She wakes up to find a sticky note left beside her pillow. It doesn’t hold well to the linen, but as soon as she picks up the note, it clings to the ridged print of her forefinger.
The language isn’t her first. The strokes in each individual character are connected so that the only white space to exist is between full words. It is quite different from the alphabet she is used to seeing, made up of circles and lines, though its name escapes her. She translates the long, lightly-pressed scrawl with ease nevertheless. Rubbing her eyes, she sits up against the bed’s frame. The post-it says:
If you do not recognize this room when you wake, call this number.
She barely registers the phone number below the message before looking up in a brief burst of panic. Where is she? While she cannot recall what her bedroom looks like, she knows that it isn’t yellow. Nor does it have a wall of books on one side of the room and a collage of faces, too many to count, painted on the other. Besides these two walls, there is nothing to reveal whose bed she sits in. No picture frames or small knick-knacks.
Why is she here? When was the last time she was somewhere familiar? Her mind is an empty egg shell. She knows things about the world. The Pythagorean theorem is a2+ b2= c2. Planes should fly while boats should float. But she doesn’t know her age, her past, her purpose. The yolk has been sucked out of her. Then she remembers her name. That detail alone calms her briefly.
On the bedside table, there is a lamp and a telephone. Another sticky note, placed on the phone’s back: USE ME.
She picks up the phone and dials the number from the first post-it. The device echoes faint tones between intermittent seconds of silence.
“Good morning!” A voice answers, “And who might I be speaking with today?”
First comes paranoia. How does she know she can trust this faceless voice? Then comes what she can only describe as a gut feeling. The voice sounds familiar, but not really, like she heard the voice speaking a thousand times before but never directly at her, like a talk show host or radio personality. But, can she speak? She opens her mouth and clears her throat, letting out an euh-hm. Yes, if there’s sound, then there’s a potential for words.
“My name is Mi Sun-Ae.” She sounds scratchy. It is difficult to say whether the scratchiness comes from one night of sleep or days of disuse.
“Hm, okay…that makes my job a bit more difficult.” The voice doesn’t continue, and she can tell that there are unspoken thoughts taking its place on the other side of the call.
“Who are you?” she asks in return.
“Oh, you can call me Diem.” It brings to mind the Latin saying, Carpe Diem, and the connection puts her at ease. Diem continues, “Now, this may seem like a strange question, but how much do you remember about your life?”
Sun-Ae agrees the question is odd, yet no solid memories come to mind. She feels her past like a shadow poised right behind her, quite close but never enough to catch and hold in her hands. Potential reasons for memory loss fly through her mind in the form of screen credits.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
“I’m starting to remember small things,” she begins, measuring the truth of her own words. “Like my name, but I also don’t remember how I got here, if I should know who you are, what the date is today. Oh, it’s pink!” she exclaims.
“Like cherry blossoms, the color of my room.” She exhales with deep satisfaction but then composes herself. “Do I have a concussion?”
“Hm, you said concussion?” It sounds like Diem is taking notes. Light scratching, a possible ruffle of a piece of paper. Could he be a doctor? “No,” he says with a stronger, assured tone. “Don’t worry. That’s not why you have slight memory loss, but you will understand quite soon. I can answer any other questions that I’m sure you have, but first you might need to accept a few things before we meet.”
“Meet?” Her heart flutters at the thrill but then anxiety flushes the feeling away. “Why should I meet you?”
“Because I’m your friend and I’m here to help. Wait, well, not your friend but a friend of the person whose bedroom you are sitting in.”
Sun-Ae lets out a squeak, searching the room’s corners wildly for a camera. “How do you know I’m sitting? Whose room is this?”
Diem’s laugh sounds surprised. “I didn’t know you were, I swear, but usually you call right when you wake up, so…”
“I’ve never called you before, have I?”
Diem’s voice becomes serious. “No, you’re right. You haven’t.” He takes a long pause. “There are four things I would like you to do before you venture outside that bedroom door.” It sounds like he is reading from some script.
