Layer 01: Pax Vesania
I’m standing in a crowded room with a high ceiling. Fluorescent light bulbs bear down on the people milling about the place, and the din of a few dozen casual conversations bounces off the bare tiled floor.
I don’t know what I’m doing here, besides standing out. The idea, I assume, was to get people to socialize and relax after being tested. But there’s so many Upernooious and Eserosius dancing the delicate dance of conversation together, and I don’t even know where my own place in such a display would be. Is it an art, one that’s felt out? Is there a technique to saying things that will fascinate your partner? I don’t know, and I’m too scared to get pulled into a whirlingly hypnotic display of language to find out.
The pale beams bear down like an oppressive sun.
I can’t take it.
The chatter grows louder.
Just like I was told it would at times like these.
Before I know it, I have my eyes closed and head tilted back, trying to lose myself in the glare through my eyelids. Even after a couple dozen minutes tick by, I’m not finding much success. And then my strainedly meditative state is broken by a tap on the shoulder.
Standing out against the sea of backs is a person, and that’s about all I could say about them. Every quality about them quivers and shifts like rays of sunlight on the bottom of a pool, utterly indescribable not from shapelessness, but from that shape being discarded by the time one finds words for it. Not even their clothes are immune; though they never become anything more elaborate than casual wear, their shirt wanders styles, drifts from long- to short-sleeved, and runs a gambit over the more washed-out end of the color wheel.
The last thing I remember was seeing that shirt fade from a black tee with some implacable logo printed on it, to a white short-sleeved button-down. It’s almost like seeing that shift take place, the act of noticing it happen, booted me back into consciousness. Or maybe that shirt is just some kind of sleep-nullifying charm. Either way, I’m thrown from a comfortably uncomfortable dream into a sharply cold awakening.
The sun’s not up yet, of course. Just my luck. There’s nothing to do except go back to sleep. In my heart of hearts, I know trying to sleep is as futile as my attempt at sensory deprivation back in that room of chatter, but I don’t have much of a choice.
Lying there, feeling my cold sweat soak off me, as I turn and toss and try to empty my brain, one melancholy revelation drifts to the surface. I never heard that person speak a single word, before my dream shattered.
Hours float by. I’m not sure if I ever fell back asleep.
Eventually, the sun cracks over the horizon, and I pull myself to my feet with it. I don’t have anything to do today, though. I’m not in school, and I don’t have a job. My job right now is feeling better, I’m told. I still don’t talk to anyone but the doctors, like I’m contagious or something, even though I don’t feel chills or anything. Those attacks that leave me hazy and sweating ice only happen in my sleep.
Waking days are a haze. Not entirely an unpleasant one, either; everyone’s very nice to me, even though I can’t make myself talk. It’s not a matter of not having the words; I have things I want to say, but the vibrations feel like they’re coming up the wrong pipe, or else just sliding past my voice box like a writhing mass of eels. Either way, I have no reason to be upset. I can watch movies whenever, or I can try drawing this churning feeling. I could read, too, and I’m told I enjoy that, but these days written sentences gum up my eye sockets with molasses. Spoken ones are about as clear as molasses; not entirely opaque, but a lot of nuance gets lost in the deep sepia tint.
The people orbiting me are virtuously patient with my blunders, though. It’s like they can see into my mind, see my every thought, see my circumstances, and as comforting as that should be I can’t help but feel like a pinned-open frog drying out before their gaze, which just makes me feel worse. I’m doubting the people who care for me, who want me to be happy. What’s wrong with me?
That’s still up for debate. I hear the, let’s say, passionate discussion, every night as I try to drift off. There seem to be as many theories as there are stars in the sky, and as many diagnoses as there are planets orbiting those stars. I’ve heard everything from “PTSD from early development ostracization” to “Poisoned by satellite radio” and if I’m being honest I’d feel better if it was something like the latter. At least I wouldn’t be the only case of this particular strain of sickness.
But personally, I feel fine. Not worth all this trouble, perhaps, and maybe a little shy, but otherwise I’m sure I’ll grow into myself. The pills, “meds” as they’re called around here, almost insistently, taste bad. They’re either rubbery, slick with grease and stink of rot, or they’re sweet, too sweet, so sweet I feel like I’m losing my mind. Either way it's an unpleasant experience.
They used to have me wear these glasses, too, with reddish lenses. I think that was when “Straight To Video” saw me. (I’ve given nicknames to all the doctors over the years.) She took one severe look down at me and said, “Oh yeah, that’s a case of screen poisoning if ever I saw it.” She went into some spiel about how blue light was poisoning our humanity, drawing us so close together we can’t speak. This was a few years back, so I never got all of it. I left her hawkish gaze with those Spectacles and a sheet of stretches to do before watching movies or playing games. They didn’t do anything much, nothing that I could describe anyways. But the world felt like it was crushing me in a candy-colored embrace. Everything I saw through them was addictively beautiful, so much so that it all became stale after a while. I had to stop wearing them, anyway, since that was around the time I got prescription lenses. I still remember the final words that doctor spoke to me, too.
