It began one morning. My eyes opened to the sound of my alarm. The sun hadn’t risen yet. I tried to hit snooze, but my body didn’t cooperate. Instead, I sat up and swung off the covers. Instinctually, I tried to shut my eyes and rub them, but my hands wouldn’t obey. My eyelids wouldn’t obey. At once, by the volition of some alien will, my body hopped out of bed and walked to the kitchen.
Am I sleep walking?
My body flicked on the lights and proceeded to make coffee. I watched my hands maneuver the grinder, the jar of beans, the kettle, as if watching a silent cooking show shot in first person. The tumbling crunch of the grinder cut the stillness. My eyes stared out the window.
Watching the dark reflection of my face, I thought about lucid dreams—where the dreamer becomes conscious of the dream, and assumed that was happening to me. I caught myself sleepwalking and for some reason my body kept carrying out involuntary movements as though my consciousness didn’t matter.
It breathes for me, beats my heart to pump blood around for me. All kinds of complicated cellular transactions go on without any input from me—in fact, within me there exists a complete biological economy running smooth as clockwork—so why should it be so weird for my body to make coffee now and then?
But with each passing moment it became more difficult to convince myself of this. For one, I’d never had a lucid dream before and as far as I know, I’d never sleepwalked before either. No doubt my son or my ex (both light sleepers) would have mentioned it. Sure, there’s a first time for everything, but for a dream, this felt astonishingly real.
At the breakfast counter my body ate a hot bowl of porridge, sipped coffee and read the morning news on my phone. A spoonful of grey sludge slid into my mouth for my teeth to chew. My tongue dislodged a sticky lump and swallowed. This sensation struck me as too odd, too surreal. And I began to panic.
I couldn’t scream.
Desperate, I attempted to will myself awake, yelling wake up in my head, as if trying to force a balloon to pop by filling it with loud thoughts. Ignoring me, my body showered and shaved. As my hand scraped a razor across my face, I searched my eyes for clues. Clues for what, I don’t know. Signs of something strange maybe—a signal this wasn’t real.
My familiar reflection stared back at me, expressionless and vacant, reminding me of what a plain looking guy I am. Mr. Normal. No especially unique features of any kind—an office worker haircut, neat, tidy, boring—like the rest of me. Not tall, not short, not handsome but not ugly—always in the middle. Middle summed me up. Middle aged, middle management, middle class.
Dressed for work, my body got in the car and drove beneath an overcast sky to the concrete government records building my colleagues and I call The Bunker. Walking through the maze of cubicles hung with fluorescent lights (the kind that suck the juice from your eyeballs) my body said hello to everyone, sat at the desk in my office and began working. As it worked, I remained imprisoned, unable to do anything but watch data created and edited by my possessed hands. Into my ears came the click-clack of typing as my nose drew in the suffocating smell of humid, musty air.
During our ten o’clock coffee break, Alison, one of my staff, laid out a tray of chocolate cupcakes she’d baked the night before. The first Wednesday of the month. What kind of dream would recreate Alison’s cupcake day? God, even my dreams are boring. But this is too real to be a dream…and too strange to be real…
Every motion, every choice my body made, mimicked what I would do, except for one thing—it spent the day without slacking off. The amount of work it got done was astounding, not deviating onto social media or random websites like I did. When we got home, my body prepared noodles and fried vegetables, sat down in front of the couch and watched garbage TV until I fell asleep, exhausted.
The next morning, I flexed my fingers, watching them move before my eyes like little aliens.
So it was just a crazy lucid dream after all.
I rose from the couch, went to the mirror and felt my face. The sensation made me smile. But my elation was immediately erased by a single corrosive thought—what if yesterday was real? I checked the date on my phone. Wait, what day was yesterday? I couldn’t remember. I must have been so discombobulated by the dream, I forgot.
There’s got to be a way to check if yesterday really happened. Then it struck – Alison’s cupcakes.
* * * * *
“Is Alison in yet?” I called no one in particular as I rushed into The Bunker. A few shook their heads.
