This is a short story which I wrote in just under an hour. Enjoy!
Just a Thought
Jenny, the overly optimistic oncology nurse, had said that “a thought a day keeps the brain tumours away!”. Despite having proven Jenny to be so spectacularly wrong, Sophie maintained the ritual of always waking up to a thought every single morning. Today, was I died.
And Sophie had indeed died. It had been an excruciatingly long death, brimming with catheters and morphine and ridiculous medical jargon.
There wasn't anything complicated about death though. The heart stops and the brain switches off: that's what every single leaflet said. Sophie's death had involved a few tears (though none from her eyes) and a few attempts, but she had got there in the end. Or, so she had thought.
Can people think once dead? The question startled her. She became aware of how still she felt. She felt her scalp, with few hairs left to call it home, and that awkward itch that always plagued her left foot. And then, finally, her eyes opened...
The ceiling was clinically white, and that's all there was to it. Trying to recall ever seeing such a ceiling, she sat up.
The bed upon which Sophie sat was in the centre of a square room. The walls matched the ceiling, both in colour and in their clinical nature. At the foot of the bed, was a laptop on a desk. There, with his back to Sophie, was a man.
A barrage of thoughts invaded Sophie's mind. This room wasn't totally dissimilar to a hospital room, she supposed. And most hospital rooms had computers. She was yet to visit a hospital room that contained no medical equipment, though. It was this thought that scared her most. Because whilst Sophie had visited almost every ward in the hospital, she had never visited the morgue.
“Where am I?” The words plummeted from her mouth. Frozen, she watched. The man didn't jump, but Sophie felt sure that he now sat a little straighter.
Slowly, he rose from his chair and turned to face her.
“Ah.” Was all he said. He was a slim man of twenty-five or so, with perfectly combed brown hair and a pair of notably large spectacles on his face.
She grimaced in the midst of the awkward silence. Sophie had heard many 'Ah's in her life, and not one of them had been good. There had been an 'Ah' that began the explanation as to why Santa hadn't sent her four year-old self a Baby Annabell; and 'Ah' had begun each one of her parent's evenings, and the 'Ah' that preceded her final diagnosis. And then, there was that final, fateful usage: the “Ah, you're going to die.” 'Ah's were bad news, Sophie decided, and upon that conclusion, her grimace transformed into an ugly scowl.
The man's eyes widened and he let out an awkward chuckle.
“Sorry,” he said. “I wasn't expecting you to wake so soon.”
Sophie raised an eyebrow, contemplating his word choice. Did 'Wake' imply that she was alive?
“No.” The man said. His face was plain and expressionless. Even his eyes were matter-of-fact. And yet, it would seem that he had just answered an unasked question- there was nothing matter-of-fact about that. Just as Sophie began to doubt what she'd heard, he spoke again:
“No, you're not alive.” He said. And then, “Sorry.”
“My name's Ethan.” His attempt to fill the silence was feeble, but Sophie was grateful for it.
“Sophie.” She replied.
“I know.” He nodded and smiled. He had a friendly smile. It was the kind that lit up the face in which it sat, and extended right into the eyes. The eyes, Jenny had always told Sophie, were the heart's messenger. Whilst Sophie had always found that particular notion to be rather laughable, Sophie had known many other 'tumourists' who, in the end, could only communicate through their eyes, and each one did so remarkably well.
“How do you know?” She spoke with prudence- unsure of what to say.
“It's my job to know.” He smiled again. The smile was annoying, and without reason. Sophie was a firm believer that no person should ever smile unless they've just cause. This was part of her 'dolorous ideology'.
“This is Sophie. She has a dolorous ideology.” Jenny would say, always whilst wearing a stupid grin.
“And what, exactly, is your job?” Sophie asked. Feeling as certain as a person in an unfamiliar location can feel, she slid to edge of the bed and stood up. It was only then that she took note of what she was wearing: a knee-length, graceful black strap dress, complete with her favourite black heeled shoes. These were the clothes that she had asked to die in. Sophie had always joked that she needed to be dressed in mourning clothes for her funeral, and to her mother's horror, this was a joke that she had lain by on her death bed.
