We all have those whispers in our minds, those notions that rise up, sometimes unbidden, sometimes triggered by a particular moment.
Sometimes the whispers are good things, noble things. Hold open the door for the man who’s running in the rain without an umbrella.
Sometimes they are very noble. I might get fired, but I have to stick up for her.
Sometimes the whispers are bad things, wicked things. Shave off his eyebrows. It’s fine. They’ll grow back.
Sometimes, they are downright heinous. I’m going to strangle my jackass co-worker with his own tie.
But each time, we know, most of us anyway, that the voice is our own. We can choose to listen or to ignore. To hold on to the notions or to let go. As far as we know, those who claim to hear voices other than their own have something wrong with them.
That’s what I once believed.
I’m not a morning person, but I’d gotten up early to get the place cleaned up for Kai. I’d gotten up too early. We didn’t have big plans. We were just going to watch movies all weekend and work on his history project. Guys weekend in. I’d had overtime at work most of the week. I guess I didn’t realize how tired I was until I dozed off at the kitchen table, flipping through a recipe book, trying to narrow down what we’d have for dinner.
Time to get up now, lazybones. Go for a walk. You might find something interesting.
I heard those words in whatever dream I was dreaming and jerked awake. I didn’t have time for a nap anyway. I had groceries to buy. I was too tired the night before. And I figured it might be fun to go with Kai. But then I remembered him telling me how boring it was following his mother around the grocery store whenever she went shopping. I was still too scared to do the boring stuff with him.
No time for napping, but I thought a walk might do me some good. Might help wake me up. The walk might get me some energy, and while I was walking anyway, I could head to the general store and pick up some stuff for dinner.
As soon as I got outdoors, I realized I’d made the right decision. The last remnants of grogginess were swept away by the cool breezes that swirled around. It was cloudy and chill. Just the kind of day I found refreshing. Birds chirped and twittered. Not too many folks were about. I walked through the park. I looked up as an airplane flew overhead.
Suddenly, I felt a rush of air behind me and a thud. I jerked and turned around. Something had fallen from the sky. It fell with such force it created an impact crater. I had, I think, my usual reaction to anything that made me curious and cautious. This thing that had almost killed me, I had to know what it was.
I peered down at it, a metal box, the size of a jewelry box, maybe four inches cubed. There were relief images carved on each side of the metal box. The latch holding the box closed was complex and ornate. On the lid was a skull-and-crossbones. That symbol’s message seemed obvious enough. But on the sides were less ominous images. A turtle. An eye. A lightning bolt. A musical note.
I wondered if there was anything carved on the bottom. I reached out.
It might be radioactive. My cautious side was right. I hesitated.
It’s fine. Pick it up. My reckless side had little patience for my cautious side. I knelt down and reached for the box.
Careful. It might be hot. Temperature-hot, that is.
I pulled my jacket sleeve over my right hand and felt the lid. It didn’t feel hot. I hazarded a tap with my bare finger, but the box felt cool.
I looked up again. I remembered that plane. Did the box fall from the plane? I glanced around. It couldn’t have been thrown by anyone at ground level, or it wouldn’t have made that crater. I picked the box up and held it for a moment. I’m not sure if I was waiting for someone to come claim it or for something to happen.
Nothing happened and no one came, and I forgot all about the groceries. I brought the box home, delighted that I had something cool to share with Kai. The box and even the goofy story of how I found it. I intended to wait for him to open it. But then I realized that might be inadvisable. The box might contain something dangerous. A vial of deadly fluid. A little bomb. Maybe even some poisonous animal or insect. I peered at the turtle carving on the side. Maybe there was a tiny turtle inside. But if there was, it might be dead, or dying. There didn’t seem to be any air holes in the box. Maybe it was a power source. Maybe that’s what the lightning bolt meant. Or maybe it was just a harmless music box.
Whatever it was, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense for me to vet the thing and make sure it was safe to open before my kid went anywhere near it.
