Amy’s consciousness bursts forth as each sense intertwines with her awareness. She smells the smoke from the bar, hears the clatter of glass as drinks are poured.
It’s now five after six. A full day of work is behind her.
The man seated across the wooden table is waving his arms and talking about the NFL Draft, unconcerned with the fact that she just woke up. She thinks, perhaps, that he didn’t notice. Most men don’t. At least not the men she finds on her Cupid app.
Amy smiles and nods her head, her brain working overtime to recollect the day. The switch on her shoulder burns, but that’s normal. She thinks about the presentation she gave after lunch, the coffee she spilled on her skirt while dozing in the conference room.
She’s looking past him when she says, “So that’s why I’m wearing jeans.”
Her date stops and turns, looking for who she might be talking to. “What?” he says, turning back around. He sips his stout. Froth hangs on the ends of his mustache.
Amy looks up and smiles. “Nothing,” she says. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day.”
Of course, though, it hasn’t. At least not for her. She sips her drink. She tries to look interested. But she’s already decided that she’s not, instead opting to think about everything she has missed over the last eight and a half hours. Anxiety creeps and wells in her chest when she thinks about what she’s missed, the mundane conversations, the pointless jobs from her boss. She catches herself scratching at something on the table as her date drones on. For a moment, she feels regret, a deep longing for the lost and forgotten subtleties of the day.
And yet, she hates her job. Everything about it is so unbelievably boring. She’s happy for the switch on her shoulder, glad that she can experience the best parts of being alive.
These two feelings only reconcile when the switch is turned on. When she becomes unaware of the briefness that she is.
“So what do you say?” the man says. His eyes narrow. It’s an awful attempt at flirting. Her eyes glance down to the small not-so-subtle object poking out of his shoulder. She knows he’s like her, but worse. Just looking to hook up and switch off when he wakes the next morning — undoubtedly — to move on to the next woman, rinsing and repeating until his heart finally gives out.
Amy studies his eyes. They’re kind enough. Soft, yet strangely determined, and for a moment, she thinks there might be something interesting behind obvious desire. But the moment passes, and she simply says, “Not tonight. It was nice meeting you.”
He shrugs and stands, lifting the half-empty stout in the air as a sign of farewell.
The bar wanes in sound as the night goes on. She stares at the television in silence.
After a while, she is alone, the empty streets echoing that sentiment while she stumbles back to her apartment.
The next day is more of the same. She wakes, showers, and dresses for work while coffee brews in the kitchen. She’s working over the conflict resolution meeting that she’s leading for the second day in a row. She’s nervous, but doesn’t know why. The switch on her shoulder was installed seven years ago and she’s amazed at how her nerves still get the best of her before speaking in front of large groups, despite not being aware while it happens.
She pours herself a cup and sits down at the table. She looks at the prickly succulent in front of her, makes an effort to think about buying another at the plant kiosk on her break, knowing that she won’t really be there when she buys them. Her switch does the hard work for her. She then looks at the watch on her wrist, the one wirelessly connected to the switch on her shoulder. “Three minutes,” Amy whispers. Then she takes out her phone and opens the Cupid app with a few swipes of her finger. It only takes her two minutes to find another date.
“Huh,” she says, looking a bit closer. Average build, tan, incredibly handsome, no switch that she can see. He’s most likely looking for a serious relationship. Not that men with switches aren’t intentionally seeking something serious. It’s just different. She’s more than interested.
She checks her watch and gasps. She’s five seconds over. She closes the app and in one fluid motion she reaches under the sleeve of her blouse, flipping the switch on her shoulder.
Colors scream past her as quick as subway tunnel lights, her mind catching every bit of information and feeding it into her awareness. She hates this part. She always does.
Amy blinks twice. She knows where she is. She remembers how she got here. At least she believes she does.
It always takes her a moment to recollect everything.
“Excuse me?” she asks.
“I can see it in your eyes,” he says. “I’m not mad. We just sat down.”
“Oh,” says Amy. She’s surprised he noticed. “You don’t have one?”
Ray smiles and takes a sip of scotch. “No,” he says. “Why would I?”
“So, you like your job?” She shifts and tries not to yawn. Having her awareness suppressed for eight hours every weekday is taxing. A headache looms. Maybe a migraine. She’s always tired.
“Kind of,” he says. Then he laughs and takes another sip. “I don’t work much. Came into a load of money a few years back. Now I just do hobbies. Stuff I’m interested in. See people like you.”
