THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4
“The quieter you become,
the more you’re able to hear.”
Jon Gunnarson felt the energy rise within his opponent an instant before she attacked. Complex patterns of whirling arms and legs came too fast for his brain to process, but he’d become one with her and the space around them and somehow his body knew exactly where to be.
The dojo, a converted California barn, had vanished, and he floated, weightless, in a fluid dance. He anticipated another strike and twisted her wrist to bring her safely past him and down, and an ethereal, feminine voice filled his mind.
This is not Jon.
He’d never heard it before, but knew it meant his movements were coming from somewhere, something other than himself. Distracted, his deep connection to his opponent Chodak Neema and the space around them faltered. The crowd of people lining the walls reappeared, concern already lining his sensei Haruto’s face.
Neema flowed directly up from the fall.
Jon backed away to buy himself a few seconds, considered asking for a short break to reconnect. After all, he was fighting to earn Rokudan, the highest level in the martial art Aikido. But the message felt to Jon as if it had mocked him, denying him any credit in one of his finest moments. So he resisted, wanting to prove he could win without relying on his “gift”.
His ego took control and he watched for clues of her next attack.
Neema’s knuckles flashed like ball point hammers, and in the next instant, her elbow slammed into the side of his head.
An explosion of sound and light filled his mind and he reeled backward, blinking. She’s turning again, he thought, trying to get behind me. Follow, grab her wrist, pull her arm.
Neema reversed, as though she’d felt his intent, and whipped her elbow again, this time finding his temple.
He lost control of his body and the gray vinyl mat rushed up to meet him. It took a long moment for him to realize what had happened, then he slapped his palm down, the wide floor boards booming with his failure.
Minutes later, he paced outside the dojo, scrubbing his face with his towel, realizing the stupid risk he’d taken in trying to think his way through a fight. He wadded the towel and threw it against the wall.
The barn door squeaked open and Neema flapped over to him in her sandals. Keeping her eyes low, wrapping her orange and red robe around her, she nodded to a wooden bench on the porch.
“What happened?” she asked, once they’d settled next to each other.
Wrinkles framed her narrow, dark eyes. Patches of gray and white mixed in the stubble on her scalp.
“I don’t know,” he said, not ready to admit the strange voice he’d heard.
A wind chime gonged, low and heavy in the warm breeze.
“When I learned who I’d fight today, who you were,” she said. “I thought, this is life coming full-circle.”
“Yeah, quite the coincidence. I was afraid I’d hurt you.”
Jon had been seven, visiting the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan with his mother, when he first met Neema. She’d introduced him to Aikido, a martial art focused on bringing both fighters to a safe place. Now, at forty, he hadn’t spoken with her until today, when she’d visited his dojo to practice while traveling in her duties as a senior Buddhist nun.
“This was supposed to be my final Rokudan test,” he said. “There’s no way sensei’s going to advance me right now.”
“You try again.”
“I guess. But today wasn’t just about rank. He’s hiring an instructor, a protege, and if Jordan rises to Rokudan, I’m sure he’ll get the job instead of me.”
The floor shook as someone tumbled to the mat inside.
Jon didn’t want to face his sensei and Jordan as they came out, so he led Neema up a steep deer trail, to an outcropping of rock above the dojo. Tan hills rolled in every direction, dotted with the black cows of West Marin dairy farms.
Leaning on the rock, he had a clear view of the dojo, of Jordan’s family hugging him on the front porch. This place, Jon’s main source of social interaction for the past two years, now felt almost foreign.
“It’s beautiful here,” Neema said.
“Yeah. I live right over that hill. A little town called Woodacre.”
His tiny cottage came to mind, silent and empty on the shady side of the valley, and as much as he now wanted to get away from the dojo, he also dreaded going home alone.
His sensei Haruto, came out of the barn, said something to Jordan, and the group burst into cheers, more hugs.
“Jordan’s a Rokudan,” Jon said. “I didn’t get the job. I’m such an idiot.”
