temper flared thinking how they managed to exploit even how tender the duck and dog as friends are: “From doctors, from government, from doctors the government pays. They don’t care about people, Moira, so don’t give me that. They like their numbers, puffy and inflated, used to shame them or shame us, whatever’s the convenient narrative for whoever’s got the gavel. So I fucked up my eyes. So did everyone else. It means I fucked up my whole life? I can still see. For example, I see the government is a science-denying, people-hating Ponzi scheme, and doctors just do what the government says to keep their license and fee up to date. It’ll be the last thing I do is let them tell me that I can’t go outside.” Didi looked at her sister and they both grinned the same grin.
“Is this a real conversation?” Moira said. “Cuz I can’t say I’m jealous of your date.” She paused. “What’s his name again? Strong Thompson?”
Didi corrected her. “Bron Johnson.”
“That is not real,” Moira said, “How can you trust a guy who uses a fake name? What else is he hiding?”
Didi took the challenge, “Your name is Moira Mucho now. What makes that more real than Moira Frances?”
“Because it’s who I am now,” Moira began. Didi had a retort lined up: “So maybe Bron Johnson really is who he is now. Marriage isn’t the only form of evolution.” Didi dodged a throw pillow. “You have brought violence into this home,” she teased her sister.
Moira rolled her eyes, “You are obnoxious and I hate always worrying about you.” Didi nodded. She felt the phone in her hand buzz, always reminding. She thought suddenly again about Bron, whose jokes were quick, playful, smart. Who was good-looking and a noticeably good listener. He had ways of asking easy questions that encouraged her to share more, and sometimes she did and sometimes that felt good. Whatever it meant, she was looking forward to seeing him, but she didn’t say that to anyone, especially not Moira. Instead she did the easy thing. She left her sister to her own life. “Well, I guess I’m gonna go now,” she said, halfway out of the room already.
“Fine.” Moira said, waving her off, fully engrossed in her hallucinations again.
“You’re not going to wish me luck?” Didi asked.
“No,” Moira said. “I trust you’re dumb enough to stumble into some.” She smiled wickedly, enjoying herself, giddy on the brink of being alone.
“OK, then,” Didi said, saluting the miniature people she couldn’t see. “Enjoy the …” she waved her hand, “whatever.” And with that, she exited her sister’s home.
Meanwhile inside, Moira watched her hallucinated Lilliputs move about, their skin a color pink so saturated, she thought it might smudge if she could touch it. The color reminded her of a shade of lipstick her grandmother always wore, and with that thought came a rush of other memories she’d forgotten for so long. The pink resonated with her as a deep pink that felt more meaningful than she could explain, ultimately pulling her into the scene more than her memory could on its own, which then produced a cascade in her memory, like she was river rafting down a waterfall of flooding back feelings. Watching, she knew at once she’d never forget this moment, and the memory of it would forever connect her with that cascade. The hallucinations were a portal to every rich thought her mind contained, and she treasured the time she spent with them. She decided as she always did that she didn’t care what Didi thought, hallucinations could be good.
At the same time, she couldn’t help but worry: Her sister’s hallucinations might get her into trouble tonight. Unfortunately for Didi, Moira was not wrong to worry.
ENTER THE FISH TANK.
Didi left her sister’s house and prepared to walk to her date. It was hot, humid and awful out, but walking was still better than the alternative: using the DarkCar app to hail a taxi and risking a close encounter with some handsy jerk in some pitch-black backseat. More than anywhere else, women were attacked in DarkCar taxis, the vehicle that had been specifically designed as a “safety resource for hallucinating citizens.” Instead of preventing the violence, the DarkCar company simply lobbied to make it legally impossible to hold the app responsible for anything that happened on the rides. People straight-up got murdered in those cabs. It was in the papers every day, and all anyone ever did was sigh.
So, no, thank you, Didi thought, carefully pulling back a wall of stiff and spiky saw palmetto to create an opening just wide enough to step through. She just had to walk the 10 minutes it took to get to the restaurant through the woods. This isn’t so bad today, she thought, refusing to acknowledge the dampening small of her back.
