I wake up to the feeling of someone else watching me. In their world, I see my own comatose body lie still on the hospital bed, bandaged and sedated into a tranquil dormancy. In their being, I feel the coolness of the hospital room and the soft warmth of the afternoon sunlight oozing in through the slats of the blinds; I can almost see the orange glow bathing the entire room, offering a comforting ease in an otherwise uncomforting situation. I try my best to move the body that doesn’t belong to me, but I’m unable to. I only feel the bodily sensations of the host, a passenger to someone else’s existence. I struggle to find a way to see the world for what it is through their eyes, through the pale film that frustratingly obscures everything I try to perceive. I panic, and despite my incorporeal commands, I finally submit when I accept the fact that I am no longer in control of either myself or the person I inexplicably now inhabit.
But things change when they begin to move. They look down at their lap upon their folded hands, and even through my obscured vision of the world I immediately recognize a familiar bejeweled engagement ring and casual torn-jeans, legs tucked together out of a nervous habit. Unmistakable light blond locks of hair fall upon a white blouse, as she pointlessly tucks a few strands behind her ear; Bree sits across from my bed-ridden self, probably awaiting some kind of news I wasn’t privy to. On cue, I begin to hear murmurs. They start out quiet, nigh-inaudible, but as they begin to grow in volume and clarity I start to pick out single words; “wake”, “operation”, “different.”
In a start I regain feeling in my body. Not in the body of my sister, but of my own atrophied arms and legs. I wiggle my fingers and toes, and my sister’s eyes rise to meet the movements. I take baby steps like I was taught by Jaz, my runway coach. I remember her telling me, “You’ll never take off if you can’t handle the run-up first.” I’d never heeded her advice, because things had to go my way. But now I had no choice; one step at a time, I flex muscles in my forearms and calves, up through my biceps and thighs and finally through my body, as if wading through a murky bog without a lantern. Every part of me is on fire, but to my sister, that clearly doesn’t matter. She’s now stood from her chair and hastily approached, clutching my hand so firmly that I’m able to feel it through the abject numbness of my own bodily sensations. She looks up, and I see a small glint of chrome from beneath layers of gauze secured around my forehead, pressed tightly against my temple. I have no time to consider its meaning before I gain back control of my motor functions, leaning into Bree’s bearlike hug. I reciprocate as best I can, still overwhelmed by the incredibly unnatural stimulations flooding from the mind of my sister into my own. I speak, and Bree listens.
“Bree…” hearing myself talk through the ears of another immediately throws me for a loop, but I try to collect myself and look down at the bed, her gaze following. “What happened?” Conflicted, she breaks eye contact as her glances bounce from corner to corner of the hospital room.
“You were in an accident Seb.” She’s reluctant to continue, her voice breaks even. “I… it’s complicated.” She doesn’t elaborate, and for some reason I find myself holding back despite my desire to understand.
“Bree. I can’t see or hear. I can’t see or hear, Bree.” My own body, struggling to find its sense of direction, finally meets the eyes of my sister – and myself. A conflicted silence passes.
“You suffered severe damage to your brain and nervous system. The doctors said there was only one way to save you.” She leans over, reaching for the now occupied spot above my temple, stroking a lock of disheveled blond hair from my jutting cheekbone and studies the foreign metal object. A deep sadness lines her strenuous composure. “I’m so sorry Sabine. We didn’t have a choice.”
“What is it? What’s it doing to me?” I pursue impatiently.
A terrified realization contorts this demeanor as she struggles to form an answer. “I… I don’t know.”
From beside me I hear the door open, and I disappear from sight as Bree looks over to a doctor who has quietly entered the room. A cognizant expression is passed between them and Bree nods, and he approaches my bed. But as I cast a look at him, I no longer inhabit the body of just my sister. From the bespeckled eyes of my doctor and the worried gaze of Bree, the sensations I’d felt previously double in capacity, and I am once more overwhelmed by a flood of extrasensory stimulation unlike anything I ever knew was possible.
