Another original story. Originally written for Imaginary Beast's "Dichotomy" issue which, as the zine editor, I can now admit was a theme I made up purely because I wanted the excuse to write this story. In retrospect it was a bad choice, I could have just written this anyway and the other contributors had a hard time with the theme. ^^ But ah well.
IMAGINARY BEASTS is the webzine I edited with lilacfield
... this story does actually belong to me!!!
Title: Paradise Lost
Note: The rest of the "dichotomy" stories are here
I was in the waiting room, minding my own business and wishing I'd brought something to read, when my devil showed up.
"Why are you wasting our time like this this? Go out and do something exciting!"
I'd been thinking along the same lines, but I was damned if I was going to give in. I ignored her, as I always try to do in public.
"And change into something less frumpy, while you're at it. You look like a dentist's assistant."
Sometimes if you ignore her, she will go away. Generally not, though.
"Then again, so many kids look like dentists' assistants these days. Look at that one over there. She only dresses like that because she's got a prematurely middle-aged body."
Have I mentioned that my devil can be kind of mean?
"You should tell her that those clunky black glasses aren't ironically dorky on her. They're just dorky."
Now I was starting to feel sorry for the other girl. I smiled apologetically across the room at her.
"Okay, now YOU'RE the dork. She's not even paying attention to us. Unlike you, she actually thought ahead, and brought something to read."
I couldn't help it. I laughed.
The girl - young woman, really - who'd been reading the book looked up, startled. She glanced around the room, trying to figure out where the interruption had come from. When our eyes met, I grinned at her. She smiled in an embarrassed way and went back to her book. No one else even looked at us.
I was quite taken, all of a sudden, with the idea of going over there and starting a conversation with her. Something told me she'd listen. We could talk about literature. And it would piss my devil off. Just then, though, the receptionist announced my name. Ah, okay. Time for the session to start.
I'm not very fond of therapy (understatement), but my therapist is okay. She's more flexible than the woman I used to see. We talk about my angel and my devil like they are a normal part of being a teenager, and not signposts on the road to schizophrenia. She only says that she wishes I wouldn't separate them out QUITE so much, because both are a part of me and if I don't see how some moods bring out the angel and others bring out the devil, I'll continue to see myself as fractured and will always shun some parts of my psyche and never be reconciled to who I really am.
She's a very smart lady. But she's got one thing wrong. The angel and the devil aren't imaginary. They really are there.
Today I'm in the grocery store. I don't really feel like eating anything, to be honest, but I get a grocery stipend from my father every other week and if I don't spend it on food, I lose it. He checks the grocery receipts, too, to make sure I've been eating right.
What I need today is a big walloping of caffeine and sugar. Maybe I'll get a Caramel Mocha Swirl Frappuccino from the coffee bar before I do any of my other shopping. And I'll get a mint chocolate double fudge brownie. That sounds good.
"That's bad for your health, you know. I'm not saying you shouldn't. I'm just saying you might regret it later."
My angel. To be honest, she's a bit of a drag.
"The last time you had that much sugar all at once, you couldn't calm down all day. Do you remember? That was awful. That was so awful. Maybe you should just get some water."
She's so judgmental. Don't do this - don't do that. She's a bit more reliable than the devil though. The devil only sticks around for the fun stuff, she gets bored and wanders off whenever I have to do anything difficult. I think my angel LIKES to be there when I'm struggling. She's got some kind of Mother Theresa complex, being around the destitute makes her feel needed.
Therapy is the exception. I think my therapist makes her nervous.
We compromise. I get the Frappuccino and some fresh fruit.
My angel and my devil have been with me since I was nine - or maybe earlier. I realized they were there around the time my parents told me they'd decided to divorce, which, of course, is why I've never been able to convince my therapist(s) that they aren't psychological projections.
My angel showed up first. I was sitting under a tree in our back yard, watching a long line of ants march over the tree root. I thought I'd been chosen by God. That was how it felt: my mind's eye opened up, there was a bright light, and I saw a perfect world. I was thrilled to be the recipient of such a vision – growing up, my parents had never been religious, and I'd envied my friends who got to go to church, if only because I loved the hymns.
And what nine-year-old wouldn't love to be chosen? Singled out as special? Unfortunately, that vision of a perfect world made living in our regular, imperfect world very difficult, especially for a child whose family was breaking up.