I took it out into the backyard and put it on the ground, just in case. The latch was somewhat complicated, but once I figured it out, I was able to open the box. I don’t know what I was thinking. If there was a miniature nuke or something in there, it was unlikely my backyard would be able to contain it.
I opened it and inside was a gemstone pendant. The cord looked like black silk. The stone itself was huge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to wrap my fist around it. It was shaped like a rectangle with the corners cut off so it had eight sides. It reflected all the colors, like a prism. Then it went milky and pearly. Then it turned clear, crystal clear, like a diamond, and a light began to glow from inside it. A bright white light.
The light got brighter and brighter, but instead of looking away or shielding my eyes, I kept staring. I was in a daze.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground. I’d blacked out. I sat up, rubbing eyes that felt raw and sore, and fumbling for my phone to check the time. It wasn’t in my pocket. I couldn’t bear to open my eyes. They burned and I was afraid if I exposed them to light, they would hurt even worse. I found my phone and the pain in my eyes intensified. It hurt so bad I couldn’t muster the breath to cry out. I blacked out again.
When I came to again, I was disoriented. I felt a breeze and sun on my skin, so I knew I was outside. I must have still been in the yard. My eyes didn’t hurt anymore. They felt sore, but when I opened them, I saw only fuzzy brightness. I closed them. My phone was still in my hand. But it was password-protected. I wouldn’t be able to access any voice-activated commands until I unlocked it.
For some reason the image of a child came to mind, a child standing on one foot, reaching for a cup on a high ledge.
I opened my eyes again and rubbed them, but I still couldn’t see anything. I closed them. I had a tendency to type my password in incorrectly even when I could see the keyboard. There was no way I’d be able to do it blind. Still, I found the on button and pressed it to wake the screen. I put my fingers on the screen and gasped. As my fingers passed over the screen, my mind seemed to “see” whatever was underneath them, like a scanner. I saw my background image. Three-year old Kai with chocolate ice cream on his face, looking like he was about to bust out crying.
My fingers found the onscreen keyboard. I hovered just above the screen, not touching it. I saw the numbers as my index finger passed over them. I saw the emergency key too. I could call for help. Something seemed to be wrong with my eyes. But that seemed like overkill at this point. First I had to find out what time it was. I didn’t know how long I was blacked out. They could be on their way already.
I slowly pressed the keys and felt the vibration. After entering my password, I held my palm over the screen and I knew it had unlocked. I could see it through my fingers. The change in the light. The home screen. The apps.
I heard a voice in my head say “help me.”
Calm down, I told myself.
I found the voice command app dead center of the screen. It activated and asked me to for a command. I sighed with relief.
I asked for the time and was further relieved to learn that I’d only been out for about fifteen minutes. I called my ex-wife. They hadn’t left home yet. I told her that I wasn’t feeling well and it probably wasn’t a good idea for Kai to come over.
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” she said. There was no accusation in her voice. She believed me. I was still getting used to that.
I heard a kid’s voice yelling something incomprehensible in the background.
“He says he wants to come take care of you,” she said.
I hesitated. I was not a good liar. She was a very good lie-catcher. I had to tell the truth. She’d know I was being cagey. But she also believed, she knew, that I would never blow Kai off. Anyone else. But not him.
“I don’t know what this is,” I said. “I’m not worried about it, but I don’t want to take any chances. I’m mobile and everything. I’d like to call you tomorrow if that’s all right. Maybe if it’s a twenty-four-hour thing.”
I saw faces. Angry faces. And a laser gun. I frowned, confused.
“What?” I said.
“Did you say something?”
She chuckled. “Okay, you do sound out of it. Maybe you should get to bed and get some sleep. Your body was probably primed to get sick after the last few weeks you’ve had at work.” She sounded almost proud of me. “We’ll call you tonight to check up on you.”
I felt a sudden surge of comfort. Everything is going to be okay.
I hung up the phone and immediately wished I’d kept talking to her. I blinked. I was still blind and had no idea how long I’d stay that way. Left to myself, by myself, the fear began to creep in.
You’re not by yourself.
