The Headless Vase
(Part 2)

Underpass, Downside, Maine
Interstate overpass, Downside, Maine

I didn't dream that night. Vague moods conjured shapes and movements that swept through me, but there was nothing to tie it all together without a head. I woke up feeling like I had slept through a bloody nose. The pillow lay flattened where my head might have been, and my neck stuck to the pillowcase. A scab had formed over the open wound, which I touched tenderly, feeling the smooth, polished nub of my spinal column and the rough edges of severed flesh caked over with dried blood like old mud.

Inspired by both the newspaper clipping, whose powers I did not understand, and the telepathic warning of the majestic dark blue bird, I had abandoned my parents' house and returned by car to my motel room. I planned to use the clipping to recover my birth certificate from City Hall and reestablish my originary credentials. The proof chain could proceed from there, that I still exist even without a head, which I hoped would give me new access to my old life.

Rolling over in bed, I heard the crinkling of paper. My envelope lay half-open among the sheets, and the state of the clipping inside had worsened. Tiny scraps of old newsprint paper had broken off and hovered weightlessly in midair above my bed, floating on currents of air-conditioned air, somehow immune to gravity.

Between a crack in the window shade trailed a small projector ray of sunshine that cut across the room and illuminated the dust and the scraps of paper. They all revolved in the light like a mobile assembly of the day's possibilities unfolding in a slow and suspended secret universe.

I watched their orbits. Somewhere outside my motel room, I worried, a darker fate awaited me. The inevitable resolution of simmering, lifelong conflict between me and—a vase, a voice, a dream—I no longer knew. But it surely waited for me to make a move. If I opened the shades or let the tiniest additional amount of light inside, my omniscient fate would spot and race towards me like a screaming radar signal. It would disrupt all the other possibilities, and I would be completely untethered from my life, fully erased and totally lost.

Seated across from my bed stood an old-fashioned television. Beside it was an ashtray and a half-smoked mothdust cigarette from before the Accident. I gazed at the reflection of my headless shape in the television's powdery gray screen. I could still see the paper constellation of clipping scraps floating behind me. I wondered briefly what magnetic affinities the television shared with my head. Its picture tube and antennae could lift invisible signals from thin air. Are dreams different?

My convex reflection sighed. That part of me wished not simply that this quiet moment might last a little longer, but that it might never end. Avoiding my fate—a different kind of erasure. So I waited and watched, observing the room through the unlit gray lens of the dead television,

attempting to think nothing, do nothing, disturb nothing — to disappear — while the slow revolution of the newspaper scraps behind me marked time.

No sooner had I achieved a certain stillness of mind, briefly and tantalizingly pushing away all my concerns, than the morning paper broke the spell. The local Downside Mercury slid softly under the door. Someone waited on the other side, listening for my movement. I quietly raised myself from the bed and walked towards the door. Plucking the floating scraps from the air along the way, I replaced them in the envelope, careful not to make a sound.

Eventually, the presence outside withdrew and began walking away. Waiting a few beats, I slowly and noiselessly pulled the newspaper through the door, then opened it to peek outside. At the end of the balcony passage, an extraordinarily tall loping young man with a deep curve in his upper back turned the corner and disappeared. He carried a large box that rested against his hip.

I ducked back inside and sat down on the bed with the paper, scanning the front page for any sign of my Accident. The headlines covered another significant fire downtown, caused by the increasingly common lightning strikes, which had this time destroyed a local bookstore. A few pages deeper, I found it — a brief mention in the police blotter: "A Downside couple reported the loss of a rare antique vase, destroyed during a robbery attempt. The burglar was injured while escaping and remains at large."

Although only a brief mention, the article's tone felt a little off, like a wink from a stranger. Whoever planted the story seemed to be toying with me. Now that the police were involved, even my motel room no longer felt safe. It became imperative, I decided, to visit City Hall immediately and get my legal identity in order.

Quickly pulling on some jeans, a clean t-shirt, and a hoodie, I took two separate bathroom towels and rolled them together into a thick, white, head-shaped ball. It needed a little more sculpting, so I used a few wraps of my belt to bind and shape the towels. With some clever sculpting, the bundle rested on my neck and propped up the hood enough to look semi-normal from the side and back.

