Every time I fall asleep I wake up in a different body.
Every time I wake up I know one thing and one thing only. Everything that follows starts from that one thing, the only thing that matters, and what matters is who we are and who we want to be, because no one else can ever be the we for me.
I snap awake and know one thing.
I am a hero I am a terrorist.
A wrinkled old hand shakes my wrist again. This is what woke me this time, in this new body, this odd body, and because I am disoriented, I slap the hand away, try to jump to my feet to run, but, because it is a new body, a body unfamiliar, I trip and fall.
I hit the carpet, with one arm fortunately flopped under my face. My drool-slicked cheek comes to rest on my wrist. A stuffed toy—a threadbare dog—spills from my fingers. My stomach wants to spill on the floor beside it.
The same wrinkled hand reaches for me again. My head rolls sideways, so I can look up the arm’s bony brown length. At the other end is an old Indian woman in an orange sari, with gray hair braided down to her waist. Worry furrows her brow and a tiny fear is planted in her eyes. She speaks a language I don’t understand.
“I am a hero I am a terrorist,” I whisper.
It’s the one and only thing I know. Everything that follows starts with that one piece of knowledge. Even so, I have enough sense to mumble the final word. Because I’ve been here before, must have been here immediately before, in the body before. So I have an awareness, immediately aware of the something-in-the-airness.
Voices buzz in half a dozen languages. Announcements in English and Spanish sound through an intercom. Feet rush past, fleeing suitcases on tiny wheels down long corridors. Something roars.
Right. Definitely not the place to share that I am a hero I am a terrorist. Too many civilians here, but no one clear to know, not even security. Our only real security will come from the IPAE protocol: infiltrate, penetrate, assassinate, extricate.
So I can’t let them find out I have the infill trait.
Only five to ten seconds have passed. I slap my face, pinch my cheek with rough uneven fingernails—who is this person who chews their fingernails?—trying to shift from inert to alert, sickly to quickly, to remember where I am, who I was.
I came to La Guardia Airport in New York with a ticket to London. I want to go to England because the only person who can help me is Dr. Anna Backer, at All Souls College in Oxford. I’ve read her research on identity. She can explicate the infill trait, help me sublimate, eradicate . . .
The old Indian woman snatches the dog and leapfrogs back like I might attack. She can’t know that I won’t harm her because she has no armor. My arm. The one that’s down, it’s thin and brown. I realize I’m a young Indian boy, an age between ten and fourteen. A fresh sheen of sweat forms on my skin.
I roll over, pat my shirt, my pockets—I no longer have a ticket, an ID, any money. It makes me sick; it’s not me, not funny.
The old lady may have them for me, or for the boy who was her grandson, who’s undone, now that he’s me. She steps back, her face still more worry than fury. I could try to reason with her. Or, better, I could ignore her and try to find my prior body—
An emergency cart, red light spinning, alarm beeping.
My heart races, I fumble afoot, stumble apart. The cart parks one gate over, where I notice a superfluity of Transportation Security Administration agents. They are not transporting anything, they aren’t secure, and they don’t have agency. What they have is their hands on their hips, inflated looks of self-importance, and a body lying on the floor.
My prior body, alas, nobody any more.
His name was Konrad Jerzy, and he was a data warehousing expert being sent to England to consult for a client, or so I guessed from the papers I found in his room. He pushed himself too hard, lived constantly on the edge of exhaustion. I was only in his body for nine and a half hours.
They won’t be able to wake him up again.
I’m sorry that he’s dead. Not that he was a particularly good or bad man, but he could have been useful to me. Once I had identified him in the hotel airport last night, I had to move quickly to seduce him with a red-headed call girl that I drugged to fall asleep at the moment I could no longer keep my prior body’s prior body’s prior body.
Sometimes I have to wire the prior so it doesn’t tire.
Konrad Jerzy needed fire. Goddamned Konrad Jerzy. Damned in fact, but no god and no good, and his damned no-good connecting flight to London through Montreal. I knew I should have tried for someone with a direct flight out of JFK. But beggars can’t be choosers, and because I chose poorly I’m about to be a loser.
The old Indian woman is not in my way, but I knock her down just for spite, and stroll casually toward the security checkpoint.
My body is light on its feet, fleet, discreet, and full of energy. It has been a lifetime since I have been a twelve-year-old boy, a boy between ten and fourteen. A lifetime, and that was in my own body, a dozen priors ago, a dozen times asleep, all since my breakout, the fakeout, the takeout that set me free from the training cell at Langley.