They were silent for a few moments, the sun hot and bright.
“I remember our first Aikido lesson at Tiger’s Nest,” Neema said. “You joining with me right away. And your bond with your mother.”
Jon’s unique brain structure had given him a simple form of telepathy with his mom.
“Yeah. I don’t know if you heard, but she died of a brain tumor a few months after we got home.”
“No, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
“So, I don’t do that anymore. But I still feel what other people are feeling, if I interact with them or think about them. And it’s getting worse.”
Neema narrowed her eyes.
“I’m what some people call an empath. An extreme one, actually. It’s like I have no personal boundary. Like I’m wide open.”
“Ahh. This is what makes you a great sensei.”
“It helps me get in the zone, for sure. But when I’m with other people, out in the world, I kinda lose myself. I can’t resist what’s coming in so, I have to pull away.”
“I sensed that in our fight. You were deeply connected until, you’re weren’t.”
“Well, that was something new.” Jon took a breath. “I heard this weird voice in my head that said, This is not Jon. Like it wasn’t me directing my body, it was my gift. But, I’m so tired of being out of control, so connected, that I decided not to go back into the zone, to see if I could win by myself.”
Neema gave an enigmatic smile.
“Do you have any idea what that voice was?” he said.
“The quieter you become, the more you’re able to hear,” she said, quoting Rumi.
Jon opened his hands, shook his head.
“I’ll sit with this,” she said.
“Thanks. What I really need help with is turning off this empath thing. I’ve read all the books, but I still can’t shut other people out. I just want to be normal. Be myself.”
“Your self?” She nodded down to the barn. “True victory is victory over oneself,” she said, reciting the Japanese characters carved above the dojo’s entrance.
Jon knew that oneself here referred to the ego, the sense of “I”, the everyday brain that thinks and plans. And yes, he realized his ego had cost him the fight and the job he wanted, but he needed a life.
“Can you help me?” he said.
“Perhaps.” Neema held his gaze.
He felt a warmth spread across his chest.
“But,” she said, “My American tour is finished. I fly home tonight to get ready for my annual visit to Tiger’s Nest.”
Her mentioning the place of his happy memories with his mom, the place he’d thought magical as a boy, flooded him with nostalgia and, as if regressing to that state of mind, an immature plan took hold. Of course, he thought, he could meet Neema there again. She’d help him go deep within himself and manage his condition.
His phone dinged in his backpack with a reminder.
Jon made huffing sound.
“Neema, I have to go now. But, I’d love to visit you in Bhutan. Could I?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Write me a letter and we’ll see. Haruto can give you the address.”
Jon held her hand back down the steep path and they bowed low as they said goodbye. And, as he pedaled the steep climb back into town, his mind raced with vague notions of camping out near the monastery, living like a Buddhist pilgrim.
Ten minutes later, he crested the hill and took a moment to catch his breath. Woodacre Yoga, sitting quietly on the valley floor below, shifted his thoughts from Neema and Tiger’s Nest to his client Danielle Murphy.
He no longer taught yoga classes because the varied jumble of feelings that he took in from a group overwhelmed him. And his private yoga instruction had evolved over the years to become healing sessions through silent eye-gazing, where he not only shared his clients’ emotions, but absorbed, took from them, their negative feelings.
He lowered his seat and sped down the steep trail, eager to get through his grueling, awkward session so he could book his travel to Bhutan.
# # #
Ella Sandström slid the glass door shut.
“We can talk out here for a minute.”
Her new research assistant, Oliver Mabry, stopped to check his phone.
“Oh cool, I’m getting iMessage texts on the Wi-Fi.”
She unconsciously patted her jeans pocket, then remembered she’d left her phone muted on her desk during the experiment.
Oliver took a picture of the monks inside through the floor-to-ceiling windows, then tapped out a text.
