I’d lock myself up if I thought I was really a danger. I’d have myself committed to a psychiatric hospital. I would. To keep from hurting someone. I don’t want it to come to that. But I’d do it.
I exhaled through my mouth and hung up the phone.
The agent in the gray suit was back with her preliminary assessment. I was terrified that she would say she’d have to assign another agent to me, one that investigated monsters. And simultaneously, I was hopeful that she would say she’d continue on as my assigned agent, and help me figure out what was going on with me. Help me control it, if that was possible, so I could be sure I didn’t do whatever it was I seemed to be doing at the wrong time, in the wrong way. I couldn’t let any more people get hurt.
I put on a kettle of tea, and as I waited for the agent to walk up, I crossed my arms and leaned against the hallway wall just outside my front door. My upstairs neighbor was blaring his music again. Rhythmic bass beats pulsed through the ceiling. I allowed myself a smile. If he was blaring his music, that meant his electronics were working. I sighed and let some of the tension from my shoulders relax.
Then the hallway lights began to flicker.
For as long as I could remember, I’d been haunted by a general trend of weirdness. I was one of those kids who would talk to imaginary friends, who turned out not to be imaginary, but ghostly. No less than three apparitions haunted my early childhood. All of them were themselves children. When I got older, my mom would tell me that I got to know the ghosts well and helped them all pass over. But I don’t remember that at all. Maybe I just stopped seeing them, or they stopped coming around.
Sometimes devices went on the fritz when I drew near. Sometimes they went on the mend. There was that one time my best friend in college thought she’d lost all the pictures she’d taken on a phone that just melted down. The last pictures she’d taken of her dad before he died were on that phone. And they were only on the phone. Between beating herself up for being too reckless to back the pictures up or sync them to a cloud or another device, she tried everything she could think of to recover the pictures. She gave her phone to a few tech people in her department. They couldn’t get any information off the phone. She sent it in to the manufacturer. They couldn’t get anything. She even hired a service—I think it might have been illegal—that specialized in pulling data off severely damaged devices. They couldn’t get the pics either.
In desperation, she handed the phone to me. She’d heard the stories. She knew about my thing with devices. She was a skeptic, a woman of logic and reason. She’d never witnessed anything unusual about me herself. But it was her dad. And she wouldn’t rest until she tried everything she could.
Nothing happened when I held the phone. She insisted I take it home with me. After seeing the expression of apathetic surrender in her eyes, I couldn’t refuse.
I went to bed that night with my friend foremost on my thoughts. I kept hoping there would be some good news soon. That maybe she’d enabled auto-syncing of her pictures after all, and she’d call me, happy-crying, as she flipped through pictures she thought she’d never see again. I held her phone in both my hands, gently, as if it were a sick pet. I lay it on the nightstand next to me.
The next morning, my friend’s phone woke me an hour before my own alarm was supposed to go off. It shouldn’t have been possible. The phone had melted down. No one had been able to turn it on for weeks, much less get any data off it. I called my friend. The lock on the phone was biometric. She’d need to unlock it. But while she was on her way over, I dared to touch the phone, and it unlocked. Just in case something else happened, I backed up all the pictures she had on the phone.
Seconds after she walked in and saw that the phone was working, it died again. This time, for good.
But I’d gotten those pictures for her. And there was indeed happy-crying.
And I had another believer.
I called it “flickering,” whatever it was. Because when I was going through puberty, that’s what would happen. Random lights would flicker when I entered a room.
It wasn’t always a happy occasion, or a harmless one, when my flickering would happen.
The first time my flickering caused a problem was a few weeks after I started my current job at a local diner (flipping pancakes by morning, burgers by day, and the bird at bad tippers—as my boss liked to say).
The diner stayed open through dinnertime during the winter. One evening, while the place was packed, the electricity went out. All at once, I heard several gasps, the clattering of utensils against plates, a kid starting to cry, and someone uttering “uh-oh.” Within minutes, my eyes adjusted, thanks to the light shining through the windows from the streetlights and parking lot lights outside. Our boss encouraged everyone to stay calm. Flashlights went on. And everyone started to sort themselves out. We closed early that night. When we came in the next morning, everything was working again.
We later found out that there was no outage. Only the diner was affected. In the days that followed, no apparent cause was found. The boss had an electrician come and check out all of the lines and outlets. Luckily, none of the customers had been hurt. And most left happy since the boss forgave all bills and (savvily) handed everyone a coupon for a free dessert at their next visit.
One of the cooks was manning the fryer at the time, and she’d gotten a small burn on her left hand. But she said she’d had worse.
I’d been in the stock room with our newest person. That’s why she didn’t say anything about what she’d seen at first. Because she was new. But weeks later, another blackout happened. I was in the kitchen that time, frying an egg. Three other people saw me.