She tilted her head slightly, like a confused puppy, and said, “Awh, that’s too bad.”
And it seemed like she meant it. She wore a genuinely sympathetic face, maybe even exaggeratedly pouty, but exaggerated in the camp sense that carries sincerity. Either way, she was a completely different person than the steely ideologue I remembered. She seemed genuinely sad she couldn’t have helped me get better.
There are so many people like that out there, who I know care for my well being, and yet I can’t get better.
There was a man I called “Desire Blue Sky” for his solar fixation. He claimed my problem was that I wasn’t getting enough sun or exercise, but himself seemed to never leave his office. Said office was almost like a greenhouse for how many windows it had, though his mouth turned down at the corners like a fish’s. That’s about all I remember, though. These sort of “bugbear practitioners” whose very being seemed to be layered in hypocrisy made me feel spurned by the world for a bit there.
That is, until I got REAL help. Or, started getting it, because that’s what’s happening now. There’s a team of people working together to find what’s wrong with me and how we can launch a multi-pronged attack on it. Almost like the kind of conspiracy I want to have happen around me.
When I grow up, I want to help people the same way, not necessarily as a doctor but in a way where the act of helping them helps me too.
Layer 02: Medical Mechanica
I can’t believe I sent another bright-eyed kid out the door with a bottle of this stuff.
I leaned back in my chair, watching the thin beams of sunlight glimmer off the nameplate on my desk: Dr. Brundle Vepar, it read, same as always. What are we even pushing these days? I idly turned the translucent pink cylinder in my hand, and the powdery capsules inside rattles. It had been a while since something worked, just worked, with no complications, no side effects, and no sticky hairs getting in my clean grid. Where’s the surgical precision I signed up for?
Other than the impeccable presentation of the office, there was nothing absolute about medicine, especially not psychiatry. Nothing clean about it, either, with all the high-paying contracts tying us to this or that drug company.
There once was a time when I wanted to be a medical hero, extending the miracles of modern medicine down to the ailing masses. But in my first semester of med school, I realized that I’d have to climb over a lot of people in order to reach a good vantage point. In my depressed throes I refocused on something less selfless; the salary. I could at least do some good with that, right?
Once again I had forgotten to look for a bigger picture.
Where was that money coming from? I think I just assumed it had something to do with insurance. I was never a money man, but I didn’t think it was this bad. Fact is, it’s a total crapshoot if you see the person who can prescribe you what will work for your brain. You’re not just searching for a cure, but someone who will grant it to you. And I’m complicit, because what choice do I have?
There’s just one patient I see who seems to be doing well. And his appointment is next.
A young man in a red hoodie stood up. “Dr. Vepar is ready for you,” the receptionist said with a smile. He silently nodded, lank black hair falling in front of his eyes.
“Hey there, Augustus! So, how are things?”
The boy smiled, but said nothing and kept his head downcast.
“One of those, huh? Those days? Well, hey, if you don’t have any complaints, let’s keep you on Pleroma. Everyone has ups and downs, that’s normal.” Dr. Vepar was frantic, but didn’t let it show on his face. Panic only showed through the tiny cracks between his teeth that shone from a shark-like grin, empty of both malice and joy. Augustus, with that Catoblepas-like downwards stare, didn’t appear to notice anything strange with Vepar’s expression.
“Sound good?” asked the doctor.
Augustus tilted his head up just too slowly to look quite right, and made a drilling eye contact. “Sure. Thank you.”
Elsewhere, in narrow streets burning a dim, rotten orange, a fire was lit. Above the flickering flames stood a wicker… man? No, this was like a bee, or a fly, given humanoid form. It had a woven stomach bloated with flammable stuffing, and a face just as convex with its bulging eyes. And it burned gorgeously, as another spark in the setting sun.
The hooded red figures responsible for the ignition began to cavort madly along with the flickering infernal tongues. Their twisting shadows were but another element of chaotic lighting in the once uniformly aflame row. There was the orange of a dying day, yes, and the paler yellowish hue from the fire that danced off the uniform glimmering doorknobs. This was illumination by the hands of humans. It lent some credence to the myth of Prometheus, gifting divine flame to humanity, for now in its hands these all-too-corruptible husks held the power of the sun.
Hours pass. Howls resound off narrow walls as the horizon overtakes the dying light.
Layer 03: A Day
My name is Alistair Macabre.
This is a new thought for me.