The doctor tries to explain my situation, but his words are meaningless, simply passed from his own stimuli to those of my sister and then back to me in an endlessly flowing current. I now exist within the bodies of three people, but I can’t rely on the one that belongs to me. What’s the limit? How far can I go? How much can I even take before I’m unable to understand the concept of my individual existence? Maybe it’s already too late. I see myself from two different angles, through the eyes of two different people, I hear myself from two different pairs of ears in different parts of the room – never before have I been so acutely aware of my own surroundings, of the way I am and carry myself. It’s terrifying, but at the same time I can’t help but feel a surge of excitement. I’m intoxicated by the endless possibilities that I am now able to take advantage of. My heart races, I know it is. But Bree and my doctor have no idea. They don’t know that the way they look at me only makes me more confident in my own image.
I tune back in.“…Ms. Peyton?” The doctor speaks. I give him a flawless smile; I adjust the corners of my mouth accordingly through the clarity of his prescription lenses. His heart beats faster.
“Sorry. This is just so much to take in at once.” I try to change the tone of my voice to not sound too upbeat. The doctor looks at Bree – she’s giving me her best reassuring expression. She has no idea how excited I feel. I continue, “Is the implant permanent?”
He sighs, adjusting his glasses to compose himself. He glances at his clipboard, flipping through pages. I can see it’s in vain. “Well, until we fully assess your nerve damage and develop an appropriate treatment, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do. Your occipital and temporal lobes underwent an extensive healing process, but with our current technology we weren’t able to mitigate the neural pathways responsible for restoring your direct stimuli.” I release a brief ‘oh’ as I exhale, feigning disappointment. “For now, the ARDIS implant will have to serve as a temporary replacement for your dominant sensory organs.” Bree isn’t convinced.
“But… but you’re working on a treatment, correct?” She turns to the doctor, arms crossed. He replies with a flat smile.
“Of course. But it’ll take time, and it’ll be costly.”
“That won’t be an issue. Just… please try to help my sister. Please.” I nearly raise my hand in protest, but I stop myself. I need to keep things under control, for her sake. For my own sake. I simply opt to nod instead.
I’m released from the recovery ward later that day. I join my sister in a taxi directly outside the hospital, led by her firm grip the entire way down the stairs, through the lobby full of watchful eyes. She has no idea I’m about to pass out from the sheer amount of information my brain is being allowed to deal with. I’m overwhelmed, so much so that I find it hard to focus on where I am, what to focus on, what to listen to and what not to listen to. Everything becomes a blur. I try to use Bree as an anchor; I study myself and my flawless features from her sole perspective, my towering six-foot presence compared to her comparatively meager frame. I grip her arm tighter as we get into the cab.
“Everything okay Seb? Do you need anything?” I give another pristine smile, sloppier and more nervous this time. I’m afraid the world is closing in on me, yet at the same time opening up in a way that brazenly bares every inch of itself. I didn’t even have that much confidence in my own body.
“Yeah. It’s just, well, a little overwhelming. Heh.” Bree shoots me an overly concerned look as the taxi pulls away from the curb; I can tell by the strain on the ****** muscles she uses to frown.
“Seb, what exactly do… how do you see and hear? I tried to understand the doctor’s explanation. It was mostly just drivel. I ended up missing out on some of the details.” She shrugs her shoulders a little, and I produce a stifled laugh.
“What makes you think I was listening?” She suddenly turns serious again, glaring intently. As we cruise speedily through downtown, I start to feel the whirl of sights and sensations flood my head again; I continue to focus on myself, on Bree as best I can.
“You didn’t answer my question.” I try to find a way to phrase it. My heart rate begins to rise; I’m finding less and less excuses to keep the conversation going. I want to soar, I want to experience everything, I want to exist in this world like I’ve never done before.
“Bree,” I say, as I look through the eyes of our taxi driver, “do you think I could start modeling again?” Baffled, she sits in silence. I take it in, and alongside it the opportunity to let go. I’m immersed in the birth of neon city lights upon the backdrop of a setting sun, I take in the swirling, endless conversations of people on the street, of businessmen in their highrises. Of hotdog stand attendees and retail workers. I am one with my environment. Everything around us is me, nothing is hidden. I’m euphoric, and terrified – I’ve never felt this way before, but at the same time I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve lost myself, I’ve stopped struggling to contain my boundless desires. Bree’s response is adrift in the wind, along with the many other voices I’m unable to give my attention to. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve already decided.
