“Look, there’s something really big in the water out there!” squeals the blonde-haired nurse, but she isn’t fooling anyone in the ICU. This includes Mom and Dad who are not impressed. They stand beside my bed looking down at me. Mom on my right side holding my hand. Dad on the left, bunched beside the medicine bags and I.V. machine. Angel guardians, the two of them, standing vigil. It has been a very long day. The past few hours have involved a rather complicated procedure to correct several abnormalities in my brain. “Rather complicated” might be an understatement. Maybe, I don’t really know.
My doctor says the brain is so complex that it largely remains a mystery to the medical world and that they never really know how it’s going to react in any given situation, that each situation is unique.
Prior to the surgery, I pictured in my mind the stretching of the scalp, the cutting of the skull, the manipulation of the brain tissue. Now that all of this is done the back of my head feels like a sea of large, churning objects.
The nurse looks away from the window and turns her attention to me. “How are you feeling, Clay?”
“Just remember to breathe. You been out for ten hours so it’s important to remember to breathe. When you have been out that long sometimes your brain forgets.”
My doctor comes in at that moment.
“When do you think he can come home?” asks Mom.
“It’s hard to say right now. Maybe Monday depending on how well he does this weekend. I’ll be in Sunday afternoon to check on him and make a final decision then.”
Mom asks a big grabbag full of other questions and finally stops, apparently satisfied for the moment. The doctor leaves. And because visiting hours for family are over in the ICU, Mom and Dad leave soon afterward as well.
“All right, young man, I’m going to hook you to some stuff that will help you sleep.” The nurse fiddles with the machine. “Then you’ll understand…” I am obviously susceptible to this stuff because that is the last thing I hear before I am off to dreamland.
In the next moment…
I was in a cell. The cell was almost bare except for a toilet, sink, mirror, and bed. I was already standing in front of the mirror. I stared at my reflection.
There was a knock at the door. Without waiting for a response, a man opened it. “Hurry up, your appointments in 15 minutes on the dot. On the dot means on the dot.” So I finished. There was not much I could do in the way of grooming with only a washcloth hanging over the side of the sink and a toothbrush and comb sitting on the other side. I gave myself a quick sponge bath. Then I noticed a strange tattoo on my neck. I leaned toward the mirror for a better look. In bright red ink were the numbers 76001120666.
I shrugged and donned the black suit and shoes that were lying on the bed because I assumed these were the clothes I was supposed to wear. I exited the room and passed into a long hall. The man was sitting behind a desk. He looked up from a ledger when I appeared. He pointed down a long silver hallway, “Hurry.” Everything had a cold metallic look to it. As I passed down the hall, I encountered a line of gaunt men and women and children in similar black suits sitting on silver chairs against one side of the hallway. On the opposite side was a line of evenly spaced white doorways. Above each of these was a long, thin screen. And above each of these screens were small signs. Above the first doorway, “a-c,” the second doorway, “d-f,” and so on. I stopped in front of the “g-i” door.
No sooner have I sat down then a woman in a black suit exited “g-i” with a folder. She left. She did not look happy. Neon green digital lettering appeared. “Occupant 76001120666 may now enter,” said a slightly robotic female voice. My memory usually isn’t that great, but somehow, I remembered that tattooed number on my neck as clearly as if I had photographic memory. I stood a little unsure, hesitating.
“Next!” yelled an impatient and very human voice beyond the still open door. I entered a small, cramped, and stuffy office that seemed very out of place here. A man in a faded brown suit sat behind the desk. Directly behind him was a door to another room.
“Have a seat,” he said as he dug out a file from a box beside his chair. He plopped the file on his desk and flipped it open. He was one of the most bored characters I have ever seen. He sighed. “Okay Clay Ivy, what do we got here. Clay Ivy. So Mr. Ivy,” he looked directly at me,” …where are you?” At that, I fell into a slumber where I sat.
When I opened my eyes
I was lying flat on my back staring up into a clear, blue sky. The bluest blue I’ve ever seen. I got to my feet. An appraisal of the immediate environment showed nothing. Literally nothing. I seemed to be smack in the middle of an orange, empty desert. The earth was so dry it was cracked, but it really wasn’t hot. In fact, there was a cool breeze blowing from the west. That is when I saw that in the far distance in that direction there was a large body of water. I blinked.