She stepped over and around short coontie shrubs grown on the slightest incline, as she followed a trail of mulch up to a small but dense forest of palm trees. She started sweating immediately, but she had lived in Florida long enough, to accept that was just her skin. It was then she made a rookie mistake. She ducked under a poisonwood tree to finally exit the wood and walked right through a spiderweb, face-first.
Her skin crawled, damp and slick, and she frantically swept her face, hair, arms and chest until her fingers froze in a claw when she felt the form of the spider. She refused to look at it as her brain tried to interpret the intentionally limited data she fed it. This made her experience of the spider a disorienting cross between encountering an overwhelming venomous monster with a body like a bat poised to bite her and a harmless, paper-thin Daddy Long Legs that could’ve peacefully lived disturbing no one in Moira’s garage. Didi screamed a little to override her feeling of uncertainty, shaking the spider off into the grass. Then she shook out her nerves and looked up to find herself at her destination: an abandoned tourist strip mall where only one business remained thriving, an aquatic-themed restaurant called The Fish Tank. She wiped her face and drew a breath in. This was how her dates usually began.
The Fish Tank was as kitschy as it sounds, shaped like a dome fish bowl, with glass exterior walls and a dining room that sat atop a concrete version of a pink plastic castle, complete with a patio that extended out of one side of the bowl. Through the middle of the restaurant ran a large aquarium, filled with coral, crustaceans, eels, rays, and exotic fish, everything you always see, butterflyfish, sawfish, silver mollies, clown loach, barbs, and plump guppies, speckled blue phantom pleco, red-tailed black sharks. The tank was a flurry of activity, fish avoiding fish, and it was believed to be therapeutic to stare into the tanks and watch the animals ease around each other. Didi thought maybe she always chose The Fish Tank because here she felt agile as these fish, returning to this environment, avoiding the crowds and floating down its halls.
Up ahead was a giant mural, where there were always some hallucinators gathered around, watching with occasional gasps as a whale breached over and over, their eyes creating this magic, turning the painted scene into a moving picture, complete with a sparkling ocean that shimmered in sensational colors that the painter could’ve never conjured. This was how some hallucinations created wonder where there was none, by dazzling eyes with a new shade and powerfully moving the person lucky enough to see it. That’s the shock of being shifted, and Didi always knew it when she saw it. Despite her resentment for the indulgence, she respected what they got out of it, at least. Maybe she was jealous. She didn’t feel jealous, but she worried sometimes that’s what happens when you commit to not knowing what you want.
She’d made it to the lobby, where ahead of her on an upholstered chair shaped like a seahorse were two women, speaking closely, eyes only for each other. Didi politely skirted her eyes away, but as she passed them, she heard one protest loudly, “I changed my mind. Don’t.” Didi shut them out and took a seat on her own seahorse and stared off into the aquarium. She didn’t think to look back over at them until she saw a flash of light from a screen glint out from their direction and instinctively glanced toward it. What were they up to? she wondered. They had her attention again.
She watched as the woman with the screen waved her phone, all lit up, about and about in front of her own eyes, hopping from one foot to another, scrolling, scrolling, eyes fixed on its screen. She noted the wedding band on the woman’s hand and cynically thought, True love waits on Clickmate. Eventually, the woman with the phone finished her silly exercise and lowered the screen. “That should do it,” she said to her wife. The wife chastised her, “It’s not good for you.” The other woman smiled, happily ignoring her wife. Let them have their fun, Didi thought. She killed the rest of her time remaining by zoning out to Bron’s Clickmate recordings. He uploaded new ones every day. Why? Didi wondered, as she listened to each one. She hit a button on her phone and closed her eyes, sinking into the cushion on the seahorse and barely registering the waves of Bron’s words that tried to compete for her consciousness.
Meanwhile between the women on the other seahorse, laughter had erupted. The woman who was now hallucinating was gesturing wildly at the tank, describing what she saw to her wife in barely finished fragments. Her hallucinations manifested as cartoons, often dancing cartoons, and that day, she’d suggested the outing to her wife as an experiment to “see if my hallucinations could swim.” Her wife had reluctantly agreed to come along as chaperone.