I held my breath and froze. The voice I’d heard. The one from within. It wasn’t my own. It wasn’t my inner monologue. It wasn’t my calm side comforting my freaked out side. It wasn’t id, ego, inner child, feminine side, or any side of me.
That voice was inside me. But it wasn’t me.
I frowned. That sounded like me. But it wasn’t me.
“Who is that?” I said.
I felt something then, in my mind, that same feeling I got when I was struggling to remember a word.
I saw an image of the gemstone. And I felt a strange…bubbling in my head. It was like the feeling of a limb that’s gone to sleep, that buzzing as circulation returns. But I’d never felt it in my head before.
I’m here. Another. Inside.
I saw the image again of a child, standing on one foot, reaching for a cup on a high ledge, followed by an image of me reaching for the box, then me reaching for the gemstone.
That voice. Was it the child?
Hello? I thought.
Help me. Hunters come.
My blind eyes widened. “Holy crap.”
My heart was racing. I felt the heat and the sweat all over my face. I had a vice grip on my phone. I very desperately wanted to dial Beth’s number again, but I could not, would not, do this to her or to my son. What were they supposed to do for me anyway? I rose from where I was on the ground and carefully stepped toward where I thought the patio door was.
My steps fell on the leaves underfoot. They crunched and the sounds made waves that I could feel and hear, not just the original sound, but the bounce-back as it spread and hit all the surfaces in the yard.
I stopped in my tracks and looked ahead. “Holy crap.” My voice went forth. It hit something and came back to me. I heard the patio door vibrate slightly. My hearing was as sensitive as my touch was. I’d heard of this. When a person loses one sense, his other senses grow sharper. But I didn’t know they could grow this sharp. I’d only been blind for less than hour. And in this case, something else was going on. The sound waves bouncing back. They formed a pattern that gave me a sense of the objects around me.
What the hell? I was reminded of the diagrams they show on television whenever they were trying to explain how some animals can “see” underwater or “see” even if they were blind. Am I echolocating right now?
I found my way inside and felt my way to a chair. My face was dripping sweat. I realized I was breathing hard. I’d never hyperventilated before. I wasn’t sure if that’s what was happening. I tried to calm my breathing.
What is happening?
I am another. Inside. Inside you.
I squeezed eyes that were already shut. Another? Another what? Consciousness? Another being? I was thinking to myself, but the “other” answered.
I am a lodger.
You are host.
That didn’t help. That word. “Host.” The panic was rising. I was breathing faster now.
Go away. Please. Go away, voice. And go away, blindness. I covered my face with my hands. Tried to steady my breathing.
I’m sorry. It was an accident.
“Did I snap? I feel sane.” I thought speaking out loud would help.
Please, we must flee. Hunters come.
My head was suddenly filled with vivid images.
Angry faces. Something that resembled a laser gun. Only it wasn’t a weapon. It was a tool. And something else that looked like a magic wand. Another tool. Tools to do what? Then I saw the box, the box I’d found. I saw a bright light within it. The tools were used to lock light away.
Prison. The box was a prison.
I felt as if I were on the verge of understanding. The images were not precise. They were not direct. I got the sense that they made a visual metaphor. The thing that looked like a laser gun to me was some other tool that I didn’t have the context to understand. Either I had snapped or there was another consciousness inside me. And if there was a consciousness inside me, it was trying to communicate with me. And I had to try to communicate back, because I wanted it gone, and I wanted my eyesight back. I had to figure out what had happened to me and to this other being. My whole body felt like jelly. I took a few breaths and blew them out slowly.
Who are you? I asked.
I am a lodger.
What does that mean?
I cannot be without a host.
But what are you? What’s your…form? Are you a bug?
There was silence for a moment, then the “lodger” answered.
I am formless.
That light, from the gemstone. Was that you? Did you come from the box?
That’s how you got inside me.
How can you get out of me?
I cannot. We must flee. Hunters are coming.
You’re a prisoner.
Why were you imprisoned?
It was an accident.
I felt resistance. A mental block. I pushed it and I saw more images.
