By Denise Kavuma
I’ve never been one of those bright-eyed and bushy tailed people early in the morning, but there’s something about coming round to a completely white room that will wake you the heck up. It’s difficult to describe the place I found myself in, room is the best I can do… If a room could be kilometers long and completely featureless.
I was standing in the middle of the white expanse – not lying down or seated – nothing to show that I had previously been asleep. Yet, I was still in the same thick and unconventional clothes I normally wear to bed, and I remember going to sleep in my messy bedroom – turning off the lights and fading away as images of that hunky new guy at work played about in my head. Coming to in such a manner gave me the unsettling feeling that I might have been wandering around aimlessly, without even realizing it, for what could have been hours. My eyes kept trying to fixate on something, anything; a door perhaps, or a clear distinction between the firm white ground I was walking on and the white horizon before me, but there was nothing.
What if I was dead? If I was dead, good Lord, they’d find my body in my messy room, wearing those old makeshift pajamas and no knickers! What about the pile of dirty dishes in the sink? They’d know, know that I was not tidy and proper. Would Mr. HunkyWorkGuy find out what a sloth I’d been while I was alive? What about the debts I’d never paid off? Would my parents inherit them? But if I was already dead and that’s how I ended up in the expanse, then there was no reason why I would be worried about death. Perhaps I was waiting to be ushered into heaven.
I was a mess and the ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind were not helping. However, I recalled an article about lucid dreaming and how the dreamscape can sometimes be completely featureless unless the dreamer makes it otherwise. The “otherwise” part would need prolonged training, they’d said, and so I didn’t strain myself trying to imagine trees and hills around me.
Perhaps I was going mad and my brain was stuck on the last moment I remembered as a sane person? If I were trapped in a white cell somewhere in a psychiatric unit, it would make sense that I would dream of white, featureless expanses. Besides, it was much more comforting fixating on the idea that I was dreaming rather than that I might be trapped in some experimentation lab with my brain hooked up to some machines.
Yeah, when I panic, I really go to town.
With that, I set off… er… “exploring.” At first, I was running, and then walking after I got tired, and finally trudging along. I found no walls, no doors, not even a raised bit of ground that I could stumble on. It was hard to tell how much time had passed; as I trudged along I felt a weariness start to seep into my very being, like what I imagine my soul being sucked out slowly would feel. I was too frustrated and preoccupied with my thoughts to notice anything changing around me. When a voice sounded behind me, I promptly screamed in fear…to my endless shame.
I whipped around as fast as I could and found myself looking at a petite woman wearing a yellow sundress and sunhat, her face rather impassive except for one raised eyebrow that gave her dark eyes a rather irritated glint. The yellow stood out brilliantly against the bland background and I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her form.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Her voice was warm as honey, even though her eyes were narrowed slightly in exasperation with me, and I realized that she’d asked a question that I was yet to answer. I felt embarrassment flood my system and I opened my mouth to respond but my tongue suddenly felt like I was made from lead.
“Y-yeah. Um, s-sorry, what did you say?” I hadn’t stuttered since I was a child.
This was all quite bizarre; I mean, how do you respond to a stranger walking up behind you in a featureless, white room? Had she even walked up to me; I couldn’t tell. She might as well have just materialized out of thin air.
Her eyes locked onto mine as she sighed and I knew, I just knew that she had seen my thoughts. I didn’t think the situation could get any freakier.
“Look, I mean you no harm but considering how paranoid you can sometimes become, Justine, I’ll leave the decision-making to you. You can either co-operate and find out why you’re here, or I could just leave you to go back to your ridiculous panicking: your choice.”
Her warm voice did not match the irritation that was clear in her words and I opened my mouth to speak, only to be startled silent as another figure appeared before us. I staggered back in surprise as my heart started pounding in my chest.
No poofs, or smoke, or dramatic sounds; one second there was the white endless horizon and the next, a man stood before my eyes. He wasn’t what you’d call a looker – but not ugly either – with dark skin, brown eyes, flat nose, and an unremarkable physique. He was wearing black slacks and a blue button-down shirt that hung loose on his frame, with regular-issue black shoes. Average in all aspects except for the fact that, much like the woman who had appeared earlier, the colors of his clothes stood out richly and brilliantly against the bland white I’d grown used to and his eyes held a knowing look that made me shift uncomfortably.
“Oh good, you’re finally here,” the woman spoke, her eyes still locked on my face.
She hadn’t even flinched or looked away from me for a second; it’s like she knew he was going to appear exactly when he did.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
My voice didn’t come out in the strong tone I wanted it to and instead I sounded breathy and scared. They glanced at each other before turning to look back at me.