Now, the hallucinating woman was delighted by the chaos she’d created, staring into the tank where the fish had learned all the careful boundaries of their fluid circuits, and in between all of that aquarium activity, her eyes had stuffed every available space with lanky, amorphous, happy-eyed, colorful cartoons that seemed to tread while dancing in place. To the woman, the aquarium housed the most joyful chorus of cartoons ever bunched together, almost pulsing in place as streams of tropical fish coursed all around them. The cartoons’ bursting eyes and sucked-in teeth reminded the woman of her childhood, and all those special animated shorts she struggled now to remember, the hand-drawn ones that crawled with detail. She began laughing so hard, her wife joined her, even unseeing, and together on the seahorse, they rocked in an innocent ecstasy, sitting close and enjoying one another, the sweet reward of a risky compromise.
If she’d seen this, Didi might have envied it, too. Instead, her phone buzzed, and Didi rose, blind to everything as she blinked and blinked again, releasing herself from prisoner’s cinema and ascending the stairs to the patio.
Following the pink pebble path, Didi liked her options. She dropped into a plastic chair at the table nearest her. The table greeted her immediately, “Hello, we fish you well! How many in your party?” Beside her, there was a small pot of plastic seaweed with a microphone she knew to speak into. “Two,” she said.
“Your server will be with you in TWO shakes of a fish tail!” the table promised, as Didi saw Bron approaching eagerly.
“Hello,” he said, sitting down heavily in the chair and scattering pink pebbles as he steadied the legs. Didi laughed in welcome. “Hello,” she said. He smiled at her and said nothing, looking around. She liked that he never rushed them into talk right when they got together. His patience was almost his entire appeal, and it made her question whether it was a cover for some hidden desperate need to settle his marriage. Or maybe it’s that his hallucinations were worse than he said, she thought. She broke the silence and said, “To come here, I left my sister with an army of mini pink men.”
“Say again?” he asked. Didi nodded, “Yeah, it’s new to me, too, but apparently she’s seen them once before.”
Bron reacted immediately with surprise, “Imagine that? Seeing something over again?”
“Right?” Didi laughed. “So you wanna know how that goes?” Bron nodded, leaning closer with mock drama to hear better. Didi played along, “Well, one thing leads to another, she spends forever always hoping they’d come back, and then today, poof! They’re baaack.” She leaned toward him menacingly. They were closer then than the rest of the night would allow. But it was also then that they both fell silent, heads close and eyes drawn to the same couple who were beginning to cause a commotion in the back half of the room.
Most people were ignoring it, but Didi and Bron watched in horror as a woman backed herself into a corner weeping, deeply rattled. At her side, her husband stood loudly snapping in her ear, the bar lights reflecting both his wedding band on his finger and the fear in her eyes. Maybe this business of snapping had actually snapped her out of it once, and he really thought it would work again, but instead of breaking her hallucination, the woman’s fears were only accentuated by his snapping, as she was hallucinating dark hooded figures crowding around her, closing in. Dark hooded figures who to her signified not death but doom. And because her visual confirmed the feeling of doom, her fright cycled through her brain again and again. She continued to cry, merging the snapping of her husband’s fingers with the hooded figures, and she religiously assumed the world was ending. Her sobs got louder and so did the snaps, and even when her hallucinations ended mere minutes later, she was so traumatized, the doom didn’t really ever leave the corners of her eyes. Expecting the worst is a curse, Didi sympathized. “I’m sorry,” Bron said, breaking his own intense scrutiny. Didi turned to him and thought maybe it was OK to like him. She helped the night along by saying simply, “We should order, right?”
The rest of the night was less distracting, and they’d enjoyed most of their food while keeping conversation light, weaving through their comfort zones. Both were feeling full, unable to keep prolonging the dinner just to keep hanging out.
Didi pushed her plate away, and Bron laughed when it triggered the table to say, “Fishing for the check?” Didi leaned in, “Yes.”
Bron made a mild protest, gesturing at his plate. “It would be unethical of me to let you eat that fish,” Didi said. They’d been there for hours, and his fish and chips had all sunk in on itself under the weight of the vinegar he’d drenched his food in. She looked up from his plate to meet his gaze one more time, but Bron’s attention was pointed somewhere else. This was not a good sign. Didi looked straight into his eyes and confirmed the worst. Bron was staring fixedly at a point in the distance, and there was nothing of interest where his gaze was locked.