It was that same image I’d seen a few times. A child, standing on one foot, reaching for a cup on a high ledge. This time I saw the rest. The cup tipped and spilled something on the child, not water, but some horrible chemical that began to eat away at the child’s face, then bone. I waved the image away. But there was something more. The horrible image I’d seen was not real. It was another metaphor.
I saw it again. A child was reaching, not for a cup, but for a box. The child looked eager. The child looked into the light just as I had and was overwhelmed by the light just as I was. Only the child suffered worse than blindness. The child did not survive.
I would have dissipated…died, as well.
But the lodger was somehow able to make it back to the box, which it explained was a temporary receptacle for their kind before they found a host. I was no longer sure what to say or feel.
Are you from another planet?
No, I’m from another plane of existence.
You’re being hunted because you killed this child. You say it was an accident. Why didn’t you turn yourself in and explain? How did that situation even happen?
The ones who hunt me do not seek…justice. They want vengeance. They may not think twice about harming the host just to harm the lodger.
Your English sure has improved in a short while.
When you speak to me, I learn faster.
Do you have a name?
I was named.
What is it?
What is yours?
I sighed. What do you know about the ones who hunt you? I asked the lodger. Are they the child’s family? Can we…report them to an authority?
I had to calm down. I didn’t feel any malice from the lodger. I didn’t feel any emotion at all. I had only the thing’s words and images to judge it by. But if I wanted to get out of whatever I’d gotten myself into, and if the thing inside me couldn’t help, maybe someone else could. Maybe these hunters would help. Or maybe the lodger was telling the truth and they would execute me just to execute the one inside me.
I did not want to perish. I called out. The child answered. I am sorry for what happened.
I don’t understand.
The lodger explained.
Lodgers were incorporeal beings who had a fixed and short life span, unless they bonded with a proper host. Then both host and lodger could live to about twice the normal life span of the host. The human beings of the lodger’s native plane had evolved to be hosts, but only after both human and lodger reached a certain age. The arrangement, which had always carried some degree of controversy, had become a topic of great concern for the past few generations. More and more of the human population were choosing not to be hosts. The consciousness of the lodger goes silent when it takes a host. But there had always been instances where the being exerted control over its host, not direct control, but through whispers in the host’s mind. Sometimes those whispers saved the life of the host, as in many cases of mental anguish. But other times, the whispers were sinister. Lodgers, like humans, had many different talents, personalities, and natures. Lodgers, like humans, could make mistakes, have moments of weakness and wickedness, and then feel remorse, and then atone. But whether the influence was for good or ill, it troubled the human race.
To assure they did not die out altogether, some lodgers began taking hosts of the closest beings in proximity to humans: their pets. But dogs and cats are not sentient. They cannot make the decision to take on a lodger the way humans can. So some lodgers, if they could not find a human host, chose to dissipate rather than take a semi-conscious being as a host. But for some, there was no choice. Because they could bond with no other but a human.
You were dying. You called out to that kid, the way you called out to me.
That dream I had. The more I spoke to the lodger, the better his English got, but I was learning too. I was learning his “voice” in my head. Some of the whispers I’d heard that morning, the whispers I’d thought were my own thoughts and notions, had actually been the lodger’s whispers.
Yes, it was cowardly. She was too young. But I did not mean to kill her.
I frowned. What did you think would happen?
I did not think. I hoped.
Your recklessness killed that girl. And then you made it worse. You ran.
I told you. I am a coward.
And now you’ve hurt another person. You’ve blinded me. How did that happen? People in my plane of existence aren’t compatible with your kind, I guess?
I sent the message out to every sleeping person within a half-mile of where I thought the box might land. I hoped that someone would find it and take it. The hunters are relentless. So must I be. I dared not think of the harm that might come to the one who found the box.
The doorbell rang. I moved toward the front door.
“Who is it?” I called out. My super-echolocation kicked in. I could almost see them, in my mind’s eye, through the door. Two big tall guys. Human guys. They were in some kind of uniform.
Please, do not reveal me.
“Dodd and Toyle at your service, sir. We’re just going door to door, offering our assistance to residents who keep lodgers,” one of the men said.