“I guess we better start with it then,” the man said with a sigh and a wave of his hand.
There was a flicker and suddenly I was standing in a boardroom, just like that, complete with a long imposing table and a bunch of chairs. Large windows at one end let in sunlight and a rather impressive view of Kampala city. The change was sudden and I felt nausea begin to build up in my system; I looked down, trying to take in deep, steadying breaths.
“Always so formal, Jonathan. Try something a little more calming,” I heard the woman say in her honeyed voice.
Another flicker and I found myself looking at a field of grass as a cool breeze wafted around me and the sounds of birds chirping and trees swaying drifted to me. My body’s response was almost immediate: the nausea began to subside as I breathed in the fresh air. I hadn’t realized it before, but there had been no currents of air, or natural sounds, in the white expanse; perhaps that’s why I’d felt so trapped.
“See? Sometimes a woman knows,” the honeyed tone came again.
“You’re as much a woman as I am a man, Doreen,” the man…er, Jonathan said before I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come, Justine, sit down.”
With the change in scenery, I felt almost euphoric and so I let Jonathan lead me to some garden chairs arranged around a marble table, with a jug of juice and some glasses on it. A giggle escaped me at the absurdity of the situation and I saw Jonathan look at the woman, exchanging a knowing look with her. Ignoring them, I sat down and took a deep steadying breath before I began my barrage of questions.
Jonathan, however, beat me to it.
“I’m sorry about this, Justine,” he began, eyes locked with mine, his expression sympathetic as he pulled a chair for himself opposite me. “I know you must be feeling overwhelmed.”
He paused, as if uncertain of how to continue.
“Perhaps before we begin, we should introduce ourselves. I am Jonathan,” he said with a small smile.
“I’m Doreen,” the woman said as she settled in a chair next to him. “We’ve been watching you for a while, my dear.”
“OK, that’s creepy,” I spoke, finally. My mind has a way of being inappropriate whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable. “Who are you and what do you want with me?”
They stared at me for a few seconds before exchanging another look. This was really beginning to irk me.
“We’re… celestial entities put in place to enforce specific, predetermined sequences,” Doreen said, smiling as if that was explanation enough.
“So, like aliens then,” I said, my voice surprisingly steady and flat.
I knew it!
“Goodness no,” she responded with a tinkling laugh, her teeth white and perfect. “Nothing like that; though I know that’s what you’ve been imagining since you got here.”
“We exist outside your universe and its laws,” Jonathan started before pausing. He looked around with a small frown on his face as if searching for inspiration before he continued. “We simply are, Justine. Birth and death don’t apply to us. Those are experiences tied to your reality, which is what we monitor. When I say ‘your’, I don’t mean you specifically, mind you, just the world… er… universe… reality which you come from.”
“So… not aliens, but like higher dimensional beings?” I suggested.
“Yes!” Jonathan said in excitement, clapping and grinning before he caught himself, and forced his face back to being impassive. “Not quite like that, but you’re getting the idea.”
“Well, if it’s not like that, then what is it like?” I asked irritably.
“Look, let’s not get hung up on the specifics otherwise we’ll be here for a while,” Doreen spoke up. “Like last time,” she added with a glance at Jonathan.
“Last time?” I asked, perking up.
“Right, we’ll get to that in a bit,” Jonathan said. “Let’s just say that we’re here to help you get your life back on track, Justine.”
“Excuse me? There’s nothing wrong with my life!” I couldn’t help the indignation in my tone.
The very nerve! I am a physiotherapist at a private hospital in Kampala and a damn good one at that. My work is often fulfilling and I enjoy it so where does this-
“He didn’t mean it like that, Justine,” Doreen spoke up, her warm voice interrupting my thoughts. “It’s just that you’ve been through a lot in the past few years and it has changed your outlook on life… changed what should have been and many people are going to suffer for that.”
Her words felt like a spear going through my chest. This was quickly turning into the kind of talk I didn’t want to be a part of.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was back to betraying me again, coming out weakly.
“You’ve become more nihilistic and uncaring… Cold,” Jonathan spoke up.
“That’s… That’s ridiculous. Where do you come off saying something like that?” I asked in indignation. “Even if that were the case – which it isn’t – my attitude affects only me. No one else suffers from it.”
“Except that’s not the case at all,” he responded, voice resolute and irking me further. “It has never been the case with anyone. Who you choose to be and what you do affects everyone around you and this is doubly the case with you.”
The discomfort within me was rising to a crescendo.
“I don’t think so.”