Patience, Ella told herself, and sat in one of the low deck chairs. She knew that every detail of Oliver’s experience here would make it back to his father, Oscar Mabry, who in turn would tell his brother, Wendell Mabry, who happened to be Ella’s department head at the University of Oxford, in England. Wendall had suggested she take on his seventeen-year-old nephew during his extended Autumn break.
“A free set of hands,” he’d said.
And how could Ella refuse her boss?
Oliver finally came to sit opposite her. The boy looked exhausted after his nineteen-hour journey from London. Behind him, strands of mist wove between cliffs on the far side of the valley.
“How can they just sit still like that?” he said, jerking his thumb toward the windows.
Ella took a conscious breath, forced a smile.
“I’m after the same thing as those monks. And we agree on most things. They look at the mind from the inside. I look at the brain from the outside.”
Ella sought to answer the hardest question in neuroscience, to understand the material basis in the brain of consciousness and human connection. And her schooling and career in science had taught her to deny subjectivity and intuition. To think like a man.
“So, Oliver, what do you know about social neuroscience?”
“Oh, not much, I don’t see my uncle very often.”
Because he never leaves the bloody campus, Ella wanted to say. Again she wondered how she could possibly put Oliver to use; she’d completed the small amount of manual work for the experiments.
“That’s okay. Social neuroscience is about the brain’s role in people’s interactions and morality. My work here focuses on empathy and feeling connected to others.”
Oliver glanced down to his phone, couldn’t seem to look her in the eye.
This really was going to be a long ten days, Ella thought.
“A year ago,” she said, “I started an experiment, my pet project as your father calls it, with twenty monks at a nearby monastery. I asked them to focus a part of their daily meditation on sending and receiving feelings of surrender, oneness or compassion to each other. They took turns and then asked each other afterward if they’d perceived the correct feeling. They didn’t need to keep track; it was simply a practice.”
“That’s cool. Uh, so, what am I going to be doing here?”
Ella barely held back a plaintive groan.
“Well, two things. First, we’ll use EEG to measure the monks’ brainwave frequencies. We want to see which areas of their brains light up when they send these feelings to each other. Second, we’ll use the MRI truck you may have seen in the parking lot to measure how their brains have changed over the past year.”
“How their brains changed?”
“Yes, it’s surprisingly easy to influence neural network patterns.”
“Wow, so you’re, like, watching their brains change in there?”
Ella wondered why couldn’t have told her boss Wendall to bugger off.
“Not in real time. It usually takes about three months to see any change. And, right now we’re using the EEG to see which areas of their brains are activating.”
Oliver nodded slowly.
Ella wasn’t sure if he’d really understood, but, at this point, she couldn’t stay away from her monitors for another minute. She’d started recording the first send/receive session right after Oliver arrived and now she had to see what was happening.
“Hang on a moment, will you? Be right back.”
Inside, two monks in saffron robes sat back-to-back in silence, white EEG sensor caps covering their shaved heads. Ella crept to her monitors, careful not to catch her foot on the thick cords.
Her phone rested on her desk and three texts from her daughter, Jady, caught her eye.
“Are you coming home this weekend?”
“Guess you’re busy.”
“Never mind, I have plans anyway.”
Ella knew she should call Jady back right away—they hadn’t spoken in days—but the first results were right here. She had to take a peek.
Sitting lightly, she flicked her mouse and colored, 3-D simulations of the two monks’ brains filled her screens.
“Yes,” Ella whispered. And then to herself, yes, yes, yes. This was one of those moments when everything clicked, when a lifetime of sacrifice and effort seemed worth it.
She opened another window and lost herself in the data.
# # #
Jon maneuvered his mountain bike through the back door of the yoga studio.
Danielle, a striking, recently divorced woman in her mid-forties, reclined with her phone on the shabby Ikea sofa in the common area, toned legs crossed, pink sundress at her thigh. She glanced up, then studied him.
His thin t-shirt and running shorts, sweaty after his ride from the dojo, suddenly felt obscenely snug, and he wished he’d stopped by his cottage to change. He nodded hello with a tight-lipped smile and leaned his bike on the stale mound of unclaimed mats.
