An excerpt from the novel.
I did finally drift off.
Will Arbuthnot wakes up on Monday morning to discover The Beatles never existed; they are a figment of his imagination. On Tuesday he learns his wife is married to another man and she doesn’t even recognize him. As the week progresses, more and more of his life is stripped away and changed. Time is running out. He only has until the end of the week to figure out what is happening to his dissolving universe. Thankfully in this world, he has Eight Days a Week!
Soldiers fall asleep in foxholes with death raining down around them all the time, so I guess I’m not that special. But things are not working like they usually do: the hot shower doesn’t instantly pry my eyes open, the first gulp of coffee doesn’t balance out the jangling rhythms I always feel first thing in the AM. I’m like a piano student without a metronome. On a bad acid trip.
I had a dream last night that keeps echoing in my head: Paul McCartney was performing for the Queen and forgot the words to Yesterday. Then his hands became transparent and he couldn’t touch the strings on his guitar. The look on his face was hard to describe. My interpretation? Surprise and yet acceptance. It was a horrid dream.
I got up and dressed myself purely out of habit this AM. I can feel myself dragging, reluctant to find out what surprises life has prepared for me today. I used to hear my dad mumbling to himself in the mornings, a mantra he used to use: ‘one foot in front of the other’, as if he was being shipped off to war. I know what he was thinking: I’ll be marching with the damned today.
I looked around the kitchen: everything seemed in place. Celia is already gone, usually out the door by seven. I typically pull out the garage by eight thirty. And Winter? She lives by a chaotic schedule of random classes and two part-time jobs, one as a short order cook at a local burger joint, the other in an office as a part-time receptionist/web designer. She was probably still sleeping, her favorite boots still laying by the door. I stared at them for a few moments. Was she the same daughter or had she been secretly switched like my wife? I didn’t get a chance to quiz her last night and after supper she disappeared into her room with a homework assignment. I would have guessed she knew something about the Beatles from her younger years, but of course now that awareness would all lay buried under an avalanche of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran songs. And a thousand modern manufactured pop bands with their computerized dance beats and auto corrected voices. Erasing the Beatles from history would be no loss to Winter.
But of course, the real issue is I suspect I’m mentally ill and need help. I’m surprised there wasn’t a note on the fridge or a text from Celia with a referral to a recommended psychiatrist. The problem is, I don’t feel that bad. A little fuzzy headed, but weirdly full of nervous energy: like I can work this whole thing off. Maybe I should head to the gym today; put in a heavy workout on the track and the weight room. Maybe that will straighten me out and save the two hundred an hour the referral would cost. So I grabbed my gym bag from the front closet.
The drive to work was uneventful. I don’t know what I expected; I don’t typically listen to oldies on the radio in the car, a rough mix of talk radio and Sirius stand-up comedy or a podcast on the current business world. So I won’t be forced to wonder today what Paul McCartney is up to right now, if he still exists.
I sit at my office desk for two hours, going through the motions, fighting the urge to dive back into the Internet like some desperate cyber detective trying to track down John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi. If John became a famous artist, where was Paul then? Hard to imagine in some alternative reality that his obvious talent wouldn’t shine through in some way. But what do I know about reality and luck and causation? He could be a music teacher somewhere or a busker – or an average Joe working on the Liverpool docks. Maybe luck plays a bigger part in the music biz than we realize. If Paul had never met John, the sparks wouldn’t have flown and fate would have dealt them completely different hands.
I sent the information over to my client by email regarding Eleanor Rigby, future CEO, with my glowing notes and left for the gym. The Wellness center is a short drive of about fifteen minutes if you know the shortcuts and hit the lights right. The goal is to hit the running track before noon when the place fills up with business people on their lunch break. I parked near the back of the building so I could leave without fighting the congestion of a hectic parking lot and jogged to the front door. My security pass was attached by a nylon cable to my gym bag.
At the entry gate, past the admission desk, I passed the magnetic card over the reader waiting for the beep of acceptance. I looked down when I heard nothing and was surprised by a throbbing red light. I tapped the card on the reader surface again. Still no beep. I turned back to the Admission desk, my eyes catching the wall clock on the way. Ten to twelve. Time is wasting. Pretty soon I’ll be up to my armpits in middle managers racing for the best workout equipment.
The woman behind the counter had her head down. I turned and walked up to the counter.
“Hi, I seem to be having trouble with my card.” She smiled and put her hand out: sign language for just give me the card, dummy. I untied the lanyard and passed the card over.
“Oh!” she chirped, twitching like the card gave her a tiny shock. “This isn’t our card. I guess that’s why it doesn’t work.” She handed it back. The card was white with a blue logo and the gym name in block letters Western Wellness.
“I’ve been a member here for years”, I said, sheepishly, still staring at the card. A chill was beginning to spread across my chest.
“Sorry. This is Fitness City. She pointed up to the back lit sign behind her: a green background with a stylized runner forming the ‘t’ in both words. Nothing at all like my security card.
I peered up at the sign again, squinted, stared down again at my card. That cold wave had now crept up into my shoulders and was crawling up my neck like a venomous snake searching for pulse.