“Perhaps you have a lodger who just won’t leave. We can help you to evict him.”
I had little reason to trust any of the people or beings I’d met in the past few hours. It was reckless to open the door, as it was reckless to take and open that box. But I did it anyway. The truth was, I did not feel up to handling the voice in my head all by myself.
“I have a lodger I’d love to evict,” I said. “Provided your eviction methods don’t involve harming or killing the host.”
“They do not,” one of the men said gruffly. He was Toyle.
Dodd was slightly gentler with me. “Your eyes. You are a blind man. This will be more difficult.”
“No, this just happened. I think your lodger did it. It might have been an accident.” I listened for the voice, but the lodger had gone silent since I answered the door. I was sure he was lurking somewhere inside my head.
I told the men everything. My walk, the box, the gem, the light. They asked to see the gem and I thought I felt a flutter in my mind. Was it my lodger? Was he feeling restless?
“This gemstone is not where the lodger resided,” Dodd said. “The box is a lodger’s containment.”
“You were right about the light coming from the stone though. He used it to burn out your eyes,” Toyle added. “Clever and cruel, that one.”
“Why?” I felt a voice trying to speak in my mind. I silenced it.
“When a lodger is expelled,” Dodd said, “the eyes, as the organs that detect light, are the points of extraction. It’s a long story. Suffice it to say lodgers are linked to light energy. If a person is blind, then the extraction is more difficult but can still be done. But if a person doesn’t have any eyes at all. Or if the eyes are damaged severely enough—“
“But I can still detect light,” I said. “It just looks like blurry light. I don’t see shapes, but I can sense light. So, you should be able to get him out, right?”
“That’s not light, son,” Toyle said gently, and I didn’t know the man well, but I did not think he would set aside his gruffness for gentleness save in the direst of situations. “That’s memory. Your memory of light. It’ll fade in a few days or sooner.”
What they were telling me, I realized, was that there was no way—other than my death—that the lodger could be expelled from my body and my mind. The lodger would be trapped within me for the rest of my life, whispering to me, trying to usurp my thoughts.
The hunters, who claimed rather to be inter-plane agents, told me a slightly different story about my mind’s unintentionally invited and unwelcome guest. The lodger was indeed a criminal, guilty of murdering that child. No child could bear the burden of hosting a lodger. Everyone knew that. No decent lodger would ever try it. The lodger had bonded with a human from another plane of existence in the hopes of making a new and long life free of the bonds of the civilization from which he had come.
He had lied about how long lodgers lived. A lodger could take many hosts. They might remember skills and abilities, but they typically forgot the details of previous lives. Even so they were judged on those details. Some lodgers were not allowed to take another host if they had been convicted of committing any crimes when previously bonded. It was difficult to prove which mind was the culprit, host or lodger, so both were often convicted. It was another reason human beings no longer sought to take on the burden of bonding with a lodger. My lodger hadn’t lied about that part. Theirs was a dying race.
“Do not worry,” Dodd said. “He cannot take direct control of your body or of your mind. But he can influence. He can mimic your own inner voice. You must be ever vigilant to assure the thoughts you think are your own. His voice is distinct. Learn it well.”
I waved the two gentlemen into my living room. “Are you sure about that? The no control part? I’m from a different plane of existence aren’t I?”
“You have a fair point.”
My gut sank. He was supposed to have comforted me.
“You’ll need to do most of the work,” Dodd said. “You are the host. You should be the dominant one. We can help you. We can take you to a facility—”
“No—I mean, I don’t think we’re there yet.” The thought of being taken away was…unappealing. “I don’t want him to get control of me. So I need to be watched by people who know what’s going on. But I don’t know you either. Unless we have any trusted mutual acquaintances who can help bridge the gap, I’m at a disadvantage.”
“Toyle and I can stay with you awhile, with your permission. We are responsible for this lodger. And it is our duty to help and protect his victims, to help and protect you.”
“I’m not a victim. That child—that girl was a victim. I’m a bystander. But if you guys are on the up and up, I aim to be much more than that.”