I stepped outside. The motel door clicked behind me with a peculiar finality. I caught the last glimpse of my car dragged away behind a tow truck. A policeman and the hotel manager chatted in the parking lot without looking up. I quickly turned and shuffled along the balcony corridor, hunched over to hide myself, then down the back stairs. Careful to avoid all contact, I slipped unnoticed out the motel's rear entrance and headed downtown towards City Hall.

The streets were empty and peaceful. A few cars passed me, but no one stared. Within a block of setting out, however, I heard a distant rumbling, and a stack of dark thunderclouds appeared on the horizon. Lightning strike coming. The clouds quickly overtook the sun, polarizing its bright glare into dim off-cycle twilight.

The air started picking up too, creating small whirlwinds of dust and crushed brown leaves, and the thunder announced itself, loud and moving fast. I pulled the hood further over my rolled towels and jogged to the broad highway overpass that led downtown, just as the drizzling rain turned into a steady downpour. Several dark blue birds arrived with me and huddled in the upper rafters, sloughing off the rain.

Beneath the overpass, I avoided the worst of it. Solid sheets of rainwater runoff poured down from both sides of the highway. Enclosed by the accidental waterfall and surrounded by the roar of water slapping concrete, the overpass became an unexpected sanctuary as the lightning strikes began. Only a few bolts struck nearby, each marked by explosive thunderclaps, but nothing too close.

The worst of the storm's fury passed, the air still carried an ionic charge from the electricity bursts and falling water. The dark blue birds emerged from their shelter. Edging each other on, they began darting off their ledge to perform a few circular turns under the overpass before returning to their starting spot. It quickly became a game, arriving and pushing the next one off, just like you'd expect bored birds to do.

But the more I paid attention to them, the more it looked like a ritual. The four birds waited in line along the girder. Every few seconds, one moved a space forward until the next arced downwards, diving low then rising back up with a dancer's slow grace and poise. Each bird banked into its turns with visible pleasure, taking three full circles beneath the overpass before returning to its spot and making way for the next.

At a particular moment, when the birds realized they had my attention, something extraordinary happened. Instead of waiting its turn, one of the birds joined the other. Two birds began flying together in opposing concentric directions. Each bird followed a clear flight path, an inner and outer perimeter, and each met on the two poles of their circuit at precisely the same moment.

The aerial choreography was stunning. Suddenly, the third and fourth birds joined in too. Together they created a moving mandala. Each bird followed a ring in the opposite direction of its neighbor, meeting at different compass points before jumping to another ring. The aeromechanics reminded me of the twists and turns of a combination lock. The purpose of this dance I couldn't imagine.

As the rain stopped, the birds flew away one by one, leaving only the last bird. It acted suspiciously like the one from my parents' house. In a gesture whose purpose seemed friendly and hostile at once, the bird made one final circle, then swooped down low, veering just above my missing head.

I continued downtown under a light drizzle. The streets remained deserted as I entered Monument Square. Because it was too early for anything to be open, and no one was around to notice me, I strolled through the square slowly. Taking closer notice of its arrangements and details than I usually might. I observed a splatter of leaves, cardinal red and bright orange, plastered upon the sidewalk where the wind and rain had stripped the autumn trees bare. The wind still rose and fell in sharp gusts, rippling the surfaces of puddles and plastic bags stuck to the streets.

A phone booth stood on one corner, and a tall statue rose above the center of the square. I knew the figure well — the same distant ancestor who had acquired the vase, and whose turn of the century technologies had put the town of Downside on the map. Circling the large block of local granite at its base, I lingered over the inscription: 



Nixon O. Cygne

Philosophe and Scientifique

Pionnier dans La Recherche des Papillons de Nuit

   et les Phénomènes Temporels

Dont l’Oeuvre et la Vie ont Honoré

La Ville de Downside


I never learned the French nor thought to look it up. But I think I understood the gist. The city of Downside intended to honor Cygne's legacy as a pioneer industrialist and founder of moth research. Beyond his inventions—coil engines, pneumatics, and cinema tubes —his discovery of mothdust's psychokinetic properties radically altered our understanding of time mechanics.

I took a few steps back to look up at him again. The sculpture was unusual. It depicted Mr. Cygne as an inverted man, upside down and falling from the sky. One hand outstretched towards the earth and the other holding his hat atop his head. His legs splayed open, trailing a box camera strapped around his shoulder.