Yes, well, you’re wrong,” Jonathan said, not giving me a chance to utter anything else. “And you know that you are wrong. People look up to you, your fellow workmates value you highly, and your friends are always eager for your opinion. You’re a leader amongst your peers, Justine. Surely you know that.”
The rising discomfort coupled with the tone Jonathan was using, as if he was speaking with a petulant child, made me want to throw out a few curse words at him in anger. He hadn’t said anything antagonizing, not really anyway, yet there I was, wanting to punch him in his sympathetic face. Doreen took my right hand in both of hers, refusing to let it go when I tried to yank it back.
“We know this isn’t easy for you, Justine, but please, hear us out,” she cooed with an encouraging smile. “Your outlook on life has far-reaching consequences and that’s what we’d like to show you today.”
I forcefully extricated my hand from hers and glared at both of them.
“Fine, say what you want to say. It’s not like I have a choice anyway.”
They exchanged another look and I tried my best to not let it incense me further. I failed.
“You’ve grown up smart and talented… logical. That’s why you chose physiotherapy instead of going into math, because of the stability and versatility it granted you in Kampala, right?” Jonathan asked, looking at me with raised eyebrows like he expected an answer even though I could tell that he knew what I was going to say.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to become a teacher and I wanted time to work on my music,” I grumbled.
“Exactly, and that’s fine but I think that’s where the problem started – if I’m not wrong.” He hesitated. “Help me out here, Doreen.”
“Yes, you’re right, Jonathan. That’s where the problem began: With the idea that you couldn’t get all you wanted in life, that you had to compromise your deepest desires so that you could be happy.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I sputtered in shock. “It was the logical choice to make and look where I am, I like my work and I’m good at it. I’ve also had enough time to compose some songs I really like. There’s no problem with that!”
“The problem isn’t that you chose the medical route but rather, why you chose it, Justine,” Doreen continued, her voice as warm and honeyed as ever. “It was a simple idea at the time but you fed it and it grew into this ugly notion you have that you can’t have anything nice unless you sacrifice something important to you.”
“But that’s the way life works. There’s no guarantee that-”
“There are guarantees, sweetie, we make sure of that. Just like we’re here today trying to make sure that thousands of people don’t suffer simply because you don’t believe in yourself!” Doreen interrupted her tone sharper than it had been before. Her words burned a hole in my heart.
“You’re selling yourself piece by piece and allowing the hopeful, helpful, and human part of yourself to freeze into stone,” Jonathan said, his voice quiet.
“Look at the fiasco of a relationship you had with Bernard,” Doreen continued.
That got my attention.
“What do you mean ‘fiasco’? He is a nice guy and I pushed him away. Of course he had no choice but to break up with me and-”
“That relationship was never meant to happen,” Doreen said; her voice sharp again. “You had several unserious relationships and by the time Bernard came around, you just wanted to be loved. But there was something off. You could feel it and yet you ignored it – believing that you could never deserve more than him. Now look – look at how that relationship damaged you.”
Her words were tearing into me. All my secret thoughts spoken out loud and thrown back at me until I felt like my heart was bursting with the pain.
“You realize it now, don’t you? That he never really loved you? That he couldn’t love you the way you deserved to be, even if he tried. But he didn’t try, did he? Did he?!”
She was yelling at that point and my body responded the way it always did when these thoughts confronted me. I burst into tears.
“He did; HE DID!” I screamed; wanting to block her voice out. “He tried but I just wasn’t good enough… I just didn’t love him back enough! I’m just not good enough…”
I broke off sobbing. All the memories I’d tried to bury in the past eight months coming back fresh, tearing their way out of the boxes I’d packaged them in.
“He beat you!”
Flashes of him kicking me until I got a bruised spleen.
He was just frustrated with work and I had no right to deny him that night, no matter how tired I was. Also, he apologized for months after that and never hit me again.
“He stole from you!”
Flashes of the ATM telling me my funds aren’t sufficient.
He apologized and said he wanted the investment to be a surprise; that made sense.
“He manipulated you, Justine, for how long are you going to deny the truth?!”
At that point and I could barely see through the tears blurring my vision, but I heard Jonathan speak.
“Doreen, you’re taking it too far,” he admonished.
“Not far enough, Jonathan!” she snapped. “How many times do you want to steal her away at night as we try to convince her of the same thing over and over again? It’s time to try a new tactic!”
I saw Doreen’s form getting up and Jonathan yelled in warning, startling me for a second before I felt a hand close around my eyes as a sharp pain pierced into my head. I was sure I screamed in agony but I heard no sound and the pain disappeared as suddenly as it came. That’s when the images started flashing.
