He could not see anything, nor was there any sound. He knew he was moving forward and could feel the soft squish of the ground underneath his feet. Because of the void he did not know if his path was narrow or if he walked in an expanse. He held his arms out in front of him and then waved them in the air at his sides but felt nothing. He felt like he was walking in the right direction yet was not sure if the next step he took would plunge him over the precipice and into the abyss. He was not sure that he would have minded that but didn’t think that was what was going to happen.
He had heard the voice faintly. It sounded like it was coming from a distance but also straight ahead and felt surer of the path. He knew that it could have been right in front of him because he’d had the volume turned down. It had actually been switched off for a while now. It was what he had wanted, or at least what everyone had told him he should want. It was what everyone had demanded. He thought they were right, but he was never sure if he shut off the voices from within only to silent the voices from without.
It had worked, and the voices had been silenced but it wasn’t permanent. He was never sure how long they were switched off, but it never lasted. The switch was boring. The switch made everything too quiet. He enjoyed the respites of silence, but the longer they lasted the longer he missed the sound of the voices.
There was always one that broke back through. He’d heard it this time as he sat in the day room. Sitting in the day room was virtually the only thing he’d done since the switch had been turned off. At first, he had tried to attend the group sessions and had made attempts to eat his meals with the others. But soon all he had felt like doing was sitting and staring. The television glowed in front of him for hours on end. He saw the images but never really watched. The other patients would come and go to and from the day room, talking to and around him. They’d watch TV near him. They’d change the channels and argue about it. They’d ask his opinion and want him to vote on what to watch but he’d just shrug.
Eventually he didn’t stop looking at the screen. He’d look a few feet above it. He didn’t think, except to wonder when he had started to drool. The silence was deafening, and that was when the voice had broken through.
Usually the voices were clear and right in his ear, as if they were right next to him. But this one had come from far off. At first, he hadn’t been able to hear what it was saying. But the sound of it snapped him out of his trance and he had strained to hear it. It was beckoning him to come towards it. He wanted to get out of the darkness, and so he followed the sound of it.
The ground underneath his feet hardened and he could hear his footsteps. They were muted at first but grew louder, and as they did he could see a point of light in the distance. He walked faster towards it, and the faster he walked the louder the sound of his feet echoed and the bigger the point grew. It was a circle, then a tunnel, and then an arched entryway. He was almost to it when he heard the voice again, and now it was clear and firm. It was the voice of an old man and it was one that he didn’t hear very often. He only heard it at times like now, when he was trying to crawl back out of the silence.
It was bright. There were no markers and he couldn’t tell if he was in a room or a building or outdoors. Everything was white save the ground beneath his feet. The ground was black, but as he walked through the archway and stepped onto it the floor lit up. With every step he took, the light lit up. It would switch off again when his foot was in the air taking its next step. And so, as he walked towards the old man beckoning him his pace produced a strobe effect on the ground. He saw that the old man stood on a larger circle of light, and just as he was about to step into it the man put his hand up and he stopped.
“I’m glad you listened,” the old man said. He was smiling as he held a cane in his right hand and leaned against it. There was something familiar about him. “Now take the last few steps forward.”
He did and stepped into the bright circle. The moment his foot touched down the circle started to grow. The bright white light faded. From all areas of the circle, beams, thin beams of light, cut through the dark floor. They stretched out before the two of them standing in the light underneath them. More and more fired out from the circle until they began to meld together. There was nothing but the light, and he could not see, but this time there was sound. He heard voices coming from within every beam of light. He could make them out at first, but as the beams increased and became one so did the voices. It became nothing but a wall of noise, and he closed his eyes and covered his ears against the sound, but it was of no use. He wanted it to stop but there seemed no escape. He collapsed to his knees and covered his head with his arms, pressing his face down into the circle of light.
He felt the old man’s hand on his back and the voices began to separate. “This will be better,” the old man said. “Get back up.” He did and saw that the beams of light had separated again, shooting out from all sides. But they were thicker. Each beam contained a voice, and it was clear. He recognized them. They were his friends. The circle rotated, and the beams of light did with it.
“Watch,” the old man said and pointed along a beam. He followed the man’s finger and gaze and watched as one of the beams stretched out in front of him. It stretched almost as far as he could see, but suddenly it split into different directions. He watched as the line of those beams split until they disappeared into the blackened distance. He slowly turned all the way around the circle. He saw that all of the beams were growing the same way.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s you,” the man said. “Or, your paths.”
