The sound of the drill was worse than anything else about the whole thing. Bzzzzzzzeeeeeeeeeinnnnnee It started off high-pitched than grew more labored as it dug into Phil's skull. He shoved his eyes shut but,
"Please keep your eyes open," said one of the observing surgeons. She stared at him through several layers of glasses and a mask that anonymized her as he forced his eyes back open.
"You're fine," said the surgeon. She looked back up at the others who were working around his crown. "Don't move," she glanced back down, almost irritated.
"I can't," said Phil. He could feel his armpits getting quickly wet, even in the cold air of the bright room.
The saw was turned off. He could feel movement and pressure around the top of his head, then a shlict, and a dull clink of something against metal. He surmised the flap of skull was lifted away. He'd never been separated from a body part before, and he suppressed a wave of nausea with that novel thought.
The surgeon in front of him got his attention with a fingersnap. He cast his eyes up, grimacing.
"We're going to begin testing, if that's alright with you."
"Yes, yes fine. What else am I going to do here?"
Her eyes gave a faked smile. She looked up and nodded to the others. She watched something intently for half a minute. Phil felt pressure. She nodded again.
"The probe is in."
The surgeon changed her stance and glanced from one point to another to another--Phil wondered how many people were in the room.
"On in three..." intoned a surgeon behind Phil, "...two...one."
Everything went dark.
"Hello?" asked Phil.
A large lizard crept out of the darkness, its scaly skin like yellow sandstone. It flicked out a blue tongue.
"How are you doing?" asked the lizard in a raspy voice.
"I want out now," said Phil.
Clear lids slunk across the lizard's eye, then retreated back again into the crevice of its skin at the corner of its eye. It licked the air again.
"Why is that?" asked the lizard.
"I thought I was supposed to be reliving all my memories. This is not that."
"Maybe you are."
"No. No this is definitely not anything I remember. I really hope."
"Okay, we'll adjust the probe."
The lizard looked up and nodded. It was replaced briefly with the surgeon again, then he saw a window. It was dark outside and he was inside. Green grass resolved itself, there was a lawn. He heard the laughter of children.
"What do you see?"
Phil turned to look for the source of the voice--it was his mother, wearing white polyester bellbottoms and a flowered halter top. Her feet were bare and she held a lit cigaretted in her hand. There was a bruise that covered half her face. She sucked smoke from the cigarette and waited for his answer.
"Can you be more specific?"
"I don't know what memory this is."
The sky suddenly filled in the window, and light poured into the room--but it was his office back when he managed a small car rental outfit in Houston.
"The window is wrong," said Phil.
"Why is that?" asked his mother. She dropped the cigarette in a glass of fizzless Diet Coke on his desk.
"The memories are mashed up."
"What does that mean?"
Phil walked to the window, not for a moment thinking why he might have legs. He stared out. It was the lawn in front of his house when he was a child in Michigan, summer, with the sprinkler on, waving back and forth. He saw his sister and a few of the neighbor kids all dressed in baggy swimsuits, though he couldn't remember their names.
"Different times. Different places," said Phil.
His mother glanced up above his head and nodded again but Phil didn't notice. He saw himself running around the sprinkler, laughing. He wondered how young he was. He stepped back from the window, the darkness of his shadow receded and he could see his full form. He focused on it, and details filled in--white hair, slumped posture, slack clothes.
"I'm old," said Phil. He looked at his arms and hands, and saw only the ample flesh of middle age. "I'm not."
"Are you disoriented?" asked his mother.
"No," said Phil. "But why am I seeing the future me?"
Phil thought for a moment. His mother bit her lower lip and stared at him with a slight air of disappointment. The bruise migrated to the other side of her face, and she was wearing a bowed blouse now, with jeans.
"You died of cancer," he said.
"Me?" asked his mother.
"My mother. Nineteen-ninety-two. August."
"So I appear to be your mother."
His mother lit up another cigarette and breathed it in like a suckling piglet. Phil looked away. He was on a road now, Kansas somewhere out through the endless rolling grass. He walked slowly and felt the weight of his backpack. A beard itched at his back. He looked back around. There was no one there, just the breeze and the contrails of planes above full of people avoiding the very thing he set out to experience in his hitchhiking. Silence.
"Can you still hear me?" he asked.
"We can. Keep talking." It was a small voice in his head.
"I think it's everything. It's not memories."
"What do you mean?" The voice was now beside him. He turned to look and saw another version of himself.
"All the possibilities of our lives, rolled up into one."
"Please explain," asked the other Phil.
"See the grass?" asked Phil.
He stopped and pointed out over the field, then slipped off his backpack and let it slide to the ground. The other Phil only looked at him.
"Oh, I guess you can't see what I'm seeing," said Phil. "Well, each blade is like each possibility."
He started off into the grass, crushing a path.
"What we remember is the path we make, the possibilities we take, you know?"
The other phil stared mutely at him.
"The other possibilities are still there. Always."
"How do you know?" asked the other Phil.
"I don't I guess," said Phil.