The TSA agents glance up as I pass, but for the moment they are more interested in the man who fell asleep in his chair and died. It’s as if they know that airport seats are designed to be so uncomfortable that no one could ever fall asleep in one, and that way no one could ever fall asleep and die in one, and so what they have witnessed, in finding Jerzy’s dead body, is not only unfortunate but ought to have been impossible.
If they want to know impossible, they should walk with, talk with me.
Behind me, the old woman shouts “Anand!”
A small Indian girl, maybe five or six runs after me, shouting the same name. So that is my name now. Anand, Anon, Anonymous, Anandymous. I like it.
Nearing the checkpoint, one of the TSA agents, an overweight black woman with a friendly smile and a clear intent to be helpful, steps in front of me, waving her hands. “Hold on, honey. Hold on. If you go out that gate I can’t let you back in—”
I dodge her and dash through.
I hear the old woman shouting, and now the TSA agent starts shouting, and I could shout too as I weave in and out of the crowd trying to get lost because I know I’m in trouble. I have committed to a course of action with limited options, in a concourse with limited exits and zero hiding places. They have to be designed that way because of terrorists of heroes.
The intercom crackles overhead. “Will Anand Mukherjee please report to the nearest Transportation Security Administration Agent?”
Well fuck me.
I duck when I see heads stretch over the crowds to look for me. I fall in beside a laughing family making their way toward the exit.
A little boy, maybe two years old, in a Mets ball cap, stares over his mother’s shoulder at me. His eyes are wide with fear. He sees. Little children haven’t yet learned to be trapped in their own bodies yet, so they can see someone else who also isn’t trapped.
Don’t fall asleep, I want to tell him in a singsong voice. Don’t ever fall asleep around me. I’ll steal your body and throw your soul away.
“There he is,” a voice shouts behind me.
Three security guards have spotted me. They’re spreading out to surround me.
A large TSA agent speaks into the radio on his shoulder like he’s a real cop. More will be coming so I need to act fast.
They’re treating me like a terrorist like a hero.
Fortunately I have been training to be a hero be a terrorist. They don’t know that I exist, and they don’t know what they don’t know, and so they can’t see I’ve got to go.
I push through the family, pinching the mother with the baby so she almost drops him. Maximum screaming and confusion results. The father is carrying a bunch of bags and has some larger rugrats hanging onto his sleeves. He yells but has no chance to catch me. Instant traffic jam slams the corridor.
Fleet, discreet, light on my feet. Heads are turning toward the commotion, and turning toward me in motion, from every direction but one. A young woman totters along in 4-inch heels and talks too intently on her cellphone to see me coming up behind her.
Even in heels she’s not much taller than I am. I bump into her and grab the phone as I run past.
“Sorry,” I say to the stranger on the phone, just before I hang up. “Jimmy doesn’t live here any more.”
My voice sounds young and strangely accented.
Poor Anand. I’m sure he had such a promising future.
I hop down an escalator and hurry through baggage claim.
An exit opens ahead of me like the promise of a better life, like the chance to make a difference in the world, and I sprint for it.
A massive hand closes on my shoulder. The thumb screws down like a vise in the blade.
Twisting free doesn’t work, so I scream. “Rape!”
“What? I’m not—”
He’s almost shocked enough to let go, but he doesn’t. It was worth a try. Still is. “He’s trying to molest me! Rape! Rape! Somebody help me! Help!”
A whole crowd responds. A group of corn-fed white boys built like factory-assembled offensive linemen from a major college football team come over to see what the brown-skinned security man is doing to the little brown-skinned boy.
I reach down, grab the guard’s nuts, and twist them like a bottle cap.
He squeals and lets go.
I stagger away from him, shouting, “Oh my god, he touched me, mommy, help me! Did you see him touch me? Help!”
Everyone looks at him.
I slip between them and run out the automatic doors. Down the sidewalk, past a long row of windows.
My reflection keeps pace with me, only the face with me isn’t Anand Mukherjee. It’s the haggard face of another young man, starved for light and fed on speed, a face of need, the babyface of the volunteer who wanted to serve his country in the war on terror. The face of a zero of an error.
I give the other me a little wave, a little grin, a whisper. “Hi, Jimmy.”
Jimmy scowls back. Jimmy never smiles.
Jimmy was a soldier who answered a call and went to Langley to learn the protocol. IPAE: infiltrate, penetrate, assassinate, extricate. It all starts with the I that is not I only, the I that can pass as a we. Jimmy was the prototype for the protocol, the only one of the recruits who could demonstrate the I-into-we, who had the infill trait.
Then it’s bye-bye, Jimmy. I dodge cabs and cars, skip across the road—literally skip across the road, since I’m a 12-year-old Indian boy and Indian boys skip, don’t they?—to the parking garage, where I scurry down a level, crouch low, and zigzag through the maze of SUVs.