“Paths. Plural. All of them.”
He watched as they grew and split. “My paths?”
“All of them. The ones you took. Or could have taken. All of it. It’s all you. It’s always been you.”
He didn’t understand. “Why are you showing me this?”
“You’ve been asking to see them.”
“For as long as you’ve heard the voices. I’m glad you stopped taking the pills. You can’t hear when you take them, and you wouldn’t have heard me beckon.”
“The voices. They’re calling me.”
“They are. Do you want to see?”
He smiled. “I do!”
“I knew you did. Pick one and jump.”
“Pick one? There are so many. Which one should I pick?”
“It shouldn’t matter. But you should go see.”
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He took a few steps closer to the closest beam. He took a look back at the old man.
“Go on,” the man said, waving towards the beam with his cane.
He turned back towards the beam. He backed up a few steps to get a running start and jumped in the air toward the beam. It caught him, and it was warm, and in a flash he was gone.
“Jake. Jake. Jake!”
Jake came back with a start. He realized that he had not been blinking, and he started to blink rapidly to compensate. He hadn’t been paying any attention to what the doctor had been saying.
“I’m sorry, Doctor. You were saying?”
She smiled at him. She was younger than most of the doctors and psychologists had been so far. She was pretty, but unlike some of the male patients on the floor Jake didn’t leer or make crude comments. He didn’t really notice one way or the other. Her eyes were wide and brown. He liked to look into them. He saw compassion and earnestness. Jake felt like she really cared about helping people feel better. He hoped that she wouldn’t lose that. He didn’t think she would but knew she wouldn’t be long for the psych hospitals. She’d find private practice soon enough. The wards would wear her down. He smiled back, wistfully.
“I said I’m glad that you are feeling better. You’ve made a lot of progress.”
Jake nodded, working hard on keeping his focus. He bit his lip. “I have. I am. Feeling better.”
“Yes, your concentration seems better, if not perfect. How is your focus?”
“Much, much, better. Better,” he said, reaching behind his head and scratching the base of his neck furiously.
“Hmm. Still fidgety.”
Jake nodded, bringing his hand back around and biting his fingernails. “Yes. Probably the meds.”
“Probably. But they’re helping?”
He nodded rapidly. “Oh, yes, for sure. Much better.”
“Jake.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Well, no. But better. They’re more like—whispers. Distant. But getting there.” Easy. Don’t overplay it, he heard.
“Good. We’ll keep playing with it. I think we’ve almost got the dosage locked in.”
“We gave you a lot when you first got here. I know it kind of zonked you out, but you were in rough shape when you came in.”
“That’s what you all have been telling me.”
“Do you want to talk about it yet?”
She frowned. “The voices. What they say. What they want.”
“Er—no. At least…” Jake never knew what to say about them. They made sense when he heard them. When he talked about them, he sounded ridiculous. Like a crazy person.
“…at least not yet.”
“But we should.”
“They’re quieter. Quieting. I just think a little bit more—longer when I can’t hear them all the way. I could probably talk about them soon.”
“Yeah, ok, Jake. Good.” The doctor checked her watch just as the half-door of the nurse’s station swung open and a nurse announced that it was time for meds. “Good. Go take yours.” She stood up and he did too. “Keep talking to the counselors and the nurses. Go to group, ok?”
Jake nodded but looked past her towards the nurse’s station as he did. “I will.”
“Good.” She stood up and put her arm on his shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. He looked at the ground. “Feel good, Jake,” she said, and left, moving past him down the hallway. He stared at the med station where the patients were lining up, listening to her heels clack on the floor. The buzzer sounded and the door clanked open. He heard her walk through it and the door closed behind her.
She knows you’re lying, he heard as he walked up and down the corridor from the nurse’s station to the end of the hallway and back again. He didn’t walk fast, but not slow either. His pace was steady, and he made sure to place one foot in front of the other as he followed the wooden plank. Every day after the meds he’d walk up and down, starting at the plank closest to one wall in the corridor and working up and down until he completed all of the planks. There were eight or nine of them that made up the floor. They were wide and dark with a glazed finish.
“No. She may think it but she doesn’t know it.”