“Bron,” she said, but he didn’t respond. She searched for something else to say. “Um. How about dessert?” she said loudly, as if being louder would help. She felt completely unprepared.
Meanwhile Bron’s hallucination had escalated quickly, and he’d begun talking to himself. She tried to listen to figure out what was going on. “What is this?” he said more than once, the pitch of his voice rising and his eyes swimming about in a circuit. Didi couldn’t make out from his words what was happening in his head, but it was easy to tell he was increasingly distressed. She thought about triggering the emergency button on her phone, to call the authorities, in case Bron needed help. But she knew that wasn’t how any of this worked. Depending on how many strikes Bron had, he could be institutionalized, shoved into a cage, deemed unfit for society, forced to make their hospital his world. It would be so easy, especially if someone like her deemed him dangerous. She couldn’t do it to him. It turned out that it was not her choice to make.
Bron shot up to his feet quickly, shoving the table out to do it. Their unfinished plates slid hard toward Didi. She shielded her face and screamed out, “Hey!”
Bron didn’t hear. He looked one more time in the direction he’d been staring in. The horror of what he saw there was really just for him. For the first time in his life, he had hallucinated himself, floating just a few feet from their table, gaping back at him with his own eyes. For many, this is the most disorienting hallucination to experience. It was that way for Bron. After watching himself with the feeling that his mind had split right open, his perspective began to flip, first seeing the world from one version of himself, then looking out from the other. Having lost sense of which version of himself was the real one, he began to fear that he’d be stuck in the false one or, worse, never be able to return to his body.
With this fear mounting, he did the only thing he could think to do. He summoned his legs and sprinted out through the dining room, whisked past the other tables and flew out onto the open patio. Then without stopping, he leapt over the side railing of The Fish Tank and hurled his entire body down to the ground a story below.
The sound he made silenced the entire restaurant. Didi stared down from the rail’s edge stunned. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and to make it even worse, she began to see a lot more than she’d bargained for as Bron – shattered, broken, beautiful Bron – began to multiply before her eyes. He was a thousand ghosts of everything going wrong at once in her world.
There was nothing she could do. She was hallucinating. Distraught and useless to Bron, she pushed the button on her phone that she avoided most and hailed a DarkCar. It was a risky compromise. There would be no reward for making it…
WHY WE NEVER TAKE THE TAXI.
TW: sexual assault
“Busy night,” the DarkCar driver said. He wasn’t making casual chatter, and Didi knew it. It was a coded warning. He wanted Didi to know she was sure to have company in the cab, and he was telling her upfront that if there was any funny business, she was on her own. Didi knew this. Everybody did. The news had made it clear, legally, that drivers had no obligation to intervene when riders were compromised. Instead, the law insisted that the proper protocol was to alert police, and they even went so far as to dismiss a driver’s duty to report. Didi let her eyes roam in the darkness of the cab. The car supposedly was outfitted specifically for the protection of the riders, including tinted windows and a lighting-controlled interior meant to simulate the experience of closing your eyes. It was disorienting in the cab, and Didi never felt safe riding in one. Enough time had passed and because Didi didn’t answer the driver, he got prideful. “Long as we’re clear, Princess.”
“Go,” Didi said, like she was still talking to the table. She was shook, preferring to be stuck in traffic with just about any scumbag beside her than to lurk here frozen on the same level where Bron was being loaded into an ambulance she couldn’t follow.
“Can’t,” the driver said after way too long. “Picking up one more.” He didn’t have to, but he added, “I told ya. Busy night.”
After eons of instants without a clock to confirm how much time had passed, the door on the opposite side of the car opened, and Didi felt the weight of someone else on the seat. She couldn’t see her companion in the dark, and she made no noise of welcoming. She hoped the guy would stay to his side. It took him two minutes on the highway before his hands found their way across the seat. Why does darkness create such a cover? Maybe I ought to lighten up, Didi thought, angry.
Deciding to fight, she sat up rigidly. His hand started on her stomach, rubbing. It was always the stomach or the hand or the shoulder or the thigh, Didi thought, feeling sick. She couldn’t tell if he was hallucinating, too, but it didn’t matter. This was not that. She pushed his hand away, and as usual, he pushed back. Encouraged by her challenge, he leaned in closer, never speaking, alcohol, French fries and seafood on his breath, continuing to touch her, excused by his anonymity, protected by the DarkCar driver. It was all rigged for men, and Didi didn’t even think it was that hard to see it. She had a knife in her pocket, though, and she was prepared to use it.
