by Andrew Murphy

Another consciousness begins bleeding into a young man's waking life, and he fears he will lose control.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



Milo had a dream again. The night he dropped out of his university, he had the first dream he could remember in fourteen years. They were so strange because they were not strange. The places and details were concrete as he dreamt he was shopping, going to the cinema or talking with people, except he was not himself, he was someone else entirely.

Milo rolled over to search for the pen and paper he kept on the floor. Among the piles of personal belongings he had meticulously organised into heaps, Freud's face stared accusingly up from an open textbook. Milo spat on it. It had been two weeks since he had dropped out and reminders seemed to constantly ambush him. He could have done it, he had a deep understanding of the material, but that had been the root of the problem. Just thinking the word "psychology" could make him flinch.

Clearing his mind, Milo tried to catalogue as many details from the dream as he could. Compared to some others, that night's dream was rather barren; the most salient feature was a bench, weather beaten and peeling, facing a large bush with a view of a pond surrounded by trees rising behind it. There was a strong, mixed-up scent of flowers, and the breeze rustled through the leaves, sounding like a friendly giggle. Milo dropped the notes and idled in his bed. The featureless white sheets reminded him of the day he was yet to have. An hour past and he decided to have 'blunch'.

In the front room smoking paraphernalia and empty cans created a kind of nest that Milo's housemate, Massimo, was sleeping in, curled into a ball and wearing a long black coat he had found on the floor of a pub. Light from a crack in the curtains fell on a careless pile of ash and Massimo's unshaven cheek. Milo thought back to their discussion last night. Massimo's militant empiricism, with its zoological colouring, had degraded civilization, progress and higher thinking in favour of animalistic instinctual survival, while he was frying eggs on an electric stove. The argument had gotten heated and ended in a shouting match, but ever since last year and the Cat Stevens versus Rod Stewart argument had gotten personal, Milo and Massimo had learnt to accept their respective philosophical differences, even if they both thought the other was dead wrong. Even so, Milo thought there was something slightly unsavoury about sleeping rough in your own home. He stepped over Massimo and into the kitchen.

Unable to think of a way of combining Ragu and stale cheese into something edible, Milo heaved an inward sigh and grabbed his shoes and wallet, zipping a hoodie over his bare chest and newly tattooed stomach. It was not the effort or his acute social awkwardness that worried him, it was the shop itself. He had dreamt about it and now whenever he entered it was like walking into a fog. He perceived everything differently while he was there, and his tastes and preferences changed. While usually an ardent vegetarian, on his last trip the sixty-second prefabricated microwave hamburgers suddenly looked gourmet and Milo had bought two, throwing them away as soon as he got home. In preparation for the day's trip he made a list and wrote 'vegetable soup' in a confident hand. He found seventy pence on the floor near Massimo's open mouth and set off around the corner.

While walking, Milo kept his head down, perpetually worried that he might recognise something from his dreams and become lost in that other consciousness, so alien and so brutal. He sang a song he had memorised under his breath. When the door to the shop loomed in front of him, Milo started to repeat his favourite verse and clutched his list like a talisman to guide him; it led him past the dusty and cluttered shelves of magazines, past the withered fresh produce to the soups. Choosing carefully, Milo approached the counter. Serving him was an old turbaned man with dark skin, white whiskers and a kindly smile. For nearly two years Milo had been amicable with him, even jolly on some mornings, breaking his usual misanthropic trance to exchange greetings and observations about the weather; in his emotionally crippled way he liked the man. Today, in the consciousness-fog, there was an angry pity for the creature and a hope that their hands would not brush while exchanging money.

Outside, Milo breathed deeply and checked his bag. Turning over the soup to check the label, his heart sank to read 'cream of chicken'. He hoped that Massimo would trade for some Spaghetti Hoops. He would not go back in the shop.