Sun-Ae looks toward the door across from her. It’s beige with a glass knob, nothing out of the ordinary, no scratches or damage to suggest someone before her had been held against her will. Yet, the idea of opening it, of seeing what’s beyond this room, scares her. If only she could remember more, and quickly.
“What if I don’t want to do the four things that you order me to do?”
Another chuckle from Diem. “I promise they aren’t orders. They’re suggestions. I’m trying to help you understand what’s happening. You are completely safe, and I promise this is no hospital, secret government facility, or whatever. And you haven’t been kidnapped.” Even as he says this nonsense, Sun-Ae already knows she is in no great peril. She is confused, and that confusion is victim to fear, but there’s a voice in her mind saying that no one wants to bring her harm. It’s a strange comfort.
Diem goes on. “Those before you have always made up their own minds.”
“Those before me?” Sun-Ae interrupts.
“Yes. Many, many of them, but we’ll get to that.” The way he forges on with his speech, she can see he has some system or order than cannot waiver. There is an appropriate time and place for everything, as often occurs with repetition.
“As I was saying,” Diem continues, “it mostly depends on what you want to be told and what you want to learn for yourself.”
“Like everything in life,” Sun-Ae muses more to herself.
A few more furious scratches against paper. “Aha, maybe you are a philosopher or a writer?” She can tell Diem speaks with a smile. He sounds amused, even curious, but she doesn’t think he expects an answer for such a question. Then again, maybe he does. “Well, now, no need to get down to business just yet though, of course. We have other things to check off our to-do list. Should I tell you the four suggestions, then?”
Sun-Ae considers what Diem has said thus far. He seems genuine and harmless. “I’m listening.”
His voice becomes mechanical, and she can tell he is reading verbatim:
“Suggestion 1: There’s a letter tucked inside your pillowcase. Read it with an open mind, please. Suggestion 2: Once you’ve accepted the contents of the letter, you should find a mirror under the bed. Prepare yourself. You won’t look the way you remember, but you’ll understand after the letter.
Suggestion 3: I know this all sounds like nonsense right now, but it’s important not to forget this part if you go through with the first and second suggestions, especially since I don’t recognize your name. Try finding yourself among the bookshelves and on the mural of people. I’ll try researching your name in the meantime.
Suggestion 4: Whether you find yourself or not, you are welcome to join me for breakfast downstairs whenever you feel ready.”
After emphasizing that Sun-Ae may take all the time she needs, Diem repeats ‘goodbye’ an excessive number of times and hangs up.
The letter. It’s inside the pillowcase just as Diem informed. The handwriting is thin and slightly slanted. The paper is tinted light blue. The color reminds Sun-Ae of parchment floating on water’s surface. A memory? Sun-Ae has no idea.
To whom it may concern,
I apologize for the formality. I would address the letter with your name, but unfortunately there is no way for me to know it yet. I always learn it after the fact, which is quite disappointing, I know. To start with, my name is Hava. And this is my bedroom. You are welcome to make yourself at home for however long you are here, and I mean that. I’m not just saying so because it’s polite, or because there is nothing I could physically do to stop you.
I assume you’ve met Diem. He’s great, isn’t he? From what I’ve gathered from the visitors before you, the ones who have left me letters, he seems to be an easy person to trust. I have a theory that I have an invisible hand in this. Since I trust him with my life, you tend to trust him, too. Which brings me to the main point of this letter. I have a “condition.” There are more technical terms that sound entirely made up, but basically, according to these doctors, I have an extreme case of disassociation. I think this sounds nicer than Multiple Personality Disorder. Just because THEY can’t see a pattern, doesn’t mean that what occurs to me is random and without purpose. But, I digress. This disassociation is supposedly a coping mechanism, but for what is a mystery to me. While this is a practical explanation, I think mine is more interesting. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I think I’m supposed to save history. And you’re here to help me.
My multiple personalities−too many to count as no one has ever revisited−aren’t actually my personalities, but those of important people of history. Their memories, their thoughts and feelings. Everything! Crazy, I know. If it weren’t happening to me, I wouldn’t believe it possible, but it’s true and I can prove it.