The sculpture had always struck me as odd, but never more than now. Cygne doesn't actually look like he's falling. His expression reflects a profound tranquility, like a man with plenty of time on his hands, considering his descent with poise and equanimity. His downward hand gesture is saintlike and significant, pointing below with the grace and temerity of someone reaching for the sky.

The story goes that Nixon Cygne's mothdust epiphany occurred mid-flight during an accidental fall from an air balloon while photographing an ice harvest below. The relationship between time and mothdust struck him midair, just before he broke through the ice to find himself stuck underwater, traveling rapidly downstream.

Every child in Downside learns in school about his rescue. Back then, I never questioned the legend or why the town chose to honor that particular upside-down moment. As children, I suppose, we mainly accept what precedes us, trusting in a collective common sense among adults.

Across the square stood City Hall, a two-story granite building capped by a copper green dome encircled with round observatory windows. Unfortunately, a complex latticework of scaffolding covered the whole building, including the cupola. Any entrance looked blocked from all sides. My plans to talk my way into City Hall and finesse acquiring a new birth certificate now seemed much less likely.

Across the street stood the Library, a modernist concrete mistake from the seventies. Long neglected, the street side of the building reflected a decade-long battle between tangles of tags and graffiti stencils, and countermeasure coats of gray paint. Atop the Library's flat roof rose the giant rusty skeleton of an abandoned billboard frame, a sign so long without a message that no one asked anymore.

Orange safety barriers between the two buildings blocked the length of an excavated side street. Behind the fence, underground sewage and utility pipes crisscrossed the construction site. Dirty leftover rainwater from the earlier downpour streamed through storm grates and into the urban canyon. Beneath it, a deep and low humming sound vibrated underground.

With City Hall closed for construction, my search for credentials had already hit a dead end. I ducked under the doorway of a nearby storefront to consider my next move. Protected from the drizzle, I examined my reflection in the storefront window. My headpiece sat crookedly on my shoulders, so I adjusted it.

The secondhand shop was closed. It had always been closed. Among the comings and goings of downtown business over the years, between chain stores and local boutiques, this store never changed. The display window contained an extensive collection of antique bottles in every shape and color, arranged without thought, gathering dust. Inside the store, around its entire perimeter, enormous floor-to-ceiling racks of shelves displayed an impressive collection of old console television sets piled atop each other.

Neighboring the abandoned secondhand shop stood an old bookstore. The one from the paper—its windows shattered and yellow warning tape crisscrossing the entrance—the latest casualty of the lightning strikes. A trail of black cinder stained the building's upper stories, and inside the store, a collapsed rafter beam rested diagonally across a series of toppled bookshelves.

Inside the bookstore, something moved. I walked over to look closer. Charred inventory spilled out through the smashed storefront window. The black spines of dead books, unrecognizable covers, and pages burnt to the core, lined the sidewalk out front. I kicked one lightly to turn it over and guess the title.

Then I caught another movement inside the store, behind the broken window. In the back of the shop, among the wreckage, two small circles of surprisingly bright light reflected from a pair of round eyeglasses worn by a figure in the shadows. He stared directly back at me like an angry officer aiming a flashlight in the dark.

At that moment, the cheerful jingle of a front doorbell announced the exit of a very tall, hunchbacked young man from the destroyed bookstore. He had a smooth forehead, longish straight hair that swept back over his ears, and sunken bright green eyes. Lowering his head to pass through the doorway, he cleared the yellow warning tape with one step and emerged, carrying a rumpled cardboard box under his arm. He waved back cheerfully to the spectacled figure inside and began loping his way towards me.

Unmistakably the same man who delivered the newspaper to my motel room this morning, I froze in fear, thinking he would spot me immediately. Instead, he walked right past me, squinting against the light wind and rain. He had a funny gait and an odd sort of tremor running through him with every step. He reminded me of someone walking backward, but played in reverse. It was that awkward.

His poorly fitted thrift clothes left several inches of exposed ankles and wrists. The wet cardboard box he lugged against his hip seemed the size and weight of a car battery, but he carried it almost effortlessly. Whispering to himself as he passed me, mumbling a tune perhaps, he had a low, patient voice that blended pleasantly into the thin patter of the drizzling rain.