* * *

A week passed and the dreams became more vivid. The consciousness Milo became fleshed out and in his opinion he was a misogynistic, racist, arrogant twat. The number of places the fog settled in the tiny university village grew and Milo barely left his house. He suffered an almost perpetual anxiety that he would dream about his home and the consciousness-fog would be waiting to strangle his personality when he awoke. In a moment of near delirium, he transgressed all of his principles and e-mailed one of the few people in the psychology department whose intelligence he had respected, though he hated the man himself. A meeting was arranged for lunch the next day, nearly twenty-four hours and another night away. Caught between fear of sleep and awareness anxiety, Milo chose whiskey and drank until he passed out.

* * *

The consciousness left the pub. Standing in the night air, he shook with rage and stared at his hands, bunching them into fists and imagined using them to crush that bitch's head. He was angry that the world would allow such filth to live. He sought for the justice that could let something so miserable and so wrong exist. Fixing his blurred vision on an imaginary path through the woods, the consciousness walked towards home. The twigs under his feet and the boughs above his head all became entwined in a murderous fantasy. Images of a girl's face smashed and scraped along the ground brought forth intoxicating joy beyond the measure of any drug that stoked the thrashing and genuine rage inside. Blood haze turned the world red, but it was just the bricks of his halls of residence revealed behind some delicate bushes as the consciousness made it up the hill. He stepped into the road and looked at the clock tower's face, reading ten to twelve, before his whole view was suddenly shattered and incomprehensible.

He cannot move and there is a dull ache; he can see the sole of one of his shoes. When warm liquid begins to fill his mouth, he cannot swallow, so he lies with his jaw agape and lets it drip onto the road. Far off cries can be heard but they do not make any sense. He lies there feeling a numbness spreading out from his chest. Later, as the feeling reaches up his throat, there is a siren and a bell starts to toll. Everything ends. There is no more.

* * *

Milo woke up screaming. There was barely enough time to calm his galloping heart before he had to leave for his appointment. The claws his hangover raked across his brain did not stifle the dream. Every blurred and drunken detail still remained, overlaying Milo's thoughts like the afterimage from a bright light. He ran to the corner where it happened, staying far enough away to avoid any consciousness-fog, afraid of what might happen if a dead mind took him over.

The corner was empty. The large, delicate bushes stood undisturbed between the road and the wood. There was no glass, no blood, not so much as a daisy bent out of place. Milo shook his head and started to approach, but a spike of alien anger paralyzed him. The phrase 'worthless bitch' screamed in his head until a step backwards made it disappear. Behind him the bell tolled one, signalling that he was late.

Milo ran the whole way and reached his old personal tutor's room just as the short, balding man was locking the door behind him.

"Please," Milo pants, "Mr. Ramnani, I'm sorry I'm late."

Ramnani fixed Milo in a gaze that reminded him of a sniper's, it was so level and piercing. "What's going on? Your message sounded unusually—desperate." Ramnani placed special emphasis on the last word.

"Please, just let me explain inside."

Ramnani's eyes made Milo squirm, even though the man was no longer an authority over him.

"Ok." Ramnani opened the door and walked inside, sitting on a plush high backed revolving chair in front of his desk. He picked up a pile of intimidating EEG and fMRI readouts in one hand and signalled Milo to sit in a small wooden chair with the other. He ran a smooth hand over his bald spot before putting his fingers together in an arch against his mouth. After a moment Ramnani moved his hands away and asked what the trouble was in a significant tone. After speaking, he placed his hands back in the accustomed position and declined his head, rolling his eyes up to stare at Milo. In that time, Milo's attention had been arrested by the dirty, cheap plastic blinds hanging off their hinges in the window.

"Um…" he said intelligently, "there's something happening to me, and I don't really know how best to explain it."

Ramnani's gaze did not flinch; he did not even blink.

"I've been having these dreams recently where I'm another person and—"

"You know I'm no Freudian, I'm a scientist." Ramnani was visibly irritated already.

"No, I know. Just hear me out. In these dreams I'm someone else." There was a pause. "Someone else who's real, who's not me."