Sshh, he heard. Not out loud. Jake nodded. Well, you still need to be careful. If you’re going to meet them, you’ll need to keep off of those pills. You need to act normal, no matter what you hear or what we talk about.
“Ok,” he said and winced. Ok, he thought.
I will, he thought.
Jake would do the laps after the meds, but as soon as they were done he’d go into his room at the end of the corridor. He thought that doing the laps would make it seem like he was still a little crazy. And if he made a beeline to his room it might be suspicious.
He timed it so that when he quietly spit the pills into the toilet and flushed they had not yet started to dissolve. There was enough moisture that his mouth always tasted bitter after the laps, but not so much that the pills would have made any impact. He’d watch the entirety of the flush to make sure they didn’t float back up. They would circle down, and as they did he always thought about how different this hospital was from what they showed on the TV and in movies. For one thing, they never checked his mouth to see if he swallowed or not. He imagined they must check some patients, but they never checked him.
Just don’t act crazy.
As long as he didn’t act crazy they trusted him. It was a struggle, and the old man had to keep reminding him not to respond to him out loud.
I want to jump on the sunbeams again. He could hear the murmur of the other voices. The longer he was off of the pills the louder they grew.
Soon. Just a bit longer. Just hold on and you’ll be able to jump until your heart is content.
The thought of it made Jake smile. He had seen her once, and he could not wait to see her again.
“Daddy, come push me,” Lizzy said. Jake had been sitting on the bench that overlooked the playground. He got up, his feet crunching on the woodchips as he walked towards her.
“Higher, Daddy, higher,” she said, and Jake pushed harder. It had worried him the first time he pushed his daughter on a swing. He’d had no experience with it and it made him nervous. He thought he’d push too hard or that she would not hold on tight enough. But she’d implored him to push her higher, and she never fell off or let go.
Now, he pushed her on the swings as high as she wanted to go. The swings weren’t the only thing they did, and the park was not the only place they went. But there seemed to be few things that made her as joyful and laugh with such abandon as she did when she was sailing through the air on the swing. He’d have pushed her forever just to hear her laughter. He’d never heard such unreserved joy over such a small thing, and the thought of it sustained him when it was his turn to watch the gate. He wished that her laughter had been one of the voices that had whispered to him back before he’d learned how to jump the sunbeams. It would have sustained him and helped his despair. But that wasn’t that important anymore. He was here now. And when he wasn’t, he could still hear her laughter and feel her joy. It was a memory that he could trust. He could trust all of the memories now, and that was new.
It was always disappointing when the time was up. Usually he had just gotten used to her little face again, and her voice, and her name. When he was away or jumped into a different part of a different timeline, he missed her. But he always saw her again. Her face was different every time, as was her voice and mannerisms and temperament. She was always his and looked like him, but what she looked like in full depended on where he had landed. And while the possibilities of her were not endless, they were a lot.
She had different names, too—Lizzy and Susie and Carmen and Lauren and on and on. He’d forget who was who until he saw her, and the instant he did, he knew who she was and knew everything about her and how he and she had gotten to the exact point in time they were in. It was in her eyes. All of the versions—all of the possibilities of her—did not have the same eyes. It was not the physicality of her, though there were similarities between all of them. It was whatever was behind them. She was the same person behind her eyes. And she always looked at him the same way. In her eyes he saw love and adoration and admiration. He saw understanding. It was all of those things and more and he could not put all of it into words. But whatever it was it was one hundred percent. And from the first time she looked at him and he felt, it he knew that it was what had been missing the entire time he had been trapped, alone, with just the whisper of the disembodied voices to keep him company.
It was an odd thing, too, to see all of the choices he’d made. He came to see that they were not just the possibilities of what could have happened. It was what had happened to him each time he had made a decision. His time line—the sunbeam—had broken off into a different direction. The old man had called it an “alternative,” but as far as Jake could see there wasn’t one that was the only truth. Each one was real, and to describe any other one as an alternate made it seem invalid. The realities were what he had become when he had decided differently. After his first jumps, he had mourned, for he felt that they were only possibilities. He thought of them as echoes of what he could have become. If only he had done the things that had brought him to the alternative timelines, then he would not be stuck in the psych hospital. He would not have spent his life incapacitated and hearing voices that everyone said were not there. He would not have spent his life isolated and alone and trying not to listen to them.