Off in a corner, I sag against a tire.
I’m tired, suddenly so tired. Anand shouldn’t be tired. But I am tired, I’ve been on the run for three weeks through a dozen prior bodies, and I don’t dare fall asleep. Every time I fall asleep I wake up in a different body. Every time I fall asleep someone ends up dead.
So far none of the dead have been a target that I was supposed to infiltrate, in a group that I should penetrate so that I could assassinate to make America safer. They’ve just been ordinary Americans, innocent Americans, white and yellow, black and brown, they all fall down, the men and women, young and old, all go cold.
They’re collateral damage. Collateral, which is like what you give to a bank to get a loan. I think they’re the price we pay to the bankers as security to have security . . .
My head hurts. I have to stop thinking when the thinks stop making sense. Sweat drips from my hair and fills my eyes with salty water. It stings and it flows into my eyes and it flows out of my eyes and it stings.
When I wipe my forehead, I notice blood under my fingernails. Where did I get the blood?
Bloody Dr. Backer, think I, in an English accent. English patient, English eager. I still hold the phone I stole. And I know Dr. Backer’s number. I enter it with my sweaty, bloody, nail-chewed finger.
The phone on the other end rings. I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does.
“The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.”
The woman’s English accent nearly makes me orgasm. I say, “Oh, oh, oh!”
I’m hilarious. I have charm. Charm disarms people, and a soldier, a spy, has to be able to disarm people. That’s one of the reasons why I was chosen to be an infiltrator.
After a pause, probably to laugh, the woman says, “I beg your pardon.”
“Sorry. I need Dr. Anna Backer.”
“May I tell her who’s calling?”
“I need bloody Dr. Backer right now!”
There’s silence on the other end and I’m afraid that she’s hung up, but a moment later comes the familiar voice, the soothing voice, the moving voice.
“James,” she says.
I don’t like that name. When I was James, I was never James, I was Jimmy, I was corporal, I was shit-for-brains. But Jimmy’s gone, he’s gone daddy gone, has been gone ever since the day he woke up I woke up in someone else’s body. James was a good soldier, but he died when he didn’t wake up. He died an error a zero so that I could wake up a hero a terrorist.
“James,” Dr. Backer says, “you frightened our student.”
“Terror reaches, but fear teaches,” I say. “Did the student learn something from being frightened? Tell me what she learned, Dr. Backer.”
“The only reason I’m taking this phone call from you is because I’m worried you may hurt yourself or someone else.”
“It doesn’t hurt. I told you, it never hurts. I fall asleep in one body, I wake up in another. I feel sick when I wake up, and sometimes I even throw up, but—”
“I don’t want you to hurt anyone else, James.”
“It can’t hurt anyone else. They just fall asleep and then they don’t wake up. I told you, it doesn’t hurt.”
There is a pause. Clearly, she is accepting the reason of what I say. I know it’s hard to believe, but the logic is inescapable. “James,” she says finally. “You know that what you’re describing is impossible.”
“Why is it impossible?” I shout. “Consciousness is nothing but data, zeros and ones in a biological wet drive. It’s just like moving the contents from one computer to another over a wireless connection. You know quantum physics, Dr. Backer—we’re all part of a giant wireless connection called the universe.”
“Those are metaphors—”
I don’t blame her for saying that—I know they’re making her say that—but I don’t have time to let her finish. “They’re not just metaphors any more. I have the infill trait. My consciousness can jump from one wet drive to another. Just like you write about in your papers. That’s why I need your help.”
She pauses again. “I agree that you do need help.”
“I can’t control it, except by being close to the next body I want to jump into when we’re both asleep. And that’s no good. The doctors and officers at Langley, they don’t trust me any more. I need to control what I do, so I can show them. I want to be a hero so I can be a terrorist.”
A pause. “I think you’re confused.”
“What? No. Wait. I want to be a terrorist so I can be a hero. A hero a terrorist—they’re the same thing—”
Oh, God, my head hurts. Sweat is pouring into my eyes, my eyes are overflowing with sweat.
“James,” she says. Her voice is a lull in the storm, a warm in the cool, a worm in the skull. She’s worming into my skull. “I don’t think you want to hurt anyone else—”
“I told you it doesn’t hurt!” I punch the car next to me, leaving a huge dent in its side; the car alarm goes off and I have to run, saying “see what you did, see what you made me do, see what you ruined, see,” as I run toward the other end of the garage and up a level.
