SAND FROM A BROKEN HOURGLASS
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The image of a broken hourglass did indeed inspire the story. It was first published in Penumbra e-magazine.]
A mind is a terrible place to be lost.
He’s hungry. Needs to nurse at a full breast. But the need for a scotch is just as strong. Or maybe Geritol. Lots of liquid that will flow out again like seconds, minutes, hours, days.
Liquid drops. Once they’re in a puddle, try to pick out the individual drop. You can’t.
Can’t isolate the particular drop of time that is little Jenny Olin running to his side when he falls off his first bike. Or the drop that is Muriel in the hospital bed as the doctor lies to her that they got all the cancer. Or the drop full of Curacao sunshine as they step off a plane, sure they’ll never want to return to the land of winter.
All stirred together, out of order. A lifetime should be a flowing stream, not a puddle. Step in the puddle and the ripples of life moments disperse yet again, in ever-increasing confusion.
* * *
Doctor Junis claimed it was the long-awaited answer to repressed memory. Electromagnetism. The key to unlock the vaults of interdicted recall, potent and precise.
“Early experiments found that electromagnetic fields could stimulate the brain and create some deeply transcendent experiences. The presence of God. Spiritual enlightenment. Out-of-body episodes. Wonderful parlour tricks.”
“How’s seeing God gonna help me remember my childhood?” Lochlin asked. He only had a mild buzz on so early in the day, but he hoped the doc wouldn’t go into a big technical explanation.
“No, no. Those procedures were like hitting your head with a hammer to make you see stars. Our technique is surgically precise. Directed mainly at the occipitotemporal and temporoparietal cortices of the brain. A few others.”
“You’re not gonna hypnotize me?”
Junis laughed. “I’m not going to bleed you to let out the evil spirits, either. It’s like taking a nap, except with a helmet on. A few electrodes stuck to your scalp. They alter your time sense, so there’s no distinction between older memories and new ones—that gets you past any psychological blocks. The helmet’s field also produces an artificial out-of-body effect. You’ll probably experience it like taking a walk through a museum—the museum of Kurt Lochlin’s life.”
And it had been like that, in a creepy, gothic-horror-flick way. Gloomy, indistinct corridors. Mist that occasionally solidified into a fragment of familiarity, then stretched until it wrapped around him like living light. A bubble of oil, with the rainbow reflections on the inside.
High school English class. Standing at the blackboard to read. Debbie Cole in the front row has neglected to cross her legs under that short skirt.
A car windshield, the glass starred, the outside landscape of grass and mud at an impossible angle. Red flashes. Blue flashes.
Brown carpet. Up close. Stubby little fingers nudging something small, round, white. Perfect size to fit in a nostril.
Father MacKay in a dark alcove. Candles. A cot, with room for two.
That was the memory he was looking for! But suddenly there was bright light stabbing into his eyes.
Junis, goddamn him. Some excuse about government guidelines for experimental treatments. Have to wait another day.
Lochlin needed a drink. There was a bar down the block.
The cheap scotch talked to him in a warmer language than the cold steel electrodes. More comforting. Less frightening. But its sweet burn didn’t hold the answer. The answer to why he was an alcoholic at seventy years old. That was still the unsolved mystery of a long lifetime.
Bill Reilly, his sponsor at AA, had blamed his own alcohol problem on being abused by a priest when he was a kid. Lochlin had thought of Father MacKay. He’d always hated the guy, but didn’t know why. Maybe the reason had been there all along, buried under safer memories. Waiting to be rooted out.
He needed to find blame, and in it, absolution.
* * *
Scotch was usually liquid armour against marauding dreams, but that night it must have fuelled them, every one a scrap of memory. Chaotic. Disjointed. For the first time since his last real bender, he awoke not knowing where he was.
Junis made a comment about the fatigue in Lochlin’s face, but not about his breath. And he went ahead with the second treatment.
Lochlin ghosted through a shop of curios: touched them, sank into them. Like quicksand.
His voice cracking in choir practice.
University economics exam, palms slick with sweat.
Splitting his lip on a hardwood floor, and glaring up at the offending rocking horse.
Father MacKay beckoning him down the stairs at the back of the sanctuary.
He tried to hang onto that one—force it to drag him along to its conclusion, but it slipped from his grasp.
Junis said they should wait another week. Lochlin said not if the doctor wanted to see his money.
* * *
It must have been the bus hitting a bump that shook his brain loose and sent it skittering.
He had breakfast, left the clinic, got off the bus, woke up, checked in with the doctor’s receptionist, rode the bus a long time, got out of bed, got on the bus….
Wait. Was that right?
Was he riding the bus to the clinic, or back home? Should he be getting ready for breakfast, lunch, or supper?
Screw it. Scotch was the important part of all three. Sipping the amber cure-all, he resolved that there was no need to tell Junis about a few episodes of confusion.
The third treatment showed Father MacKay in a montage of separate moments, reaching for him…reaching, but not touching.
That night, the first caress of sleep threw him into a vortex: crystals of recollection, shining drops of time or grains of sand, quicksand, swirling, swirling, sucking him down.
The next day, he showed up at the clinic before it opened, hair uncombed, wearing slippers. Junis refused another treatment so soon. Lochlin had to threaten to tell the doctor’s wife about the affair with his nurse—a lucky guess based on the looks they gave each other.
Treatment four: Muriel leaning toward him for a kiss, her face half-lit by tiki torch light. A frumpy daycare worker yelling at him for filling his diaper. The jumpshot that squeaked his ball squad into the college playoffs—the sole heroic moment in his unremarkable life.
Father MacKay’s office: words repeated and repeated again, while the priest wore his patronizing smile. Then the grade eight auditorium: bright lights, dull faces.
Oh God. That was it. That was all.
MacKay hadn’t abused him. Had never touched him. Had only coached him for weeks, preparing for his public speaking debut: a speech about his mother. Mother had fountained tears of joy, but his classmates…his classmates had jeered mercilessly. Taunted him for years. Damn Father MacKay. Damn him for not being the excuse so desperately desired.
* * *
He stumbles along a street. Looks down. One slipper, one bare foot. Is he putting slippers on, or taking them off? Why is he wearing a diaper? There are short, chubby legs below it. No. Scrawny legs with scraggly white hairs.
For the first time, he feels fear. Fear and infinite regret. Someone has pulled the plug from the bottom of the world, and there is no way to put it back.
The street has turned to sand. The sand begins to swirl around him, each grain a face, a still life, a vignette. Faster, and faster still. He is in the sand and the sand is in an hourglass, running, running. Running out.
The hourglass smashes.
The sand spills.