Hundreds of thousands of people with connections to each other and all of them leading back to me. People suffering because of actions I assumed were innocuous, all of which had their roots planted in my low self-esteem, or my inability to hope for the best. Life after life, flashing by me; some cut short before their time and others yanked from the paths they would have otherwise taken because I ignited some sort of self-destructive chain reaction.
Me refusing to apply for the promotion I knew was meant for me and someone without the right experience was promoted instead. Several clients suffered and the hospital got sued twice, as a result. Sheila, the nursing assistant in the surgical OPD. I’d had lunch with her almost every day, but didn’t think it was my place to comment on her depression until she attempted suicide but miscalculated the wrong dosage, and after having to live with severe kidney damage for a few months, died anyway. Natasha. She had been dealing with years worth of molestation as a child and alcohol had been her go-to pain relief. All the sexual jokes she kept making weren’t jokes at all but an attempt to depersonalize her fears. Oh God, and I’d practically yelled at her over her standoffish and unprofessional attitude at work. We’d even exchanged some unsavory words.
It was too much and it didn’t let up for a long while. I was not surprised that when the hand was finally lifted from my face, my cheeks were wet with tears and snot was freely running from my nose.
Jonathan cleared his throat and produced a handkerchief out of nowhere, handing it to me as he glared at Doreen. She, in turn, just walked back to her seat as if she hadn’t just completely devastated me. I worked at gulping in large breaths of air while Jonathan handed me a glass of juice which I took gratefully. They looked at me as I drank the juice, watching as tears occasionally slid down my face, and refusing to glance away. By the time the glass was empty, my nerves were frayed.
“What do I need to do?” I asked, my voice low and shaky.
“For starters, patch things over with Natasha. It’s important,” Doreen said, her tone back to being warm.
“She won’t resist, trust us,” Jonathan added with a small smile.
I nodded silently as another tear slid down my cheek.
“And be open to George.”
“Who?” I asked, frowning slightly at Doreen.
“You know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen him.” The image of hunky work guy entered my head.
“We just want you to be happy,” Jonathan said.
“I… I don’t think I can do that,” I began, my voice gaining some strength. “I understand what you’re saying but… I can be happy without a man, and you suggesting otherwise seems like the very opposite of everything you’ve just said to me.”
“He didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that there are certain paths that you ought to take, and well, George is one of them.”
It was hard to believe that the warm woman before me was the very same one who’d just devastated my world.
“No, thank you. What’s the worst that could possibly happen if I refuse him?”
I could feel irritation starting to rise again and Jonathan’s quiet chuckles weren’t helping at all.
“I’d really like to see you try and reject him. He was made for you and you were made for him,” he said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Doreen said, looking at me thoughtfully. “Situations like that are few but it’s true, you two were made for each other. He’s got massive game where you’re concerned.”
They were both grinning at that point and I felt a little unsettled. They couldn’t possibly be right.
“This is the most agreeable you’ve been all month,” Jonathan remarked after a short silence.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We’ve been at this for almost a month now, trying to convince you that you needed to change certain aspects of your life and now… Well… Thanks to Doreen’s unconventional methods, you seem more agreeable.”
“But I don’t recall any of that,” I spoke up in confusion.
“Yes, well, our aim is to affect the convictions you have deep within, not change your mind for you. So we never really leave you with the memories of these discussions,” he responded.
“Then I won’t remember this when I wake up?”
“No…but if we’ve succeeded, you’ll instinctively know what to do,” Doreen said. “I’m feeling good about our chances this time though…”
She faded off and I frowned, wondering if I was going deaf. Perhaps I am passing out, I thought, as my vision began to darken and I felt like I was falling into an abyss.
I jerked awake at the sound of my alarm clock and quickly turned it off. Oh God, it was 6 a.m. already? Damn! I scrambled out of bed; I had about 40 minutes before the city’s traffic jammed up and made me late for work. I’d had another one of those strange dreams that I couldn’t remember. But where I would normally wrack my brain trying to remember even a single scene from the dreams, I now found that it didn’t bother me much anymore. Plus, I really wanted to talk to Natasha, and I wanted to send her a text before I chickened out again.
Moving quickly, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and found the email icon flashing. I looked at my notifications and opened the one from work, quickly reading the body about the meeting we were having that day. There would be a short discussion about the new patient registration system the hospital had just installed, led by its creator, George…
My heart started pounding. The email barely registered as apprehension took a hold of me and I started feeling uneasy. Perhaps… perhaps I could call in sick for the day.