They all told me that it looked like my eyes were glowing. Like a cat’s eyes in the dark, only kind of a pinkish-orange color. The person I was with during the first blackout confirmed that she’d seen the same thing. She thought she’d just imagined it, because she hadn’t been getting much sleep, plus it was her first day and the blackout happened.
I looked it up, and just like before when I’d tried to look up the weird things that happened around me, I didn’t find much that was specific enough to be useful. My night vision wasn’t any better than anyone else’s as far as I knew. And my eyes didn’t always glow. I’m sure someone else would have mentioned it on the numerous occasions I’d found myself in a dim or darkened room with other people.
I didn’t want to believe that I could be causing any negative issues with my flickering thing. So I shrugged it off. Life went on.
Then, about a month ago, during the lunch rush, a man had a heart attack.
Someone called the paramedics right away. They arrived within minutes. We watched as they tried to resuscitate him. His wife told them he had a pacemaker so they wouldn’t put the defibrillator pads over it. That was when I started feeling a different kind of anxious than the anxious that everyone else was feeling. That’s when I started wondering if I was the reason the man’s heart had stopped beating in the first place. And why the paramedics seemed to be having trouble with the defibrillator.
It was flickering.
That’s when I muttered, to no one in particular, that I had to go outside. I had to get myself as far away from there as possible, in the hopes that the flickering would follow me. That it was some kind of aura that would move with me and away from everyone in the diner.
When I got into the parking lot, I glanced around me at all the things that might go wrong if I flickered. The moving cars might stop working and crash. Someone might get trapped in the elevator in a nearby office building. I glanced up and spotted a plane flying overhead, and even though it seemed foolish to think my flickering could reach it, I held my breath and willed it to keep flying farther away from me.
I’d never ignored the flickering. I’d just accepted it as a part of who I was. And I thought that if it was going to turn into anything serious, it would have happened during puberty. But it seemed to be changing now. Maybe becoming something sinister. And I had no idea how to control it. I didn’t even know when it was happening. I never sensed anything before, during, or after it happened. No prickling of the spine, no pinching, no pressure, no sudden unexplained emotion.
After that plane passed safely over me, I pulled out my phone and looked at the reflection of my face in the screen. I didn’t see any glow.
But when I drew closer to one of the overheard parking lot lights, it began to flicker.
When we first met, Agent Saije told me that her division specialized in investigating strange phenomena that centered around technology. Since my flickering seemed to affect machines and devices, she’d been assigned to do a preliminary assessment.
She’d already explained her approach, but I noticed that she repeated certain things. I’d been kind of insulted at first, and assured her that I was following what she was saying. But I realized that it was probably part of her training. Agents like her probably had to talk to a lot of people who weren’t in their right minds.
“Frieda, I’m trying to figure out the basics first and then go more and more specific,” she said, as she settled at the kitchen table. “And hopefully, we can get granular enough to figure out how to help you control this so you’re not constantly living in fear of causing accidents.”
“Destroying people’s lives, you mean?”
“You’re not doing this on purpose.”
I pulled a couple of mugs from the cupboard. “That’s not really of any comfort.”
“Look, in order to solve the problem we first have to define the problem.”
“Can we solve it?”
“What have you tried?”
“Since finding out I might actually kill someone with this thing that I thought was harmless—or maybe even helpful? Staying away from everyone and everything seems to be a good strategy.”
“A good temporary strategy. But then what?”
“Am I having hallucinations, or making connections that aren’t there? I hope that’s true. That I’ve just been seeing connections that aren’t really there.”
Agent Saije propped her elbows on the table, then propped her chin in her hand. “But a part of you also hopes that it’s something real and something you can control, doesn’t it? Because before all these bad things started happening, your ‘flickering’ had some positive effects.”
I shook my head. “I don’t about that now. Maybe it was just wishful thinking.”
“If the negative effects are real, why wouldn’t the positive effects be real? Or…maybe they’re not even effects. Maybe something else is happening, and you’re just sensitive to whatever it is and can detect it. The first thing we have to do is gather all the information that could be evidence, subjective and objective alike. From your craziest theory to the most likely logical mundane everyday explanation.”
“From my initial assessment of what you gave me so far, if there is some phenomenon connected with you—either something you’re causing or experiencing—it seems to be connected to electricity. We now know ghosts are real, and far more sensitive to the electromagnetic fields produced by the natural world than most living things are. And the devices you report being able to affect all run on electricity.”
I nodded. I wanted to feel encouraged, to believe there was a simple cause, because that probably mean there was a simple solution.
