He sat at his workstation tapping away at the computer keyboard, too busy to be disturbed by the clamoring of adjacent cubicles. His concentration was fixed on the graphs and numbers appearing in his monitor. He was just sitting there like an automaton, dutifully, mechanically performing its function.
His solitude was interrupted by an annoying voice. "Please turn around," the voice said.
The voice was not of a supervisor. It was probably some visitor who had become lost. So he ignored it.
"Roger," the voice said, moments later, "please turn around."
Surprised that the voice knew his name, he swiveled his chair around. Instead of the desk and file cabinets of his cubicle, he now saw the towering mountains of another universe. As he continued he saw a green forest and a soft meadows split by a rippling brook. All sight of the office then disappeared. In panic, he twisted himself forward and was comforted by the familiar sights of the office. Only now, it was as though he was seeing the office through a window.
Roger White had become trapped inside his own mind. He tried calling out to a co-worker, but he couldn't force the words to leave his head.
"Roger, please turn around and face us." the voice repeated.
He felt like being a child being taught to swim; afraid to let go of the side -- but somehow knowing it was what he should do.
He took a deep breath and turned around. He was surprised, pleasantly though, by what he saw. Gently rolling hills separated him from the tall pines in the distance. The emerald grass seemed the perfect height for walking through barefoot and the air was sweet with a faint citrus scent.
Three men approached him. The first was a thin, weather-beaten man. He wore a brown fur-trimmed coat and slate-gray pants. Although his sandals were studded with gems, the straps were frayed and nearly breaking.
The other two could have been twins. They had thick brown beards and wore the same sort of bearskin tunics and coarse brown pants. Their boots were made of brown hide held together with thick bands of twine. The mighty axes they carried over their right shoulders accented this rugged wardrobe.
"I am Cedric," the first man announced. "I am your Intellect. These are Rutgar and Garth. Rutgar is your common everyday Strength. Garth is that strength caused by a rush of Adrenaline."
"What is this?" Roger asked, ignoring the introductions. "Where am I and why am I here?"
"Oh, well, I'm afraid we've reached an important crossroads in your life," Cedric said while gazing blankly at the ground. "A very important crossroads, indeed. Mind you, this clearing could be looked on as a crossroads of sorts." Raising his head, looking Roger straight in the eye, he continued, "But it's the road you take that matters, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow you," Roger said, growing impatient.
"Ah! Nevertheless, that's what you must do -- follow me. Several paths lead away from this clearing, each in a different direction. I alone know the one true path. Of course, you can back out now. There's a path right there, leading back to your office, but that really wouldn't solve matters. So, what do you say?"
"Will you just answer my question?"
"Well," Cedric said triumphantly, "if it's answers you want, come along. You'll get plenty of them. This place is chock-full of all sorts of answers. The perfect place for introspection."
Angry but curious, Roger followed Cedric. The word introspection irked him. "If a businessman spends his time justifying his actions," Roger said, repeating the words of Cameron Blair, "the second-guessing will make him incapable of any serious negotiation."
"Your hero worship of Mister Blair is very well known to us," Cedric said, as they entered the forest.
"The man is a worthy of that," Roger replied. "Going from assistant electrician to millionaire in only twenty years. Living in a mansion with politicians asking his opinion on pending legislation. If introspection has no place in his life, why should it have any in mine?"
Cedric said nothing, just hummed softly to himself as they continued along the path.
They had just rounded a corner when they came face-to-face with an odd creature. It was like a lion, but with skin covered by purple scales. The beast lunged toward them. Rutgar attacked the creature. He kept it away from his companions, but could not defeat the creature.
Roger backed up several feet. "Do something!" he shouted, fear having replaced his annoyance.
Garth nodded his head and ran toward the monster. He raised his ax straight into the air. With a powerful swing, he brought the ax down on the beast, splitting it in two. Maroon slime poured from the beast.
Roger put his hands on his face and rubbed his forehead. He was light-headed and felt a bit sick
"Are there any more of those?" he asked.
"A little dazed, huh?" Cedric said. "It'll pass.
"What was it?"
"Just an old, outmoded attitude asserting itself one last time. Getting rid of any part of one's personality is distressing. But to answer your question, no -- there isn't another of one of those -- not exactly alike, at least."
They continued along the path for a few minutes. Then Cedric ordered them off the path. Thick, woody vines blocked their way. Rutgar and Garth started clearing a path with their axes. Even then, it was difficult walking over the rough ground.
As they continued through the dense undergrowth, Roger could feel slight twinges of pain. Cedric must be mad, he thought. Why travel through this mess?
Finally, they came to a clearing. In the midst of the clearing was a stream of clear, bubbling water. There was a white stone bridge crossing the stream, and on the other side a small white cottage.
"Take a drink," Cedric suggested. "You'll find the water's cool and most delightful."
Roger hated the idea of doing anything Cedric suggested; yet he was very thirsty. So he cupped his hands and took a drink. The water was good and had a sweetness, which surprised him.