"I change in these dreams to this other person—a really horrible person—and if I go to somewhere I've dreamt I'm this guy, I become him again."

"So you're telling me you're aware of who and, apparently, where you suffer from a split personality."

"No. Listen."

"I did. That's what you said."

"Not a split personality," Milo stopped to control his leg, which bounced spasmodically whenever he was frustrated, and to try and change the tone of his voice from hysterical to academic, "but a whole other consciousness. A living person whose consciousness either comes into me or I go into his—I don't know."

"This is ridiculous. It's unbelievable. Consciousness cannot exist outside the brain, let alone take over someone else remotely. It's impossible."

"It's not impossible. It's happening to me."

"Impossible! The consciousness is a function of an operating brain; it's not an entity free to act or move about or take people over! This is insulting."

"It's insulting that you're sitting there blankly refusing to believe me. If you say it can't happen, then prove it. Show me on one of your maps where the consciousness is. Point to it on a picture. Show me where my homunculus is sitting and I'll leave."

Ramnani was silent.

"You don't know and I don't know. We don't know."

"Don't be fallacious. There is no seat of consciousness, no ghost in the shell; it's a complex state of awareness caused in and by our brains."

"That's one theory. But it doesn't explain why when before I walk into the shop around the corner I'm a vegetarian and when I'm in there I'm not, but when I leave I am. Why I'm not me when I'm in there."

"Well… vegetarianism is a moral choice; maybe when you're in the shop and you're hungry your instinct drives your behaviour on a sub-cognitive level. Your brain puts hunger before morality."

"Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that's supposed to be why my whole personality changes when I'm in that shop? And it's only that shop, and it's always that shop. In the next town over I'm a vegetarian again. The only thing that makes that shop different to anywhere else is that I saw it in a dream, when I was the other consciousness." Milo realised his voice had risen. Looking over his shoulder, he caught the embarrassed eyes of someone in the staff room opposite.

"Well maybe that isn't the right explanation. The point is that a case of a floating, possessing consciousness has never been documented in scientific research. Maybe you should talk to a priest." Ramnani's top lip curled as he spoke and there were beads of perspiration on his forehead.

Milo saw no human sympathy in Ramnani's eyes, so he levelled his voice. "I've come to you for help. You need to open your mind to the idea that maybe you don't already know everything or that things can happen that we haven't already measured."

"Take your new-age mystic bullshit and get out of my office. I won't have reason insulted here or my time wasted by a drop out."

A spike of anger, his own this time, pierced Milo's heart and for a moment he considered telling Ramnani about his vision of the boy's death and dragging the man's conscience into the fray by force. After a few deep breaths he stood up and left. Ramnani turned on his chair and started intently studying a poster he had long ago stopped noticing. The narrow corridors of the psychology department had never seemed so much like a prison to Milo as he walked outside, his hands shaking and desperate for the cigarettes he used to chain before and after his tutorials last year. He walked aimlessly around the campus wondering if anyone would believe him, or at least anyone credible. It was true there were enough 'new-age mystics' on campus to fill a smelly bus, but blind acceptance was not what he wanted. The desire to be believed fell away to a stronger yearning for someone to actively try to understand and to help him understand too.

The rest of the day Milo spent on campus. Sharply alert so he could avoid anyone he knew or used to be on his course. There were places he had to avoid as well due to the fog, but he found a quiet field skirted by trees where birds were singing and he felt a little at ease. He sat there waiting until eleven thirty deciding what to do. When it was time, he headed into the dark woods and concealed himself between the pub and the halls of residence he himself lived in the year before. Tendrils of fog licked at his consciousness and Milo struggled with alien feelings of resentment and anger towards people that were strangers to him. Sometimes whole memories would come take him over and make him feel woozy, his normal consciousness replaced by a thin slice of hatred. It was in the throes of one such moment that the clock tower behind him tolled twelve. There were no screeching breaks or any sirens; no one had passed by. Taking a safe path to the halls, Milo checked the corner and found it deserted. He walked home shaken and exhausted. In the house, Massimo was asleep. It would have been impossible to know whether he had been awake at all were it not for the extra cans he had accrued.