“I'm a caretaker, I suppose.”
“You don't look like a caretaker.” She took note of his clean lab-coat, smart shirt and bright red dicky-bow.
“No.” He granted. “I use the word rather loosely.”
She nodded without knowing why...it just felt like a good time to nod. That was what the doctor's always did. They pulled their best 'understanding' faces, and nodded at least once a sentence. Though the intention was to make patients like them, the desired effect was never achieved with Sophie, who resented all medical patronisation.
“Am I dead?” She asked. She was surprised by her casual tone. The thing about people who know they're going to die, is that death no longer shocks them. Perhaps it should, Sophie thought.
It was Ethan's turn to grimace now. Perhaps he doesn't know that people die.
“That depends what you mean by, 'dead'.” he said, sitting down.
“I mean 'dead'.” She perched at the end of the bed.
“To be 'dead' implies that someone,” he gestured across to her, “was ever alive.”
Sophie paused. It seemed that Ethan was implying that she'd never been alive. She grinned at the stupidity of the idea: of course she'd been alive- cancer doesn't touch the non-living.
“Am I dreaming?” she asked.
He laughed, properly this time. She raised an eyebrow and he came to an awkward stop.
“Sorry,” he sighed. “The irony's always lost on you people.”
“What irony?” She frowned.
He sighed a heavy sigh. His brow creased. He opened his mouth and then shut it again. He scratched his head, then brought his hand to a fidgeting rest. These were all the marks of a person who'd something bad to say.
“WHAT?” Sophie shouted.
“Sorry,”. Ethan was in the habit of apologising. This irritated Sophie. She was of the opinion that people should just get things right. Ethan was not especially good at getting things right; he was particularly good at apologising.
Ethan cleared his throat and looked Sophie straight in the eyes. She silenced her impatience and listened.
“You could say that you lived,” He began. “depending on your idea of existence.”
“You and I,” he continued. “we exist in our own right, but we exist less than most people.”
He paused, watching her. She performed an involuntary tilt of the head.
“I hope you know how ridiculous you sound.” She said.
Ethan nodded before asking,
“What do you know about dreams?” And then. “What about the mind?”
It was Sophie's turn to smile now. She was pretty certain that this was a dream. Perhaps all death was is a series of dreams? If that was the case, then there was no danger in humouring this stranger.
She said, “Nothing.”
Ethan blinked. “Nobody ever does. See,” he leant forward. “some humans are real...But some humans are not. We are not real, Sophie.”
Sophie laughed. “Okay.” She said.
“It's not really.” Ethan pulled a sympathetic, 'this is completely normal' face. “We exist as part of someone's mind. We are an idea; a dream. We're not tangible people.
“We are just a part of the world in somebody else's head. We are shimmering concepts, dancing in and out of a person's thoughts. That is all. We are not real.”
Sophie looked Ethan up and down. He was smart, and had a kind face, but he was a nerdy character. At present, he was informing Sophie that she didn't exist, and she did not take kindly to such accusations.
“I died.” She stood. “I spent two long years in hospital, just waiting for a load of cancer cells that I never asked for to kill me. Whilst smokers and druggies and alcoholics got to live, I got to die. And I felt every second of it...how do you explain that if I don't exist?”
Her eyes burned from lack of blinking. Her throat was dry, and her lungs begged her to breath. Short of things to say, she indulged them. Ethan, thinking better than to smile, maintained a neutral expression.
“That's the hard bit.” He said. “You're the malfunction. You're the nightmare....the intrusive thought. You're the sob story on the telly; the charity case printed in the tabloids. You're the thought that wasn't supposed to happen.”
“Who thinks about cancer?” She sat back on the bed.
“Nobody really,” he smiled. “But vivid detail isn't needed. A thought of you, and a thought of cancer, both shoved into the same mind store, can create a whole new life. Those two thoughts created a new thought, and that thought grew. It grew into you.”
Sophie nodded, despite not understanding a single word. Her left knee bounced and refused to stop. In the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a non-white object, and turned to inspect the flaw. A black door filled the centre of the white wall.
Was that always there?
“Yes.” Ethan said. She jumped, then scowled.