But the more he jumped, the more he understood that they were all real. They were all happening and would continue to happen. The straight line of the sunbeam would continue to break and branch and reform with every decision. His madness was just one of them, and without it he would not have been able to see all of the others.
They weren’t all perfect. They were life, filled with joy and laughter and sadness and heartbreak. But always at the center of it was her, his daughter.
It was fun, too, to see the people he had not seen in a long time. He saw people he’d forgotten about. He was married to some of the women he had known. He was married to some women he didn’t remember knowing. He saw how his friends and family had changed, if sometimes only a little, in the timelines that had been created by his different choices. Sometimes he would wonder about their realities too and wanted to tell them that they existed. But he didn’t think they knew how to see it. He didn’t believe that he was the only one who could see the other realities. But he didn’t know for sure, and if he tried to explain it they would not be able to understand. It would sound like more madness.
So, he kept it to himself. But he knew the truth. At the very least, he knew the truth about himself.
The old man whispered it to him. The truth, he said, is in the madness. And once Jake knew that truth it no longer mattered to him whether or not anyone thought him mad.
“They’ll just keep going on splitting forever,” Jake said as he stood in the circle looking out at the beams all around him.
“Not forever,” the old man said. Often times he would keep Jake company when it was Jake’s turn to gatekeep. They would watch the beams branch off in the distance.
“No? But with every decision another one grows. The realities are endless.”
The old man leaned heavily on his cane. “Nothing is endless Jake. We’re not endless, are we?”
Jake looked at him, puzzled. “Like us? People?”
“Well, sure. We’ll have an end.”
“We’ll die.” The old man nodded. “Of course. So, then what?”
“The beam dies. The timeline stops. The reality ends.”
Jake looked back out to the beams. “So, all of those—I mean, you can’t even count them— they’ll all be gone?”
“You won’t live forever, Jake.”
So many lives and so much that had happened. It would be gone. “What then?”
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s just black. Like the black between the beams.”
Jake had not noticed them before. “The gaps between the beams? I never thought about them. What are they?
“They’re where a beam has stopped. The timeline ended.”
“Of course, Jake. You don’t think there exists a reality in which you do not exist?”
“I didn’t think—"
“Not all of our choices are the best ones. Things happen.”
“So those gaps are all of the times I died?”
“It seems that way.”
“So, all the beams go out. Is there nothing? Does it all just end?”
“I don’t know. For you, maybe. But all the other beams go on. New ones are created every day. You’ve helped create some of them.”
Jake smiled. “Like my daughters.”
“Like your daughters. And she may create some. And on and on.”
“Maybe that’s not so bad.”
“Maybe not. And maybe because of that, even when your beams have flickered out, maybe you’re not ever really gone.”
Jake felt better about it. They stood and watched the beams.
“Can you jump on those?”
“How do you mean, Jake?”
“The dark spots. The gaps.”
Now the old man looked at him. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
The old man laughed. “Anyone? You mean you?”
Jake smiled. “Yes. Me. The me’s that keep the gate when I jump on the beams. Have they ever?”
Jake shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. This certainly gets confusing. Would I know?”
“I think you would.”
“Maybe I should try it.”
The old man pushed on his cane and straightened up. “Maybe.” He let the cane fall to his side and started walking to the edge of the circle. Jake watched it fall and watched the old man shuffle forward.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying it out.” He got to the edge and peered down into the blackness.
Jake realized. “Wait!” He started to run towards the old man, but the old man turned towards him and put his hand up. “You said you should try it. So, you’ll try it.”
“Jake?” Jake said. The old man smiled again and gave him a quick nod. “I should have realized. I should have recognized—"
The old man laughed. “How would you know what you looked like when you get old?” And Jake could see himself. There was a resemblance, but more than that it was the eyes, or what was behind the eyes. “I brought you here, so you could see what we’ve become. We’ve all been waiting for you. We’ve been talking to you for the longest time so that you could see. You were the only one who couldn’t.”
“But you have to go?”
“Every timeline ends, Jake. We all make choices.” He turned back to the black.
“Wait! Will you tell me?”
The old man didn’t turn around this time. “Tell you what, Jake?”
“If there’s anything there. In the dark.”
“If I can, I will.”
