“There and Not”

The trick was knowing what was real, that’s what Mark figured.

It wasn’t a dangerous thing.  It’s not like he heard voices telling him to kill or that they were all out to get him or anything crazy like that.  He just heard music when there was no music.  That was all.  It was just music.

Mark liked music.  The phantom music wasn’t disturbing since he liked music.  Whenever he shut off the radio, the music lingered, like it was echoing in his brain.  He heard the song keep playing when he knew the radio wasn’t singing a note.  It was a little strange at first, but it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t scary.  It was just odd.  It was just music.

And sometimes he heard it without any influence from the radio.

Mark checked the radio every time.  He’d check all of the televisions in the house for the muffled tune playing in his head.  The music was never loud.  It was always soft, somewhere far away, just the melody, never the words.  It didn’t come from the radio.  It didn’t come from any of the television sets.  It didn’t come from his iPod or his computers.  It didn’t come from anywhere but his brain.

Sometimes Mark recognized the tune, like an old friend calling to him across a crowded room.  He knew the face, but couldn’t remember the name.  Other times, it was a song he didn’t know and he wasn’t sure if his brain was making it up or if maybe he did hear it once, a long time ago, and the echo of it finally made it through the maze of his subconscious to the surface.

But it was only music and Mark liked music.

He liked cats, too.  Maybe that’s why he saw them in his house even though he didn’t own one.

Like the music, it wasn’t a dangerous thing.  It was just cats, glimpsed suddenly or out of the corner of his eye as he walked past doorways or sat on the couch watching TV.  Mark didn’t know enough about cats to know names of the different breeds, but he knew he saw different ones.  He saw the black one in the dining room, the gray tiger-striped one when he watched TV, and the brown, white, and black patchwork looking one whenever he walked through the kitchen.

They weren’t demonic cats or anything.  They didn’t have glowing red eyes, they didn’t hiss at him, they didn’t lurk.  They were just plain old imaginary cats that hurried from point A to point B, a flash in his eye.  In a way, they kind of kept Mark company.  He lived alone and insomnia made for long nights.  His brain decided to give him a few pets to make those hours interesting.  Oh, Mark saw them during the day sometimes, too, but he really appreciated them popping up at night, when he was at his most lonely.

Unlike the music, Mark never thought the cats were real.  There was never any confusion.  He never scoured his house looking for some stray that somehow managed to get inside without his knowledge.  He knew they were figments of his brain and somehow, that comforted him.  The cats didn’t cause any confusion.

The tastes caused the most confusion.

When peach yogurt tastes like onion rings for the first three bites, it can’t be anything other than confusing.  Mark had the most trouble with the tastes.  Biting into an apple and tasting cheese, eating a green bean that tasted like caramel, the macaroni and cheese suddenly tasting like something other than macaroni and cheese, but he just couldn’t place it, all of that made mealtime an adventure.

Again, it wasn’t dangerous.  Of all of the perception problems he had, Mark would be the first to say that it was the most annoying.  He’d get his mouth set for cheesecake and his brain would give him ham.  Weird and disconcerting, maybe, but it didn’t stop him from eating, as his extra bit of belly attested.

Okay, Mark agreed that he might run a higher risk of getting food poisoning since he couldn’t be sure if something was spoiled.  Sometimes the meat tasted off for a few bites and he couldn’t be sure if it was him or the meat.  He usually figured that if he got sick, then he’d know for sure that it was the meat.  Mark paid close attention to expiration dates, but they weren’t set in stone.  A few days, a week past the date and the food could still be good.  More than once he’d opened a fresh gallon of milk, weeks away from suddenly curdling into cottage cheese, and it would taste like it was going to take a bad turn in the next day or two.  It wouldn’t and it would taste fine the next time he drank it, but it never failed to give him pause and make him wonder.

The taste thing was definitely annoying, but not dangerous, not really.  None of Mark’s little issues were dangerous and he got used to living life with them.  They didn’t scare him.  They became part of him at some point, no different than having brown hair or liking baseball.  He thought of them as quirks, really.  Never once did he think he was crazy.  He wasn’t crazy.  If he was crazy, then he wouldn’t realize that what he was seeing and hearing and tasting wasn’t real.  But he knew they weren’t real.  So, he wasn’t crazy.  His brain was just interesting, that was all.

And then something new started to happen.

The music began to fade.  Mark had grown so used to it lingering after he turned off the radio that the first time he turned it off and heard silence it scared him.  He turned the radio on and off a few times to see if maybe the music in his mind just missed its cue.  But it didn’t play.  It stopped playing at random times without any provocation.  It stopped playing all together.  That really bothered Mark.  He liked music.

Then the cats disappeared.  Mark kept looking for them, but one by one they faded from his vision.  The black one.  The gray tiger striped one.  The black, brown, and white patchwork one.  They stopped skittering in the corner of his eye, crossing his path at lightning speed in the middle of the night.  Mark hoped they’d come back, but they didn’t.  They vanished, just like real stray cats have a tendency to do.

Finally, his food started to taste as it should, which bothered him least of all.  Sure it took some of the excitement out of eating, but it was nice to realize the milk was actually spoiled when it tasted that way and to have cheesecake taste like cheesecake.

But he missed the music and the cats.  He didn’t know how to get them back.  His house became so quiet and lonely without them.  Mark wandered from room to room, pacing as he chewed his left thumbnail to the bloody bits, insomnia almost unbearable without his ghostly music and little kitty phantoms.  The number of friends he invited over couldn’t squash the ache of loneliness left by the absence of his imaginary cats; the volume of the radio wasn’t loud enough to fill the silence left by his missing mind music.  Mark felt lost, hopelessly lost without them both.

He quickly adapted to food tasting like food, though, even if he didn’t have much interest in eating it.  Mark lost his appetite along with everything else.

He hoped it was just temporary, that his music and his cats would come back.  But they didn’t.  His brain had abandoned him instead, choosing to be normal and condemning him to a life of silence and loneliness and boredom.

Sometimes, late at night, when the insomnia had abated for a while and he was just about to fall asleep, Mark would strain his hearing to catch a few distant notes of his mind’s music, but he never heard anything.  The music didn’t play anymore.  The cats didn’t skitter anymore.

Normality descended on Mark’s life and he did his best not to let it ruin him.  He forced himself to get on with his life and eventually, his appetite returned.  That was his only consolation.

At least the milk tasted okay.


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