When I unblinked…
I was back in the office with Brown Suit Man. He acted like nothing at all amiss had just happened.
“Alrighty, this is your resume. Not much to it. Order picker.”
“Highschool job. Greenhouse.”
The man grunted. “Is that why it says ‘works at a greenhouse during high school’”?
He threw the folder in another box. “Come closer.”
I got up and approached the desk.
“Lean over the desk toward me.”
I leaned over the desk a little.
He did this until we were practically face to face. He placed two fingers on my neck. He glanced at the fresh tattoo grunting approval. “Okay, stand up straight.” He fingered through a stack of debit-like cards and handed me one. The front of it bore my name and number. “Guard that with your life and carry it with you at all times. I repeat, don’t lose it.”
Brown Suit Man checked his folder again. “For now, I’m placing you as an assistant.”
“An assistant? An assistant to whom?”
“To whom, to whom he says, so correct. That would be Francine Verom. You will be her assistant. Ahhh, Francine, our very own in-house curmudgeon. You shall see right about now.”
I blinked and suddenly
I was back in the orange desert. This time the blonde-haired nurse was there.
“Look” she said pointing into the distance.
“How did you get here? Where are we?”
“Look where I’m pointing.” She pointed in the direction of the water in the distance.
“The sea over there? That’s a sea, right?”
“Yeah. That over there is where a hospital sits. Your hospital. By the water. You will be a patient in that hospital and I am your nurse. We won’t find it there, but it is there at another time.”
“Will be, right?”
“Will be, are. Both, in a way. We’re there right now in the future—the real future. And in the real future beyond that, you are 706001120666 and I am 55924319666.”
I blinked and then…
I was back in the office with Brown Suit Man. He coughed and proceeded. “Remember that name, Francine.” The blonde-haired nurse rather unceremoniously burst into the room.
“Speak of the devil,” Said Brown Suit Man apparently unsurprised. “Francine,” he told me. “Clay will be your other assistant,” he told her.
Francine ignored the comment and me entirely, scanning the office. “This is disgraceful. Clean your office.”
Brown Suit Man just smiled.
Francine glared at him and abruptly departed. It seemed strange to me that she should enter and leave without really doing anything, but Brown Suit Man didn’t seem to care.
“Is she the boss?” I asked.
“She thinks so. Okay, Mr. Ivy. Take this folder. Tomorrow you’ll give it to the guys in the Medical Ward when you go down there. 7 a.m. sharp. They’ll put a sensor right about here.” He placed two fingers right below his left ear. “Only on you.”
“A sensor? What exactly is that?”
“It’s just a teeny tiny chip they put under your skin, so they can keep track of you. Nothing to worry about.”
“Everyone here has one?’
“Most.” Then he indicated the folder in my hands. “Tonight you’ll probably want to go over the rules and regulations of the place, stipulations and such. Okaaaay, have a nice day now.”
I opened the door. Brown Suit Man was looking for another folder then added, “Oh, a piece of advice about working with Francine. She doesn’t know as much as she thinks.” I nodded. And opened the door.
I must have blinked
as I was passing through the door because I exited into the orange desert.
“So is everything clear now?” asked Francine.
“No, not even slightly.”
“You know you’re traveling from time to time to time, right?”
“Yeah, I figured that had something to do with it. What’s to understand?”
“Well, it’s complicated.”
“Okay, well?” I blinked away.
When I open my eyes again
I am in my hospital bed. Francine, mom, and dad are standing on either side of my bed. My parents are overjoyed at my waking, but they are clearly drained. The calendar over the bed indicates that it has been almost three weeks since I first entered into the ICU room. I can’t speak for some reason.
I am very drowsy and rest my eyes again.
“His feet are really swollen,” says dad, “I bet it feels good to have them rubbed.”
“Surely it does,” replies Mom, “especially with your cold hands.”
“I wish he could tell me himself.”
“It’s probably best that we keep quiet for now anyway.”
Their words grow increasingly muffled. After a while, I open my eyes. Mom and Dad have gone for the day and Francine is there injecting a glowing yellow liquid into the I.V. machine. I am soon gone again.
I was still on the threshold of Brown Suit Man’s door.
I turned to ask him what in the world is going on, but he is looking for another folder and no longer listening. As I retraced my steps down the hallway, I heard the female robot voice saying “76001121666 may now enter.” Francine was standing at the end of the hallway where it intersects with another hallway. She is looking at the contents of a folder. As I am about to pass her she mutters, “Do you understand?”