“Don’t thank me, Jake. You did it.” He took a step off of the circle and fell into the blackness and was gone.
Jake walked over to the edge and looked at the spot where the old man had disappeared. He looked at it for a long time. As he did, a beam behind him flickered, faded and blinked out for good.
“How long has he been like this?”
“A few days. I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?” The doctor glared at the nurse and the nurse looked at the floor, unable to keep the doctor’s gaze. “He’s been taking his meds?”
“Yes! Of course.” She didn’t look up and fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. “I think…”
“You think!” the doctor snapped. “You check, don’t you?”
“Well I mean—yes. Usually.” The nurse looked up at Jake. “It seemed like he always did. He was fine…”
“Christ. He’s not fine now, is he?” The doctor turned her glare away from the nurse. “We’ll be updating procedures around here,” she said, even as her voice and her gaze softened. She squatted down. “Jake? Jake? Can you hear me?”
Jake had been sitting in the farthest corner of the room behind the bed for a few days. He got up only to use the bathroom and occasionally eat. The doctor looked at him now. His hair was wild and he was unshaven.
“Jake, look at me,” she implored softly. But he wouldn’t. His legs were pulled up towards his chest and he locked his arms around them. He looked away from them towards the wall. He was talking to it. He seemed to be conversing with it, with breaks for listening. The conversation seemed to be pleasant as he would smile and laugh softly to himself. But he was quiet, and the doctor could not make out the words. It was but a whisper, dim and garbled.
“Jake,” she said again quietly and touched his leg. He withdrew it a little farther into his chest but turned his face towards her. Their eyes met, but there was no recognition from Jake. His eyes were wide and his pupils were dilated. He looked through and past her and continued his conversation.
The doctor stood up slowly. “Put him on fifteen-minute observation. Let him sit for a while longer, but we’ll need to get him up and about soon.” She pulled out a square pad of paper and a pen from her coat pocket and scribbled words on it. “Increasing the dosage. If he won’t take orally we’ll give him shots until he starts to come back,” she said, ripping a sheet off the pad and thrusting it at the nurse. “And don’t lose track of him again.”
“Let’s hope you’re not too sorry. I’m going to check on other patients and see if you all have neglected anyone else. Then we’ll see who’s sorry.” She looked down at Jake again. “I’ll see you soon, Jake,” she said and started for the door.
“Doctor?” Jake said. “Wait.” She turned back.
“Jake? Hello, Jake. Are you ok?”
“Are you back?”
“Just for a moment. I just wanted to tell you to not give me any more meds. I don’t want them. I don’t need them anymore.”
“Jake, you’re hearing the voices?”
Jake nodded. “Yes, but its ok. I’m supposed to.”
“No, Jake, you’re not. They’re not real.”
“They are. And I can see them too. The meds get in the way.”
“They will help you.”
Jake’s face changed. He stared at the doctor. His eyes focused and his pupils shrank. They seemed darker and cold. He turned his gaze towards the nurse. “They’re not going to give me anymore.” He held his harsh gaze and the nurse could not keep it. She looked down again. She shuddered and felt cold.
“There’s no need to get upset, Jake.”
Jake’s gaze softened and he looked again at the doctor. “I’m not. It’s just that I’ll be leaving soon, and there’s a lot to do and a lot to see. So, I won’t be taking any meds. And I won’t say it again.” He smiled and his eyes unfocused again. He turned to the wall and began to whisper again.
“Doctor?” the nurse said.
“Come,” the doctor said. “He’ll be fine for a moment. Let’s discuss with everyone on the floor.” The doctor took one last look at Jake before they left the room.
“Were you mad at those ladies?”
“No, sweetheart. They just don’t know what we know. It’s not their fault. But I can’t have them interfering. They mean well.”
“I probably should go soon.”
“I know. C’mon, I’ll walk you to the gate.” He stood up and held out his hand and his daughter took it. He was still amazed at how small it was and how his enveloped hers. He wondered if she’d always take his hand so easily. He imagined she wouldn’t, not as she grew up. But Jake would take that as it came.
They stood on the edge of the circle, each in front of a different beam. “See you soon, Daddy.”
“The soonest,” he said. He waved at her and she waved back. They both jumped, and they were gone along the light, stretching out to see what was happening next. They would see each other in a little while, and right away.