Twelve. Twenty. Forty-eight. One.
Those are the numbers in your head. They are random and you have tried for years to decode their pattern, only to be foiled at every attempt. They were not always like this, but you do not remember that. It was like a song fading in, but fading in so slowly, so gradually (as is possible with the length of a human life) that you didn’t realize it was happening until one day it happened and your head was turned into your own personal numbers station.
Eight. Ninety-nine. Ninety-nine. Forty.
The numbers are sometimes punctuated by a static screech and a piece of white noise, but there are no other breaks in its pattern. It maddens you. It keeps you from holding any thought for very long. It certainly makes interacting with others a chore, because who would want to talk to another person when they’re trying to combat the sounds in your head? Who would want to say hi to a friend if it conflicted with the pattern of
Two. Thirty-two. Eighty-nine. Ten.
You can’t make friends very easily, and more than that, you can’t form the bonds you need to form to make your life possible. You can’t concentrate in classes because of these numbers, and they make mathematics a particular kind of hell for you. When you’re confused or stressed, the numbers get even louder and the white noise always faintly underlying them grows stronger. Since the presence of the numbers already makes school confusing and stressed, your reactions to the constant internal stimuli makes said stimuli even worse. Nobody understands why you spend each class period shaking and digging your fingernails into your palms.
Eleven. Eight. Twenty. Two.
A particularly deafening screech sounds in the middle of your college graduation speech and sends you into shaking and sobbing and breaking down. You should be used to this. Time should have made you stronger against the numbers. But you were never strong to begin with, and studies have shown that being literally constantly beaten does not make one more resistant to force. After they drag you out and the feedback subsides enough so that you can come to something resembling your senses, they ask you why you had to go and do what you did. You cannot explain to them that it is because of the numbers, because that would involve explaining the numbers to them, and you cannot do that. Which is a real shame, because what with your problems, it took you ten years rather than the usual four to get through college. You would have hoped that after spending so long (and disappointing so many people with the slowness of your pursuit) that you could have had at least that moment of victory, but that’s not how your life works, is it?
Nine. Fifty-six. Sixty-five. Eight.
Work is just as hard as school was, if not more so. You find yourself behind a desk, making sense of shorthand and typing it up for the companies whose employees use it. You don’t know how you figured that out with the numbers constantly going in your head. You like to imagine that it was you defying the numbers, doing something that defied their rhythm. After the spending your whole life like that, you got very good at rhythms, and isn’t typing and reading sentences a kind of rhythm itself? That’s the conclusion you made, and those classes on shorthand and typing it up became very useful when you decided you’d rebel against what was out of your control by working through different rhythms. Of course, you still have breakdowns. You have, by some miracle, grown more resistant. Miracle is a word which here means “development of total apathy towards the things inside your head, which turns into a total apathy towards your interactions with the things outside your head, which turns into a kind of dissociation from everything and occasional horrific moments of clarity when you realize you’re doing things and you exist, but usually you just go through life blank and tuning everything out, functioning god-knows-how.”
Twelve. Eight. Seven. Fifty-one.
Your boss takes you out of your dissociative state and into his office to explain to you that your productivity has been slipping as of late, that you have seemed more and more dead on the outside (as well as the inside, you would silently add if you had the presence of mind to do so). Either shape up or ship out, as the saying goes. Either act like a productive member of the company or stop working here. Either take your goddamn job seriously or get the hell out of here. Your boss then apologizes for his blowup, saying that he was really just concerned for your health (or for whatever it is that’s going on, as he may have outright stated or he may have just implied, you can’t track situations well enough to tell). Do whatever you have to do to solve the problem. But just do something. You don’t really know what he was saying but you do note that he assumed there was a problem. It’s been a long time since you’ve thought of the numbers as a problem, even as their sound has drowned your mind.
Ninety-two. Thirty-six. One. Zero.
