It’s a fact of nature: nothing you do to alter your body or mind is without potential consequences. Most of the time those consequences are minor. You’re tired and drink a cup of coffee, even though you know it makes you a little jittery. Minor.
Generally speaking, the greater the effects, the greater the consequences. Adderall can help you to finish that term paper on time, but the comedown is no fun. Meth can help you write that term paper, clean your apartment, and work double shifts, but soon you’re a paranoid addict with open sores. It goes on and on. Doesn’t matter what it is, every drug that gives something, takes something. Only the magnitude is different.
That’s why I was hesitant when I first heard about S.
It started out with whispers through my group of friends. A miracle drug that can do things no other drug before has. A drug that can blur the lines separating this physical world with the world beyond. In short, this drug, S, could let you speak to the dead.
It sounded too good to be true, and I figured it probably just created some sort of auditory hallucination. I didn’t dismiss it outright, though, not when it hit so close to home.
You see, I lost my wife last year after a three-year battle with lymphoma.
Losing her was the hardest thing I’ll ever do. There was the big pain, of course, of watching her slowly wither away into nothingness and leave this world. But on the other side of that are all the infinite little pains: the waking up to silence, thinking about something funny to share with her and realizing that I can’t, trying to remember and sometimes forgetting the sound of her voice, her laugh. These are things that hurt the most; the things that happen after that awkward time when your friends and family walk on eggshells around you, when you’ve settled into your new reality. That’s when it’s the toughest.
Gina and I saw the path she was on. We knew that our time together was limited. That didn’t make it any easier. We filled our days with conversation, trying to get out every word we possibly needed to say to each other. But that wasn’t enough. There’s so much more that I need to tell her. It’s not even the big things. It’s not the “I love you’s” and the “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me’s.” It’s the mundane things I miss telling her. The stories about what I saw on the drive into work, or the anecdote about my cousin Terry spilling beer all over himself while attempting to hula hoop. I just wish I could tell her all the insignificant things, the trivial, minute experiences that she’s missing. Those are the things that really matter.
I guess you could say I was the perfect sucker for a drug like S. It offered me the only thing I really wanted in the world.
That’s not to say I didn’t try to resist it. I did. I waved it away when the whispers of its existence got around to me. Well-meaning friends would bring it up tentatively, trying to suss out whether I was quite crazy enough to try it. I think they were curious, too.
But, eventually, the lure of it got to be too much. I’d wake up in the middle of the night from a dream that Gina was there sleeping beside me. When she wasn’t, I’d feel her loss all over again. In those moments, thoughts of S wriggled their way through my mind, tempting me beyond anything I’d ever thought possible.
S was not an easy drug to get, it turns out. I’ll spare you the details of how I tracked some down, but eventually I ended up in the backroom of a run-down adult video store, talking to a man with a long scar splitting his face in two.
“One dose,” he said. “That’s all you’ll ever need.”
He handed me a small syringe, the kind diabetics use for insulin, and gave me precise instructions for administration. I paid him an insane amount of money for it, and went on my way.
Once home, I hesitated. I really had no idea what S did, other than some stories told by drunken friends late at night. I felt like I had gone insane. If Gina were still here, she’d talk me out of it. She’d call me an idiot for even thinking about putting some unknown drug into my body. But Gina wasn’t here, and that was the problem.
I steeled myself and pinched a section of skin on my stomach as the scar-faced man had instructed. The syringe trembled slightly as it pierced my skin with a needle so fine I could barely feel it. I pushed down and watched the clear liquid empty into my body.
Then I waited.
I sat for hours like that, listening for any hint of an interloper in my mind. Watching for any evidence that the drug was doing anything. Midnight came, and I still felt nothing. I cursed at myself for being stupid enough to get ripped off like that, and went to bed.
The next thing I knew, it was morning. I awoke to sunlight shining harshly into my eyes.
“Good morning,” Gina said cheerily.
I smiled and reached languidly across the bed. “Good morning to you. I…” My hand fell on an empty mattress.
I leapt from my bed, tangling myself in covers as I went. There was no one there. Of course not. Gina was dead. She’s been dead for a year, but I could have sworn I heard her.
The drug. In my disoriented state, I had forgotten all about S.
I spoke, tentatively, at the empty room around me.
“Gina? Honey, is that you?”
“Who else would it be? You have any other dead wives I don’t know about?”
I laughed, full and hearty. It was her. Just as I remembered her. I was talking to my wife.
“Is this real? I mean, how is this even possible?”
