It began in the dark.
First, there was sound. It slid across his skin like honey, his mind dizzy from the steady vibration of it. It was distant now, yes, but growing closer, louder, more refined. He felt his limbs stretch, unused and eager in the swirling dark, and he knew he could stand, could walk, could run if need be. But he did not. Instead, staring mindlessly into the blank horizon, he chose to remain still and silent, legs crossed and naked in the blinding gloom.
He could listen now – and in that moment he knew it to be different from hearing, harder, more civilised. The sound that had brought him here was almost discernible now, a soft hum bubbling with… words.
He stood. A sharp breeze danced across the beads of sweat on his skin, and he raised one sole in the air, ready to walk. He felt it dangle helplessly there for a moment before it met again with the ground, Thmp. Again. Shaky steps tugged him forward, toward the voice as it spoke.
“Don’t be scared. Come on, come here.”
There was harmony in the echo that bounced all about him, and it made him suddenly drowsy with the weight of it’s sound. His eyelids fluttered, and he felt the edge of his mouth twitch.
A mouth! He had a mouth! Cautiously, he pulled back his lips, exposing a full set of teeth, and prodded them with an index finger. Soft. Wet. He moved his tongue, pushing it through the gap between his teeth.
“Speech will come,” lulled the voice. “Come. Let me look at you.”
Unsure, he stretched his fingers out before him, splayed and trembling, but he continued. One foot, then the other. This was walking. Running. Movement.
“Yes, you’re doing quite well. Keep going.”
He was so close now. The voice was like thunder in his ears – but what was thunder? He felt it in his mind’s eye, all slick rain splashes against muddy kneecaps, the horrible moan of the sky sending shivers down his spine. But he had never felt water brush his skin, or heard a sound that was not the Voice.
“It’s alright. I know it’s all, well, a bit alarming right now. But you’re doing just fine.”
“I am?” He scratched his head – or what he suddenly knew to be his head. Staring down in a strange concoction of awe and horror at his own chipped fingernails, he stood in silence for only a moment before continuing. “Who am I?”
“Self awareness! Bingo!” And suddenly, there was a sound like thunder overhead, but it seemed… different. Not thunder. Less hostile, less primal.
“Did you just clap?”
There was another sound, a kind of hmph. It sounded smug. “You’re smarter than I intended.” A breath. “I did. You’ll learn soon enough that that’s how people express that they’re impressed. Well, one of the ways, at any rate. Now, hold on. This might be a little disorientating.”
And then, there was light. Not much of it, only a tiny sliver of silver pooling at his feet now, but it was growing, splashing out across the ground, tickling the tops of his thigh, and it didn’t seem to be stopping. He watched it with wide eyes and a slackened jaw, taking care to note how the pale illumination cast shadows across his skin, across the floor.
“This is your place now. Your home. I’ve decided to drop you in the city, if that’s alright.” There was a cough. “I hope you like it. I decided Glasgow would be easiest.”
“Glaz-go.” He turned his tongue around each vowel, feeling them sit like foreign objects in his mouth. “It sounds pleasant.”
“It is. City of Culture in… oh, I can’t remember the year. Doesn’t matter. Setting isn’t crucial to the plot.”
The Voice ignored him. It continued. “Now, if you’ll just give me a second. There! Is that any better?”
Suddenly, the space flooded with light. Wide-eyed, he drank in every colour, every shape, every thing. And there were so many of them! Yellowing copies of much-read books, a disused guitar leaning precariously against a 1970s radiator, a series of crumpled newspapers spread across a blue quilt cover. He ran, entranced, around every edge of the room, touching everything, growing more and more excited as his fingertips skirted each new surface.
“I’ll take that as a thank you, shall I?”
He looked up, eyes expectant. Surely if he could see everything else…
“Sorry, kid. There’s only so much of a fourth wall break I’m willing to do.”
“Oh.” He hung his head, staring hopelessly at his feet – which, he noted, were now covered in a pair of heavy leather boots. A brief glance in the mirror to his left reflected back a similar transformation body-wide. A scruffy haired boy with full lips and dark eyes stared at him from under a thin grey hood, knuckles stuffed into the pockets of creased jeans. And he it was him. He could not place why, but he knew it instantly. Just like the thunder.
Once more, he asked the question. “Who am I?”
“Well, I was going to call you Julien… I don’t think it’ll quite fit though. I don’t suppose you have any suggestions?”
He thought for a moment. “I like Ezra.”
Again, the floor quaked as the thunder-applause echoed all about. “Ezra it is. Ezra Jacob Johnstone, aged… hm, twenty three, maybe? Grew up in a small village, didn’t like it at all. Moved here with your mother when she got a new job.”