As he stood up, he noticed the cottage door opening. He was taken aback when a tall young woman stepped outside. She wore a white silk gown and walked spiritedly, her blond hair dancing in the wind.
"What's she doing here?" Roger groaned.
"She," Cedric said, "is Daphne. She is all that which is creative in you."
"This is absurd," Roger said, protested the idea. As implausible as Cedric's story had been up until then, this was absurd. "A woman -- part of my psyche? That's ridiculous."
They were interrupted as she crossed the bridge and presented herself. "I cannot tell you how many years I've waited for this day," she said. "How long I've waited to meet my jailer."
"Your jailer?" Roger said. "And how have I imprisoned you?"
"By your actions. When you were seven, you drew a picture -- a pony. Your friends laughed, so you threw it away. It was that day the grass started growing between the stones of my pathway. You ridiculed a classmate's poetry in the tenth grade and the glades became thick. I've sat here for so many years, isolated, waiting for you to return."
"I've heard enough," Roger said. "I don't need to hear a madwoman's sob stories. Cedric, you get us out of here!"
"We'll go," Cedric said glumly. "But I'm afraid she must come with us."
"No," Roger said, flatly.
"It must be," Cedric said, "for look over there."
Smoke rose from Daphne's house. In an instant, flames were visible. They quickly consumed the structure before dying out.
"Thank you," Daphne said, sarcastically. "Now you've destroyed my home."
"How did I ... " Roger began. Then he stepped aside and allowed Daphne to join the party.
They had been on the main path for nearly an hour when Cedric decided it was time to rest. He called Daphne over to him and they talked for a few minutes. Then they walked over to Roger who was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree.
"It's time for those answers," Cedric said. "This is your Mind, of course. We are but four of the elements which make up your personality. During the first few years of your life, we were quite busy. We were running all over the place like Santa's helpers on Christmas Eve trying to make your personality just right."
"I don't believe in Santa Claus," Roger said.
"Well, if you think the jungle in front of Daphne's house was thick, you should see the mess along the path to his workshop. More to the point, something happened during our twelfth year. For us, if felt like an earthquake. Rumors spread about a house springing up in the icy wastelands. Exploration parties ventured out there. They returned incoherent, badly shaken by the experience."
Roger stood up. "That's it! Someone must have slipped something into my coffee during lunch. I'm tripping out."
"Please pay attention," Cedric scolded. "When you were fourteen, you met your father's employer. The victims of the journey seemed to improve, but their anguish was only replaced by greed."
"Meeting Cameron Blair was the best thing that ever happened to me," Roger said, his face reddening. "It gave my life direction."
"Direction? Soon more of your personality became infected with greed. Direction you say? Direction away from what?"
By now, Roger was fuming. "You all really think you're part of me," he said. "Then tell me -- Who am I? Am I a doddering old fool? Am I a pair of buffoons? Some misplaced flower child? Prove it. Prove that you're in me."
Cedric took a deep sigh. "We can't prove anything you're unwilling to believe," he said. "It's over. You'll get that promotion. One by one, we'll sell out."
"No," Daphne said coldly. "Look at me, Roger White. Examine me -- my face, my body. Remember five years ago, the Capitol rotunda, making love?"
"But that," Roger stammered, "was just a dream."
"Don't you get it?" She hissed, "Your dreams are the last refuge of the 'you', which we're trying hard to save."
Roger started pacing back and forth between the path and a tree. "Don't you see?" he said, turning abruptly and then walking the other way. "You'll ruin it. Hard work makes men rich. Imagination slows you down. That's simple logic."
"Then why am I still here?" Cedric asked. "Roger, in a few years you'll be a wealthy man. You'll also be dull, paranoid, and resentful. Still there is the matter of the house -- your grandfather's house. The thing inside there is what caused you to change."
He looked at their faces. They were waiting for his reply. He finally acknowledged the reality of the situation. They were just asking too much of him.
There was one event he could not bring himself to remember. For years he had been comfortable with it being a missing page in his life story. Cedric said that he could go, but if he left now, he'd be left with a sense of failure, and a gnawing curiosity over what he chose not to remember.
Cedric examined the changes in Roger's expression. Roger nodded his head a few times, Cedric smiled -- he knew he had won.
"Well," he said. "We've got some people to meet. Come along."
They met their allies at the edge of the pine forest. There were more than fifty of them altogether; men and women, from several different cultures. Some had their weapons at hand and appeared ready for the fight. Others came unarmed and seemed out of place.
Cedric greeted each of them as if he were the host of a party. Roger watched the reunion. "The next thing you know," he said to Daphne, "we'll all be singing Auld Lang Syne."
"You don't understand," she replied. "Once get-togethers and parties were quite common. However, we've become so isolated that we're nearly strangers. We're heading into battle, we must have this time to remember."
Meanwhile, Cedric had walked to the front of the group. After examining them for a few seconds, he said, "My friends, we are about to bring this matter to its conclusion. We will march to the ultimate reaches of this world. There we will do battle with our debased kin. We must hold them off, giving our host time to vanquish that which lies within."