A yoga teacher’s voice, amplified to carry over Van Morrison, called out direction to the Hatha flow class in the front room.
“Tree pose. Try closing your eyes. Don’t be afraid to fall out. Let your ego go.”
As Jon unlocked the door to the room he shared, Danielle came close behind him, her heady, demanding scent reminding him of their previous sessions, each more uncomfortable than the last. Reminding him to resist.
The small room was like a sauna. Jill, the studio’s masseuse, had left her space heater on and the shades open to the glaring parking lot. And with the heavy scent of coconut massage oil, it felt tropical, sultry.
As if every second counted, he peeled off his backpack, pulled out his phone and set the timer to an hour. He slid the massage table against the window to make room and, about to close the curtains, he stopped, hoping the lack of privacy would inhibit Danielle’s antics.
They positioned the two office chairs facing each other—she slid hers closer than usual—and they sat, the brown vinyl seat pads hissing, his bare right knee in between hers.
Jon pulled the muscle from under his sitz bones, reminding himself yet again to bring a better cushion, and then began staring into her hazel eyes, first shifting his gaze from eye to eye, then focusing on her dilated left pupil—like a tiny black tunnel into her mind. He could still clearly see her full head: the fine lines at the corners of her eyes, her light brown hair, pink lips and the freckles dotting her sun-browned cheeks and nose.
A car door thudded shut outside, followed by the beep of the locking doors.
His head ached from where Neema had hit him and he wondered if he might have a concussion. Keeping his gaze locked on her left pupil, he deepened his breath, went inward, and felt his connection with her and the space around them take hold.
Soon he felt a tightness building in his belly and realized he was clenching his jaw. A few moments later, he became fiercely angry, his mind buzzing like a red-hot electric stove. Her anger was now his.
Danielle blinked away tears, making dark spots on her sundress, and it seemed to Jon as if she were looking at him not merely to see him, but to reveal something about herself.
He cried with her, knowing, somehow, that her rage involved her ex-husband’s infidelity. As usual, he had no control over the process—he felt the physical sensation of his clients’ emotions in his body and then he understood their situation.
About twenty minutes in, the rage coming from her subsided, as if she’d been drained. This shift had happened much sooner than their previous sessions, but Jon knew that what he’d absorbed from her would still stay with him for hours.
She now took the liberty to flit her eyes around his head: to his mouth, ears, hair, and forehead, pausing with a look of concern at the swelling on his temple. Then, seemingly satisfied with her preliminary inspection, she again met his stare, tilted her head, and sighed.
Game on, Jon thought.
And as if he’d said the thought out loud, she tilted her head to the other side, this time blinking, adding dimples and suppressing a laugh. Like a spouse sharing an inside joke. She couldn’t stop smiling, seeming almost giddy to be there.
Still holding Danielle’s anger, Jon fought to keep his face neutral, and to resist his body’s new reaction to her new mood. This was a dangerous game for him, but after his sensei’s frown, he had to admit it felt good to be wanted. And, he hoped, it might help dissipate his anger. He could handle it, he told himself, he’d never let anything happen. He just had to withstand her seduction for another half-hour.
Danielle’s counter stare resumed and she seemed to be settling down until a long, muffled chant, Oooomm, came from the front studio. As if she’d been reawakened, her eyes started wandering again, shifting down to his mouth, then his chest.
He had the fleeting, silly concern she could see his heart pounding through his tight, thin t-shirt.
Her lips parted, and in the silence, he heard her quick breaths.
As she became more aroused, Jon couldn’t help doing the same, creating a feedback loop of desire.
She dropped her focus lower, to his lap. And stayed there.
And, as though Danielle had some kind of perverted superpower, his shorts grew painfully tighter.
Finally, she crept her eyes back to meet his, with a brazen, daring grin.
Jon licked his lips, quickly, then wondered why on earth he’d done such a thing.
Her eyes widened and she bit her lower lip, holding her teeth there.