This time it was Gina who laughed. “I don’t know, you’re the one sticking poisons in your belly--you tell me.”
I sat back down on the bed and started talking to the air around me. I could hear Gina, clear as day, in my ear, in my head. It was as if she were right in front of me, but also inside my mind at the same time. I felt like I could feel her small, cool fingers in my brain.
We talked and talked for days. I barely slept, and when I did I was sent off to sleep with a “Good Night,” and awoken with “Good Morning.” Aside from the fact that I couldn’t see or touch Gina, it was like she never left. You don’t realize how meaningful the little interactions are until they’re gone, and I was determined not to take them for granted.
I took to wearing a bluetooth headset wherever I went, so as not to look crazy with my constant chattering about nothing much at all. We talked about the weather, about what had happened since she left. I told her about the extra gray in my hair.
“Can you see what’s going on? Or can you only hear?” I asked.
“Oh, I can see.”
“Are you with me all the time? Even in the shower?”
“Especially when you’re in the shower,” she said, punctuating the sentence with a growl. I laughed, picturing her wagging her eyebrows at me.
It was heaven. But, as I said, every drug takes something from you. The greater the reward, the greater the punishment.
I was driving down Route 17 three days after taking S when I saw a mini-golf course. Even though I drove past it nearly every day, I hadn’t thought of that place in years. It had been too painful. But now I remembered everything.
“Hey! Remember this place? We went here on one of our first dates.”
“Of course I remember. I lost my ball in the pond,” Gina said, laughing.
“Yeah, and you made me go tell the manager that a bird stole it so that you could get another one.”
“I still can’t believe you did that!”
“I would have done anything you wanted me to. I still would.”
“And so would I,” said Gina. I thought I heard sadness in her voice.
There was a long silence. Finally, I spoke. There was a question that had been weighing on my mind since Gina first came back. I knew I shouldn’t ask it, but I couldn’t help myself.
“What’s it like where you are?”
At first Gina didn’t reply. The silence was so long that I thought she might have gone away. Just as I was about to start calling for her, she spoke.
“Before...before you took the drug, before you opened the door, it was different. It felt like I was in a waiting room, or floating in the ocean. Do you remember that time we floated in the sensory deprivation tank?”
“Well, it was a lot like that. I was there, but I wasn’t me. I don’t know how to explain it so you’ll understand. I was there, but I wasn’t a person. I wasn’t a body, wasn’t even a consciousness.”
“But you’re conscious now, right?”
There was another long silence.
“Well, what changed?”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now. Can’t we just enjoy our time together?” Gina’s voice was strained and thin.
I wanted to let it go, wanted to just take her for what she was, but I couldn’t. I pressed on.
“What’s it like, right now?”
Gina sighed. “I don’t want you to feel guilty. It was my decision.”
“Gina, what was your decision?”
“Here’s the thing: when you took S, you opened up a door. There was nothing specific about it; it wasn’t just for me. I felt it, and I had the choice to enter through that door. When I made that choice, I made another choice as well.
“You see, in order to have consciousness, to be with you again with all my memories and personality, I had to choose to be aware of myself. That self-awareness will never go away. I could float in nothingness unaware, or I could be aware of it. And I could be aware of the sensations that go with it.”
I pulled the car over on the side of the road and shut it off. I needed to think.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“You know that there’s a Heaven and a Hell?”
“In some religions, yes.”
“Well, that’s not quite true. Here it’s more like there’s feeling and not feeling. Not feeling is Heaven, and feeling is...well, you know. When it’s over, when I’m not with you anymore...I’ve chosen to feel.”
“What? You mean, when this thing wears off...you’re going to Hell?!”
“No, it’s not quite like that. Oh, I don’t know! This is why I didn’t want to bring it up. I just wanted to enjoy this time we have.”
The weight of what I had done hit me all at once. In my selfish need to speak to my wife again, I had sentenced her to an eternity of suffering. I sobbed, desperate and ugly cries escaping from my lips. Over my tears, I could hear Gina whispering comforting things in my head. What had I done to her?
When I finally pulled myself together, I thought of another question for her.
“Yes, my love?”
“Does this wear off? S, I mean? Will you at least have the rest of my life?”
“It doesn’t wear off. The door opened is permanent.”
At least there was that, I thought. Before I could feel too relieved, though, Gina spoke up again.
“There is something that you should know, though.”
“Remember when I said the door you opened was not specific? That I had to choose to come here?”