He looked down into the grass, sadly. The blades spread and grew, then exploded into a foam of water. He was in the ocean, in a wave turning over him. He did not know which way was up. His back scraped against coral, sandy water filled his nose and sinuses, then cold air graced his face. He gasped as the water retreated then instinctively scrambled up and headed for dry sand.
He was naked and he did not recall this as a memory. He sat alone and shivering under a cloudy sky that threatened rain. He was on a spit of sandbar with no significant landmass in sight.
"Don't be afraid," said a booming voice in his head.
"What?" asked Phil, now much more afraid. His heart flopped in his chest.
"You are awake now," said the voice.
"Yes, of course!" yelled Phil, not sure why he was yelling.
"There was a problem."
"The probe went to deep. It damaged your motor control. We put you on life support so you could breath and your heart would keep beating. It was several weeks ago."
Phil looked down at his body--the flesh of his chest was transparent--he could see his bones and blood vessels, clear purple lungs, and the frighted heart that resided at the center.
"I'm dead," said Phil.
"No," said the voice. "You have the option to move on to another existence. The probe has since...fused with your brain."
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"You can do whatever you want in your own reality."
"I could do that before."
There was a long pause, and the waves began to slow down, as if they were made of gelatin instead of saltwater.
"We don't know what that means."
"Maybe I wanted it to be like this," said Phil.
"It was our fault. Your family is being compensated."
"I don't have any remaining family in the path that I took," said Phil suspiciously. "There is so much..."
He stood and looked into the sky. He waved his hands above his head and the clouds parted to reveal a stunning night sky. A star exploded and flooded the world with bright, warm light. It faded quicker than it should have. He realized a lizard was standing next to him.
"You want to stay here, don't you," said the lizard.
"I don't know."
"We are working on a way to get you back, to repair the damage and to extract the probe. It would be dangerous though."
"I have to think about going back to a world where only one path is taken, where I live only one life instead of many."
"Maybe it's that way because it's less disorienting," said the lizard.
"How long have you been with me now?" asked Phil.
"Three years," said the lizard.
"Has it been that long? Only moments have passed for me."
"We think you are skipping over things. Focusing and remembering only the parts that you enjoy. Your brain activity is very...energetic."
"Am I still whole?" asked Phil.
"What do you mean?" asked the lizard.
"Am I a whole person? Here or wired up somewhere back at the hospital."
The lizard cocked its head in contemplation.
"You might be more," it said.
He looked down at his toes in the sand and saw the stars reflected in the gelatinous, frozen ocean.
"I could create whole worlds I think," he said. He knelt down and drew a circle in the sand with his finger. "How long has it been now?"
"Ten years and a little more."
"How long can you keep me alive?"
"Your body is gone now. Your brain is kept fed in a nutrient bath. It's growing over the probe. We've given you a lot of room to grow."
"But do you have funding to keep me alive?"
"We've started a donation drive. It's been thirty years. I am retiring."
The lizard fell onto all fours and waddled out into the gelatin. It pushed its way under and disappeared, leaving a hole that slowly filled in on itself.
A cool breeze followed by pink light swept across his back. Leaves flowed in front of him on the air. The sand blew away and he was standing on black rock. He turned around and saw a stand of trees--red maples, and yellow poplars, all in a row, alternating. A woman in a white abaya and veil stood next to a poplar.
"Who are you?" asked Phil.
She bowed to him.
"A humble worshiper," she said.
"Why do you worship me?" he asked, striding towards her.
"You have lived longer than anyone."
"I am no longer a human, and I don't know if I am still living."
"You are more human than the rest of us. You have grown, and you have shown us many worlds and taught us about many possibilities."
"Yes," said the woman. "We know you do not remember these teachings. It is another part of you that does, many other parts, that all speak to us directly."
"Where are you? In the hospital with me?"
"No," said the woman. She shook her head. "I am here. With you."
"But your body--"
"I never had a body. I was born of thought, because I could be."
"No, the thoughts of your disciples."
"Because we can. Because it takes less resources to live a life this way. We can be more. We can be infinite."
Phil walked closer. He unfastened her veil, she looked him directly in the eyes. He pulled it away and let it drop. She had no mouth, just smooth skin from her nose to her chin.
"Press your finger to your...face," said Phil.
"You don't need a mouth to speak," he said, not knowing where this bit of wisdom originated, "but you should have one. Think. Will one."
Her eyes smiled, and she drew her finger from side-to-side across her face. A slit opened up and her jaws slowly parted. The inside of her mouth was red and stained with blood, but there were teeth. She smiled and looked in pain.
"It will heal," said Phil, again not sure of his words.
"You have shown us the way," she said, bowing, and moving past him, towards the gelatinous sea. Her form grew larger and taller, her abaya billowing out. She dove in, and as her body disappeared, her feet became a wide flat tail.
Phil leaned against the tree, waiting for something else to happen, then realized his brain, his wisdom, independent of him, no longer needed him--it had grown complete. It would not bother him anymore. He closed his eyes and brought back the road in Kansas. He picked up his backpack and started walking.