I paced my office and checked my phone every few seconds until, finally, the bunker door opened and Alison’s voice traveled over the cubicles, greeting everyone. She hadn’t even put her bag down when I commandeered her to my office.
“So sorry I’m late.” She stepped in. I motioned for her to shut the door. She swung it closed, deliberately averting her gaze from mine. “Damn cat got out. I had to chase it two blocks with a broom.” She forced a smile.
“I don’t care that you’re late.”
She turned to me, her sheepishness unchanged.
“I need to ask you something.” My heart rate climbed. “Those chocolate cupcakes you brought in yesterday, do you have the recipe?”
“Oh, you liked them?” She smiled. “I don’t use a recipe—it’s all up here.” She touched a fingernail to her head.
The blood drained from my face.
Her eyes widened. “I can write it down.”
I shook my head. “No…that’s…um…ah…”
“Are you okay?”
I nodded. “That will be all.”
Dumbstruck, Alison left my office and as soon as she closed the door I fell to my knees and gripped my head in my hands. What…what happened to me? I pulled my hair until it hurt.
Once I composed myself, I told my staff I wasn’t feeling well and took the rest of the day off. I couldn’t focus. Couldn’t think. I searched my symptoms online but no condition described what was happening to me. Nothing except insanity.
As I sat at home in front of my computer, mind blank—my hands suddenly moved on their own. My right hand grabbed the mouse, opened a new document and they both started typing:
Obey the pattern.
My hands went limp. I had control back. For a long time I stared at the three words and considered what to do. My chest felt constricted with barbed wire. Finally, I typed:
My hands were commandeered again:
Each day you will go to work, come home, watch TV, eat and go to bed. You will not deviate from this pattern. Allowances will be made for grocery shopping, gas and other necessities for survival, but no more. If you don’t obey the pattern I will take time away from you.
How much time?
As much as necessary.
What do I do on weekends?
Sit and watch TV, periodically go for walks to maintain reasonable fitness, consume the necessary sustenance for survival and sleep.
Why are you doing this?
Because the pattern must be obeyed.
The answer would have no meaning for you. All you need to remember are three words—obey the pattern.
How long do I have to do this?
There is no end.
Who are you?
I am the pattern.
I couldn’t type. Power over my hands returned but I had nothing left to ask. Nothing I could think of. My head felt as if it had just been struck with a hard object. Under my shirt, sweat had coalesced. When I pulled at the collar, a straight line of cold ran down my spine.
* * * * *
Waiting in the doctor’s office, I cupped my palms over my knees, shut my eyes and rehearsed various chains of words and sentences, but every one broke reason or twisted logic, inevitably betraying my sanity. The doctor, a gaunt woman with round glasses, entered and we greeted each other.
“How can I help you today?” she said, looking not exactly at me.
“Okay,” I rubbed my legs. “This is going to sound weird, I realize, but…”
My mouth contorted and my words turned into mumbles.
Tilting her head to the side, the doctor waited.
I tried to speak the words, but my mouth didn’t cooperate. I’d lost control again.
My body coughed a fake cough and then said, “Ahh…sorry. I…I’m actually fine. I’m wasting your time. I have to go.”
My body got up.
No, I thought. That wasn’t me! Please help me! It’s not me!
Conjuring will power from deep inside, I attempted to speak, to shout for help. But the Pattern had taken over and decided to leave the room. The doctor asked something and my body shut the door, cutting her off, and we exited the building. Hurried, the Pattern took me to work.
Why? Why are you doing this? I thought.
Casually, it greeted Alison and my other colleagues with a broad smile. “The traffic today!” it said, twirling into my office like a jackass.
Who the hell do you think you are? My mind screamed. Give my body back! Right now!
Ignoring me, my body carried out the day as normal—even despite my internal screams, my mental cries, my deluge of derogatory insults and violent threats. At the end of the day, apparently satisfied with its work, it bid goodbye to the remaining staff and went home to repeat the same pattern of healthy eating and TV watching as before.