People stare at me, but I ignore them, I have to run, I run to have, I’m gasping, and I stumble, crying, “Are you still there, Dr. Backer, please don’t leave me Dr. Backer, I’m scared, Dr. Backer, I’m,” it hurts to breathe, “bloody,” it hurts, “Dr. Backer.”
“I’m here, James,” she says. “Where are you right now?”
“Why are you trying to trick me? I ask the questions. If you won’t help me, at least tell me why they are trying to kill me. I did everything they asked me to do—I learned how to become the enemy so even the enemy doesn’t know I’m the good guy. I can infiltrate. I have the infill trait.”
“You cannot project yourself into someone else’s body.”
“It’s not projection. You erase the wet drive when it’s sleeping and then fill it in again with someone new. When you project, you reject, you eject—that’s not it. You empty, then you fill it in.”
“James, there’s no such thing as the infill trait.”
“Then how am I sitting here staring at the brown hand of a 12-year-old Indian boy?” I stare at my own tiny brown hand, my shaking hand. “Hold on, I got an idea, hold on—I’ll take a picture of it with the camera phone and I’ll show you.”
My voice shakes, that I figured this out, that I can kill her doubt with proof.
“Calm down,” she says calmly. “Breathe deeply,” she says, taking a deep breath. “James.”
I hyperventilate and speak emphatically. “Don’t! Call! Me! James! Don’t don’t don’t don’t!”
The phone is a shattered mess of plastic shards and metal scraps on the floor where I smashed it. My palm is sliced and bleeding.
“They just lost the signal,” a voice says from two rows away. Feet pound on the concrete running my direction.
“I thought I heard something down here,” says a second voice.
“Who are we looking for?”
“Somebody Homeland Security wants. But they didn’t give us a picture or even a description.”
“So what’re we supposed to do—arrest everyone?
“Just kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”
They both laugh.
I scoot under a van—I’m lucky Anand is so small—and sweep in the phone parts with me just seconds before two pairs of cop shoes trot past. Everyone is looking for me now.
The radio squawks, and I don’t understand the words, but the first voice says, “Somebody thinks they spied him on the upper level,” and then the feet pound up the ramp and are gone.
As soon as they are gone, I climb out from under the van and walk the opposite direction, with my head down. A man in a suit, with a carry-on slung over his shoulder, a phone held up to one ear, and a key fob in the other hand, hurries along the row, clicking to find his car.
The bland sedan beside me beeps.
Things happen to me because they’re meant to be for we.
Suit bounces around the front of the car, saying, “yeah, hey, I finally found the rental, yeah, right where I left it, so I’ll call you back next week—”
“Excuse me, sir,” I say in my most plaintive voice as I approach him, holding up my bloody hand. “I’ve just been attacked and I need help. Can you call 911, please?”
I see all the different reactions people have to me when I’m inside different bodies. If I were a man right now, if I were the soldier who went to Langley to have my ganglia rearranged, then Suit would be nervous to see me approach him. Defensive. He would back away. Instead, he just looks momentarily puzzled.
That moment is all I need to step in and crush his windpipe with a finger strike to his throat.
“It’s for your country,” I whisper to his startled eyes.
In this body, I can’t reach high enough to get him with an elbow strike to the temple, so it’s a heel to his knee instead. I make it look like I’m trying to catch him as he falls, but I smash his head into the door.
A quick glance around shows nobody watching me. I love public spaces—they’re so private.
I grab the key fob and pop open the trunk to roll him in. That’s hard work for my size, but I get it done quickly. I slip on his jacket and sunglasses to hide the fact that I’m twelve years old. His wallet, full of cash, and phone go into my pocket.
This is good. The people looking for Anand won’t expect him to drive away. I pull the seat all the way up so I can reach the pedals. Then I put the key in the ignition.
The Somali woman working in the booth barely looks twice as she takes the ticket and the money.
In moments I’m heading southeast on Grand Central Parkway for J.F.K. Airport. It’s a good time to call bloody Dr. Backer back.
This time she picks up the phone directly and I recognize her voice as soon as she says, “Hello.”
“Is this Dr. Anna Backer?”
“You recognize my voice and I recognize yours.”
It makes me angry, but I control myself. “Is this the Dr. Anna Backer who wrote the article on ‘Thought Insertion and Moral Intention’?”
“James, listen to me. I’m only talking to you because I’m afraid that you might hurt yourself or someone else—”
“I’m asking the questions here. Is this the Dr. Anna Backer who wrote ‘The Alienation of the Self and the Epistemology of Self-Knowledge’?”
“Is it?” I scream.
A pause. “James, you know it is.”