And then I am in the hospital. It is morning.
“Well. Morning!” says the doctor. I try to respond but I still can’t talk. “Yeah, you can’t talk right now. You weren’t breathing real well so we put in a trach a couple weeks ago. Right now, you’re breathing through your neck.”
Dad holds up a cardboard cutout with the alphabet written on it. ”I made this so you can say stuff to us. Just point out what you want to say.”
“We have devices to make it easier to communicate,” says the doctor. “But that’s great for now, though.”
“See this is the space button,” says Dad pointing to a small space bar icon at the bottom.
WHATS GOING ON? I point.
“You had a brain surgery about a month ago and now you’re just getting better,” said Mom.
“How are you feeling right now, Clay? Do you have any pain?”
“Oh, Don’t be scared. We’re right here,” says Mom.
“And we’re not going anywhere,” adds Dad.
DONT TRUST ANYONE
“What do you mean?” says Dad.
I was getting frustrated. How could they possibly not know? DONT KNOW WHO TO TRUST
“Really?” said Dad.
“Not even us?” says Mom.
“He may be talking about hallucinations and having strange dreams,” says the doctor. “It happens to brain patients. A lot of really strange stuff can happen when you tamper with the brain. It starts playing tricks.”
Mom took my hand and knelt face to face with me. “Clay,” she says with tears in her eyes. “You may not know what is real, you may not know who you can trust, but know that you can always trust God. He’s always real.”
After a while, they leave and I am alone with Francine. “Do you understand?”
No, I think, of course not.
She fiddles with the machine and I doze off again.
And then I returned to the orange desert.
Francine and I spent the next few hours journeying toward the water. I didn’t know why she was so intent on this, but it was water, which was better than a dry desert any day. When we got near the water which appeared to be a kind of harbor, we found there were steep red ridges bordering it. We carefully descended. As we did so, a gust of wind blew against us. I beheld that under the waters below swam the shadows of several huge creatures. When we were about halfway down we ventured alongside a narrow rock formation that jutted out into the middle of the harbor. Beside it was docked a large and very strange ship.
“Are we getting on that ship?”
Francine sighed. “Sit down.”
“On that ledge behind you.” I sat down. “Okay, Clay….Where to start, where to start. Many years from now, a scientist, that man you just met—”
“That dude in the future in the brown suit?”
“He’s a scientist?”
“Yes. Anyway, the year after you meet him he will discover the secret of time travel. It’s through dreams. It’s all very complicated, really. Anyway, radioactivity is key. I won’t pretend to know everything about it, but he has brought it here to this time. He’s been back here numerous times in order to change the future. He will keep on doing this until he engineers a future that works for him. Making more copies of himself as he does so. Our task is to rid the ship of nuclear waste and end it.”
“Why? Why is that necessary?” It also occurred to me that if jumping to a time meant making another copy of yourself, this had to mean that there should be four of me here since I had been here four times now.
“It’s essential partly so our existence will remain on one line. You may not realize it, but he’s created a dozen alternate universes already and all of them are suffering from life-altering nuclear fallout because of his work. Enough chit-chat.”
We descended and boarded the ship. It was strangely noiseless and seemingly deserted. We ventured to the middle of the boat where there sat many barrels of something or other. Francine walked beside me across the deck. “I’ve done this many times before. Just do what I do and you won’t get hurt.” I then wondered where all the other Francines were.
“Where are the other mes and all the other yous?” I asked.
Francine did not seem to hear my question. “Now listen, there’s some stuff you have to do if you don’t want to fall into the nuclear waste. But, like I said, you’ll be all right if you just do what I do.” As we stood speaking the floor in front of us began to lower until the barrels disappeared. In its place was a boiling, glowing, steaming pool of liquid fire. The pool was at least 40 feet from side to side. I was hesitant. “Francine, that guy in the brown suit told me that you don’t know as much as you think. What exactly do you think he meant by that?”
“He said that?” She thought. “Well, he clearly knows I’m on to him.”
Francine got a good run at the pool and suddenly jumped. She almost floated over the pool in slow motion. She gracefully landed on a small ledge on the other side. And then I saw a door on that ledge that looked so familiar. She turned and cried something I couldn’t quite make out. Then I saw what seemed to be human hands reaching up at me from the ooze. And for the first time, I also noticed a surrealistic crowd gathered around the gyrating pool, obscured by the murky fumes.