And then, I recognize the ceiling above me.
Like these past—what, eight years?— were but a dream, I knew I was alive. There was no haze about me. I move with a physicality I never knew. I may have risen from my bed before, but this is the first time I feel awake.
There is little in this room. Just the bed I lay on, a bedside table, and a dresser topped with a small mirror. It’s austerity in its most practical form; not barren, but full of just enough to sustain itself.
There is a desire in me to clutter this fresh space, but I don’t know what to fill it with.
As awake as I feel, I also feel cold. Or maybe it’s better to say I can feel myself leaking heat. There’s a blanket over me, a thick one at that, but it may as well be newspaper.
Without another heat source next to me, I can feel myself emptying.
Which is strange. I know, somehow, that I have never been loved as anything more than a cause or a special case. So this absence shouldn’t be. I never had someone to take for granted, and yet I ache as though I had.
Sunlight pours in through an undecorated set of windows. I’ll have to fix that.
My clock doesn’t have an alarm, so it must have been that light that woke me.
As I come to, the enlightened feeling starts to fade. I don’t know why I felt special today of all days, but I know that it’s nothing more than a delusion. There’s no such thing as overnight turnarounds; my life, at least, has been more of a gauntlet than that. A series of challenges and trials I crawl through in the hopes of reaching the starting line towards fulfillment.
Twelve hours cannot change someone’s life.
A boy in a crimson robe sits in the rays of the rising sun.
Around him are scattered white wolf-like dogs, blank black eyes filled with mindless contentment. Their tongues loll out of open grins, gazing up at their master with automatic adoration.
He walks down the narrow street, past glimmering doors, wrought iron fences, and a pile of ashes, and his familiars follow obediently. They trot along in his footsteps as if his every move is holy.
On my way out of the room, I spot something. There’s an amber jar on the floor, with a white cap. A case for prescription medicine. Said cap is clean, free of the dust bunnies that litter the baseboard, so it must have been placed there recently.
The label reads:
Active Ingredient Ext. Of Decorated Gelatin
Inst. For Use: Take one pill by mouth in the morning, and one at night. For mental health use: If symptoms worsen, persist with dosage until prescription runs out. Only stop taking if physical side effects (I.E. stomach pain 10-15 minutes after use) persist after your evening dose.
I’m, of course, suspicious. But hey, it can’t hurt. My glowing ethereal revelation is already growing dim, and I can feel the heat leak from me more than ever. It’s not like there’s much I stand to lose.
The pills are powdery, and a pale pink. They smell like some kind of wetland flower, I think. Memories briefly flicker through my head as I crunch the capsule, releasing its odor. In the time it takes for the pill to disintegrate, I remember being small, in the days before I even thought of myself as wrong. I stretch my tiny stride as far as it will go between stones— no, cubes. Concrete cubes, mostly sunken in deep green water. I’m walking across that water on cubes, like perfect islands, surrounded by unstable meadows of scentless water lilies and framed by shores of pungent lotuses. That’s the smell! Lotuses!
It’s no sooner than I put my finger on the scent that it dissipates, with a final powerful gathering in the back of my nose, and then, nothing.
Those sweet vapors give me all the resolve I need to push forth. If I am truly awake, as my useless feelings dictate, then I need to work. If not, then I need to try to get there, to fix myself.
So, I open the door—
And a million images hit me all at once.
The few I could pick out were… absurd, at best. Mostly, poorly drawn caricatures of human emotion, that it seemed everyone but me understood. As I watched, I was able to pick out more and more from the overwhelming flow of consciousness bearing down on me, with considerable effort. I began to see correlations between one twisted grin and something that seemed an inverted, but equally churned, frown. Screams of rage mirrored by tearful acceptance. I looked closer, and found a greater knowing: these exaggerated responses were born of everyday occurrences everyone understood. And they were not static. These distorted reflections warped before my very eyes! They evolved into new images, bearing the same meaning, in real time!
I forced my way against the current with tremendous effort. By the time I could close the door behind me, the images had become a new breed of surreal; fractured, polygonal images of nature. The setting sun rendered in neon. Animals with sharp edges. Stock photos of people clad in clothes I hadn’t seen since the time I walked on those cubes amongst the lotuses. As strange as these images were, I could see the shadow of intent looming behind them. I had seen the idea in a different shape. What they stood for. So they were not surreal, anymore, but a hyperreal visualization of the human mind. Of the perception of the self as a briefly heroic archetype.
Something smoldered in my head. I had to look away, and so look away I did.
I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day, I beheld a form of Akasha.
A figure clad in purple staggers into my view, but seemingly cannot see me. My followers five yap and whine, but I hush them.
Just by looking, I can tell.
I need them, this purple one. I need this blank doll.