“Then how can you tell me that what I’m experiencing is impossible? The CIA trained me to insert my thoughts into others, with the moral intention of penetrating terrorist organizations, so that I could assassinate their leaders and protect freedom, our freedom.”
“You know the authorities in Langley deny that—”
“If they didn’t do this to me, then how could I keep my knowledge of myself every time I hop from one body to the next? I couldn’t. It would be impossible. Therefore, that proves that they did this to me.”
There’s no way she can refute that. Because it’s true.
“Let me tell you exactly what they said when I contacted them about you.” I hear tapping on a keypad. “They said that Jimmy van der Leur came to them from Army Intelligence for specialized training in psych ops, and that he—
“He died. I know that’s what they say.” I put a hand up to cover the side of my face as a patrol car passes me. “Except I didn’t die. I woke up in another body, which is what they were training me to do, only it was the wrong body—he was an analyst who fell asleep at his desk, and they freaked out.”
More taps. “James Ricordi.”
“What about him?” I ask.
“He was the analyst working in psych ops who disappeared.”
“He didn’t disappear. I had to get out, because they were talking about shutting down the program, because they thought I was joking when I said I was Jimmy van der Leur. So I went to get the Chinese takeout, only I didn’t come back.”
“James Ricordi didn’t come back.”
“There was no back for him to come to. He was gone, gone daddy gone, long gone, so long and good night. I fell asleep in his body while I was driving, and the car crashed, which woke up a trucker parked on the berm, only when he woke up it was me waking up for we.”
“The American officials say that never happened. They say they’re still looking for James Ricordi.”
Another long pause.
“Three weeks ago,” I say. “There was a car wreck on I-70, just past Goodland, KS. It was James Ricordi’s car. I was . . . I was going to Vegas. My brother lives there, I thought maybe he could help me. After I woke up in the trucker, a real mother-fucker, I knew I couldn’t get near my brother without possibly killing him too.” I wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. Sweat pours from my head into my eyes, overflows my eyes. It stings. “So I started reading and that’s how I found you.”
More keyboard taps. Taps for Jimmy van der Leur, taps for James Ricordi, taps for the truck driver . . .
“Maybe they are liars,” she says finally. Finally, she says, “Maybe we should meet somewhere to talk.”
And that’s when I know they got to her. I should’ve waited to contact her until I got to England, but someone in the government traced my calls to her, and now it’s too late. They got to her but they won’t get to me.
“Thank you,” I say calmly, “but I changed my mind. I have to take care of this myself.”
I throw the phone out the window and drive until I see the signs pointing to JFK.
I pull into the long-term parking lot and settle down in the back seat. It’ll be a while before anyone comes looking for Mr. Suit or his missing rental car. Plenty long enough for me to take a nap.
A groan emerges from the trunk, like a drunk, in a funk, and I realize I better make sure Mr. Suit can’t ever wake up can’t ever fall asleep again because I don’t want to wake up trapped in the trunk of a rental car. I’ll have to do this quickly while he’s still concussed.
I slip off his jacket, look around to see that no one’s near, and pop the trunk. When he rolls toward the light, I toss the coat over his face and grab his throat. “Go to sleep,” I say. “Just go to sleep.”
But my small hands have a hard time choking him when he struggles, so I grope for the tire iron and smash his head. Struggle stops. I take the pointed end and stab it down through bone where his head is until his legs stop twitching.
“It’s nothing personal,” I whisper. “You’re collateral damage in the war on terror. Collateral, it’s like what you give to a bank to get a loan. You’re just the price we pay as security to have security . . . ”
My head hurts. I have to stop thinking when the thinks stop making sense, so I slam the trunk shut and it doesn’t hurt anymore. I wipe my forehead automatically, but I haven’t even broken a sweat. There is blood on my hand.
One thing and one thing only, that’s all I know. Everything that follows starts from that one thing, the only thing that matters, and what matters is who we are and who we want to be, because no one else can ever be the we for me.
I am a heroist I am a terror.
In the back seat of the car, I settle down to fall asleep. Every time I fall asleep I wake up in a different body. This time, when I wake up again I want to be surprised.
It could be in the body of a pilot on an international flight, and I could crash the plane if I wanted to, blaming some other country, and then we’d have to go to war. It could be the body of a cop or soldier, who empties his weapons into a crowded restaurant or office while quoting some other religion, and that would fan the fires of hate. It could be your baby, the one asleep right now in your stroller, where I hide like a latent disease just as long as it takes to jump to someone else. Maybe you.
Sleep well, when you sleep.
I’ll be out here heroing, looking for a way to fight the terror for you, prototyping the protocol. I will penetrate, assassinate, and extricate. I have to. I have the infill trait.
© 2013 C.C. Finlay