The one good thing about the split was that anything strange I said or did was chalked up to trauma over the divorce. No one thought to lock me up or medicate me until I'd learned the right way to talk about my angel and devil – not as real people, but as metaphors for how I was feeling. I still ended up in therapy eventually, but I think I dodged a bullet when I wasn't taught at that age that there was something wrong with me, something I would never be able to fix without drugs and/or talk therapy. I was me, who I'd always been. The angel and the devil were the people I had to share my head with, like roommates you can't kick out because you need them to make rent.
Actually, I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking about rent when I was nine. If anything, I was lonely, and they made me laugh (devil) and took care of me (angel).
Later on I realized – that's why they showed up when they did. Because they saw that I was vulnerable.
This is too much backstory, right? You want to know where all this is going. Maybe you don't believe me about the angel and the devil. That's okay.
You've come in at a good time, too. My best friend the science genius has been working on high-energy wave transmitter that can mimic the resonance frequencies of certain trans-dimensional beings, such that the superposition/interference patterns form regular spikes along the infrared-ultraviolet spectrum: in other words, she's figured out a way to make them visible. We're testing it tonight.
Midnight. We're in Sam's garage. Actually, we're in the lab that Sam's parents allowed her to build above the garage. It's got two long tables covered with spare parts and wires, and a stainless steel sink built into the counter on the far wall. There are two stools. Sam is sitting on one, and I'm sitting on the other.
"Ready?" Sam is decked out in a lab coat and goggles, and she's tied her hair back with a rubber band. She doesn't normally bother with anything besides keeping her hair out of her face, but in honor of tonight's special event she is wearing her best formal wear.
I try to beat myself at checkers. I find that this blocks out the angel and the devil fairly well. "Ready."
Sam hunches behind the radiation shield she and I built from plastic-covered lead bricks in the center of the room. She peers through the viewing window (reinforced plastic) at me. I wave. I will have no protection against the forces she is about to unleash, except for my street clothes and the SPF 50+ sunscreen (with zinc oxide) I generously applied all over my body fifteen minutes ago.
But Sam wants to do high-energy physics for a living. She'll be exposed to radiation over and over, at varying doses. It's important for her to minimize her risk over time. I am far more likely to be killed in a car accident while distracted/egged on by my devil, or to waste away because I listened to my angel and avoided all activities with an associated risk (i.e. all of them), than to die from cancer.
Besides, my angel and my devil are just above my skin, following the outline of my nervous system like tiny silver fish. We discovered them a year ago, taking pictures of ourselves with the CT scanner in Sam's father's lab. If I wear anything to protect my skin, I'll block the effect of Sam's wave beam.
Sam flips the switch to "on" and the machine makes a humming noise. If this was a comic book, she would be giving me superpowers right now.
Nothing happens. And then, very slowly, something does.
My skin starts to glow. Colors swirl around, greenish blue and reddish orange. It's like looking at storm clouds from above. The storm is blue rainclouds over an orange desert – or red dust clouds over a green field. The foreground and background keep changing, like an optical illusion. The colors shift, but they don't mix.
It's actually really pretty. I try to sit very still, so I don't disturb anything. The green/blue clouds pulse dully and expand from the center. I get excited and wave my arms around, trying to break up the pattern. The red/orange clouds swirl aggressively and shoot out little tendrils that connect up with other tendrils.
I can affect them with my mood! I feel triumphant, validated, bright orange. I look over at Sam, crouched behind her goggles, behind her radiation shield. "Do you see this?"
Sam is looking at her instrument panel. "Yeah. Calm down. You're making it hard to get a reading."
I am suddenly intensely irritated (red). This is a very important moment and I want to share it with my best friend. "Sam."
Sam looks up. She's grinning like a loon. "I see them, I see them. They're beautiful. I'm going to try to adjust the spectrum so we'll get audio. Maybe we can work out a way to communicate with them. This is so cool."
I am appeased. The colors go back to equilibrium. I take up my checkers game again.
Five minutes later, I am starting to get restless. Little orange flames lick over my skin. "How long is this going to take?"
"Two minutes. You're so impatient. Science takes time, you know."