“Aren’t you my mother?”
“Oh.” The voice sounded uneasy. “No. I mean, in a way, but no. I’m just… look, we can get onto that later. Your mother is more like this. Here.”
And that was all. Suddenly, his mind was full of flashing images, memories and sensations and feelings. He saw his mother’s freshly braided hair, felt it slip between his fingers as he admired it, stretching on his toes to reach even the ends. All about him he could smell freshly baked rolls, parmesan and tomato, and saw the moonlight stubbornly spilling between the curtains as she put him, sternly, back to bed. He remembered her doting smile gazing up at him with pride, his terrible attempts to tie his own tie being put to rights by her patient hands. He saw it all – every moment they’d spent together, how she’d cried when he’d been dragged home by the police, the sharp notes of her singing as she did away with his dishes.
I didn’t ask you do anything.
I know, son. But I did it anyway.
“Of course, you’ll need more than just a mother,” the voice was saying.
And then there was Jude and Rosanna and Chris, the four of them trapped in an elevator for two hours one foggy November night, swapping stories about how much they’d hated high school. Chris’ stupid Nic Cage phase. Rosanna throwing up in someone else’s bath, clutching at his shoulder for support. And Jude, her soft lips pressed against his so hesitantly – a surprise, he hadn’t known. Her feverish apologies. God Ez, I’m so sorry… Things with Britney…I’ve been… Look, I’m so sorry.’
He’d forgiven her, of course, not that there was anything to forgive. They’d gone back to being friends, only that, and when he told her about Natasha, she’d hugged him fiercely, protectively.
If she breaks your heart, I’ll break her face.
“How?” Ezra asked out loud, pulled reluctantly from his trance. “Before, I didn’t… There was only you and now… Now I’ve always known them. People I love, people I would die for. How?”
“I wouldn’t look too much into it. It’s a bit… meta, if I’m honest.”
“Then…” He clapped his knee with his right hand, chewing his lower lip in agitation. “Then if you won’t tell me how, why?”
“I suppose I didn’t have much else to do. And I like stories.” There was something of a shrug about the way the voice spoke now. “You really are full of questions. I suppose I can’t blame you too much for that. Probably my fault.”
“I’m a… I’m a story?” He looked down again at his hands, at the cat scratches and pale blue veins – ‘a heroine addict’s dream,’ Rosanna had commented once. “But I can feel. I can taste. I can think and feel and speak.” He shook his head, fiercely. “How can I be just a story?”
“Hold on. There’s nothing just about a story.”
“But what’s my purpose? What’s the meaning of my existence?”
“Look, I don’t mean this badly, but I really think you should take a philosophy class instead of asking me these things. I don’t know. I’m just trying to write something fun.”
“Fun? My entire life is just for… fun?” He furrowed his eyebrows, lips parted. “Is that my purpose? Am I some great cosmic jester?”
“Take. A. Philosophy. Class.” There was exasperation now, dripping down the walls like invisible steam. “I mean it. This isn’t my problem. I’m just the backstory guy. I just y’know, make up the main plot.”
“My life isn’t a plot.”
“I’m afraid it kind of is, buddy.” A pause, a resignation. “Look. You want a big conclusion? The meaning of your universe?”
Eagerly, he nodded.
“Alright, alright. I suppose I’m the one who made it, so if you’re going to ask anyone, it may as well be me.”
“Look, not now, okay? One thing at a time. Right. The meaning of your universe, let’s see…” There was the distant sound of tapping. Nails against wood. “Okay, well… Honestly, I’m going to level with you here. This is a lot harder than I thought it’d be, justifying existence and all that. I mean, why do you need some grand purpose? Some hidden meaning? Can’t you just be satisfied with living as you are, with laughter and sloppy mistakes and getting overexcited by every dog you meet at the park? That’s not a necessarily bad existence, you know. I don’t understand people who say surviving and living are different, because that sort of thinking leads you to draw a line. Who’s living. Who’s just existing. And honestly, it’s dumb. Everyone’s living, because everyone has moments where they feel wholly and truly alive at some point or another. You know?”
He shuffled his feet. “Are you, um, telling me that there’s not, well, really a point to my existence? To my story?”
“I’m saying I don’t understand why the story can’t justify itself without having some stupid higher purpose. Stories are stories. Comforting or horrifying or pointless. They’re stories. I’d like to let them be just that.”
“None of this is very comforting, you know.” Ezra shrugged. “I just thought, what with being brought into existence and all…”
There was an inaudible and yet quite distinct eyeroll. “Take a philosophy class. This isn’t my job.”