Right then her biggest problem was that she couldn’t see in the dark. She accepted that the driver was useless, and as much as she wanted to shrink away from the creeping presence next to her, she began reaching in the dark to feel the man beside her, to know what she was up against. He felt her searching, and it only made him braver. He pinned her against the window and Didi lost any angle that would allow her to give him a swift chop to the throat. If she could only see his throat. Her vulnerability in these cab rides had nothing to do with her eyes. She continued jabbing and kicking, screaming, and smelling the stink of him. Nothing she had done was helping, so she changed her strategy. It was time to get out of this cab.
Maneuvering sideways, Didi got her feet up against the driver’s seat in front of her. Holding her hands against the seat behind her, she put all her weight and focus into kicking the driver’s seat. She stomped and stomped. Meanwhile she screamed, “Stop the car!” Over and over she threw the words through the windshield, “Stop the car!” Despite her effort, she didn’t expect her tantrum to work and she thought more and more of the knife. The man beside her tried to stop her kicking. He grabbed her by her wrist to throw her off-balance, but really, this was her opportunity. She pulled the knife from her pocket and held it firm in her left hand while leveling her feet on the driver’s seat. Then, with a quick movement, she jammed it hard into his hand, marking him with a deep wound. He recoiled, screaming, and fell back in the dark. She would never see his face, but now she didn’t need to. She would know him if she ever saw him on the street. There wasn’t long to feel satisfied. The driver swerved and braked. The force of the stop caused Didi’s chin to slam into her knee, jamming her tooth through her lip and throwing the knife under the seat. She felt her lip split, then blood spurt from her face.
“Get out,” the driver said, and Didi drew a breath in sharply, looking up in the dark and waiting for the man to slither back out into the actual night.
“Now, Princess,” the driver said. “Out.”
Didi almost couldn’t believe it, because it was almost exactly too perfect, so she laughed. She laughed loud, bleeding, and she sat there and wasted both their time, and laughed. The whole time, she fumbled in the dark for her knife until she found it. On her way out, she sneered at the shadow that shook her, just to feel the sneer on her face, and she heard him say “dumb bitch” when she slammed the door. She had to admit that he was right about one thing. She felt safer now, but it was true that this was no way out.
THIS IS HOW PEOPLE DIE.
Didi was on the side of the road, the last place she’d ever want to be. This is how people die, she thought, keeping her eyes shut and straining to hear the cars. It was no use, though. Didi had lost her bearings and she was still bleeding. In the black of her eyelids, shapes began forming, first large triangles, then smaller triangles, then at once the triangles became birds that burst in all directions. Didi was not comforted. She was frustrated. Forever, forever frustrated. She realized forever was a death sentence. She flung her eyes open and forced herself to face the cars.
Immediately the traffic morphed into a swirl of cars that flooded her vision like shooting stars in slow-motion, bursting out in so many vibrant colors from all the brightly painted cars, with all their lights forming trails across her gaze like galactic dust. It struck her as infinite. With only the sounds of the road as feedback, Didi became immensely frightened of the road, but she had to overcome it, because she had an idea to get home.
Facing the road now, she kept her eyes open as she turned away from the road to make an exact about-face. Now she was seeing a kaleidoscope of the palm trees that shielded the closest neighborhood from the highway. These trees she knew so well would guide her. She knew it was still too soon to go into the woods. She’d get lost too easily, and unless she could snap out of her hallucinations, she’d be wandering. Everybody knew blind wandering is how you get killed. Her mind briefly reeled and she sucked in her sadness, reminded of her mother and all the friends she’d lost since the hallucinations had begun. She knew she was blind wandering right then, but she forced the anxious thought into the blackness of her mind, refusing it. She began sweating as soon as she moved, the sun overwhelmingly present even though it had mostly set. Taking slow breaths of wet air, she walked toward the palms until she got just to the edge. Her plan was to walk alongside the trees, feeling them with her fingertips as a guide, and keeping herself at a safe distance from the cars until she reached the strip mall again.
