Nicholas sat alone in his room, writing on his laptop, putting the next story for the website down before it flowed from his mind. He was as diligent as he could be, but as the small hours of the night rolled by, his eyes began to feel heavy whenever he took a moment to rest his fingers. He frowned a lot; he thought it helped him stay awake far beyond what was healthy for his body. Avoiding sleep for him was nothing more than a mind game; he could do extraordinary stints of time consciousness with seemingly little side effects on him. A single good night’s sleep was all he needed to reset a multi-day bender. But soon, he was no longer at his laptop. Instead, he was creeping around his house in the middle of the night to find external stimulation; he did chores as quietly as he could, but more often than not, he would shower to counter the chill in his feet that he always had, despite wrapping them in warm blankets. Then, returning to his laptop, he would continue his writing journey.
By the time the story was finished, the sun had started to rise, the early morning birds had made their calls, and the house started to come alive with people getting ready for the day. It was this moment that Nicholas found to be most enjoyable; it was an almost magic moment where the very air felt like it had changed. It always felt fresh, like smelling a storm on the wind on a hot summer day. It felt like a change. It was the odd moments in life that he clung to, where the world felt like it was more than what the people around him perceived.
“You look tired; it has been a while.” Came a voice from the corner of the room.
Nicholas froze momentarily while he waited for the hairs on the back of his neck to settle.
“So long, in fact, that I have forgotten how to not react to you showing up unannounced.”
There was a long pause where Nicholas did not move, and there was no sound from the stranger.
“I can hear you smiling, Conductor; please come closer; as you have said, it has been too long.”
A freakishly tall man walked from the shroud of the corner of the room to stand by Nicholas, who sat on the floor in front of his couch.
“Do you wanna tell me why you have come back?”
“I can’t really because the reason I am here has everything to do with you.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Nicholas said, confused.
The Conductor sat on the couch and laid a hand on Nicholas’ shoulder as he tried to comfort him.
“I am not here; you are fabricating this conversation because you miss our meetings. But the truth is you are far too lucid to be seeing me; this whole conversation is you; I have no part of it.”
There was a long pause as Nicholas tried his best to fabricate the sensation of touch on his shoulder as his eyes tried to create the image of the Conductor out of the corner of his eye, and his ears tried desperately to generate his voice.
“I miss you; I miss all of you. But I can’t do the sleepless nights anymore; I am capable, tonight should be an example of how well I can take it, but my body won’t last forever. I will barely last with the damage that abusing it with no sleep does.”
“You don’t have to have sleepless nights to find us, think of us often, and we shall appear in your dreams, write about us often, and you will have moments like these. You can live your life healthy and still maintain a connection with us.”
Nicholas just stared at his laptop screen as a strange sensation came across his shoulder, not that of touch, but just being overly aware of the body part.
“You don’t understand; as much as I can talk for you, it is not the same as you being here. The sensation of hallucinating you was unique; it felt different; it felt like I was in touch with something more than the real world- my own world- a private experience.”
“If being private was a bonus to it, why do you post all your stories online for others to read?”
“The stories are the world, not the experience; the stories are letting others use their imagination to see something else. I loved the sensation of the hallucinations; the world felt different, like it was warping and filling with too much air; my senses went wild, either feeling far too much or nothing at all. The randomness of it gave it a chaotic feeling that I just couldn’t get anywhere else. Film work comes close, but really it is order compared to what my hallucination experience was like. Even now, my brain is planning your response; that never happened when you were real; I had no idea what you would say, which was terrifying. ”
Nicholas sat up, correcting his posture. He let out a loud and exaggerated sigh. He looked at the time and frowned as he scratched his skull.
“I can’t do this again, I joke about it a lot, the whole living to 105 so I can say that I have lived in three separate centuries, but honestly, I would be shocked if I lived past fifty with how much sleep deprivation I have done to my body. I don’t need to make it worse; hopefully, I can mend some of the damage, and honestly, the chance of living longer with my friends and family is enough to motivate me to take care of myself. ”
“So you are stuck in a classic crossroads. If you take the path of a healthy lifestyle, you will progress your career slower, your hobbies will take longer to accomplish, and you will lose the uniqueness of us, but you will get to live longer with those out there. However, if you go back to sleepless nights, you know you can accomplish more; you will get the sensation of hallucinating again but have less time for these experiences. ”
The Conductor stood to walk around the room, smiling with a wicked grin.