“So where are we?” she snapped. “And why do you keep answering my thoughts?”
Ethan tilted his head. “You know.” he said.
She raised an eyebrow, refusing to entertain an unexplained idea.
“You know where you are...My computer reads your thoughts.”
He turned back to the computer screen and pointed to a thin green line. The graph the line formed a part of looked just like the ECG monitors at the hospital. The stark reminder hurt Sophie, perhaps more than it should have done. A red line suddenly appeared on the screen, and formed a perfect triangular peak.
“What does it mean?” She breathed.
“Well,” he gestured to each point as he spoke. “This green line is your sub-conscious. And the red line...” He paused. “That means you're cross with me.”
“I can think of a few other words for it.” She grumbled. “You still haven't answered my question; where am I?”
Ethan's shoulders sank, and his mouth didn't seem to smile as before.
“Whenever you have unwanted thoughts, what do you do?” He asked.
“I mean, how do you get rid of things? People you want to forget; things you wish you'd never said?”
Sophie pondered the question. There were plenty of moments in her life that she wanted to forget. The majority of her final two years would have been good to lose. But she'd never been very good at getting rid of thoughts. She thought about things too much. That's what Jenny had always told her, anyway. “Just shove the thoughts out of your mind.” She would say. “Stick them behind closed doors.”
Sophie didn't understand much, but it sounded as though she was a bad thought sat behind a door.
“Yes.” Ethan said. Slowing down, Sophie thought the question to the answer “Is this real?”
“Okay,” She nodded slowly. “So I don't exist, but this is real. I can think, but I'm just a thought. And I'm dead, but I was never alive.”
“That's pretty much the sum of it.” He replied.
“So, what?” She asked.
He stood from his chair and began to pace up and down, his hands held behind his back.
“This is the awkward bit,” He began. “You're a bad thought that went too far. Whoever owns this mind had enough, and shoved you into an unused space: that's here.” He gestured.
“But these places have a limited capacity. Pretty imminently, this mind is going to have another horrible thought, and they're going to need to put it here.”
He paused. Sophie contemplated the situation. Something about this dream wasn't right.
“I have to delete you, Sophie.” His words tore through the silence.
Their eyes met. He wasn't joking.
“Yes.” He nodded, seemingly glad that she'd understood. He took three brisk steps back across to his computer, and gestured to a small red button to the left of the keyboard. “See.”
How clichéd. She thought. Ethan just stood, a shy smile on his face.
“What exactly would 'deleting' me entail?” She observed the button.
“It would mean that you'd be gone.” He said. “Forever.”
“I would just, cease to exist?” She scoffed as she spoke.
“Well, yes.” He paused. “But you never actually existed anyway, so it's okay.”
Sophie laughed, and really laughed. He stood completely still.
“I exist, okay?” She moved her face closer to his. “I exist!”
Ethan smiled sympathetically. “You think this is all just a dream.”
Sophie shook her head, but didn't disagree.
“They always think that.” He sighed.
Ethan held Sophie's gaze for just a few moments, then shrugged. With a newly defined sense of purpose, he rolled back the sleeves of his lab-coat and sat down.
“Ethan?” Sophie asked, her voice trembling despite herself. “Ethan? What are you doing?”
There was no reply. Ethan closed the graph and a picture of Sophie appeared. She looked pretty in her dress, and yet, so ill. Her chest burned at the thought of those she loved seeing her like that: as somebody else.
The chaos in Sophie's mind resumed. It was loud, and messy, and uncomfortable. She wondered if the same kind of situation existed in her own mind and apologised profusely to those involved if it did.
“This is a dream.” She whispered. “This is just a dream!”
Desperate for just another moment's thought, she darted forward and grabbed Ethan's hands. Perfectly calmly, he removed one hand from her grasp and used the other to hold her two hands together. She writhed in his, strangely firm, grip, scratching and stabbing at his skin. His face showed no pain, and his grip did not lessen.
Through burning eyes, she watched Ethan reach out.
“Sorry.” He said. And despite everything, Sophie believed him.
With a sad smile, Ethan turned back to the computer screen...
and pushed the button.