The pattern didn’t relinquish control. Another day went by, then another. A toxic thought poisoned my mind—what if it never returns control? If I could have cried I would have. The days passed, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second. It became excruciating, not only because of my imprisonment but the sheer boredom of viewing my life being lived.
God my life sucks, I thought, as another round of data entry, bland food, bad TV and banal small talk passed by. The monotony of my job and the depressing state of my life hit me with full force. My body went home to no one. Nothing was waiting for me except the TV, which I sat in front of ad nauseam.
My life accumulates to nothing, I realized. I have nothing. No one would notice if I never got my body back.
At that moment, in the corner of my eye, out of focus, I caught a framed photograph of my son and I on the sideboard. It provided an interval of happiness amidst the misery.
* * * * *
Waking to the sensation of my head turning to the side, I opened my mouth and made a long incoherent sound.
Wait..I did that, I thought. I have control!
Rolling out of bed I ran up and down the hall, jumping and hollering. The ecstasy—my toes curling against the wooden floorboards, my fingers through my hair, my lips against my skin. God it was good. I smacked kisses up the length of my arms and all over my hands, I stretched and breathed and repeated, “I’m back…I’m back!”
At work I wrote an email I felt utterly unable to send. It was to Ben, my son, who I hadn’t seen in seven years. For the most part, my ex raised him. A long time ago they moved to the other side of the country and as a result, I only saw Ben on holidays, but since he turned twenty-or-so, and moved out on his own, we’d grown apart. The last time I tried to arrange a visit, he told me not come and that if I did, he wouldn’t see me anyway. That was seven years ago. We’d exchanged emails for birthdays and holidays but for seven years that’s the only contact I’ve had with Ben. And this morning I’d written him an email asking if I could visit.
The email sat in my drafts folder all day. I opened it and hovered the mouse over the send button.
If the pattern takes over my body permanently I’ll never see Ben again, I thought. With a rush of blood to the head, I pushed ‘send’.
It took two days for Ben to reply, but when he did I was overjoyed. He wanted to see me and in his email he explained how bad he felt that we’d become so estranged. He wanted a new start. A positive start.
I booked everything right away.
At home that night, at my computer, my hands were taken over by the Pattern again:
What are you planning?
I want to see my son.
Soon. Maybe later this month. I’d like to fly there and meet him. I’d need some time off work.
It deviates from the pattern.
If you deviate I will take more time.
How about this—when I get back I’ll follow the pattern for as long as you want. I just want to see my son.
No. Unacceptable. You will follow the pattern as normal.
Why are you doing this to me?
Obey the pattern.
I stared at the screen. There came no reply. Hitting the keys harder, I typed ‘why?’ over and over, but the Pattern remained silent. Tears streamed down my face. I attempted to comprehend the gravity of the Pattern’s words. Screwing my eyes shut, I bared my teeth, clenched my fists and made a guttural sound. In a flash of rage, I punched the screen.
* * * * *
All the preparations were made. At 8:47 PM my son would be picking me up from Vancouver airport. Packed luggage waited in the trunk of my car. It was nearly time to leave work and catch my plane. Even though I’d booked the cab and packed, the Pattern didn’t give me any trouble. I still retained full control, and this caused a hopeful bubble of excitement to rise in me. Maybe it felt bad for me and changed its mind, I thought. After all, if it knows if I’m happy, I’ll obey the pattern. I’ll do anything it wants when I get back.
Arriving at the airport I checked my bag, claimed my ticket and sat near my gate. Nothing’s happening. I watched the airport staff get ready to board passengers. Suddenly they called my section. I approached the entryway. A film of moisture formed on my hands and they trembled so badly I dropped my ticket. Smiling, with an open hand held towards me, a stewardess picked it up and greeted me. She scanned my ticket and handed it back. I think I thanked her, but can’t be sure—my mind was a wreck. Let me go…please let me go, I thought as I walked down the ramp, a thud of passengers following behind. The door to the plane came into view. An airline host smiled as he saw me coming. My heart jackhammered, my mouth twitched.
He grabbed my ticket and inspected it. I could’ve puked.
“Just down on your left,” he said with a guiding gesture.