Jon did his best to separate himself from the situation, thinking that maybe she only wanted him because he wasn’t attainable—that maybe she’d heard he never dated clients and if she got him to break his ethical code as a healer, it would prove her worth, prove she was so desirable he’d risk his career for her.
Her lip looked painful.
He knew she wasn’t acting—he felt her desire too strongly—and it didn’t seem like she was transferring an unresolved need onto him. No, even though they’d only ever spoken a few sentences, this lust felt directed squarely at him.
She released her lip, red and swollen in the edge of his vision.
Thirty more minutes of this?
The small room felt even warmer now, stuffy with their musky sweat, like a hot yoga class.
Jon blinked perspiration from his eyes and glanced away, for a moment of relief, something he almost never did in these sessions. And by separating, he noticed his clenched fists and the heavy ache and pinching in his shorts. Shifting his hips to adjust himself, his right knee brushed the inside of her thigh.
She shivered, sucked in a breath and then pounced, grabbing his head and kissing him with frantic, teeth-bumping intensity.
Afraid they might topple backward, he rose, with Danielle’s legs wrapped tightly around him.
“The table,” she said.
Jon placed her on the massage table and allowed himself to be pulled on top of her.
She peeled off his running shorts using her hands and feet as they kissed.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jon caught movement outside in the parking lot and turned to find a cluster of women who’d just left the studio staring at him. He reached up, having to show himself fully, and tugged the curtains shut.
Danielle didn’t miss a beat. She guided him onto his back and then rode him kneeling upright, hands on herself, eyes closed, as if lost in her own world, requiring only one part of him to serve her need.
After, Jon sat alone, cross-legged on the table, brushing his arms, legs and chest with his hands, a technique that had helped him clear other people’s feelings in the past. But he knew that all he’d taken in would stay with him until he spent hours running, practicing yoga or sitting on his porch. Lately, his connections had been deeper, the strain of resisting his clients’ emotions harder.
A car door shut outside his window. He cracked open the curtain to see Danielle adjusting her hair in her rear-view mirror.
Layered beneath the anger and lust he’d absorbed from her, he felt both hollow and heavy at the same time. Feelings he knew were his own.
She must have seen the curtains moving, because before she backed out, she shot him a satisfied smirk.
His phone’s timer chimed from the floor, jolting him.
Bhutan, he thought. Neema. He had to get home and book his travel.
# # #
Jeffrey Venn brought his palms together in front of his heart.
He’d recently seen George Clooney do this in a movie and liked how thoughtful it made him look. Plus, he found that copying Clooney’s mannerisms reinforced his uncanny likeness to the famous actor. Which never hurt.
Safe behind his immaculate glass desk in his bright, Times Square corner office, he smiled into the webcam.
“Max, I’ve still got it. We’re going to make a killing. Our big bet this year is meditation tech.”
Most people knew Jeffrey as the CEO of Venn Digital, a large Internet Marketing agency in Manhattan. Few knew of his fraudulent and wildly profitable division called Person8. The division’s mantra, Create Something Out Of Nothing, had inspired gray hat schemes like locking teens into ringtone subscriptions and black hat scams like stealing college students’ money with the promise of employment in non-existent companies.
Venn tapped a key and his video conference screen filled with the image of a beautiful young woman wearing headphones.
“Tuning In, a mobile meditation app,” Venn said.
“You’re too late,” the speakerphone said, “That market’s saturated.”
Max Harding, the gravelly voice on the phone and Person8’s sole outside investor, had known Venn long enough to interrupt.
“Hold on, Max. I’ve got a twist. Tuning In makes you telepathic.”
The speakerphone cackled.
Venn turned down the volume and waited for the laughter—which had become a coughing fit—to subside.
“Sentiment analysis shows strong interest in telepathy among certain segments. You see the New York Times article I sent you? That autistic kid? I helped get that story picked up.”