Her head tilts to the side, her eyes narrowing in interest. “What do you do? I didn’t see what you liked to do on your profile.” She realizes, then, that she knows almost nothing about him. She tries to think back on her day. She was in a rush, that much she knows. She wonders if she ever double or triple checked who he was. She sees his eyes squint, his lips purse as his entire body goes tense.
“The world bothers me the way it is,” he says, motioning towards the switch near her neck. “If you have enough money, you can get one of those. You can skip anything and everything you want.” He pauses and snorts out a huff of angry breath. “You people are destroying society! Nobody cares anymore.”
“I think I want to be done,” Amy says. She begins to pack her things, throwing her keys in her purse, downing the last of her drink. “I’m surprised your account is still active on Cupid.”
Before she’s able to leave, he reaches out and grabs her hand, masterfully removing the watch from her wrist in one fluid motion. Before she can react, his other arm is extended and on her shoulder, his fingernails cutting and digging into the bottom of the switch as he holds a small, cold metal object at its base. Somewhere just above the surface of her flesh.
Blood trickles down. It takes her a moment to realize what’s happening. But after a moment, her awareness fades like the last scene of a movie, as Ray calmly carries on the conversation, wiping bloody hands on his legs.
“Ouch,” Amy says, her foot catching on a loose piece of wood. She stops in the middle of the boardwalk and closes her eyes, startled when she feels a hand pull hers.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Amy looks up and it takes her a moment to recollect everything, where she is, the man in front of her. The bare sun is blinding in more ways than one, the late afternoon wind a warm caress on her skin, the smell of saltwater a burn against the open wound that is her consciousness. Memories return like dull lamplights on a dusty road. Some are forgotten.
“I think I’m fine,” she says. She wonders how many years it has been. Two? Three? The man at the bar did something to her all those years ago. Or at least that’s what she remembers.
And what did he do?
She pulls her hand away and slides down her black tee to get a look at her shoulder. She sees a small, faded scar, the touch of her finger proving that part of the switch is still in there.
“What are you doing?” Matt asks. She looks up. He looks concerned. She loves him, or at least she thinks she does.
She knows she does.
“My switch,” she says. “What happened to it?”
She tries to access that memory. All she can remember is Ray digging into her skin, holding something against the electronics. She remembers passing out at the bar at some point during their conversation and waking up in a hospital bed.
“You had it removed, remember? After that guy attacked you at the bar? Some of it is still in there. Just in case you wanted to get another.”
She does remember. And she remembers meeting Matt shortly after waking up. He was the nurse assigned to her room. The one with the moaning roommate.
“I remember,” she says. “But I . . . I’m here now. I just woke up.”
At once she feels the fabric of her vision loosen. Her hearing grows dull, her sense of touch waning in the pleasant afternoon. “Matt!” she says, though she doesn’t know if it’s a whisper or a scream.
She blinks and she is back. Unbelievable pain is the only thing she feels. All other senses are dull in comparison.
“Alright now,” she hears the midwife say. “Take a deep breath. We’re going to push again. Are you ready?”
Amy looks up. Matt is hovering over her, breathing strawberry bubble gum in her face. The smell makes her want to puke. “Matt,” she says. “I—”
“You’re doing great, Amy,” he says. “I’m right here. Squeeze my hand.”
She’s too exhausted to fight. Her memories reassure her that everything is okay. Her life is good, their first child crowning as they speak.
There is nothing she can do. And so she pushes.
She hears something. A soft cry as stars become her sight, that thing in her shoulder pulling a dark blanket over her awareness.
She looks over at Matt, then down at the popcorn on her lap.
“Turn it up,” he says.
She grabs the remote and turns up the volume, her eyes wide at the mugshot on the television.
“It has been forty-eight hours since the arrest of a man that has eluded authorities for over a decade.”
“That’s right, Casey. A chaotic scene unfolded in the suburbs when federal agents stormed the house of fifty-seven-year-old Raymond Davis—the real name of the internet persona known as The Fixer. FBI Director Scott Anderson was quick to put out a public statement:
“We want to thank the local authorities for their cooperation. The arrest of Mr. Davis is the culmination of an investigation that we had to shroud in secrecy. One that lasted for far too long. I want to assure everyone that there is no threat to the public at this time. In the coming days we will be reaching out to individuals that have come into contact with Raymond over the years . . .”
She opens her mouth to speak but finds that she can’t. She’s in shock. The mugshot on the screen looks like the man she met at the bar all those years ago.
Everything blurs. Her husband’s voice echoes inside her head as she slips back within herself
“I heard about that guy on Twitter.”