Then a few yards past me, he stopped and cocked his head like a dog. I heard it, too, the faintest hint of a high-pitched whistle. He scanned the square, looking towards the old phone booth that stood halfway between me and the monument, then slowly and deliberately, as if listening to a prompt inside his head, he turned around and fixed his gaze directly on me.

The phone booth unexpectedly came to life and began to ring, and the towering young man nodded towards the phone booth with a wink and said in a friendly voice, "Probably for you..."

Paying no attention to my headless state, he gently led me by the arm to the booth and opened the door. Given his size and evident strength, I didn't resist. Once inside, the overhead light flickered erratically, and each ring of the phone rattled the earpiece against the hook. The tall young man watched me with the fascination of a child considering a bug. I picked up the receiver.

That same digital cricket sound I heard in my parents' office rose from the earpiece. It expanded into the booth like an energy field, perfusing the space with sound waves. When I heard the voice from the other end, it vibrated inside me—a new voice with an appealing tone, and assured timbre and rhythm. The overhead light suddenly jumped to life, shining unnecessarily bright, like a stage lamp.

"Ah, hello! You decided to get out and catch some air. Hiding in plain sight, I see, while everyone else is looking for you — well done! Normally we like to settle these matters right away, but your unexpected little discovery yesterday introduced a few procedural adjustments, which added a little more time to the whole affair."

This new voice talked like a pitchman, someone who closes deals. He had a confidence that assumed everyone was already on the same page. As he spoke, the tall giant outside the phone booth continued murmuring to himself, still clutching the box on his hip.

I turned back towards the half-collapsed bookstore and caught sight again of those same floating eyeglasses I spotted earlier in the shadows. The figure inside was still staring at me, its eyeglasses reflecting a bright light of unclear origin.

"Oh, good! You've seen me now," he waved at me from inside the bookstore shadows, "Yes, that's me. Let me introduce myself properly. It has to be from a certain distance for now. With a little glass in the way. We'll get to know each other much better over time. I'm the district Advocate. I'll be handling your case."

Just outside the booth, the tall young man adjusted the old cardboard box's weight on his hip, trying his best to contain its contents. But as a loose flap opened, I suddenly caught sight of my severed head. Except that it wasn't quite my head. A gaunt, waxy, bloodless version of what had once been my head stared back at me wild-eyed with surprise. In a single moment, a series of unchecked emotions passed like spasms through its face—mostly anger.

At the same time, a surge of electricity, like a blown fuse, burst in the base of my neck, combined with a sudden wave of lightheadedness. I instantly lost my legs and dropped to the ground, seated in a shallow puddle of dirty rainwater filling the basin of the phone booth. The receiver swung above me like a pendulum, and crackly feedback filled the air.

Cold water soaked into my retreating privates as I stared at the gruesome reflection of what I had once been. My head stared back at me with the same macabre horror and curiosity. Its waxy skin shone a ghastly greenish-gray in the glare of the phone booth, and its lips were blue. All color and life had drained away. Most terrifying, as I looked up towards my own living mask of death, I realized that its face no longer reflected my thoughts. Rid of my presence, my head had become something else. Something better, its glaring eyes said, looking down upon me with a mix of amusement and derision.

The young giant took pity on me, soaking in a puddle. He set down the head and box on the wet sidewalk to reach into the booth. Instead of helping me up, he ripped the cord from the base of the phone and handed me the earpiece.

"There now, just take it easy," the Advocate began again, speaking through the disconnected receiver, "Let's wait until your senses return. Obviously, these sorts of transitions take some time."

Outside, my head had tipped over face-first into a puddle, struggling for air, bubbling water rising across its cheeks. It tried to bounce to a new position weakly, splashing in the puddle water, hoping to get the tall young man's attention. When that failed, the head rolled its eyes back into their sockets, shuddering with a rigid intensity.

Suddenly the young giant snapped to attention, bent down, and picked up the waterlogged head. Without a word passing between them, the young giant nodded in agreement. My severed head sneered with pride at the demonstration of its telepathic faculties.

At the same time, ignoring the head once more, the giant politely leaned in, opened the door, and effortlessly lifted me by the arm from the phone booth floor.