A week earlier, an autistic girl in Los Angeles had demonstrated simple telepathy with her mother: correctly identifying numbers on cards that her mother viewed while behind a screen. Scientists at USC had conducted the tests under well-controlled conditions and the findings had been published in Nature.
As a test, Venn had had his Person8 contractors in Eastern Europe post a video of the girl across hundreds of fake social media accounts. It had gone viral and when sentiment analysis data showed a spike in interest in telepathy, Venn decided to double his investment in the Tuning In app and personally supervise the project.
“I’m recording that kid’s brainwaves to use in the app,” Venn said.
“You signed her?”
“Not yet. The mom’s playing hard ball. All of a sudden, she’s worried about her kid.”
Venn checked the small video image of himself to make sure he still looked confident.
“It’s fine, I’ve had a backup plan in the works for a while. I got a top psychic ready if I can’t make the deal. I’ve got a big idea there too. I’ll get to it in a few slides.”
Harding grunted. “You said you’re gonna use the kid’s brainwaves in the app?”
“It’s called brainwave entrainment. It’s an audio track that puts your brain in different states. Like more alert or more relaxed. That kind of thing. Been around for years. There’s an attachment that describes it.”
Papers rustled over the speakerphone. Harding liked to print things out.
Venn rose and paced; he moved through the world like a life-long run-on sentence: one gesture or movement continually shifting into the next, never the sense of I’m there. He let out a breath.
“Let’s keep moving, okay?” Tapping a key, he brought a slide of charts onto the screen. “Market sizing and competitive gap analysis.”
The presentation went well, Venn thought, and with the final slide, titled, Your Investment, he put it on the line.
“We’re going big on this one, Max. Make it as real as we can and then blow it out—”
“Make it real? A telepathy app?”
“Yeah, I’m shooting videos on location, hiring real people. The spiritual soccer moms will eat it up,” Venn said, as if he’d ever really known a spiritual soccer mom. “It’s hot right now and there’s no other player in this space. We’ll have a solid six-month run.”
Venn gave his best sideways grin.
“Alright, alright. I’m in,” Harding said, his watery eyes staring directly out of Venn’s screen. “You think you’re gonna have time for this? With the investigation?”
# # #
Jon sunk into his couch, phone in hand, to book his trip to Bhutan. Twenty minutes later, he knew it wasn’t happening. All visitors to the country were required to have a visa and book their travel through a Bhutanese tour operator. These operators charged a minimum daily package in addition to travel costs, so even staying a week would cost him over six-thousand dollars. And he’d need longer than a week.
There was no way he could afford it. Given how emotionally demanding his eye-gazing sessions were, he scheduled only one client a day and so earned just enough to cover his expenses. His checking account was dangerously low, and he could barely pay his rent.
He should be celebrating his new job as Aikido instructor right now, he thought. But that damn voice had interrupted him. It was so different than anything he’d ever heard, literally filling his mind and speaking directly to him. What could it have been?
Neema had said she’d meditate about it. But she’d left the country and didn’t have a phone or email, so Jon wasn’t sure if he’d ever talk to her again. He realized he’d have to figure this out on his own and searched “hearing voices” on his phone.
His first surprise was learning that up to a quarter of the general population heard thought-like voices and that most of these voice-hearers had no psychotic disorder. Which meant millions of sane people heard some kind of voices.
Posts on various forums claimed the voices were a form of telepathy. Jon had already researched that topic to death and knew that despite studies proving a slight telepathic ability in humans, mainstream science was unconvinced.
Regardless, he told himself, the strange voice he’d heard in the fight didn’t feel like telepathy because what he used to get from his mother had never manifested as a clear voice; it had come to him as a knowing.
No, what he heard today seemed more like the accounts he’d read about from countless people throughout history, from Socrates to Gandhi: that he’d heard the voice of the divine.
But what kind of message was This is not Jon for the divine to give? Why point out that he wasn’t really doing the fighting? It didn’t feel like something the universe would say. It felt more like the teasing he’d had as a kid growing up in Iceland—everyone in his tiny town rolling their eyes at him and his parents for being so sensitive.