Francine was desperately shouting at me. I could not make out what she was saying. And then Brown Suit Man was standing beside me saying,” This is what I call the Pond of Lost Souls. See that ledge on the other side? You can get there. To cross it you just need to get a good run and then jump.”
“Is that what Francine wants?”
“Yes, but she doesn’t want you to get to that ledge.”
I did not know why Brown Suit Man was apparently helping me. But I ran and jumped. Things looked great as I soared halfway across the pool. But then Francine spoke and I heard her as clearly as if she was in my head. “Oh, the futility of it all. I don’t think you’re going to make it, Clay.”
In my heart, I believed she was right. It was then that I slowly began to descend toward the glowing waste.
The still not quite seen surrealistic figures cried to me from the billowing fumes, “Clay, you have to believe!”
“Why won’t you listen to me?” cried one of the voices.
“It’s over,” I said giving up.
I slowly sank toward the fiery waste. Francine had gone through the door, thinking that I was no more, but Brown Suit Man and the shadows in the fumes continued watching, hoping. And it was surely mere seconds before entering its boiling depths that I saw that the fiery pool was inhabited by all manner of men and women and boys and girls. Then I understood. We had all been fooled, lured into Francine’s grand scam. I suddenly believed. And then I understood even more. I slowly began to rise.
And then I was walking down the hallway…
in what I believed was the far future. In the shining black mirrors of the flooring, the waves of the harbor crashed and the shadows of the enormous beasts swam.
I approached the doorway and knew, knew that I would find a former me talking to Brown Suit Man on the other side. I opened the door. Brown Suit Man did not seem surprised in the slightest to see me. The other me, on the other hand, was speechless.
“Ivy Number Four,” he said in greeting. He indicated the me sitting in the chair,“Meet Ivy Number Two. I knew you would make it.”
“Unless I miss my guess,” I, Ivy Four, replied, “Francine should be coming through that door behind you.”
“And she says you’re bad.”
“I know that too…And while I did know you were coming, I am very proud of you. Very few make the crossing.”
The door burst open and a smiling Francine entered. Behind her swirled the pool of fire and Ivy Three was slowly drifting toward the molten hands.
“Speak of the devil,” Said Brown Suit Man. “Francine, Clay is my assistant now so you can keep your gloating today.”
Francine glared at him and at both of me and abruptly departed the way she came.
“Leave the door open,” he told her as she exited.
Francine’s smile was long gone and then she was gone as well. She had literally vanished. Once on the platform, Brown Suit Man turned to me. “You can go now. Take the others with you.” The three of us stepped out onto the landing. Ivy Three landed beside us and did not seem surprised at all to see us.
“Where’d she go?” asked Three.
“Oh, She’s off doing her thing again. Don’t worry. She will be dealt with eventually.”
“So, when exactly is this?” asked Four.
“If you’re asking about a time, it isn’t. There has been no time travel involved. Francine likes to make stuff up.
“So that copy thing she was talking about?”
“Not a thing. Not like she meant, anyway.”
All three mes had so many more questions.
“It’s time for you all to get going,” said Brown Suit Man.
Together we ascended. As we did so we blended into one. The fiery waste swirled further and further below me as I continued to ascend. The wind blew across me as I soared over the strange ship, over the shadows of the large creatures in the water, over the orange desert. I passed silently across the sea to eternal safety.
A voice spoke to me in the wind. “Where are you going?”
“This has to be a dream. But even if it is, I will choose to go.”
I am still very weak…
but feel worlds better. “Good news,” says Mom. “The doctor says we can take you home.”
I still can’t speak.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Just rest.”
“You need to fight this,” Dad said continuing to whisper to me and pat me on the hand.
“At home,” says Mom. I fall asleep.
When I awake, I am still in this literal state of being. A nurse who isn’t Francine is helping me from a wheelchair into the waiting car as Dad helps.
“Everything’s gonna be fine; you look great,” says Mom.
Soon we are moving away, away from the enormous shadows in the water, away from all Francines, away, away into an entirely new state of being. I believe, as Brown Suit Man would say, it is the fifth Ivy. As we turn a corner I see the looming hospital one last time. In an upper window, I see a figure in a brown suit staring down at the world. It may be my imagination, but I think he is smiling.