She opened her eyes and in the highway’s glaring light, she could make out in the chaos that there was an overpass up ahead. She impulsively decided that if she could make it to the overpass, she’d be safe. Safer than she was now, and safer than she was in the DarkCar. She felt the bark of the palm trees as she took step after step, feeling the coarse trunk on her hand like the ridges of a concrete sidewalk on a bare foot. She thought, I do declare, I’ve never been more pedestrian, allowing a laugh at herself, taking comfort in the act of being silly.
As she got closer to the overpass, she began to have trouble as she once again got lost in her eyelids. It was second nature to her, zoning out within them, choosing to be a prisoner. She’d been doing it since childhood, lying around bored and forming the dark she found within her eyes into a starry night sky. It gave her another universe to look into, and she told herself this substance she saw was the blackest of all the blacks there were, and that she contained it, just as everyone did. Only their own black. She knew for certain that her black was her mind, that no one else would ever see it, and the depth of it could only be described in measures of her. She slapped the palm tree this time, and then skipped the next few trees, thinking, so what if I wander and hate all the rules.
When she reached the overpass, she was practically drowning in the sound of cars, a noise that was impossible to ignore, that revved up louder the longer she withdrew sight and, after a very short while, irritated her as much as the mosquitoes that nipped way at her skin. It was all too much of one thing, repetitive and droning, disrupting any sense of ease she could have found in meditating in the dark. It became so disorienting that she had to sit down, so she did, climbing up the incline and sitting among the weeds and discarded cans. Next came a decision she dreaded. She needed to open her eyes, to take a break from the void and to decide on her next steps to get herself home. She pulled both eyes open at once.
Startling chaos, cars confronted her. She jolted, reacting, but quickly calmed herself by thinking about everything she knew that contradicted what she was seeing. She told herself that the cars were moving in one direction, and that the likelihood of any car taking a sharp turn under the overpass to mow her down was extremely narrow. As she considered the reality of the road from her mind’s eye, her actual eyes drifted to the other side of the overpass. Beyond the cars, there was an incline just like the one she sat on, with grass and vines growing all over it, too. Over there among the weeds and brush, she noticed there were also spots of color. Flowers. The more she noticed, the more these flowers became peppered into her busy field of vision, until a breath later, she was watching bright purple phlox and yellow tickseed almost bloom directly into her field of sight, disrupting the deluge of cars that menaced her. Her eyes began responding the more information she collected, rewarding her for noticing details around her.
It had never occurred to Didi how much she gave up by shutting down the moment her hallucinations started. It was overwhelming, gaining some sense of control. Just then a sound disrupted everything. A semi honked and Didi realized in horror that she’d been careless. It’s so easy to forget your feet when your eyes wander. Remembering this, Didi’s eyes shot down to her feet. She saw them replicate before her and she couldn’t tell, which side of the white line was the safe side? This is how people die, she thought again, her entire body locked, frozen, terrified and glued there, unable to make a choice or move. The truck blew past and Didi gasped. It had been fear that saved her.
In her pocket, her phone buzzed, and Didi reached in to retrieve it. It was surely Moira calling, worried sick. She could have let her sister know she was safe, but Didi didn’t want Moira in her ear right after she’d almost fallen into the temptation that Moira had: loving her hallucinations instead of learning how to see around them. Didi wouldn’t make that mistake again. She thought more about her mother, whose last days were a struggle due to her hallucinations and whose treatment had divided her daughters. Didi and Moira couldn’t agree on how to help with her visions, so they did nothing for too long and Didi never forgot how her mother had suffered their indecision. She was suffocating then in murky disappointment in herself, thinking of all the choices that come at you so cheap. Didi held her phone and she saw then that it was only a crutch that would ensure she’d always walk with a limp. So she tossed her phone into the street like a skipping stone. Hit the road, she thought, feeling the lightness that comes with leaving things behind.
There was only one thing to do next. She looked up and out, where she could see hundreds of versions of The Fish Tank, rotating like a Ferris wheel not too far off in the distance. She’d escaped the road for now and she was safe. She smiled to give herself the sense that it was all OK, because the thing about smiling when no one else is around: It’s just a feeling, not a message. Didi cast her eyes up at the sunset and let her eyes show her a new one. The colors were so exciting, her cheeks began to burn from holding up her delight and she made no effort to hide it.
