I was made of years piled up.
I was eyes falling through time.
There had been a strange but not unpleasant smell of bitter peppermint, then my mind split into a hundred minds that all slumped into darkness and drowned.
On the bed, somebody lay in my space, breathing with my lungs and seeing with my eyes, surrounded by everyday objects whose functions seemed hopelessly abstract and theoretical.
A jeweled melody slithered around.
Had music been playing all along?
This song was a favorite, but now I’d never heard it before.
Framed in a window, the penthouse of a distant high-rise resembled the top of an armored vehicle.
Then it drove away, leaving behind a steamrolled sky.
The music watered me until I could stand again.
The apartment and its contents had once been mine, but now they belonged to someone else, and they exuded the strangeness and hostility of all foreign possessions.
Those blind mirrors. That living ghost.
I had to get out before the owner returned.
His shoes reminded me of a pair I used to own.
They fit perfectly.
In the elevator’s mirrors, three copies of me imitated my expressions.
One copy gaped slackly, paralyzed by what he saw.
But I didn’t feel horrible.
I felt very far away.
It was as if I were ten meters behind my eyes.
As if my eyes were circular windows through which I glimpsed crescent rinds of reality.
I closed my eyes till the ding.
I was walking down to a harbor.
The clouds red. The water red.
All the buildings empty.
Doors angling into rooms with barred windows.
Litter beetling over sleeping streets.
There would be no one ever again.
Just me, forever.
And the one red gull that followed me shrieking.
In slow-motion I chased a single thought around the double-windowed room of my skull.
I opened my eyes every few minutes to a new display.
Briefly I saw one of my faces flattened on a car window.
A concrete orca burst up through the urbanscape and solidified as its jaws snapped shut. On its vertical flanks sprouted balconies, and in its rectangular ribcage many lights came on simultaneously.
When I released my breath, the people would return.
I held my breath till the pavement inflated.
But when I allowed in people, they were all wrong.
Like piano keys they lined the streets, and my passing plunked them.
I threw my head from side to side and the players sprang and fell, displaying exactly the features I would have imagined.
Everyone looked like someone I knew, though their faces were only many-sided origami sculptures with fewer details than some virtual characters, their noses and ears barely present, their hyperrealistic eyes aflame with visionary intensity.
An old friend leaned against a wall, staring vacantly.
Someone shuffled by with odd violence, as if fast-forwarded.
It occurred to me—with a total lack of emotion—that I might be trapped in a simulation constructed from the contents of my own consciousness.
Was that why nothing felt real?
Then a familiar smell slid into my nostrils.
Ghastly, rotten and sweet:
My brain stopped filtering reality.
All sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings assaulted me at once, and in all that buzzing rumbling thudding sparkling modulating droning inane brilliance, there was no spacetime to comprehend any individual corner, no handhold for any understanding.
No one could think with all that world in the way.
Every surface rushed at me, and each fractured facet reflected a pair of my panicked eyes, and my own likeness in various costumes fanned out like a glass tarot deck falling toward me.
But just before impact and explosion, the reality shards froze, stuttered, and ran in reverse, and the world unbroke like a window.
Dizzy I stepped from the curb and landed in the middle of a shallow river. Atop a bridge a ramrod figure in a gas mask, silhouetted against a flesh sun, brought up one arm and pointed at me.
I looked at the finger. The finger looked at me.
Everything became an image of itself.
I don’t remember how I was taken.
It all went by in pieces:
A window seat in a black bus.
Highways like diagrams.
Cars like icons.
Lights whipping our sides.
Checkpoints I barely registered.
Low tin buildings with white numbers.
Me slumping on a foldout chair in semi-darkness.
A cone of light widening between my legs.
The polished boots of my trainer.
Rules and regulations:
Precise times to sleep and wake.
The daily weightlifting. The chuffing through fields. The shaping of hands that at first did not close around what was offered.
The layer after layer of locked doors, each with a guard whose riddles were impossible.
I was not the only zero. There were thousands.
We ate nondescript food in silence in long halls.
But who could tell anyone apart?
There were inexplicable beatings, while I calmly searched inside my black-hole head for something that refused to come back.
There were the various guns. The knives and the grenades.
Every evening we inhaled from canisters of bitter peppermint.
And there was no one there.
Not even me.