“Then there is much more for you to know and learn. Toyle and I are not of this plane. But we have colleagues who are. We will all do what we can for you. But you too possess access to knowledge that we do not have, such as clues from the box in which the lodger traveled here.”
I showed them the box I’d found in the hopes they could help me decipher the symbols on it, but I noticed when I touched the box that the sides were now all smooth.
“There would have been symbols on it,” Dodd said.
“Yes, I don’t know why they’re gone now.”
“They’re only revealed to the host-to-be.”
“What do they mean? There was a—”
Dodd held out a hand. “Don’t tell us. If you say it aloud, he will hear you. He will have the knowledge you have. You must keep it from him.”
“I was hoping you fellows would be of more help.”
I wanted to laugh and cry and scream all at once. I had second thoughts about that facility. I wondered if I should ask Dodd and Toyle to take me away, to kindly send a message to my loved ones, to my son, maybe something that was mostly true, like saying I’ve been committed to an institution. It was a fleeting thought. I knew what I really wanted to do. Was I arrogant to think I could do it? To think I could take on the lodger? Dodd and Toyle said he had five lifetimes of knowledge and skill and was brilliant even before his first bonding. I was reviewing the conversation I’d had with him before the boys with badges showed up. I could read no inflection or emotion or tone to his inner voice. I heard only the words. They could have been spoken with condescension for all I knew.
The agents would settle in for the night. I was in some kind of protective custody. I asked them to look into some way to restore my eyesight. They went off to make phone calls and preparations for a long evening of teaching me how to fend off the lodger’s mind while I slept.
Do you believe what they say?
I stood in the yard, blindly looking up at the sky. It should have been darkening by that time.
I see the facts in your own thoughts, lodger.
Why do you trust them and not me?
Just because I’m going along with them doesn’t mean I trust them.
You’ve put yourselves in their hands. You are arrogant to think you might get away from them if they betray you.
When they betray you.
They haven’t done me wrong yet. You on the other hand. You burned out my eyes. Was that an accident?
No. I’m sorry. I had to. I was scared.
Are you evil, lodger?
That doesn’t help at all.
I am like you, like any human or lodger. I am both.
Maybe you’re neither. Maybe you have no morality. Killing that girl was no accident. You yourself said as much. Humans have to reach a certain age. For what you did, you deserve death, pal. My mind may be weak, but I have a reason to make it stronger now. I’m going to make your life miserable.
What kind of man will you be? What kind of father? If you spend your thoughts tormenting me?
I don’t plan on tormenting you. I plan on containing you.
Then you won’t benefit from the use of my presence. The great enhancements to your senses. How will you live then?
Like every other blind man on the planet.
How do you plan on containing me? My mind can hide inside yours, creeping through your thoughts influencing you for good or ill. But that’s not how we were meant to live. Lodger and host are meant to be partners.
Oh, I believe that’s true, if I believe any of this is true. But you’re not a lodger. You’re a parasite.
I draped a shroud over the image of the box in my mind, hiding it from him. Other than the skull-and-crossbones and possibly the eye, I didn’t know what to make of the symbols I’d seen on the box: turtle, musical note, lightning bolt. I believed they signified ways to weaken or defeat the lodger that the box had contained.
I wouldn’t stop looking for a way to get rid of him altogether, no matter what those hunters, or agents, claimed. But until then, maybe I could keep him in line with a little classical music, or the presence of a pet turtle, or some electric stimulation therapy from a reputable doctor.
It was no more outrageous than what had already happened. I had brought this upon myself. But that didn’t mean I deserved to be haunted by the voice of a demon all my life. I had to keep the lodger in check if I wanted to live among people. His thoughts were ignoble and dangerous. I had to adapt to life without my eyes. It was daunting to think about. But maybe there was a bright side to it all. In staying vigilant against the lodger’s whispers, I would finally learn to trust my own voice. And to strenghten my mind. For even without another’s influence, my own mind might think ignoble thoughts as well as noble ones. The challenge before me was deciding which thoughts I would follow.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel