Like everyone else in the world, John made choices. Unlike everyone else in the world, John knew the consequences, good and bad, of every single one of those choices he made. He heard them as whispers, thoughts and dialogue of a multitude of other hims. He did not know the results of his actions or non-actions immediately, but gradually, as events played out in real time in parallel universes, all in his head.
Every choice John made added another whisper, and as John made many choices in his day to day life, there were a multitude of whispers. They did not clamor for attention, as they seemed to be independent and oblivious of each other. Even so, it was a cacophony of whispers, never ending. Most of them would sleep at night, with him, but as some of his choices led his other selves to have nightlives of one form or another (employment for some, drugs for others), he was never truly at peace.
He could live with it, sometimes, but mostly it drove him mad.
When he closed his eyes he could see his life and his choices growing daily, moment by moment, like a tree, larger and grander than any tree in existence. The trunk of the tree was his birth and, essentially, the first choice he ever made; to live or to die. From there it grew and branched and created, with every split, new lives, and lives from lives as his choices made choices, and those choices made even more choices. It was eternal, and it was maddening.
Not only did John live a thousand lives, all in his head, he had also died many deaths. A few dozen, at least. A whisper would cease, a tiny branch in his mind’s eye would fizzle and pop like a burnt out fuse. Some fizzle-pops were quicker than others; in a lifetime or two he had been killed in car accidents, sudden and painless, while in others he wasted away from one cancer or another. It was a small relief, to have one less insistent voice, but it was also a reminder of his own mortality, it was a death of him. There was nothing after that pop; no echo, no radio static, no white noise. They were simply gone.
That scared him, the nothing. He did not like the idea of nothing, even though he hated living with everything.
Most of the choices John made led to nothing more than another mundane existence, only slightly different then his current one. Some, however, bloomed into rich, beautiful lives that he could only experience from afar. Married, happily, and with children. Successful artists, businessmen, entrepreneurs, politicians. He heard them, every day, faint, static voices undoubtedly happy in tone and tenor, loving wives and girlfriends that existed somewhere, loving children that existed only in his head, whispers of what could have been.
And so he lived, every day, exhausted by the countless whispers of other lives, continually afraid of any number of impending deaths, and begrudging of the many intangible happinesses. It was not a good way to live. As each decision begot another voice, good or bad, he tried, at one point, to make no decisions at all. He lay in bed, for days. He did not eat, and drank very little, only when necessary. But as even the choice of not making decisions were decisions within themselves, he could not avoid the murmur of whispers, and the extinction of a few through starvation and dehydration. He, himself, became ill from his lack of food and water, which arose a question; what would happen to his multitude of other selves if his root self, his physical being here and now, passed away?
What would happen to the leaves and branches of his tree if the root were to become diseased and waste away?
He lay in bed one morning, afraid to move, to breathe, to choose. His knees were drawn to his chest. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes bruised pits. He had not slept well in a long, long time. He lay, listening to the cacophony of whispers. It was like listening to thousands, of grainy radio signals, all at once, continuous. These were the only friends that he had, his multitude of selves, and they were oblivious of him.
They were, that is, until one Sunday morning of John’s thirtieth year of life.
“Hello?” it asked, a version of his voice, far off, buried beneath a crowd of voices. He did not notice it, not at first, as it was just another whisper, but it was insistent, desperate. “Hello? Hello? Hello! Do you hear me?”
John sat up. His heart pounded. His gut and his groin became cold, hollow, almost painful. He was afraid to answer. His self-prescribed seclusion had kept him, for years, away from relationships, interactions, and conversations. He did not know how to talk to another person, even if that other person was himself.
“H-hello?” he stammered. Cold sweat arose on his forehead. “I hear you.”
