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Presque vue

People often spoke about hearing voices: commands, cajoling, or observations made by a chorus of individuals, a collective. But for Sam, it was always just one voice. It had sounded vaguely like her mother’s, and as she fought her way through girlhood and found the certainty and wholeness of identity waiting for her in womanhood, the voice sounded more and more like her own. It wasn’t the voice that had changed, but her. Still, it was as much a part of her life experience as the toes she stuffed into Converse All-Stars, then heels, then flats; or the fingers that cramped over crayons, then cramped over medium .7 mm Sharpie three-color pens, then cramped over PC and MacBook keyboards.

Dad called it her Conscience, but he was wrong. And Mom called it her Intuition, which felt closer to the truth but still wrong. It told her when to unclench her fists, and it uncurled the innards of a math proof, all in the same timbre. It was silent for her first kiss like it was paying witness, and the same happened at her wedding a decade later. Mom and Dad, beaming, while the voice sat oddly silent.

It seemed loudest whenever numbers had been put in front of her. Well, not loudest, but clearest. In high school, it gave her the answer to trigonometry problems far too quickly, too quickly in fact for her to show her work. And it showed her where holes could be poked in the arguments of her classmates at university.

For a period of time, she tried experiments of her own on the voice, trying to pinpoint its frequency, trying to plot its occurrences on the graph of her life, testing for which situations should belong in the control group. If the voice was silent at her wedding, but loud and clanging when she punched Brandon in the nose in third grade, did it have something against boys? If the voice had hurried her through school problems in middle school but had seemed to become more…patient…as soon as high school was in her rear view, what did this say about the nature, the character, of the voice?

But then it seemed the voice only got better at hiding itself. Where words might be or where she might have felt pushed in one direction or another, toward confrontation or away from it, there was instead an image or a burst of color or some other synesthetic gust. Almost like the voice’s bearer was running away from her.

A thesis adviser once took her into her office and asked her about it, asked her how she managed to work as swiftly as she had. But she cautioned Sam against doing what she was doing, filling the time freed up by working efficiently with more and more work. “The body is keeping track of all of this, Samantha. You’re more than just a mind on fire.”

Is that what this is? Sam wanted to ask her. Had so much of her life been the simple product of a brain fever, a prolonged hyperobject of a manic state? Those moments when it truly did feel as though the space behind her eyes were overheating, was that not the voice announcing itself? Was it as simple as a dice-throw gene-quirk of her brain chemistry?

In that thesis adviser’s office, her mind’s fingers grasped for an answer, collected puzzle pieces—this voice or other presence, the furious pace at which she worked, the ways her problem-solving skills seemed to defy social convention—and alighted on neurodivergence. “I feel like I’m on borrowed time,” she told her thesis adviser, which was all she could think to say. But it was the first time she attached to her Difference a terminal diagnosis. She’d never heard of this symptom of brain cancer, and it didn’t feel like any side-effect of early onset dementia. Nights spent on WebMD, afternoons with a therapist, phone calls with Mom who seemed the closest to naming the thing, all of it produced wrong answers. Or, rather, answers that felt wrong. Sam’s experience, her life, expressed in an equation, and she’d spent so much of it searching for X, trying to assign a numerical, intelligible, value to that unnamable quantity, that singular voice in her head.

On the eve of her dissertation defense, she saw the look in her thesis adviser’s eyes, like Sam were some animal with a broken wing she’d tried to heal, like Sam were in need of aid or at least consolation, the type given to those nearing their end, and it had only deepened the notion in Sam’s mind that what ran through her was not necessarily poison but rather some electric current that would eventually fry her beyond functioning. She’d been gifted with an outsized amount of experience points, but the price had been her health. “Traditionally, with auditory hallucinations,” the psychiatrist at her intake told her, “the voice or voices narrate one’s thoughts and/or actions.”

“There’s only one of her,” Sam replied, and it was the first time that Sam felt the thing as separate. Venom that spoke of a cosmic snakebite it could be sucked back through.

So she took to arguing with the voice in her quieter moments, seeking the solitude of a lab or a study in a barren condo, hoping to cast the thing out. No scientific breakthrough was worth the bruises on her brain. No longer her almost-conscience or almost-intuition, no longer her guide. Now, an intruder. Fermented fruit she was unable to expel. Neither drink nor drug, neither prescribed nor purloined pill, none of it worked to excise the thing from her. Each new method only served to strip her of control. Therapy ended. Angela left. The voice persisted.