I was embarrassed. What a stupid mistake. But I was also angry beyond words. And it felt like any minute my knees would give in and I would collapse on the floor. I had to do something to prevent that.
“Do you have a day pass?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s fifteen dollars.” I pulled a twenty out of the side pocket of the bag and handed it over. I noticed my hand was shaking. The icy cold had hit my legs and now extended out to my fingers.
She passed me my change, a day card, and a towel. Somehow I made it through the turnstile and down the stairs to the mezzanine without passing out. Because I felt like it was about to happen.
Fight or flight or freeze or faint: those were the four options animals face when exposed to an existential threat. Besides feeling nauseous, I almost pissed myself at the front door. That’s not on the list, but it still felt damn serious.
I sat down on a chair by the bulletin board. This gym looked exactly like my gym: same running track on the second floor, same exercise machines lined up against a wall of windows. I checked out the users. I recognized other members, people I had seen before, regulars and staff. It wasn’t like I had wandered into the wrong facility like a doddering old fool. I wasn’t lost. But if they just changed the name recently, there would be no reason the woman behind the counter wouldn’t have informed me of the change. This must be me again; me and my less than perfect mind stuttering and stalling.
Again, it occured to me: I needed help. Maybe there was a drug, maybe a therapy that could get me back on track.
I watched a guy without a single ounce of body fat torture himself on a fancy treadmill with a control panel like the cockpit of a 747. Go ahead, buddy. Work out all you want. Get a perfect body. But when the brain goes, all that primed muscle and heart and lungs are just useless luggage for a trip to nowhere.
I pushed myself up and headed for the lockers. That icy hand was still squeezing my heart, but the urge to empty my bladder on the floor had thankfully passed.
Then Tom walked past me. Right past me. Our eyes even met. I blurted out his name, surprised that he hadn’t smiled or acknowledged me. I’d known him since the gym opened. We shared a spin class once a week.
He turned back. “Hey, man. How’s it going?”
I watched his eyes. There was something missing. Without thinking, I blurted out an accusation that shocked me.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Tom blushed slightly, smiled in embarrassment. “Sorry, buddy. This is a big club. I might have seen you around. Just being friendly.”
“So you’ve never seen me here before?”
“Are you new? Do you need someone to show you around?” He touched my shoulder which made me flinch.
“No, I’ve been a member for a while. I’ve been in your spin class.”
“Well, that’s interesting, but I’ve never taken a spin class. I’m really only here for the Pickle ball and the steam room. You must have me confused me with another member.” Then he turned and left, tapping his Pickle ball paddle against his thigh as he made his way to the courts, the back of his neck still pink.
I stumbled into the changing rooms, feeling sick again, needing to lie down. The scale of my delusion was expanding; the realization was like a physical blow. I sat down on one of the change benches and hung my head.
I’ve imagined a cultural phenomena: the Beatles, a hallucination of sorts that has lasted most of my life and involves dozens of my friends and family. That’s hard to absorb. But this? I’ve imagined a gym membership?
I could hear the sounds around me: the spray of hot showers, flushing of toilets, locker doors banging, the slapping of bare feet on ceramic tile. Was this real? Was I even here? What could I trust? What sensations were grounded in the real world? I felt my head, ran my fingers through my hair. It felt so real, so substantial. I tugged on my ear lobe hard. Pain. That had to be authentic. But the dizziness I felt – was it psychosomatic? How would I know?
I changed slowly, like it was my last day at the gym forever, folding my clothes with special care, feeling the texture of the cloth sliding through my fingers, the weight of my shoes.
This was me, whatever that was. And always has been. I am my height and weight, now six feet tall, about twenty pounds overweight, short brown hair, slightly thinning at the top, no grey yet, facial growth that’s sketchy at best, patchy. I’m never going to grow a beard unless I end up homeless on the street. Which is now a distinct possibility.
What’s that expression? We’re all just three bad breaks away from living in a cardboard box? My psychosis is break number one. But a big one, a gateway. A lot of mentally ill people end up homeless, unable to manage their finances, shunned by their families, unable to work. Was that me yet? Should I see a doctor, confide in my friends, come out of the closet?
I took forever tightening the laces on my Nikes, patient with every loop, like neatness counted in this upside down world I had entered. When I finally stood up, the nausea had vanished. Physically, I was fine, in fact that nervous frisson of energy was back, the urge to run. I headed immediately to the track and took to the passing lane. No warm up. I shot around the first few laps, my spirits improving. If this was all a delusion, it was a wonderful example, running effortlessly, no knee pain, dodging in and around the joggers and the walkers with practiced ease. I picked up the pace. It felt like I was running better than usual, burning up the distance. I hadn’t felt this good in weeks. I ran four miles like that until a warm exhaustion took hold and I felt my calves fill with lactic acid. I slowed down, wiped my forehead.
I decided then I would see someone, an expert on mental health issues. Not a psychologist or a therapist; I was going to keep this away from Celia because that would open up a whole new world of referrals and examinations and appointments and experimental drugs. I was going to go direct to the source and I was doing it this afternoon.