The voice stopped, uncertain. John concentrated. He screwed his eyes shut, and thought of that tree of hims. He listened for the voice, the desperate plea for attention. He sharpened a sense here, dulled another there, like fine tuning an old radio, turning knobs and antennae this way and that. He followed the branches, and branches of branches, until he came to one specific leaf, growing and dividing within itself. He focused on it, grabbed onto it just as desperately as it called to him. He drowned out all other voices, and spoke to it.
“I hear you.” He said, more confidently than before. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes.’ It replied, after a beat. “Yes, I do. Who are you? What are these voices? Where did they come from? Is this real?”
“I am you.” John answered, “Another you, at least. Different, but not too different. I see you, in my tree. They are you, too. So many yous. When did you start hearing them?”
“Yesterday, in the shower. For just a moment. It frightened me, but it was only for a moment. But now, it’s back, it won’t stop. I’m scared. Is this forever? Make it stop.”
“I can’t.” John said. If he could, he would have done it decades ago. “Tell me about you.”
“I… I’m an insurance processor.” He said. “I’m married. I have three children. Had. Had three children. Two of them, my oldest and my girl, my girl, my only girl-“ he broke off. John heard what may have been a gasp, a sudden intake of air. “Is that why this is happening? I lost them, they’re gone, did I break? I’m broken, they’re gone and I’m broken.” The voice heaved and sobbed.
“You’re not alone.” John whispered. “You’re not broken, and you’re not alone. I am sorry for your loss.”
He was, too. It was, after all, his own loss. Somewhere, somewhen, he had a wife and children, he had happiness, and it was taken from him, violently. He felt that loss. “You’re not alone.” He repeated, focusing intensely on that one desperate little leaf. “Please don’t feel alone.”
They talked to each other, in depth, for hours. He asked this John about his life, his wife, his children. He told him of his own life, living with these voices, these whispers of himself for so long, edging on madness. He had never admitted such a thing out loud to anybody, as he would either be deemed a liar or a schizophrenic. But this other John, he could understand, he could believe, because it was happening to him.
It felt good to talk. He had not done it in years.
He lay in bed the remainder of the day talking out loud to himself, answering questions only he could hear, asking about lives he never lived. The sun drew to a close and they seemed to wind down at the same pace, talking less and less frequently, until both slept, finally, throughout the night.
In the morning, John woke with a start and sat up. He ran to the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. His eyes were not as hollowed, as he had slept the best, the deepest as he had ever slept. His face had color. He stared at himself, leaned his head forward until his forehead was inches away from the glass. He gazed into his brown eyes, looking for something, anything. A little him sitting, alone and frightened, deep within his cornea? Maybe. He saw nothing but himself.
“John?” he asked, out loud. His voice echoed off the white tile walls. He jumped, not used to his own voice, and called again. “John? Are you there?”
He listened, through the static of voices, waking and preparing for a new day. He found that leaf and poked it. It was dim, almost opaque.
“Are you still there?” he asked, once more, “Was it a dream?”
“A dream.” It answered. “If only it was a dream.” The voice was faint and sad. That leaf, in his mind, hung spiritlessly to the tree. “You said you’ve heard us die, yes?” It asked, softly. “What is it like?”
“It’s like,” John considered, “a light going out. One moment it’s lit, the next it’s not. Just a flip of the switch. Sometimes it dims, slowly, over time, until it is gone. Then there are no more whispers. It’s just quiet, and that hole is filled in by other voices. So many voices.”
“I can’t do this.” The voice said, lost and quiet, “The loss, the voices. How can you live like this? How have you not…” he trailed off, seemingly unable to say the word, the idea out loud.
John was silent. Truth was, he didn’t know. He had a fear of death, as he had witnessed it time and again. He despised this existence, the constant commotion, but he was afraid of the fizzle, the pop, the nothing even more. So he simply existed more than he lived.
It was, he knew, not much of a life.
“I don’t think I can.” The voice said, resigned.
Throughout the day John poked and prodded at that voice, an itch that was becoming steadily harder to reach. He called for it, shook it, screamed at it. It became fainter and fainter until, late in the evening it fizzled, it popped, and that desperate, pale little leaf in his mind’s eye faded from existence.
