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
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 unusuallydesperate."
Ramnani placed special emphasis on the last word.
"Please, just let me explain
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.
" 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 persona really horrible personand 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
"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 hisI 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
"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."
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
"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
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
Milo stopped. He had not considered
an explanation, he had been so relieved to see his friend.
"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 happeningto 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
"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 Milomaybe just
that small delay had been enoughbut 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
"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.