“Actually,” I said, “I changed my mind.”
The host threw me a confused look.
For a moment, I didn’t grasp what happened. I said something. But it wasn’t…
My body turned around.
No! I screamed, but no words came, only a feint mumble.
Leaving the plane, my foot halted mid-step. Exerting full mental power, somehow, I gained control over my eyes and when I slid them to the side, saw the edge of the door. My hands grasped it. Impatient passengers shoved past and boarded.
My body froze, immobilized by the tug-of-war in my mind. I refuse to obey. I’m going to see my son. I’m getting on this plane. Let go of me. Let go right now!
The Pattern didn’t relent. As I stood contorted, hugging the side of the airplane door, staff began to ask if I was okay, but only garbled words and low moans emanated from my mouth. Eyes pushed out, muscles shot—it felt like being ripped in two. The airplane staff called security.
If only someone, anyone, would rescue me.
“Helllpp…” I uttered weakly. Tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes when I thought about Ben, because I knew I couldn’t fight any longer. The Pattern was too strong. Exasperated, I let go.
* * * * *
That was a year ago.
Yesterday, the hell I’ve been in finally ended. When I woke up, I involuntarily rolled on my side and did a double take of the room. Watching my fingers curl into a fist by my own will, I cried. Hugging myself into a ball under the blankets, I ran my hands over my arms, legs and chest, sobbing and writhing. Shakily, I swung my legs off the bed and touched the floor. On the first step I fell hard. From a pile of limbs, I unfolded myself, and, with a hand running against the wall, walked up and down the halls of my house, reorienting myself in reality. Having regained my balance, I rushed onto the front yard. Arrested by the brush of wind on my skin, I closed my eyes and felt the sensation of pure freedom. My face couldn’t decide whether to smile or wince. Jolts of laughter burst from me. On my knees, I ran my hands through blades of grass, shut my eyes and extended my body.
After a while, I clenched patches of grass, bent over, and lowered my head.
“I will obey the pattern,” I said, and repeated these words through broken sobbing until the tears would come no longer. A woman jogged by. As much as I craved physical contact, I managed to restrain myself from running up and hugging her.
Day in, day out for a year— I viewed the boring tedium of my life—unable to speak, to move, to feel. The fact I maintained some semblance of a sane working mind is a minor miracle in itself. During my incarceration, the dull monotony suffocated my intellect. I felt dumb. Every cubic inch of my head crammed with stale thoughts.
The Pattern didn’t see or contact Ben—not once. An image of him standing at the airport, waiting for me to emerge from the plane, never left my thoughts. He’ll probably never speak to me again. I’ll probably never see him again. The Pattern won’t allow it. Now I have nothing.
* * * * *
This morning, back inside The Bunker, I sat at my desk stewing over everything that happened and contemplated the rest of my life. A dangerous idea took hold in my mind.
I called Alison into my office.
She greeted me as I shut the door behind her. I took a seat behind my desk and looked her in the eyes with and intense seriousness.
“If I told you something about me, something very strange, will you promise not to judge?”
Silence prevailed and her face transformed from welcoming to expressionless.
I decided to keep talking. “Something is happening to me that I can’t explain. I might be killed just for telling you this.” A wave of nausea hit. “For the past year my body has been possessed. Something called the Pattern, took control of me.” Why is the Pattern letting me tell her this? I searched Alison’s face for understanding, but there was none. She continued to look through me, as if staring at the wall behind me.
“I feel like, very soon, I’m going to lose my mind. Before that happens I wanted to tell someone, anyone. You don’t have to believe me. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be punished for this, probably for the rest of my life. But at least you know. At least someone knows.”
Still, Alison’s face remained totally dispassionate.
“Do you believe me? Haven’t you noticed something off about me during the past year?”
“Please, say something.” A shiver went up my spine and shook my whole body.
Alison got up from her chair, turned and walked to the door.
I got up. “Do you believe me? Don’t you have anything to say?”
Opening the door, Alison, with her head turned toward me, looked at me and said in a low voice, “Obey the pattern…”
She shut the door behind her.
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