What was more exciting was that she had been moving this whole time and she had made it to the poisonwood, braved the spiderwebs to burst through the palm trees, stepped right through the coontie shrubs this time, and crunched them under her feet, stumbling. She stopped and trained her eyes on the floor, doing her best to find the truly empty spaces to avoid the other rows of shrubs. It became a game of correcting her own impulses, which was a game she’d learned to play before, so she was good at it, or good enough.
She had reached the mulch now and she knew what would come next. She raised her eyes at what now appeared to be a fortress of saw palmetto, with jagged points that seemed aimed at her from every direction. She closed her eyes and told herself, it’s just a plant, so what if it sticks you, and before she knew it, she wasn’t on the road any longer, but through her sister’s back door and on the couch where she’d been hours before. She laid on the cushion and closed her eyes, at home in the dark she found there.
“Hey,” Moira said, as engrossed in her hallucination as she had been when Didi left.
“Hey,” Didi said. She opened her eyes and in front of her was a pizza. She could see the blotches of brown in the cheese, the bubbles of bread in the charred crust. She picked up a slice, and that’s what it was, a single perfect slice of cheese pizza. Nothing more. She bit it and it stung her cut lip. Her hallucinations had ended.
“How was your date?” Moira asked.
“He leapt off The Fish Tank,” Didi said, biting the slice again.
“What?” Moira asked, looking up. Seeing Didi’s lip, she shook her head violently, “Oh Christ, no, no, no, Didi, what did you do to your face?”
“I stumbled into some luck in the cab,” Didi joked.
Moira sighed and went to the bathroom for bandages, but Didi stopped her.
“It’s late.” Didi said. She tenderly touched her lip. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Oh Didi, I knew it was a bad idea to go out.” Moira said.
Didi had picked up the throw pillow next to her. “Did you just stitch this?” she asked, pointing to a pattern she didn’t recognize from just before.
At the same time, Moira asked, “Are you seeing things now?” Then she answered her sister, blushing. “And yes. It’s the stitching on the their shirts. I wanted to remember it.”
“Gotcha,” Didi said, patting the pillow. “It’s nice,” she said sincerely. “And no. I’m not seeing things anymore.” She set down the pizza, remembering her view from the patio, the stabbing repetition of all those wounded Brons.
“Well, that’s good,” Moira said, turning back to her pink men, oblivious to what Didi was hiding from her. Didi was oblivious too, not knowing that there were many, many more pink men now, and that they had formed in long rows, in a calculated attempt to scale the sliding glass door, upon which there existed at least one thing that Didi could see: a small green frog unwittingly stuck just above them.
“Hey before you go, could you do me a favor?” Moira asked, urgently. “I can’t find my phone and I’m afraid it’s died. Could you message Mark to keep the kids out overnight?”
Huh, Didi thought, so the buzz on her phone had not been from Moira. She felt the emptiness of her pocket, but instantly told herself to forget the whole thing. There was nothing she could do about it now. Tears washed over her eyes, a cloud over her world. People don’t come back from the hospital.
“Whoops,” she said to Moira, showing her empty hands. “Looks like I can’t message anyone.”
Moira looked at her, annoyed.
“I threw my phone in the road,” Didi explained.
Moira laughed and looked at Didi like she was an adorable tiny pink man. “Really?” she asked, wide-eyed. “You know what mom would say?” The sisters fell into step, mimicking their mother, “Didi’s never quite right.” Didi smiled at her sister who meant well, then thought fondly of their mother who had, too. “Yeah, well never only lasts forever if you let it,” she said and winked delivering this wretched slogan. Moira groaned and Didi left the house she’d left so many times before and navigated the short walk home to her apartment, exhausted and ready for the kind of solitude where you don’t see yourself for days. It didn’t matter what Moira thought, she decided. Without a hammer or nail, Didi had changed how she saw her world.
Back in the street, Didi’s abandoned phone contained the message she’d missed, from Bron. He’d sent it from the hospital, a morbid joke the perfect length for his last Clickmate recording. It just said: “When can I see you again?”
Read more: Outro: My Nightmare