Cedric walked onto the road. He raised his right hand, pointing his forefinger straight up. He thrust his arm forward signaling the march to begin. His troops, following him, funneled onto the road. His hand, as though carrying a baton, chopped through the air setting the pace.
The house stood in the most remote corner of Roger's psyche. On an icy, windswept ridge, a gray Victorian house, as though in an Antarctic wasteland, stood alone in the desolation.
Slowly, Cedric's forces trudged through the snowdrifts, carefully measuring every step. They kept their heads lowered, only looking as far as necessary. They occasionally came to sheets of clear ice. Walking the few feet took the better part of an hour. The hasty could do not have done better. The clear ice and howling winds kept their pace slow, but they managed to keep it steady.
As the house came into view and Cedric divided his forces. The few who were truly strong were sent to guard the more accessible approaches. The rest stood to defend the hillsides.
Roger looked at the house. It seemed to be so familiar, yet he was having trouble remembering the inside. The rooms were just a confused maze of walls and doorways.
"Cedric's instructed me to accompany you," Daphne said. "I'm to lead you to the stairway. Then you're on your own."
"He's not here to see us off?"
"The battle's begun and time's short," she said, starting up the rickety porch.
They entered the large old house and the scent of tea rose assaulted them. A wave of nausea swept over Roger as he looked around. Memories came flooding back. He remembered every room, but they seemed to be moving around. He blinked and a cellar door suddenly led to a kitchen.
"A mental defense," Daphne said, as they continued walking through the house. "You've jumbled the rooms around so you'd have trouble remembering the location of the stairway." Then she smiled. "But there it is," she said, pointing at the maroon-carpeted stairway.
"I'm off," Roger said. "If I get through this OK, tell Cedric thanks and that I apologize for being so hard-headed -- you really are part of me." He wanted to say more but couldn't find the words. He turned and started up the steps.
Suddenly, as he reached the top step, he felt the pain of a fist slamming into his jaw. He opened his mouth and heard himself, as a child, crying. The invisible fist again pounded his face as he fell into the second floor hallway.
He started toward his grandfather's room. He could hear himself being taunted. Roger White was a city kid. He didn't want to spend the summer with his grandparents. He wasn't used to the country boys' crude humor and their rough style of baseball.
He stood outside the door. His jaw ached and a thin line of blood trickled from his lower lip. He'd started to remember. He hesitated. He wanted to go back, but he closed his eyes and saw Daphne. He recalled how many times she'd entered his dreams. Opening his eyes, he turned the knob and pushed it. The door opened.
He was standing before the tall, gaunt image of his grandfather. He smelled the bacon frying in the kitchen and the whiskey on his grandfather's breath.
"What the hell is this?" the old man shouted. "You got yourself beaten up again. You struck out, so they beat you up for making them lose the game."
"I'm not a child anymore," Roger said, sternly.
"And that's supposed to matter? You're still a damned little fool."
"Because I believe what Cedric's told me?"
"Not quite, but you're warm. Remember the summer you spent out at my place?"
"Those three months were the worst of my entire life. I was constantly humiliated or degraded in some way."
"That's right," the old man said, smiling. "Remember the time you were skinny dipping. I stole your clothes and you had to run a half mile stark naked."
"You also tore up all my drawings."
"Sissy stuff, you're better off without it."
"How does your screwing up my life make me a fool?" Roger asked.
"I made you who you are today," his grandfather replied, smugly. "You now refuse to see the good in that."
"You robbed me of all I believed in," Roger said, certainty in his voice.
"I helped build your character," the old man said, defensively.
"You created a void in my life; one Cameron Blair filled with greed."
"I did no such thing."
"All these years," Roger said, his voice growing angrier, "I refused to accept the truth. Because of you, I became the greedy, scheming son-of-a-bitch I am now."
"Why would I have such power over you?" the old man said, mockingly.
Roger looked down and saw the revolver sitting on the dresser. "The last time you beat me, I did wish you dead," he said, remembering the intense guilt he felt when he heard his grandfather had died, three months later. "How was I to know you'd be killed while drunk and trying to force yourself on a neighbor's wife?"
Thick red blisters started forming on the old man's skin. "Get out of here!" he howled.
"I'm done with your abuse," Roger said. "It's already wasted too much of my life."
The old man, now a mass of blistered flesh, began screaming.
"I'm going to find all those things that I abandoned because of you," Roger continued. "My creativity. My sense of fairness. My ability to trust people."
The blisters began to crack open emitting thin beams of white light. The cracks grew larger and filled the room with light.
Roger shielded his eyes from the blinding rays. When they had past, he found himself back in his office looking at his monitor. His breathing was heavy and he needed to sit back to keep himself from fainting.
After a short time, he typed out a quick memo, asking that his name be dropped from consideration for the promotion. He suggested two coworkers he felt were more qualified for the job, but that seemed too impersonal. So, he walked over to his supervisor's office to discuss the matter.
He left work early that day, but before leaving the building, he made one stop. He went to the stationary shop and bought a tray of watercolors and some art paper. There was an image in his mind and he was determined to put it on paper before it faded from memory.
-- Dan Mulhollen