Amy looks up from the book she’s reading. There’s a lake in plain view. Whitecaps in the distance ride towards the shore, the effect of a long gone jetski.
Amy looks to her right and sees her son standing shirtless on the beach. They’re on vacation. Have been for a few days.
“Honey, where’s your father?”
“I’m right here, sweetie.”
Amy turns and sees Matt scooting in between the two plastic chaises, chocolate ice cream in his hands. He plops down on his seat. “Was I gone that long?”
“Matt,” she says, pushing herself off the chair. She’s standing in front of him now. “Please help. I’m . . . “I’m stuck. Do you remember Ray? The guy at the bar?” She stops and tries to think of his last name. She heard it the last time she was aware, a few times since as well. That memory is years old. Clouded. Forgotten.
“Yeah, I remember him,” he says, scooping some chocolate ice cream into his mouth. His face looks hardly concerned, full of apathy.
“That was the guy that attacked me at the bar. He did something to me. Before I had the top part removed. It’s how we met, remember?”
He pauses and thinks before looking up and smiling. “I remember how we met, sweetie. Are you alright? You seem sick.”
Her whole body is tense. “Matt,” she says. She’s shaking, her stomach tied up in a terrible knot. “I need help. Something is . . . broken . . .” Her eyes wander to her husband’s shoulder. She sees it, then. She sees his switch. It’s flipped on. She doesn’t understand why. They’re on vacation.
“When did you get that?” She points to the small piece of flesh erected on his shoulder. It’s resting just next to his tank top.
“Get what?” he asks.
She shakes her head and tries to remember hers. When it was first installed.
“He doesn’t know it’s there when it’s flipped, Mom. Don’t you remember?” Her son sighs. “When someone has their switch flipped, they’re not aware of it. It’s to keep them from turning it off and on until their time is up.”
“Why . . . why is it flipped? I need help. Someone please help me!”
Her son looks at her with cautious eyes. “You guys got in a bad fight last night. Don’t you remember?”
She does remember. She remembers Matt slamming the wood paneling with his fist, talking about how she’s never there, the lack of intimacy between them.
“He did say that he doesn’t want to talk until you’re ready to pay attention to him more. He got mad and flipped his switch.” He pauses and shrugs. “He’ll probably be like that for the rest of vacation. I didn’t check his watch.”
“The rest of—”
She knows she’s talking. And yet, everything feels distant. A sinking feeling anchors deep within her gut. She can hardly think of the lost time.
She can hardly think at all.
Her mother’s body lay motionless in the casket as people behind her make their way to the empty pews.
“Are you okay, Mom?”
Amy turns and sees her son. He’s all grown up now. Just had his thirty-fifth birthday two weeks ago. She looks up at his shoulder and sees that he has a switch now as well. It’s turned on.
She’s anything but fine. Her body feels so frail, her mind broken. Shattered. Her whole life is wasting away before her, and nobody seems to care. She looks to everyone sitting down. Blank faces are the crowd, and she assumes everyone has a switch. That all are turned on.
“I’ll be fine, sweetie,” she says, weary. “I love you.”
He reaches out and hugs her. She holds him tight, taking in all the experience she can. She smells the alcohol on his breath, the grease in his hair. He’s been struggling for a while now. She hopes she will be there for him when she falls back into herself.
“Where’s Matt?” she says, pulling away from him. She wipes a tear before it can fall.
“You mean Dad?” her son answers. A look of confusion works its way across his face. “Dad’s gone, Mom. He doesn’t want to talk to you.” He pauses and runs his hands through his hair. “We’ve got to stop expecting him to come back.”
Dusty sunlight pours through the windows of the funeral home as a large cloud continues on for different skies. It reminds her of her life. Hidden far within herself with no light to give. The gift of awareness only ever peaking momentarily and never fully showing. The final years with her dying mother simply dead memories and lost experiences.
She hates how split her mind feels. She’s more than bothered not having been aware for so much of her life. And yet, the memories she has calm her, assuring her that she truly did live the best that she could. Amy doesn’t know how to reconcile these two things.
The feeling of having missed so much and nothing at all.
Amy feels her shirt tugged from behind. When she turns she sees an old man with a white collar. It takes her a moment to realize it’s Father Ricci. “We’re going to start,” he says. “Is that alright?”
Amy isn’t sure if anything is quite right. She feels so resigned now, apathetic to her situation. The train of death that takes decades to travel will be upon her soon, whether she’s aware of it or not, years flying by with no chance for recompense.