“Well, others didn’t necessarily make the choice to feel. Some had it thrust upon them. And for those souls...well, an open door is a respite.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, now that the door is open, the others can come in. I’ve been trying to hold them out, but...I’m not as strong as they are. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to keep them out. And I’m afraid they’ll kick me out before our time is up.”
“What can I do?”
Gina laughed sadly, and said nothing.
I had two more days with Gina before her voice started to fade. I wish I could say that I made the most of them, but I didn’t. I was angry. Mostly at myself, but I’ll admit to being a little angry with her. How could she have made that choice? Why did she risk her soul for more time with me, and how could I have asked her to do it?
My waking hours were filled with tears and sullen silence, while Gina pleaded with me to forget about what she had told me. I couldn’t. I tried. I really did. But I couldn’t.
Gina was becoming quieter. I thought it was because of me. I noticed, as I drifted to sleep one night, that she didn’t tell me “Good Night.” I didn’t blame her. It was my selfishness that damned her, after all.
The next morning I awoke to a voice I didn’t recognize. A male voice.
“Good morning, sunshine!” The voice cackled maliciously as I leaped from my bed.
“Who are you? Where’s Gina?”
“Who, the missus? Oh, she’s not here anymore. I gave her the old heave-ho.” The voice laughed again as I fell to my knees.
“Gina! Gina!” I screamed, hoping against hope to hear her voice. Instead, I just heard mean-spirited laughter.
“She can’t hear you where she is, pal. It’s just you and me. And maybe some of my buddies.” The voice laughed again.
It barely stopped laughing all day, as I tried to figure out what to do, how to get Gina back. I tried to find all I could about the afterlife. I tried reading about S, about near-death experiences, but I couldn’t concentrate with the constant laughter.
I was exhausted and full of grief. I cried more than I didn’t, all while the voice laughed in my head.
I took a sleeping pill, washed down with whisky, but the voice kept me up through the night.
The next day, the voice had a friend. Another malicious laughter to join the first. They began describing where Gina was. They described what was happening to her. I won’t repeat it. I can’t.
I screamed until my voice was raw: mad, animal screams of grief and guilt.
I took more pills, drank more whisky. I still didn’t sleep, and the next morning a third voice joined the chorus.
I didn’t have anywhere to turn. I knew I couldn’t live like this. My only hope was to find a way to turn S off, an antidote or something to make it stop. I would deal with what I had done to Gina, but I had to get the voices out.
The scarred man greeted me with suspicion when I arrived at his place of business. I don’t blame him; I must have looked terrifying. I hadn’t slept in two days by that point, despite the sleeping pills, and my face was puffy and red from crying.
“Come in the back with me,” he said gruffly.
I was trembling by the time we passed through the curtain.
“What’s the antidote?” I asked, aware of the terror in my voice.
The man looked at me curiously. “There is no antidote. One dose, I told you. One dose is all you’ll ever need. It’s permanent.”
I screamed, howled at the man. “I can’t live like this!”
“Hey, buddy, not my problem. You knew what it did. You think you go opening up doors to other realms and it’s gonna be okay? Man, use some common sense.”
“I didn’t know it would do this! I can’t stop the voices. There’s got to be some way!”
The man shrugged and pointed back out to the door. I ran at him, egged on by the chattering voice in my head and his casual indifference to my suffering. The punch was not unexpected, but I blacked out all the same.
I came to in the alleyway, cheerful laughter greeting me from inside my head. I pulled myself up, holding my throbbing temple. The physical pain did not detract from the onslaught of mockery inside me.
The voices came together to inform me that I had run out of options.
“It’s just you and us from now on, pal. Get used to it. Hahahaha!”
Just as one voice became two and two became three, three became dozens. A nonstop cacophony inside my head. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t fade into the background like white noise. It’s just an ever-present, maddening din that will not be drowned with alcohol or sleeping pills.
Sometimes a voice breaks through, louder and clearer than the others. It mocks my plight, laughs at my wife’s death. It’s never the same; there are so many now. But the theme stays true:
“She was happy to die. Got her away from you! Hahahahaha!”
“She’s gone now. You’ll never get her back! Her tortures are infinite now!”
“You think she ever loved you? You’re pathetic. She prefers to live in hell!”
“I saw your wife tortured today. At least I think it was her. Without skin they all look the same!”
I can’t take it any more. I just can’t. There’s a pistol next to the chair, and I’m going to use it. The voices are egging me on, but I don’t care. Buried deep within them, I think I can hear Gina. I think I can hear her screaming my name. I know she’d want me to join her.