"Are you feeling better now?" the Advocate broke in, "Shall we pick up our conversation again? I mean, if you're able to proceed. Good! Now then, I'll get to the point. I work with a trust called the Advocacy. Our charge is statistical normalcy. As such, we keep anomalies under careful review. Of course, we often indulge minor everyday anomalies for the excellent cover they provide. But generally speaking, our charge is to avoid any disruptions to the field.

"The problem is this—an event, something we call a stochastic breach, has occurred. Don't worry, you'll get used to the jargon. This is when a genuinely anomalous event breaks through the models and disrupts our probability curves.

"Now, in your case, it appears that you've actuated a boundary violation. We take such matters very seriously. Here are our gathered facts: Your dreams have been testing the waters undetected for weeks. They targeted the vase as a point of entry—a well-chosen recursive artifact. By the time we realized your dreams were looping, a sure sign of trouble, it was too late. We could not have intervened further without causing more considerable disruption.

"Your Accident, of course, and the ability of your dream to directly influence reality, raises many questions about our daily operations that best remain unexamined. And because the Advocacy governs the rote and routine unfolding of everyday life — decidedly not as simple an enterprise as might first appear — I'm afraid we must intervene in this affair. Erasure is the only path forward.

"You see, whatever you may have considered the 'everyday'—the' ordinary'—well, it's quite far from a natural occurrence. It's an exceptionally complex and modern administrative undertaking that requires painstaking logistical support at every step.

"You should think of it this way: our memories and perceptions may draw the circle of reality that enfolds us, but it's a very tightly circumscribed horizon. A minimal reality, really. Moth research hints at the proper radius.

"To preserve the manifest course of events, to prevent ulterior patterns from openly revealing themselves, demands active and decisive Advocacy interventions. These countermeasures have become our primary occupation at the Advocacy.  Occlusions, Cygne once called them. 

"Our task is especially demanding given how much of our work occurs at the edges. Our work must remain invisible and easily forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, and above all, beyond memory's reach. In fact, Cygne's original epigram for the Advocacy says that our work should go as unnoticed as 'the soundless crash of a tree, falling alone in the woods.'"

He paused for a moment as if to consider those words for the first time. A bit bored by his monologue, my attention wandering, I noticed among the tangle of spray-painted graffiti covering the Library entrance a freshly stenciled image that stood out sharply from the others — "Silence!" it read, showing a lightning bolt strike, and a struck pine tree falling among a family of standing trees.

Before I could consider the odd connection, the Advocate continued, "Of course, we have distinct advantages in our work. Memory and attention are vulnerable vehicles, easily disrupted, prone to suggestion, and always defaulting to the known and familiar.

"Now why am I telling you all this? Because when especially unusual things occur, as has happened to you, the Advocacy must restore order. For you to live in your headless state, you must have always existed in this state, and that can never happen. Thus our intervention."

He paused again. As much as I tried to follow him, his words were like riot smoke, scattering my thoughts in all directions. Nothing coherent remained enough to mount a verbally organized response.

One vagabond thought: Telephone poles stretched across the square, their cables weighed down by a tight formation of dark blue birds. I wondered if mine were among them. No sooner had it crossed my mind than a few birds leapt from the wire and circled overhead; a few more followed until they formed a loose, revolving whorl above the square.

"What's done cannot be undone," continued the Advocate, "So my role will be to oversee a smooth transfer. Towards that end, my associate will supply you with the documentation, and the rest will proceed as planned."

More birds joined the growing spiral from the rusted billboard frame atop the Library. A light mist of rain still fell outside the phone booth. My ghoulish head and his gangly porter watched me eagerly, trying to read my mood.

"I'll admit, though, your dreams have shown some artfulness by inserting a liminal document into the arrangement. A childhood newspaper clipping. Very clever. But time will resolve that matter. Clipping or no clipping, your loss is final, and the sooner you accept your fate, the better you will fare."

The Advocate trailed off and paused. My head looked blankly towards the thickly clouded sky, watching the expanding helix of birds as an enormous yawn nearly tipped it backward. The Advocate lowered his voice and spoke in a more confidential tone.

"It's always discouraging to discover how easily we mislead ourselves. Enormous portions of our true selves stay hidden from view throughout our lives. Left untended, certain parts of our very own nature—our shadow—will conspire to stage a sort of inner collapse of the whole endeavor. We see more and more of this type of thing these days.

