That smell. Mexican Orange Blossom. It always hits me like the cold rush of an opening blast chiller. It overwhelms my senses, even as gnarled and dull as they are. Yet all five seem sharp and agile, not the pale facsimile they were last time I breathed that sweet scent in the hospital garden. Was it years ago? Months? The dappled sun falls in shards, filtering through the trees, the light rippling as I walk, but walk where?
Gently, the moment returns, inches at a time, like an old man easing into a hot bath. Seven years old and I’ve earned my parents’ trust, enough to go out alone. I’m free, wandering the earth, unfettered and alive. Not weakened and bed stricken, not shrivelled and dumb, but alive. Haven’t I been here before, though? I don’t mean a feeling--déjà vu, or whatever they call it, since they worked out its true meaning—but a legitimate retracing of steps already taken. I’ve lived these exact moments. Somehow, I’m experiencing them again.
None of this makes any sense. From my haphazard recollection—and I can no longer rely on a hazed memory which, I’m told, is poked with holes like a rotten sponge—the calendar has ticked past the midway point of the twenty-first century. I haven’t been seven years old in a lifetime, not since the mid-eighties.
With each dancing step along the narrow, muddy track, where the creeping foliage glances my arms with silvery touches so faint they barely register, memories of a future once lived fade away. My seven-year-old mind can hardly describe the wonder as decades of dull weight slips from my slender, sunken shoulders, like the heavy backpack filled with schoolbooks which falls from my body the second I run through the door, abandoned in exchange for a summer evening’s promise.
I mustn’t venture too far, because my parents will somehow know, via their omniscient radar. But the slack they’ve given me is more than enough. Freed from our backyard to roam the infinite, the possibilities for adventure which await are vast and unknowable.
The track stretches forward, a bumpy brown motorway, framed by trees and bushes crowding along the sides, forming a natural guard of honour which I ignore in my eagerness to reach beyond, into the growing ball of orange light. It draws closer as I run towards wide open fields which I’ve only ever visited in dreams. A warm glow washes across my face as I turn skywards. With a child’s untouchable smile spreading across my taut skin, I scrunch my eyes shut. The sunlight flows through the thin lids, becoming a flaming wheel of amber and black.
Now, skipping free among the open grass which swishes my bare calves, the mild irritation hardly noticeable, I spin in circles with my arms spread wide, as if to beckon the low, lemon sun from its chosen spot, resting on the tips of the trees. There’s a sense of unfathomable beauty hiding just beyond my grasp, benevolent and wonderful, waiting to be discovered. I want to devour it all, but I must wait, like a king at a seven-course banquet. Smile and enjoy the theatre, acknowledge the reverence of my subjects, while all the time I can scarcely contain my greed, wanting to tear flesh from bone and discard the scraps, like a careless predator with a kill it can’t finish before the vultures and bottom-feeders close in and claim their share.
My eyes flick open. There is a figure standing across the field, silhouetted against the shade of an endless oak tree which rises from the earth like God’s own telephone pole. A mind as inexperienced as mine cannot comprehend such vastness. Ocean liners and jets can’t be bigger. Mountains and canyons can’t be bigger. Inside the sprawling shadow of the tree, the man looks small and unimportant, but something jolts inside my chest and a creeping coldness chases away the evening warmth. He waves and breaks into a stride, his legs cutting through the knee-high grass like two sharks, their dorsal fins side-by-side in the shimmering sea. I stand frozen while he cuts the distance in half, then in half again, and he’s nearly here, and his reptilian smile with small yellow teeth is shining, and my heart is thumping and fluttering in my chest like the heart of a hummingbird.
* * *
Doctor Pankhurst fidgeted and chewed his fingers while he waited for the elevator to reach the fifteenth-floor. The moment it pinged open, he raced along the corridor, bathed in a blueish glow, past rows of rooms with their single occupants, cocooned in endless safe repetition, and barged through a door into the last room on the left.
“Holgate, what’s the emergency? Did the patient reject the regression?”
The junior doctor shook his head. “No, Dr Pankhurst, the memory took alright, but it’s strange. His BPM is high and rising. All his fight-or-flight responses are elevated.”
Pankhurst took a quick look at the patient. A few oily beads of sweat had pooled on his translucent forehead. His liver-spotted chest, its grey hairs criss-crossed with wires, rose and fell with the heart-monitor’s pulsing alarms, growing more frantic with each breath. Holgate was right, his vitals were going haywire.
“Have you checked the real-time view?” Pankhurst asked, garnering a swift nod from his subordinate. “And you’re sure you’ve patched him in at the right coordinates?”
“June 6th, 1987, just after seven in the evening. Exactly when the computer examination of his memory download showed the biggest sustained dopamine spikes.”
“And how far did you wind on?”
Holgate chewed his cracked lip. “Oh, the usual…”
Pankhurst narrowed his eyebrows and glowered at the junior doctor. “How long, Simon?”
“At least, um, at least ten minutes.”
Pankhurst’s chest buzzed with an electric spark, and he leapt across the room to grab his Head-Up Display glasses. “Shit, there’s something about that date. Why does it ring a bell?” He quickly searched for the patient’s name in the hospital files—Jimmy Cornell, date of birth: April 4th, 1980—and accessed the notes. “Christ, you really need to pull your finger out and do your homework. It’s here in the goddamn file. Read it yourself.” He ripped off the glasses and passed them to his confused colleague.