Maybe, he thought, since his parents were both empaths, and most of his relatives were awkward loners, there was a hereditary, biological basis for this new voice. Something in his brain.
He refined his Google search and found a video of scientists at University College London using fMRIs to detect the neural activity of people while they were hearing voices. A lanky, balding man and a pale, intense woman with short, light brown hair pointed to colored brain maps. The woman did most of the talking.
Jon watched the video again to try and keep up with her but was too captivated by her to really listen to what she was saying. He studied her every move, how she brought her hand to her ear to pull back her hair. Hair that she didn’t have. She must have recently cut it, Jon thought. And there: she started to smile. He froze the video. Took a screenshot.
He tossed his phone onto the couch and, in the gloom of his living room, blinked away the screen’s glare.
The cottage ticked as it cooled.
He pictured himself: a hermit slumped on a sofa, taking screenshots of a random woman on the Internet. He wanted to scream, to throw his phone through the window, but held himself back, recognizing that it was likely just Danielle’s anger and lust still haunting him like the afterimage of his screen on his eyes.
Time to sit, he decided.
Jon liked to sit on his porch. He didn’t think of it as meditating; he had no mantra or special technique. He just sat silently, sometimes with his eyes open, sometimes closed, as if he were waiting for someone or something. And if asked, he’d have guessed he sat for an average of a couple hours a day. But in reality, with no friends, pets, TV, computer or hobbies outside of running, yoga and Aikido, Jon actually sat for between six and eight hours a day.
He headed first to the kitchen. Jon had an innate map of the more solid patches of his hardwood floor and even at six-two and one hundred and ninety pounds, he could, by uneven slides and long steps, navigate from the couch to the fridge without his tiny cottage sounding like an old ship in a storm. As if he wasn’t even there.
He wiped the stove with a dish towel and deliberated which tea felt right for a night like this. A few minutes later, clutching a mug of smelly valerian root tea, he eased into his old wicker chair out front, awed by the gathering of stars.
The smoke alarm wailed.
He scrambled back inside to find the towel flaming on the stove.
He’d left the electric burner on.
Using bacon tongs to snatch up the towel, he doused it in the sink, coughing from the black smoke. Then, squinting, shoulders at his ears, he twisted the alarm from the ceiling and yanked out the rectangular battery.
Bella, his neighbor’s insane terrier, was now barking nonstop.
Cleaning up the ashes with his last surviving dish towel—this wasn’t his first fire—he asked himself why he did this, what his passive aggressive subconscious was trying to tell him. You could make yourself crazy with a psychology degree.
Bella was dragged inside, and silence returned. But now the quiet simply felt empty, like his cottage. He’d furnished the essentials, but a visitor, if there ever was one, would be excused for thinking that no one really lived there.
A wave of exhaustion washed over him, and he walked straight to his bedroom, ignoring the creaking floor, and lay on his bed, ready to be entertained and amazed by his new nightly pastime. He breathed deeply, let his mind open, and quickly reached the twilight between waking and sleep.
And then he listened.
Words and phrases, utterly random thought-statements, each with a different voice, began softly popping in and out of his mind every few minutes: We're going there tomorrow. Alphabet. Organic coffee. Made from balsa wood.
The statements were clear and distinct but completely unexplainable—he’d kept track of them before and they bore no relation to events in his life. And, unlike what he’d heard in the fight, they didn’t seem directed to him. They felt more like he was catching snippets of many different conversations.
He wondered if these were like the voices other people heard. And, whether these voices had always been there unnoticed in his mind or if they were getting louder. Or if he was just going crazy.
His left brain lit up, berating him that after one of the worst days of his life, here he was, listening to the gibberish that popped into his head. It wasn’t normal behavior.
His college professor, Herman Wick, came to mind: The task of a psychologist is to shift their patient to a conventional reality. Jon thought how none of his therapists or their meds had been able to do that for him.