Now I stand in the wings of the catwalk, carefully adjusting the sequined sleeves of my ornate low-cut silk dress as I wait in the queue. Bass-heavy music blasts into the eardrums of the audience and reverberates through their cores. I catch every sensation, every detail of my body, thanks to my manager Preston who nervously stands beside me in the darkness of the annex. His eyes are plastered to me, admiring every niche and curve of my figure, not unlike the other soon-to-be eyes who wait in anticipation of my premiere. I give him an appropriately oblivious glance and he shyly averts his eyes and begins to babble into his earpiece. I can’t contain my excitement, restlessly debating whether to step out onto the runway ahead of time or not; it doesn’t distract me for more than a couple seconds before I find myself confronted by the longing judgment of the world.
For a moment I forget the procedure. My mind is in lapse, pure freefall, from the intense apprehension of the situation. I can’t believe I’m here again, reality only kicks in as I begin to confidently stride down the narrow length of the ramp. I take deep breaths… Jaz’s words ring in my head, I settle into my groove: “Don’t forget. Subtle chin tilt downwards, you want them to see your entire face. Keep a natural look. They all know how beautiful your smile is already, no need to distract them from your outfit. But your eyes are fierce; they still need the fire, the passion – just don’t make it too easy for ‘em, yeah?” And then something else, something Jaz didn’t nor wouldn’t be able to tell me: “Whatever you do, don’t get too distracted. Don’t let go. You need an anchor, because without one you’ll drift out to sea.” On cue, Preston’s terrified gaze watches the length of my back shrink in size as I continue to glide down the runway, seemingly unfazed by the countless of eyes – the endless stimulation – all trying their best to take control of me and send me into an inescapable nirvana. I resist the urge to send him a glance back.
I now let some of my observers trickle in; I use their mesmerized gaze to adjust my figural presence, my attitude, the length between my carefully-placed steps; in turn, they grow warmer in their cheeks, and the room emanates with a new fiery passion as I accommodate every single one of their preferences. Against Jaz’s strict traditional methods, I put a girly, playful spring in my step, I lift the corners of my mouth just a little bit to hint at a smile, I intensify the furrow in my brow. My back remains straight, my stride remains even with one foot in front of the other, and my shoulders and arms are relaxed as they delicately swing by my sides. I reach the end of the catwalk, my struts aligning to the beat of the music, and strike a confident, sexy pose full of ardent fervor; the surrounding congregation erupts with cheer and applause. I know exactly what they want. I can’t help but unprofessionally let loose the biggest smile I can muster, barely managing to suppress an oncoming giggle.
At the end of the night, I retreat into the darkness of my hotel room with Preston in tow. I told him that he would be my anchor, my “guide” of sorts, but I never elaborated on what exactly my implant was doing to me. He agreed to stay in the same hotel room with me after I insisted it was necessary due to the operation, despite his strange glances. As far as he knew, I was simply myself, just now with a small lump of metal fused to my temple and in need of a 24/7 escort. I began to wonder whether or not anyone in the audience noticed the metallic glint tucked behind my voluminous hair, but chalked it up to not mattering at all in a few seconds flat. Exhausted from doing any more thinking, Preston watches me flop onto one of the two twin beds face-first in a very unladylike way.
“You were amazing today,” he says just barely above his breath. Preston was never a very expressive or outward person, so his comment surprises me. I sit up and face him with a casually puzzled look.
“Uh… thanks.” I can’t help but get a little awkward. He refuses to make eye contact, instead looking out the large wall-sized windows exposing the glittering LA skyline. The entire room is dark, and unusually tense. Moving shadows line the walls and dance in interpretation of passing cars. He shifts a little in his posture.
“I’ll get the lights.” Strangely, he doesn’t go for the overhead switch, opting to illuminate the smaller scattered lamps stationed by the bedside table and the desk in the corner of the room. His footsteps are dampened against the soft carpet floor; he still hasn’t taken his shoes off.
In an effort to lighten the atmosphere, I make a snide observation. “Preston, you’re gonna track dirt around the carpet… now the poor custodians have to do more work than they need to.” He smiles a little, scratching the back of his head full of slicked-back hair. He makes eye contact with me again.
“You might want to save your apology for the little lady that comes knocking on the door at 8 in the morning tomorrow,” I say with an edge of playful sarcasm. He smiles a little again and removes his brown loafers.
“I’ll just leave a bigger tip.”