* * *

That night, Milo had the dream again. That girl, that bitchy moon-faced deceptive cow! The consciousness imagined pushing his thumbs through her wide blue eyes and stomping the inane smile off her face as he stalked towards his halls. Manipulative lying bitch... His thoughts were cut short by the squeal of brakes and the crash of the impact. He looked at the sole of his shoe as he lay in the road and saw her face there as the world faded to black.

* * *

The face was still there as Milo shot awake. It was pressed into his memory and he carried it with him the whole day. Her features transposed themselves onto every face he saw on the television as he waited for night to fall, when once again he waited in the darkness and wrestled with the resentment of the other-consciousness.

Just as Milo's attention waned, he heard a crash in the darkness and someone said 'fuck' in a loud voice. He ducked down and widened his eyes. His head pounded with the effort of alert concentration. There was no plan except to act. When he saw the figure stumbling through the trees, he relaxed; it was his friend Richard. Milo waited until Richard was passing close by; his eyes were fixed on the floor and scanning for any more hidden surprises.

"Hey Richard!" Milo yelled.

Richard jumped feet into the air, flailing his arms and circling round until his baggy trousers were knotted around his knees. "Milo? Is that you? I'm gonna kill you, I swear!" Richard cried out, pushing his thick rimmed glasses back up his broad nose.

"Yeah, it's me." Milo stepped out from where he was concealed. "You drunk?"

With his composure regained, Richard aimed his heavy lidded eyes at Milo and gave nothing away. "I've had a few, but not nearly enough to explain to myself why you're standing in the woods scaring innocent passers by."

Milo stopped. He had not considered an explanation, he had been so relieved to see his friend.

"No reason."

"No reason? I don't buy it."

"Look, I just am, ok?"

"Not really." Richard shook his head and stalked off, stopping only to cast a bemused look back and to check if Milo was following him with any malicious intent. Doubt sprung up in Milo's mind and, mixed with the embarrassment and recent frustrations, it became all too much and he controlled his collapse onto the ground, holding his head in his hands. The heavy, humid air hung on his shoulders and his clothes were prickly with sweat as they clung to his body. The anger was getting to him; he could not work out why this was happening—to him or at all. The reasons why he should care about the other-consciousness escaped him and he could not see how the whole mess was even his responsibility. There was a moral dilemma facing Milo as well; the other consciousness led a life dominated by hate. Did it deserve to be saved? Taking responsibility for another life was a heavy burden and Milo's hands dropped from his head to the floor. His thoughts were interrupted by a screech of tires. Milo's muscles tensed and he was frozen. Had he missed it? Had it all been in vain? The thoughts flashed through his mind, to call an ambulance, to go and check, but he could not move.

"Watch where you're going, you crazy bastard!" Richard's voice rang out. A horn retorted and tires mutinously crushed gravel under their weight as a car pulled away. Relief washed over Milo—maybe just that small delay had been enough—but it was short lived. Disbelief that his friend could be the other-consciousness swept over him. Richard was so quiet and, for lack of a better word, nice. He struck Milo as good-natured and concerned about other people; he could be distant but he had always been there to listen to Milo if he had ever had a problem, academic or personal. Everything from his manner to his speech had seemed so natural and honest. How could his intelligent face be the mask that hid a monster from the world? Underneath the veneer, Milo had been the dark heart that beat in his friend's chest; he had spoken and thought words so unkind they had belittled Milo's taxed faith in humanity. How could he so easily deceive? So casually form a bond with another human when such bitter blackness filled his soul? Milo's head swam with the possible explanations as he watched over his shoulder on the way home, struck with dread at the idea of having to look at another living soul without ever truly knowing what lay beneath.