Agent Saije continued. “I’ve worked with people who emit fields of exotic energy, people who can make portions of their dreams manifest in reality, people who can see other dimensions…whatever is going with you, even if it’s something I haven’t seen before, I’ll work with you to figure it out. Also, it isn’t our policy to just lock people up for being connected to weird phenomena.”
“Even if that phenomenon is dangerous?”
“In your case, we haven’t determined that yet.”
“And until we do? I don’t want to be locked up. But I’d rather be locked up than be responsible for killing or hurting someone.”
I couldn’t get past that dread. Even after Agent Saije spouted that list of…unimaginable phenomena, I couldn’t focus on anything but my fear of causing destruction.
“Why don’t I start by putting some of your recent flickering incidents into context,” Agent Saije said.
I responded with some dazed blinking.
But she continued anyway. “That night of the first blackout,” she said, “there was a woman in the diner. You wouldn’t have seen her. You were working the stockroom. But the person who waited on this woman remembered her, because of the way she was acting. He couldn’t tell if she was dangerous or in danger. This woman drank cup after cup of coffee. Ordered a full chicken dinner that she barely touched. Kept glancing around at everyone else in the diner. And the few times that your coworker was looking her way when it happened, he said she’d jump every time the bell above the front entrance rang to announce a new customer.
“Just before the blackout, four people entered the diner. It seemed as if they came together, but it was actually a party of three, followed by a single man. If the woman was looking at the door each time someone came in, she would have seen those three people, and she would have seen that one man. And he probably would have seen her too, in a second or two. Except he didn’t. Because it was at that precise moment that the lights went out. And by the time they went back on again, the woman was gone. She’d ducked out the back entrance, which she had noted when she first got there.”
I frowned. It was worse than I thought then. This woman was a criminal and the blackout I’d caused had helped her get away.
Agent Saije took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t know her name. And I don’t know the details of her story. I only know that she was in trouble and that the man who’d come into the diner that night most probably meant her harm. She went straight to the authorities and asked for help that very night. And the reason I don’t know her name is that she’s in a witness protection program.”
“That’s…” I shook my head.
“That man who had the heart attack,” Agent Saije said. “There was nothing wrong with his pacemaker. But when they did all the tests to check its function and to check his heart for damage, they found something. And well, long story short, if he hadn’t had his emergency, they wouldn’t have found this other life-threatening problem. As I understand it, if it got worse, and then he had a heart attack, he might not have survived.”
I crossed my arms. “Okay, but the poor man still suffered a heart attack. He still could have died that day.”
“It wasn’t actually a heart attack. I don’t have a medical background, so I couldn’t repeat to you what our expert said, though I can have her explain it to you if that would help. But his pacemaker didn’t give out so much as…”
“Flicker,” I said, darkly.
“You might call it that. But it was still functioning, keeping him alive, and keeping his heart tissue alive. He had a major scare, no doubt. But he came out of it better. Do you know, he was even joking with his nurses that he believed someone was looking out for him, but he wished that that someone would have just told him to get himself checked out instead of scaring him into it. His nurses joked back that he might not have paid attention if he didn’t get scared. Food for thought. Sometimes we need to get scared before we act.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Agent Saije pressed her lips into an encouraging smile, and I absently noted that she had on a pretty fushcia shade of lipstick that day. I hadn’t worn lipstick all week. I hadn’t done much of anything.
“Maybe this flickering thing is some kind of guardian spirit,” she said.
“But ‘what is it?’ you’re wondering.”
“I’ve tried to figure it out. Sometimes I’ll do research. I’ll ask a friend to help. Until recently, it wasn’t serious enough to take the time. And I’d hit dead ends and just let it go for a while.”
“We’re not going to figure it out in a day, but just out of curiosity, how did you organize your investigations?”
Agent Saije explained. “Were you systematic? Did you have a game plan? Did you look up methods and apply them? Did you come at it from any particular angle? Journalistic investigation? Law enforcement investigation? Scientific investigation?”
Agent Saije held up her hands. “I don’t want to overwhelm you, Frieda. But I also want you to know and trust that I know what I’m doing. I don’t want to leave you wondering and worrying.”
“Well, you’re not responsible for that. I’d be wondering and worrying about my life even if I didn’t have this flickering thing.”
“I mostly just came over to brief you tonight,” Agent Saije said. “But I’d like to ask you a few questions if you’re up for it. Start filling in some gaps.”
“Can you describe the ghostly children that you used to see?”
I rubbed my temple. “It was a long time ago.”
“Could you tell if they were boys or girls?”
I nodded. “They were all girls.”
Agent Saije raised her brows.
I sat down at the table across from the agent. “When I was in elementary school,” I said, “we had an assignment to write a short story. My memory of the ghosts was clearer then, and most people were still skeptical about them. So, I basically just wrote about them and a few of my conversations with them. That was probably one of the first ‘A’s’ I ever got.”