I roll my eyes. Sam is always saying stuff like that. I think she picked it up from her parents (both scientists). As if other things don't also take time. Then again, her parents did get one thing right, and that was their belief that the best way to encourage Sam to be a scientist would be to bring her old circuitry and electronic junk from their labs, and then to get out of the way and let genetics do the rest.
"Okay, I think I've got the levels calibrated. Hold on, I'm going to run the program."
I lean forward, gripping the front of the stool. "Okay." I trust Sam not to screw up. Also, what's the worst that could happen?
Sam taps out a command on her keyboard, pauses, and then stabs her index finger down on the return key.
Two pure tones pierce the room. They are discordant; they are excruciating. They are inside my mind and running up and down my spine. I can feel them in my fingertips. They slide up in pitch, slowly, inexorably, both moving together so that the disharmony never resolves. My agonized screams are covered up by the noise. I have never felt anything so horrible in my entire life.
Suddenly, there is silence. The colors have disappeared. I am too dazed to think of anything. I've fallen off the stool and landed on my wrist, which I think might be sprained. I look up at Sam, and open and close my mouth like a fish, trying to remember how to operate my tongue.
Finally I manage to form words. "Is it off?"
Sam has stood up behind her lead-brick fort and is clutching the top of the barrier, looking down at me worriedly. After I speak, she relaxes a little bit.
"Yeah, I turned it off. But the sound stopped before that."
"What does that mean?"
Sam tries to run her fingers through her hair, realizes that it is tied up, and yanks the rubber band off in frustration, taking a couple hairs with it.
"I think – I'd have to run some more tests, but I think...
"I think they're gone."
It's not good to feel special because of something that negatively impacts your life. It's worse to feel worthless, but if you feel special, that can lead to more serious problems in the long run. My current therapist and I have talked about this. You need to let go of those feelings of specialness so that you can fulfill your normal responsibilities, and avoid feelings of persecution - or grandeur. That's why I broke up with my first boyfriend. He was an ET freak. He believed I was chosen, a high priestess of the aliens, and that some of my specialness would rub off on him if we dated.
He was a little bit crazy. I took advantage of him, and used his high regard for me to justify the times when I was high-handed and impulsive, even cruel, towards him. I'm not proud of it. We weren't good for each other. He believed me, though. I'll always be grateful to him for that.
Here's the deal about the angel and devil. During that one second – which felt like six hours – a channel was opened up between me and them. During that time, I learned what they are and where they come from.
The angel/devil planet has three kinds of intelligent beings. Two are energy-beings, existing mostly on another plane, anchored to this one through links to the third kind of being. That third kind is a carbon-based life form with a chemical-electric nervous system, like us.
The people on the planet (by which I mean the carbon-based people) are linked to one of kind of energy being, either the angels or the devils, at the moment when they become adults. The linkage usually follows family lines, but not always - sometimes more of one kind of energy being is required by society, or the family link is a bad fit with the personality of the individual. The total number of angel-people and devil-people is decided by the Scientific Council, which is charged with carefully monitoring worldwide levels and planning for future need. You can state a preference, but if the levels aren't right you could be forcibly assigned to other side. As for the angels and devils themselves, they submit to the arrangement because they can only reproduce through people.
You see where this is going, right? Which would you choose, the angel or the devil? You must choose. You will have to live with your choice forever. You can only choose once. Someone else will be assigned to the unwanted role.
All the angel/devil society needed was a slight loosening of social mores -- for the iron control of the Council to become slightly less iron -- to tip totally over the edge. Once begun, the process was very hard to stop.
Towards the end, the carbon-based people even experimented with double possession – linking one person to both an angel and a devil, so that the burden of difficult work would be shared more equally by each individual. But the two are like oil and water, they don't mix, and the extreme volatility that resulted was found to be too stressful for individual carbon-based people. The experiments resulted in many deaths and were considered a total failure.
When the planet destroyed itself, the angels and devils were cast into space, where they dispersed. My angel and my devil remained together, however, convinced that the survival of their two species could only be achieved if they could recreate the dual-possession experiment, this time with a favorable outcome.
But really, they can't stand each other. Too much unmediated exposure to the other, and each is destroyed.
I'll admit it. I miss them. They were a part of my life for so long. They were there during my happiest and saddest times.
But it's better this way, I think.