* * *

That night the dream came again. Drenched in a cold sweat and still shaking, Milo rolled out of bed and scrambled for a pen. He had missed something in his previous recollections of the girl's face, a large beauty spot on her left cheekbone. It seemed to frame her whole face now he had noticed it. After scribbling down the detail and catching his breath, Milo thought about the implications of the dream. The event had not happened yet; it was still in the future and he would still have to wait for it to come. And he had been wrong about being wrong about his friend, but the truth of the night's revelations about the nature of a person still weighed on Milo's mind. He started to prepare himself for another night outside.

As Milo sat and waited, a thick, heavy cloud passed over and hid the moon. Any detail in the wood faded into strips of barely perceptible grey that surrounded him on all sides, and the wildlife was conspicuous in its absence. Milo felt trapped in the moment, as if the cloud, in covering the only moving body in the sky, had stopped time. The consciousness-fog grew thick and Milo felt himself slipping away; the mantric cry of 'worthless bitch' drowned his thoughts. There was a break in the external silence and a dark shadow moved in the woods. Time and Milo flooded back into his body and he sprinted towards the body of the familiar other.

In the dark, Milo slammed into something small and dragged it to the ground. Fighting against both the rising anger and the man on the ground left him with no air to speak or explain. Blows rained down on him while he struggled not to return them but only to restrain. All he could see of the man whose life he was saving was a savage flash of white teeth, bared in a snarl.

The pair struggled on the ground until the sound of a car speeding round a corner and a moment later a bell tolling signalled Milo to leap to his feet and run as far as fast as possible. As inexplicably as he had tackled the man, he rose and left, sprinting home with his body aching and curses chasing him in the darkness.

That night Milo could barely sleep, but when he did, there were no dreams. After that night his life resumed its regular process of staying completely still. The consciousness-fog seemed to recede and Milo had free reign over the tiny village once again. In wild celebration he gorged himself on vegetable soup for a week, eliciting a benevolent and inquisitive look from the old man in the shop every time Milo walked in beaming. Only when rumours surfaced of a crazy man in the woods and Richard shot him a sidelong glance in the pub did he ever feel the smile slip slightly from his lips.

"What's his problem?" Massimo asked loudly with beer heavy breath, pointing at Richard.

"Who knows? Let's go. He's giving me the fear," Milo replied.

"What? My pub, I ain't going because either he's a bit odd or you're too sensitive."

"Fair enough. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, see ya."

Milo took his coat and left with the feeling of being watched so intently it was like someone was trying to get inside his mind. When he stood in the cool air, the feeling passed and he set home. The walk was pleasant; blooms from the trees had dropped and formed a carpet on the ground and the sounds of life and laughter drifted out of the open windows on the street opposite his as he headed towards the alley that joined them. The next moment he was in his house holding a glass of water, though he could not remember getting in or being at all thirsty after an evening in the pub. Rather than being disturbed, Milo blamed the end of term drinking he had enjoyed with his friends whose university careers had not meandered and eventually sunk like a rudderless boat, and went to bed.

* * *

He dreamt of a featureless alley in a nameless city somewhere, with tall dark walls that rose and blocked the sky on either side. An acrid smell of neglect stung his nostrils. The alley was overflowing with his hate. Ahead of him there was a figure running away but getting slowly closer. It turned and the consciousness saw her blue eyes and that damned beauty spot on her left cheekbone. He caught her and threw her to the ground amongst litter and suspicious liquid, where she belonged. A neon sign cast a blue and yellow glow over her scared features. A malignant shadow covered her face and everything became red.




Copyright © 2008 Andrew Murphy

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Andrew Murphy: I'm twenty and I've accepted a place at Leeds university for a joint honors course in maths and philosophy starting this September. Writing is one of my ways of dealing with an existence I can't even being to understand and a method of trying to drag others into my confusion as well.

--  O N L I N E  |  F O R U M  |  P R I N T --