"I'll leave you with one final thought to consider: Dreams truck in stories. You may have once believed that stories are mere diversions in the real world. But let this incident be a lesson to you. They are actually tools to configure reality, and applied carefully, they can engineer any desired outcome. Voila, the technology that overthrew you, young man — narrative!

"Some are overthrown worse than others, of course, and I'm afraid your fall has been especially hard. Even so, focus on your own hand and don't look elsewhere for reasons. You will quickly find a fitter solution once the conveyance is complete. Good luck!"

Abruptly, the cricket signal died inside the booth, and in the distance, I dimly saw the Advocate raise his hand in salute from the bookstore shadows. Then, like a pair of headlights in the night, he turned his glowing gaze away into the darkness. I shook the disconnected receiver and repeatedly clicked the phone cradle. Nothing.

The giant opened the door and let me out of the phone booth. His eyelids fluttered rapidly as he looked directly into the space where my head would have been, as if he could see my eyes. It reminded me briefly of the complete person I had once been.

"You know," the young giant leaned down, handing me a large, thick envelope from the breast pocket of his overcoat and whispering in a low murmur, "with that liminal in your pocket, you might still have some luck yet..."

He pressed the package into my palm meaningfully. The large envelope's return address read "The Advocacy," and the postmark came from Downside. Then he leaned in close to me, hunching to whisper directly into my proxy head of bundled towels and elastic bands.

"Find the Librarian..!" he hissed, a little too loud, nodding towards the Library.

The head, napping lightly, suddenly opened its eyes and, sensing a betrayal, made a glottal grunting sound to express its annoyance. The giant looked at me, winked, and spun the head onto its finger like a basketball before letting it roll back in his palm. The head's eyes revolved rapidly back and forth like a drunk marionette as it queasily tried to recover inner equilibrium.

The tall young man loped away slowly, tucking the head under his arm and trotting down the sidewalk, while it squirmed and twisted around to sneer darkly at me once more. Cold water dribbled in tiny rivulets down my legs and into my socks as I watched them walk away.

Folding the thick Advocacy envelope in half and stuffing it under my belt, I discerned from over my shoulder the voice's return from parts unknown. It had a much humbler manner than before, clearly chastened by the whole liminal newspaper clipping episode.

Sensing a critical moment between us, I said nothing and waited. It felt like a new bond had somehow formed between me and the voice; perhaps it regretted taking sides against me. The thought cheered me, and I noticed the orange morning sun emerging and highlighting the distant purple borders of the thundercloud that had come and gone. Overhead, the birds continued to trace the faint outline, clockwise and counter, of a widening spiral that stretched higher and higher.

I decided to test my new alliance with the voice, "He said we need to find the Librarian."

"Let's take the side entrance," the voice replied directly, without a trace of malice, and sealed our new partnership.

A small pedestrian lane ran alongside the construction between the Library and City Hall, but risking the narrow path meant that anyone I crossed might easily spot my missing head. Because it gave me access to the less crowded side entrance of the Library, I resolutely pulled up my hood, repositioned my towel, pulled the belt tighter, and set off with my invisible voice not far behind.

The passage turned out easy, and I crossed no one. At one point, I stopped to look through a hole in the plywood, observing the activity beneath the street. Cobblestones and sand, rusty water and sewage pipes, and below that, a complex series of smaller steel tubes in a row, like an underground pipe organ, ran beneath the two buildings.

The excavation went deeper than I expected, and the quantity of steel tubing that ran between the buildings far exceeded what any essential utilities might have required. Looking into the pit, wondering out loud what purpose this network of pipes served, the voice snappily suggested that I might better understand if I stopped my incessant thinking. Its curt advice surprised me more than insulted me and forced me to consider how my near-constant stream of thoughts might have been a perpetual source of annoyance to it.

So partly out of respect for our newfound alliance, but mixed with some morbid curiosity, I decided to quiet my mind in a less-than-transcendental way. By holding my breath and slowly deoxygenating them, my thoughts began to weaken, then die. Without my head, moreover, I discovered that I could hold my breath for much longer than usual.