“You are stuck in a highly complex situation, baby Anodyne. Do you pursue the path of rampant writing, work, and hallucinations that will put you into an early grave? Or do you slow your life down, make more decisions around time, and live longer with those you love? ”
“I love both of you; make no mistake, I love those from Hollow who visit me, and I love the people I live with here on Earth. It is a crossroads; no matter which one I choose, I am losing my friends. It isn’t fair.”
The Conductor laughed as his tone changed from calm to a wave of growing anger.
“Oh, come now, since when has life ever been fair. It isn’t fair from the start; there are those that are born into poverty, disease, and mistreatment, while others are born with so much money they can do whatever they want from the get-go. Some are born genetically better than others, meaning no matter how hard you train, you will never achieve as much as them. Life is not about fairness, you know this, so stop whining.”
“That is the first thing you have said that has sounded like you and not just me putting words into your mouth,” Nicholas mumbled.
“Because it made sense?”
“No, because it was cruel and intended to demean me,” Nicholas replied.
“It is embarrassing that this is the conversation I must endure. To think we used to talk about such wonderful things, things too good to be repeated here, and now it is just these crises of self-moping stories that have nothing to do with what you are to do. Hollow awaits you with open arms, the nightmares need a home, and you give that to them.”
“What do you suppose I do?” Nicholas asked genuinely as he looked to the part of the room he imagined the Conductor standing in.
“What you do is what you do. Act so you go to an early grave, disconnected from your world but feeling more connected to yourself, or be healthy and live a long life connected to those around you but disconnected from yourself and dissatisfied with your work and your ability to experience.”
“Surely there is another option.”
“Most likely, but seeing as I am speaking only because you are making me say things means you only see two options out. Then there is the lingering thought that you may achieve hallucinations and the sensation that comes with it through meditation, but you don’t know enough about meditation to know for sure.”
Nicholas hugged his knees and pressed his forehead hard onto the blanket covering them, using the fabric to scratch his eyebrows until he was willing to raise his head again. Checking his word count, he sighed as he tried to figure out how to fill the last few hundred words to hit his two thousand-word goals.
“The word count doesn’t even matter; what matters is what people will enjoy, and honestly, I don’t think this will translate well.”
Nicholas said out loud as he squirmed, a strange feeling creeping through his stomach as he struggled to press on. His miss presses on the keyboard started to rise until he pushed the backspace more times than he pressed actual letters to put into the story. His head was spinning, and his typing started to get repetitive as he struggled to put words down, to close the final remarks for the story to bring it to a close. But he knew why he was spinning; he knew that to finish the story would have to come up with an answer to the question posed, and the thought of that was terrifying for him. Almost no matter what he chose at that moment, it would be the choice that he had to keep for the rest of his life. He did not want to keep having this conflict; he didn’t want it to become a routine he would sink into. He wanted it to be over, so he could move on with the next part of his life, whatever that might entail, no matter his path.
He had no answers, and the fake effigy of the Conductor could give no advice because Nicholas was out of advice for himself. Instead, he stared at his screen, watching the blinking cursor with a fit of growing anger as he tried the answer what he wanted with honesty to himself. But the more he thought about it, the more he was unsure of how he wanted his life to go. The fact that neither decision came with a certainty that it would achieve the desired outcome made it even harder, knowing that maybe neither would bring him happiness in the ways he hoped. He could do everything the way he planned and still die young, still never hallucinate, lose everyone, gain nothing. Life has too many variables for such a binary decision to be answered simply by left or right, up or down, yes or no.
Nicholas knew there would be no answer this morning before he had to set off to work, which made the sensation in his stomach swell with discomfort. So he finished his story, putting in the final words needed for it to be out of his mind. He then did everything he did to make the story ready, editing it, generating an image, uploading it, and posting about it on social media.
He then went about his day, not knowing what to do but understanding that no matter what he chose, he would be losing a family in such a way that he would not be able to get them back.