“You can’t just buy your way out of everything, you know.” You wouldn’t assume he were very wealthy just based on his attire, frequenting a grey cardigan over a dress shirt and solid dark blue chinos. But Preston was deceptively professional when the situation called for it, and his paycheck sure reflected that.
“I don’t know,” he took a seat by the desk and leaned back a little with his arms crossed as if entertaining the idea, “I probably could.” I shrug my shoulders a little in response, admitting defeat.
There’s a moment of silence before the tension returns. Preston clearly has something on his mind. I try to search for a topic of conversation, and for a moment I turn to my implant when I find myself absentmindedly fidgeting with the smooth metallic surface. He notices, and I quickly stop when I see how obvious it is.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, Sabine.” He points to it, as if to confirm my thoughts. There’s no avoiding it now. I debate whether to tell him the entire truth or not, but I quickly vanquish the thought – I trust Preston a lot, he’s been with me ever since my career really started taking off.
“Ask away then.”
“How do you know what other people want?” I’m temporarily caught off by the nature of his question. He asks this with no hint of amusement in his tone. His dead-serious air sends an involuntary shiver down my spine; I get the feeling that he already knows the answer, he simply wants to hear it come from me.
“I see the world differently. I sense the world differently. I perceive things through other people, as many people as there are around me. I know what they see, what they hear, what they want. I don’t know how it works, all I know is that I’ve never been more content with myself as I am now.” Preston is silent for a moment.
“And it’s all because of that thing in your head?” I nod. He doesn’t pursue the logistics of it any further, rather he sits back again in a way that says his suspicions were confirmed. A rising feeling of apprehension plagues his gut – he’s about to say something I don’t want to hear. “Sabine, I got a call after the show today. It was Verve Magazine. They offered you a spot in their upcoming November pageant.” I try to contain my excitement, because he continues to speak. “I turned them down because of that. That thing. I knew something was up today, because I’ve never seen the crowd at Epsilon so riled up before.” My excitement turns to anger almost immediately, my face burns red hot and my fists are balled up before I can even fully process what he’s said. He turned down the opportunity for my career to launch to new heights because of my implant? Rationality wouldn’t come to me. It made no sense. I was perfect today. “Sabine…”
I stand up. I try to calm down.
“Preston. Do you realize what you did?” He scoots back in his chair a little, clearly afraid. Through his eyes, my preconceived beauty becomes monstrously distorted. “You ruined my career. All because of my stupid implant. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t choose to have this done to me. So what the hell was I supposed to do?” I try to keep my voice at a reasonable level, but through Preston everything sounds horribly sinister.
“It’s not fair Sabine. Not fair to you, not fair to any of the other girls. So it would be best if you didn’t participate. Don’t you understand that? Besides,” he stands to look me in the eyes, rising above me by a single inch, “that competition isn’t worth it. You wouldn’t have gone anywhere even if you won.” I don’t take the time to consider whether or not I’ve misinterpreted his words before I’m consumed by a terrifying animosity. My spite, directed at his entire being, bends the flawless elegance of my figure; in his eyes, I’m no longer the model who took the jaded crowd of the Epsilon Center by storm, I’m a pariah. I want him to disappear. Everything becomes a blur – he turns away from me, approaching the window with quick and uncharacteristically unsteady strides.
I don’t have time to stop what happens next before I’m blinded by the familiar numbness of pain, of unstoppable consequences and wanting to take back everything in a single moment. The world is consumed in darkness, in unrelenting fear. I can’t even tell if the coldness I feel is that of the outside world, or of the ruthless anxiety that clouds my mind and body. And then I’m falling, wind whipping by my face, carrying me like a feather towards the ground below. A brief moment passes before I relearn the meaning of both agony and emptiness.
And then I return to the dark. I return to myself. I’m on the ground, I feel helpless and scarred. I feel as if it were my body that had hit the street below, lying amongst the strewn shards of glass and spattered crimson. I wonder to myself if I were responsible, and every conclusion I come to points to the answer I refuse to accept. But it isn’t possible, I don’t have that power. Right? It’s impossible. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want this guilt, I didn’t want things to turn out this way. I grip the cool piece of metal fused to my temple; it won’t come off. It’s a part of me, just like my decisions, and now I have to decide how to live with them. I stand up, waiting for something else to happen, but I am alone. I’m only met with a cool gust of wind as I shift the weight of my feet who feel nothing but broken glass.