Sam’s mother saw her suffering, and Sam saw her mother seeing her suffer and was grateful, in the moment, that she had no children of her own, because she couldn’t imagine watching your issue endure hurt you couldn’t do a thing about, watching and wanting nothing more in the world than to trade places with them.

“I’m okay” and “It’s not your fault” didn’t feel like lies so much as not the whole truth, the same way Conscience and Intuition weren’t false monikers for the voice so much as describing only a sleeve of the whole outfit. But it was what Sam told her mother, even as her mother grew ill, and when she lost her voice, she would look at her daughter and she would look at her husband, and Sam would wait for the question to pop up in her eyes. Would wait for this old woman to get to the point where she had forgotten her family, and maybe she had but every time she saw either of them in her hospital room, she smiled and hugged them and Sam knew that somehow her mother knew that she loved her, even if she had forgotten that Sam was her daughter.

Sam’s former partner would call on occasion but more often text, and Sam no longer waited for the voice to tell her whether or not to answer. The voice was what had driven Angela away. So sometimes, undecided, Sam would refuse to answer the call or wait before responding to the text and sometimes, undecided, uncoached, she would pick up on the first ring.

And one day, the phone rang at the same wavelength as Sam’s hurt, still raw from the news of her mother’s passing, and Sam picked up and they talked and talked and talked, and if Sam had taken just a second to pause, she might have noticed something driving her, directing her through the forest of words, guiding her toward reconciliation. She might have heard a voice.

On the cusp of reunion, that bone-setting, that reunion of broken parts, which is what a high school math teacher had told her algebra meant, she asked her father if it was the right thing to do. And she told him, “I need your voice, Daddy” because the voice in her head, always directing her, always giving her the answer, had exhausted her. And she had expected him to say something like “Listen to your heart” or “What does your gut tell you” like everyone else or maybe he would tell her about how special she always was, how different, how brightly she burned, and that it would be that other person’s honor to be a part of her life.

“I used to think that tip of the tongue,” he said, “and that feeling of knowing were two different things. Tip of the tongue, well, that’s lexical access, shows it happens in stages. You remember syllabic stress or maybe a homonym. You know the word you’re looking for starts with the letter b and ends with r. And, finding that word eventually, you go on this journey from anguish to relief. Could take you two seconds, could take you twenty years. Then, feeling of knowing, that’s something else entirely, right? You feel like you know something, you know you know something, you just can’t quite find it in your head. But one thing your mother taught me was that sometimes to find the thing you’re looking for, you have to look around. You have to look away. And maybe the thing in your head is that thing just out the corner of your eye. That thing you can only catch by glancing at it sideways. You almost see it. And the whole time, it feels like something you’re trying to reach, but sometimes, it’s the thing that’s trying to reach you.”

He talked like that more and more, like a proof missing some of its connective tissue, his sentences stars dotting the sky with no lines drawn between them to articulate constellations. So Sam let the paragraph her father had murmured to her on his front porch sit in her head for years and years and years and had forgotten it even as she gave birth to her and Angela’s child, a beautiful, brown bundle of fire. And Sam’s father’s words lay dormant in Sam throughout the girl’s adolescence and even as she declared her major in college, then later into her career as a particle physicist, and one day Sam was sitting in her father’s chair on her father’s front porch with Angela and their daughter had come to visit and Sam was listening to their daughter talk about time and the future and the past and scientific breakthroughs and new modes of communication and how some day it would be possible to communicate directly with one’s ancestors, to peer into their minds, to witness them, that, even within the bounds of the Novikov self-consistency principle, human agency, human life was possible.

Sam listened to the rhythm of the words, catching only a few concrete thoughts here and there, smiling at the sound of a familiar. Something almost heard, a sound just out the corner of her eye, and she wondered, as she closed her eyes to the sun, if maybe this is what her granddaughter might one day sound like.

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Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Riot Baby, which won the New England Book Award for Fiction, an Alex Award, and is a finalist for the Nommo, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. His young adult novels include the Beasts Made of Night series and the War Girls series. He holds degrees from Yale University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia Law School, and Sciences Po, and his short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Omenana Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, among other places. His most recent book is the non-fiction (S)kinfolk.

Photo by Christina Orlando

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