It was a rainy night in late October when I opened the door and let him in. The clock was well past midnight and I was in no mood for company. In fact, I was about to call it a night when I felt the world go numb, then heard the doorbell ring. To this day, whenever I try to recall the exact sequence of events my mind draws a blank. Perhaps I’d drank too much, I first reasoned, as the man introduced himself and asked if he could use my telephone. He had a faintly foreign accent and his name eludes me ever since, despite the fact I addressed him by it several times. In any case, something felt familiar about him; perhaps he’d turn out to be a distant acquaintance or someone from the past. During the course of that night I was often convinced he was this or the other person, because his appearance seemed capable of shape shifting into any and all.
He explained that he’d left the neighboring town that morning and had arrived by train a few hours prior. A friend was supposed to meet him at the station but she never showed up, and he wanted to give her a call to see if everything was all right. I went back to the living room as he placed the call, put some ice in my glass and filled it with bourbon. The silence permeating the air was more than the other line ringing dead. It was something else and I knew it. It made me shiver down to my bones and I hoped a drink could serve to warm me up. The storm outside had grown distant, punctuated only by the tall shadows of the poplar trees flickering across the adjacent wall as lightning struck. I had a strange sensation that this man knew me and that I knew him, that he wasn’t here by accident. This made me anxious but curious all the same, and my subsequent actions now seem less like my own and more like a kind of predestination, as if I had no choice in the matter.
It came as no surprise when he entered the room and announced he couldn’t reach his friend. I didn’t hesitate to offer him a seat and a drink. He politely refused at first, but I insisted. “You can try again in half an hour”, I said, “Plus, where will you go in this rain?” To this he didn’t object but merely smiled at me and nodded. It was then that I first noticed his eyes. They were the color of azure, with amber specks around the center, a shade I had never seen in anyone except myself. I recalled a memory from my early childhood, the first time the optician told me I had heterochromia, and that people with it usually needed to wear glasses. I noticed his own pair neatly folded in his shirt pocket while he took off his jacket.
“I shouldn’t be troubling you”, he said as I handed him his drink, “I’m not supposed to be here, but my train got rerouted and I had to make arrangements at the last hour”. Odd, I thought; if his train got rerouted, how did he let his friend know to wait for him? But I kept these thoughts to myself. “A fellow engineer, I see?” he asked. “Yes, I work at Paxton. Are you an engineer yourself?”. “Yes. Paxton. Aerospace Division”, he replied. Odder still. I had worked at Paxton for the last 6 years and never heard any mention of an Aerospace Division. “What’s your field? And how are they treating you over there?” he asked warmly, our shared background clearly making him more amiable to the situation. I got the distinct impression that I was suddenly conversing with my old man. The same tone of voice, same mannerisms, the same subtle irony. I even thought I briefly saw him sitting across from me. I gave him the usual spiel I’ve given my father countless times: How I was fulfilled with my work, and thought there was no better place for an engineer to be working at than Paxton.
It turned out that my guest was on an assignment to deliver some research north of state. It seemed like a matter of grave importance as his face momentarily darkened and his voice shifted to a lower octave as he spoke. I didn’t press him further so as not to seem intrusive, but he nevertheless picked up on my curiosity and explained that Paxton had made a large investment in electromagnetic field technology, and the research was the result of a long-term study on Paxton employees who had volunteered as test subjects. I couldn’t believe this was the same company I worked for—electromagnetic fields? I had studied them for years but barely any of it was of use in my day-to-day work. My post required managing others more than doing my own research these days. My guest seemed to intuit this as he asked “And you? You seem to be greatly interested in this topic as well, no?” “Yes”, I said, “How could you tell?”
“We own the same books” he said, gesturing towards the large bookcase on his left.
“May I?” he asked.
“With pleasure,” I responded.
He rose from his chair, glass in hand, and turned on the floor lamp. He had almost finished his drink yet his movements were graceful and calculated, those of a man familiar with every corner of the room. Moments later he put on his glasses and after a brief perusal of my books, picked up one and sat back down.
“That’s a first edition of Quinn’s ‘Infinite Space, Absolute Time’. I had it signed by the author himself” I said gleefully. It was one of my prized possessions, a dog-eared tome I had read countless times and, more importantly, had filled with marginalia. I often picked it up after a long day at work, if only for the comfort it gave me to hold it, knowing that its pages contained my most important personal history. He seemed to understand this too, and he placed the book delicately on his lap while flipping through its pages.
“Ah, marvellous… Brilliant, exceptional!” he exclaimed.
“What is?”, I inquired.
“Page 331, there are some notes. May I read them to you?”
I felt a sudden sense of panic, as if the fabric of my being was under threat by an unseen force. But when I looked back at him I was no longer looking at my guest holding the book; instead, I saw my mother. She knew of my habit of scribbling in books very well. She had been a schoolteacher after all, and the initial disapproval had turned into delight as she realized she could peer into her son’s mind by feigning interest in my homework and perusing my school books. She passed away a year ago, and seeing her again made me tearful with gratitude. “Go on”, I said as I finished my drink.
“Consciousness is the atemporal manifestation of everything; past, present and future are merely phenomenal objects of the same unified principle. A dream within a dream, which nevertheless is the gateway through which consciousness experiences itself as that which is locally conceived as time and space. The dream itself is self-perpetuating —each one has its individual characteristics, insofar as each manifestation of consciousness perceives a different aspect of its totality. It has no beginning nor end; its final destination is its own entirety, which is itself an endless process of expansion. The dream itself is self-perpetuating —and that realization is the key to its unraveling. For any instance of time is past, present and future, all at once.”
Now he appeared to me as Kristine, the only woman I had ever loved. My thoughts were swirling. She was wearing the pleated floral dress I forever associated with her, because it captured her personality so well. We had grown apart after college; I was young, ambitious, and with a grant to study with one of the best academics in the country. She was a free spirit, more interested in civil rights and meditation retreats. I was too fond of my work, as she frequently complained, and I chose it over her. My career mattered to me a great deal more than than it did now. The last I’d heard she was married with a baby on the way. Once more I thought to myself that I still loved her.
I had too much to drink again. My stomach twisted into a knot and my heart felt ready to burst. I stared down at the empty glass in my hands and felt tears rolling down my cheeks. “I had forgotten about this”, I said, “I was a senior in college and studying under Professor Quinn. I was also hopelessly in love. I had to capture something of that time and that emotion, and this is the result”. As I said this I felt the world go numb again, and myself with it. Then there was only silence.
The clock read almost 4AM. I must’ve fallen asleep. I had forgotten entirely about my guest as I made my way to the bathroom. Seeing my reflection in the mirror felt reassuring. A sense of permanence prevailed. Life was as it always had been. I was briefly comforted before I headed back and noticed the book lying on the armchair. In an instant the events of the previous hours came back to me. I must have been dreaming.
I put my glasses on, picked up the book and opened it to page 331. It was torn apart entirely. In its place was a note written in type on Paxton company paper:
“Our technology has permitted us to acquire data from disparate instances in individuals’ consciousness, thereby unfolding the overlapping nature of the dreamer’s conscious timelines. In doing so, test subjects have been known to experience disruptions while data is collected. If you have experienced such an event, please contact your Paxton representative below for further information. Thank you for your participation”.
Beneath it, it read, “Your Paxton representative is Magnus T. Janssen”. Odd, I thought. That’s me.