“Do you still have that story?”
“My mom might. I can have her send a copy.” Thinking about the short story jogged a memory. “This is going to sound creepy…”
Agnet Saije leaned forward. “Yes?”
“I’m not sure that they were ghosts.”
Agent Saije was silent, probably doing that thing where a person stays silent and lets the other person keep talking and revealing things.
I was game. The memory was strong and certain, like remembering all the lyrics of a favorite song I hadn’t heard in years. I had made weird decisions concerning grown-ups when I was a kid. Sometimes I would resist what they wanted me to do. Sometimes I would believe them without question. And even though I knew the girls that I was talking to were not ghosts, I did know that there was something unusual about it that I couldn’t explain at that age.
“So you accepted the grown-ups’ explanation of what it was,” Agent Saije said. “You were seeing ghosts. But what were you actually seeing? Who were those girls?”
I gulped. “Me. They were me.”
Agent Saije sat back a bit.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Does that tell you anything?”
“I’d be interested to see that short story. This is quite a jigsaw puzzle. If we try to draw conclusions about what we’re seeing before we put it together, we might end up like those three blind men who thought they were touching various different animals, when they were all actually touching an elephant. They would have figured it out if they put all their pieces together.”
“Do we have all the pieces?”
“We may never get all, but we just need enough to see the bigger picture. So far, we have visual projections of the self, which might be linked to the reported glowing eyes. Then we have some kind of limited telekinesis that’s linked to electromagnetism, and a little bit of astral projection maybe, bringing back relevant information that you’re processing subconsciously.” Agent Saije widened her eyes and grinned. “I don’t know what’s going on yet. But whatever it is, it is fascinating.”
“So, does that mean, I’m not…” I raised my hands and flicked my fingers out a few times. “…releasing some kind of energy that’s interfering with…machines…or…?”
I couldn’t get the words out. Agent Saije told good stories. But I still couldn’t quite believe any of them were true. Maybe she was just lulling me into a sense of ease.
Before they started the real interrogation. Or the tests. Or the dissection.
I gulped and cleared my throat to cover up the nervous gesture.
“I wouldn’t try dissecting me,” I said, mostly to myself. And it wasn’t a threat, but the agent raised a brow and leaned further away from me, just a bit.
“It’s your choice whether or not you want to leave your body to science when you die,” Agent Saije said. “But we’re not in the business of cutting people up just to see how they tick. Even if it weren’t cruel and inhumane, it wouldn’t be logical.”
“At least until we find a whole bunch of people who exhibit the same phenomenon.”
“I hope you’re joking, Agent.”
“I was, and it was a bad one. My apologies.”
I sighed, not from exasperation at the bad joke, but just from the exhaustion of being wound so tight lately. “Where do we go from here?”
“Step One will be stabiliizing you, so you can, you know, get out of your house, go to work, go out with your friends, complain about work. If we can get you to a point where you’re making tasteless jokes about your flickering thing, then we’ve successfully completed Step One.”
I folded my hands together and leaned toward her.
“Okay, and then? What’s Step Two?”
Agent Saije raised her brow. “Oh, she’s ready for Step Two already. A week ago, you would have been satisfied with Step One.”
“A week ago—or even before you walked in today—I thought I was a danger to society.”
“You still might be. I’ve seen that stack of philosophy books on your nightstand.”
I sighed again, this time, it was in exasperation. “Pondering existence is not a crime, Agent.”
“No, it most certainly is not. And it’s a good thing you’re into that sort of thing, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time pondering your existence, and figuring out what the nature and purpose of your flickering is.”
“If there is one.”
“Like, an evolutionary advantage you mean?”
“Where do we start.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to my team. Specialists who will help you with becoming aware of how the flickering feels so you can tell its coming on. From there, we’ll see if you can contain it using physical or mental techniques, like an angry person breathing slowly to calm themselves. But we can talk specifics of the game plan after a brief break. For now, I want to taste whatever it is you’re brewing over there. Smells like a special blend.”
I grinned. “Yes, it is. And my teapot isn’t electric, so no worries there.”
I envisioned that completed puzzle, where my glowing eyes tried to show me something I hadn’t consciously seen since I was a child, my own self, reaching into one machine to interfere with its workings or repair them. And all of it with the aim of helping someone. But fraught with the risk of hurting them too.
And I still envisioned a moment where Agent Saije and her team were forced to take me away after discovering I was a danger to society after all.
But the vision that I hoped would come true was that of Agent Saije and her team helping me to figure out what my flickering really was, and how to direct it so that I could still help people, on purpose…and with far less drama.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.