A full five minutes passed without any urgent need for respiration. Soon, just as the voice predicted, new sounds emerged from the silence of strangled thought. At first, the white noise of the city came to life, layered with the soft whirring of nearby air conditioners, distant idling engines, and the soft clicking of traffic lights changing colors. But then a sound from deep underground rose above it all.

The sound surfaced lightly at first, but as I noticed it, quickly jumped to the fore: Air moving at high speed, the sound of objects passing at high pressure through valves. With a deep confidence in the power of my newly amplified senses, beyond any doubt, as though I'd known it all along: The unmistakable signature whoosh of pneumatic messages passing at high velocity through underground steel tubes.

I could see them in my mind. The new precision in my hearing, absent the distraction of inner dialogue, allowed me to look towards the excavation site and easily pinpoint the specific tube where another message rushed past every few seconds—a miraculous discovery: This baroque subway system of constantly moving information passing beneath our feet.

Intrigued, I took a deep breath to appraise the pneumatics with a clear and oxygenated mind. But as the first breath of air hit my bloodstream and revived my comatose thoughts, they came tumbling back all at once, gasping and terrified. They overran me like waves of panicked swimmers washing up on the beach, sputtering and shrieking. I clumsily sat down on the ground, shaking, as a simultaneous flood of hundreds of disconnected sensations and observations possessed me completely.

A seizure took hold. Uncontrollable tremors moved through me, and I suddenly felt an inner tug. Something pulled me from under myself, and the sounds around me downshifted. As when an interstate changes to fresh blacktop, the entire frequency of my chassis dropped an octave. Then came a deep calm as I left my body.

From an upper vantage, as I watched the spasms course through me, I also caught a glimpse of what may have been the voice's presence, a vague form over my left shoulder that warped the light. Like me, the voice watched my trembling body with complete indifference.

My seizure lasted a short minute, and after a confusing period that felt like re-finding my seat in a dark theater, I returned to my body. It took a series of deep breaths, coached by the voice, before I recovered enough to climb shakily to my feet and begin walking again.

The voice obligingly pretended that the whole botched thought-asphyxiation episode had never happened, following behind me without a sideways comment. Together we found a spot by the Library side entrance to watch patrons file in and out, waiting for an opportune moment to slip inside unnoticed.

Still feeling weak from the backlash seizure of too many thoughts at once, I turned towards Monument Square, where something both poignant and puzzling made me stop to reflect. The spiral of birds had thinned out, but the remaining ones still sketched the outlines of a revolving formation that corkscrewed over the entire downtown area.

The habits of reality I once took for granted continued to fail, and I had to admit that something fundamental had changed beyond just losing my head. A force now worked within and without me — a pervasive energy that had the power to shape and recast reality. When this force exercised its unpredictable and spontaneous power, it made moments feel perfectly choreographed. Planned in advance to the most granular detail, everything that caught my eye felt already pre-engineered to capture my attention. It made every passing thought feel tightly mapped to a corresponding script of events happening around me.

Even when the force was not actively manipulating reality, I felt somehow stuck inside the story it constantly invented. A hidden author wanted to teach me something through a complex, coded signal I could never quite understand.

Despite its omnipotence, however, this power seemed to lack grace. It worked with a clunky, mechanical rhythm controlled perhaps by a guild of operators. Like stop motion animation, I sensed hours of inaccessible frozen time between each passing second. The force could unlock these moments at will to carefully consider and react to whatever had happened the moment before. Whether run by an omniscient individual, a team of analysts, a band of birds, or a species of moth, these reserve pockets of dead time provided the force with a critical vantage over anyone stuck in real-time. Better than any other theory, this helped explain my strange episodes right after the gun blast or when the blue bird spoke through me while hovering midflight.

To intuitively grasp the physics of my new reality felt like a small breakthrough. It made what initially amounted to a terrifying case of mental breakdown and intermittent hallucinations seem instead like a curious puzzle to solve: The force working within me had a plan; I just needed to guess its aim.

Buoyed by my insight and feeling more philosophical about my fate, I weighed the situation. On the one hand, a darker design had overtaken my life. As its prisoner, I had neither agency nor control and little choice but to surrender. On the other hand, the inner peace and direction I sought during those months of wandering alone had finally fallen into place. A strangely reassuring sense of purpose now guided me, marred only by the unfortunate fact that its plans fell entirely outside my awareness.