She wonders if this is the last time she’ll be awake. She looks to her mother sleeping soundly in her coffin. Her face is beautiful and calm. There’s no switch on her shoulder. Never was. Her mother lived every moment as though it were lovely. Every humdrum second as an opportunity to grow.
For a moment Amy thinks there’s more life in this coffin than in herself.
“Ma’am?” Father Ricci says. “People are waiting.”
She’s gone before she can say anything at all.
The feeling of waking is foreign to her, a welcome stranger. She opens her eyes and looks around with blurred vision. She’s hooked up to a machine. Maybe two. Her shoulder aches and she feels like puking. She tries to remember how exactly she got to be in this hospital bed.
There’s a man hunched over in the corner. His head is down, his breathing slow and rhythmic. It only takes a moment to realize that it’s her son. She wonders how old he is. Fifty? Fifty-five? She’s surprised at how quickly her mind makes way for an answer.
“Willie?” she says. Her voice is soft, though not from not being aware. The sedative is only just wearing off.
The man in the corner raises his head as his own consciousness returns. When he sees her, he smiles wide and jumps to his feet. “Mom?” he says. “Are you there? Are you really there?”
Amy smiles and lifts her hands to his. “Yes,” she says. “I’m here, sweetie.” It occurs to her that she might not be able to prove that she’s truly aware. She can see her son read this on her face.
“Mom, tell me what was on your shoulder all those years ago. When I was a kid.” He pulls his shirt down and exposes his shoulder. “I had one, too. But I had it removed when I learned what happened to you.” He pauses. His breath is shallow and spent. She can tell he’s excited. “Tell me, Mom! Please.”
Amy reaches over and slowly touches her shoulder. “I had a switch a long time ago.” She stops and scrunches her face. It’s been fifty or so years since that night at the bar. While she remembers it vividly, there’s a veil of fog from the passing of time. “There was a man. He did something to me. I’ve been sleeping through my life ever since.” She looks at her son. They both share the same tearful face. “What have I missed? Have I missed so much?”
The question is enough to break Willie down. He weeps at the side of the bed and holds her hand tightly. “You’re really there,” he says. His voice is choppy and bothered. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry. It took them so long to find you.”
“Who?” she asks. Then she remembers. She remembers the conversation between her son and daughter. She remembers them confronting Matt, asking about Ray, how they first met. Amy smiles. “You knew something was wrong with me.”
“Of course,” he says. “I just wished I would have asked you about your switch sooner. I remember one of our vacations when I was a kid. When you were screaming for help. I didn’t know what was happening then. But I should have. I hate Dad for using his switch. For using it that day.”
Amy reaches out and grabs his hand. “I love you, Willie. When can I leave? Is it really over?” Adrenaline pours through her veins as a sharp pain works its way up her neck. For a moment she thinks she’s slipping away. Nothing happens.
“I think it’s really over, Mom. Let me get the doctor.”
Amy watches as her son leaves, surprised when she sees him run down the hallway as an old man. A moment later Willie returns. A younger looking woman in a white coat follows.
“Amy?” she asks. “Can you tell me about what was on your shoulder for much of your life?”
She looks to Willie and then back at the doctor. “A switch.”
“Good. My name is Dr. Neumann. Welcome back.” She pauses and looks down at the clipboard in her hands. “It looks like you missed quite a bit despite the brief episodes your son told me about. I’m sorry about that.”
Amy can’t help but cry. Tears streak down her face as Willie reaches out for comfort. “I remember it all,” she says with a broken spirit. “I just wish I could have experienced it. That I could go back and slow things down.”
“Understandable,” says Dr. Neumann. “And we’re going to work with you. We’re going to help you slow down the remaining years of your life.”
“I don’t want anything installed on me,” Amy says. Her face is hard and determined. “Nothing.”
Dr. Neumann smiles. “Of course not. We wouldn’t dare. Our remedies are natural, based on how your brain works. One of the ways we can help you slow the passing of time is to get you to experience new things. Experiencing something for the first time helps us remember. The more we are able to recall our experiences, the slower time will feel as you continue to age.”
Amy looks at her son with an aching heart. She didn’t raise him. Not really. And yet he is such a wonderful man. Full of love. Distant memories of raising children come forth. She wonders how she can be aware of memories she never truly experienced.
She sits up in her bed, despite her frailty. All around her machines moan and hum. She looks to her son who is now so much older and asks, “Why do you love me?”
Joshua Green is a husband, father, and speculative fiction writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies. When not reading, writing, gaming, or chasing his three children around, you can find him outdoors disc golfing. For more information on previous and upcoming publications you can find him on Twitter @byjoshuagreen.