Holgate’s jaw inched towards the cold sterility of the lab floor as he ingested each line of text. “Bugger. I’m sorry, Doctor Pankhurst, I don’t know what else to say. What can I do?”
“Well, we’re going to have to try something, you idiot, or you’ve condemned this man to living the worst moment of his entire bloody life on endless repeat for the next four to six months!”
“Can’t we reset the memory loop and change the time parameters?”
Pankhurst shook his head. “No, you clown. Once in motion, the looptime cannot be altered. There are only two options. We pull him out and wake him up, in which case he’ll almost certainly go into cardiac arrest. I hope you haven’t grown too fond of working here, Holgate.”
He gulped and clawed at his collar. “I have, somewhat, yes. What’s option two, sir?” Pankhurst tried to speak before the realisation sunk—there was no option two.
* * *
“Well, hello, son.” The man’s lilting Dublin accent is soft and clashes with his rodentine face. “It’s Jimmy, isn’t it?”
I stare at my black rubber plimsolls and wring my pencil-thin wrists, while the man’s skittish eyes, dark and viscous like boiling oil, bore into me. “M… my daddy says I shouldn’t speak to anyone whom I don’t know.”
“And he’s right, son, but I’m no stranger. Your daddy is Paul, isn’t he? I’m Derek. See, we’re not strangers at all.”
“Um, I guess so.”
My eyes dart up as a long tongue flicks a ruddy lip. An eyebrow rises, keen to escape that grotesque face on which it has found itself. “Actually, your daddy sent me to pick you up and take you home.”
Panic rises in me. Is something wrong with my parents? “What’s happened?” I blurt.
“Oh, nothing to worry about.” Before I can move, a hand grasps mine, enveloping it completely. It’s rough and gritty against my virgin skin. I blink quickly, crushed by the knowledge this man is lying to me, and I have rolled into the trap like marbles in a maze.
* * *
Pankhurst rubbed the sweat from his brow with his white coat sleeve. “I’ve never seen this before. It’s like revisiting the trauma has created a weird feedback loop. He must be a lucid dreamer. Check his records, will you?”
“Yes, Dr Pankhurst.” He quickly located the relevant file. “It says here a long history of vivid dreams and highly developed lucid abilities.”
“He’ll go into arrest in the next few minutes. We have to try something.”
Holgate swallowed. His mouth sounded sticky and dry. “Um, can’t we, you know, let him pass? He is seventy-seven.”
Pankhurst spun to face his colleague, teeth bared, a vein pulsing on the side of his head as it turned a glowing maroon. He gripped the other man’s collar and sent a shower of spittle across his flinching face. “Listen to me, you treacherous fool. This man’s family paid us to look after him for the final months of his life, one which every test in the known medical spectrum said would last at least another sixteen weeks. And to place him in his most glorious hour of joy, not abandon him in his moment of highest peril.” He loosened his grip and let Holgate fall backwards, limp and disconsolate.
“Please accept my deepest apology, sir.” His lowered neck slunk further forwards, then sprung upwards with a sliver of redemption riding his face. “Sir, can I offer an idea?”
“You can’t do any more harm than you already have, so be my guest.”
“How about a hard reset in sandbox mode?”
Pankhurst’s mouth opened and hung there, words refusing to form while he processed the suggestion, one which he’d not even dared consider. His racing thoughts ran the gamut from horror, past incredulousness, all the way to wonder. Hard rebooting a lucid dreamer, outside of any pre-programmed memory loop? It sounded insane, especially with a patient suffering from advanced dementia. But there wasn’t another realistic option, except to let the man die and suffer the consequences. Who knew what would happen? He had to find out. Finally, he leapt into action and pulled up the control console by the patient’s thrashing head.
“Holgate, you’re about to witness history being made. If anything goes wrong, I’ll throw you under the bus without a second thought, so you better start praying.”
“Yes, sir, and you have my word. I won’t make a fuss.”
Pankhurst finished typing a long ribbon of code and his finger stopped for a moment, hovering over the enter key, poised like the finger of God on the button of creation.
* * *
A feeling like hot lava bubbles from my stomach, climbing my throat and spilling through my veins, where it fills every cell in my body. The past and present schism, and the canyon between them opens into a yawning vastness, sucking me into its depths, and spewing me out like the jetting stream of a ruptured geyser. Opaque mist descends, blood-red behind my eyeballs, unleashing limitless strength, pouring from me until a man’s body lies shattered, each bone pulled from the next, spilled viscera painting the grass like a million smashed grapes. Brutality divine.
Untethered, I rise from the earth, fields and houses and roads and railway tracks spreading beneath like a spoiled child’s disregarded toys. The amber of daylight fades, and the darkening sky beckons, but I rip through, spinning faster. Criss-crossing the vantablack of space are endless patterns like scars, repeating but unique. Towering nebulae and black holes, the beating hearts of galaxies, the masters of a billion suns. Shackled planets with their spinning satellites enslaved. Every celestial body in the universe is mine, fragments of colour in a boundless palette. I can go anywhere, see anything, be anyone. I am infinite. The only weight I carry is the eternal smell of Mexican Orange Blossom, and it never leaves.