A day passed. A week. A month. John fell back into the life of isolation easily enough, as his reprieve had been short and sweet. He began to call out, every once in a while, to test the waters, hoping that maybe, possibly, a new voice would hear him.
“Hello?” he’d shout, head forward, staring into the mirror, deep into his own eyes, his breath steaming the glass, “Hello!” he’d shout, again and again, to no response.
Until one night, someone did.
“Hey.” A voice (again, his voice) answered. It was not surprised, or frightened, but simply casual and conversational. “Who are you?”
“I’m you.” Said John, “and boy am I glad to hear you.”
They talked, as he had done before. Again he screwed his eyes shut, saw the trees, and followed the voice like a child playing Marco Polo in a pool, until he found it’s specific, tiny leaf, healthy and happy on a thick branch.
This voice was a musician. He didn’t live with much money, he admitted, but he wouldn’t live any other way. He had his music, his art, and his women. It was a simple, blissful existence, and he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
John was envious.
Days later another voice found him as he showered. It was soft and hesitant, but John drew it out with a confident and assuring tone. This one was an accountant, married to a woman he did not particularly find physically or emotionally attractive anymore. They spoke, the three of them, and became fast friends.
This continued. Voices would find him, he would call to them, scrunch his eyes and find their places in his tree, focus on them, drown out all else. It was becoming easier and easier to drown out the excess noises. It was exciting, too, this newness, these hims he could speak to. Some were frightened, of course (who wouldn’t be, waking up and hearing the voices of yourself, slightly different, or slightly the same), and some even retreated, far back to the dark corners of his mind. But he listened for them all, whoever would hear him, and he spoke to them with more confidence and reassurance than he had any real person in life.
In time, if he were to scrunch his eyes and picture his tree, it was a fire of tiny pinpoints of life. He spoke to them all. They were not only replicates of himself, in one way or another, but they became his confidants. It was still a whisper of a thousand voices, but now they whispered to him, and to each other. He was not lost and oblivious. He was the core, the one that held all of his selves together.
For once, John was important.
Years passed. John did not fare well with the outside world, but he was the happiest and most content he had been in his life. As such, it always seems the best is happening when the other shoe drops.
It began with a cough, which turned into a fit of hoarse and painful hackings. John stayed indoors as he did not care for doctors, and would not go despite the insisting of many of the hims in his head. The trunk of his tree, once bright and strong, began to wilt and warble, become thin and shake dangerously. Whatever was inside him spread fast until he shivered with fever and hacked bits of dark gunk from his lungs.
The voices, one by one, ceased their pleadings. They were there, and then they were gone. Not even a fizzle and a pop, as he was accustomed to. They pleaded for the lives they had, for their wives and their children, their jobs and their existences. The lights nearest the trunk of his tree began to extinguish, until whole branches went dark in a matter of hours.
It came, finally, to an end. The last of his lights was extinguished; the trunk pulsed faintly, sporadically. It was the first real silence John had ever experienced. He lay in bed, naked. The sweat on his body smelled of sickness. His cheeks were sunken, his body limp and listless, but his eyes were softened, relaxed, and without worry.
He enjoyed the silence. He lay with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. He breathed, and he could hear himself breathing. His chest burned with each inhalation, but he did it anyway to listen to the sound and the rattle of his lungs. He heard things outside his window, birds and voices of people that were not him. He listened to and appreciated all the things he could not experience for so long. He even imagined that if he concentrated hard enough, scrunched his eyes and listened hard enough, he could even hear his own body, fighting (and losing) the disease that ate him.
He lay and he breathed and he listened. He became more and more tired, blessedly so, as sleep had never come easy, and his breaths became shorter, shallower. The sun went down, and John fizzled and popped, and he fell asleep, and welcomed that quiet with open arms.