When you go back to your family – because you realize that your family are the only people you can turn to in this case, due to the lack of anyone else associated with you – you tell them the truth. There are numbers in your head, repeating constantly, and they have resulted in the state in which you are now, and they resulted in the state in which you spent most of your educational career. You don’t tell everyone at once; you have to track down your parents, your sister, your aunt and uncle, your grandma, your grandpa. Some of them laugh. Some of them don’t believe you. Some of them call you crazy. Your grandma in particular completely misunderstands the meaning behind what you’re saying and says that “well, if the numbers led to this, then I’m happy they’ve made an improvement in your life”. She does not realize that when you refer to the state you are currently in, you are not calling it an improvement compared to high school. Eventually they all realize you aren’t kidding, and your inability to return to your job brings them all together to figure out what to do with you.
Thirty. Forty-five. Seventy-eight. Four.
They put you in a hospital. Specifically, it’s the kind of hospital people go to when something is wrong with their heads. Not in the way that something is wrong with your head, but the general description still applies. You use that description because you can’t bring yourself to say “mental hospital” because to say it would be to acknowledge it, and to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge that you have a place in it, a place you deserve, a place that means you ought to be here. You don’t need to be here; this isn’t the place for you. This is what you tell yourself. This isn’t what you need, you don’t need a therapist or meds or whatever they give you—you’re not entirely sure what they’re giving you because the numbers have gotten so loud and the static so angry that you can’t remember very much outside of the past hour or so, there are pills on the table, why are they here? The therapist’s room again? Or is this the first time? You have never seen these walls before. Yes, you have. Countless times. Twice.
One. Ninety-nine. Thirty-three. Fifty-two.
You haven’t slept in fifty days or maybe it was three, you haven’t spoken to anyone because while the words came out of your mouth, you didn’t know they were words, all you know are numbers and they are angry, and you call them out and shout at them when they feel like pushing themselves out of your mouth, you are loud and people tell you to silence yourself but you will and not even your therapist can help you with that, but that’s not the point when all you have is
Twelve! Thirty-eight! Seventy-nine! Eleven!
those numbers and your doctor tells you you’re a hopeless case and gives up, which leads you to go to another therapist in the same hospital, same conclusion reached before too long because you won’t cooperate enough to speak to them, you just keep shouting
Nine! Seventeen! Two! Eighty-one!
when you fight the nurses, you fight them when they give you meds and physical and chemical restraint become common to your life, you get in trouble for biting one of them you bit her six times, into a padded room for you, or maybe into a permanent straitjacket
Twenty-eight! Sixty-two! Thirty-seven! Forty!
or maybe into none of these and your brain is filling in the gaps with the typical tropes of insanity, you weren’t insane when you got here but this place is enough to drive you crazy anyway, you screech
Twenty! Eighty-nine! Ten! Fifty!
into over and over into your mouth that you’d tear out if you could
Thirty! Forty! Sixty-six! Twenty-one!
and one day you do, when you are taken outside into the hospital courtyard for a walk, normally you are chemically sedated but the nurse must have slipped up on his dose today because you move your hands they are moving you are moving the white that your brain has become is breathing it is
eight! seventy-nine! twenty-two! five!
your fingers to your lips your lips parted and hand down your throat to tear it all apart, they reach to pull
fifty-six! eighty-eight! twenty-two! twenty!
it out but you are strong, you knock them back with your other hand you claw and scrape and never mind the screeches your head is full of feedback the numbers station you have become is your own life
one! forty-seven! eighty-two! ninety!
your tongue is in your hand you are in shock at the blood loss and you feel arms towards your arms on you? being held back again, put on some hospital device for which you have forgotten the name for you have forgotten names save for numbers but you are at peace with the blood loss for you cannot scream numbers anymore and the redstain on your white hospital clothes are the main memory you have as you slip into
the sort of deaddream
that tries to justify the loss
of the things you had
everything that wasn’t the numbers
now the numbers are over
you are over
the broadcast is done
Jude Conlee can be found in Theme of Absence, Grim Corps Magazine, and Smashed Cat Magazine.