YOU are a personality of history. Somewhere in the mess we call the brain, you have taken over the home that is my waking consciousness, and you’re using whatever useful skills or abilities I leave behind during my brief vacations. This is likely why you were able to use the phone (depending on your date of birth and the phone’s date of invention, of course), why you trust Diem (who I consider my closest confidant), and why you aren’t as freaked out as you should be, especially with your short-term memory loss, which will go away in time.
It’s important that you read this next part carefully because I promised Diem he wouldn’t have to go through it himself if you agreed to at least read the letter. As I mentioned, I only wake up with personalities from history, meaning these people have already passed away. This may be difficult to hear, but it is possible that you died centuries ago or in the near past. I give my deepest sympathy. I can’t imagine what you are feeling, and I’m sorry I have to tell you such a thing on paper.
But you’ve been given a second chance, in a sense. So, don’t waste it. No one can be sure how long you will have. Instead of you waking up tomorrow morning, it could be me again. Obviously, I have little influence in what you choose to do with your time, but as it is my body you’re using, I think my request should be taken into consideration. To put it bluntly, I’m not going to live forever and you’re taking that much more time from me, right? Not that it’s your fault, but I think I’m allowed to expect a little respect and appreciation. Besides, my request is small.
Tell Diem everything that you remember about your life, big and small, and then do whatever you might want to do if this were your second last day on this earth (which it could be, technically). Then, Diem will tell me everything.
That’s all I want from you. Whatever piece of your life you leave in my present might just be the key to why you are you!
Tell Diem I say hi.
P.S. A physical letter is always nice, too, (I keep a collection!) but I won’t get greedy.
The mirror. Sun-Ae brings the blue-tinted letter down to the floor with her. She holds it with light fingers as not to crinkle it any more than it already is creased. Her brain feels quite full, but not with anything too dense. Like cotton, she decides, not meant to hurt the mind but merely to protect her from hurting herself. It’s the information from the letter clouding her critical thought processes, hiding the path—if one existed—that would lead her to the person whose mind this body belongs to. Sun-Ae figures that personality is hidden quite well, perhaps even locked behind a door from the inside.
She doesn’t know what she should be thinking in this moment. Perhaps the writer of this letter is right in saying a rational human being would be frightened, even violent, but Sun-Ae feels like she does when someone tells her what the weather is like outside. Is it raining? Uh-hm. She’ll just wear her raincoat, then.
She sits down, her legs automatically folding into a crisscrossed position. Before grabbing for the mirror that will no doubt be under the bed, she pauses to consider if crossing her legs was her doing or muscle memory from the woman she inhabits. It’s strange how real she feels. The blood in her veins isn’t causing any unfamiliar sensation. Her heart rate doesn’t seem a millisecond faster or slower than she thinks it should. If she were in the wrong body, it would feel wrong or itchy, wouldn’t it? This body is hers, completely. For the time being. She thinks coherently, and she can rub her tongue along the back of her teeth at her own will. Too much detail to be a dream, but a personality disorder? She doesn’t know enough about the subject. How intricate one’s mind must be to create other worlds they do not belong in.
Sun-Ae reaches beneath the bed, leaning forward until half of her arm disappears, until her fingers trace the hard frame of a large flat object. She grabs hold of its edge and pulls it toward her. Just as expected, a body-length mirror—reflection side down—is revealed. Sun-Ae takes the mirror in both hands, trying to fight the temptation of looking into it prematurely, and carries it over to the only bare wall space, to the left of the door. The whole way, she keeps the reflection faced away from her. She would rather see the body in full, process it in its entirety.
When the moment comes to flip the mirror over, Sun-Ae does not hesitate. No need to play around with such nonsense as holding one’s breath or preparing for the shock. The mirror flops against the wall a bit more harshly than she expects. Her first thought, rather than be in regard to her now visible appearance, is if she’s left a dent in the wall. The next moment she meets her eyes in the mirror, not her own eyes but Hava’s.
When Sun-Ae enters the kitchen, Diem looks up from a sudoku.
“Did you find yourself?” he asks.
She shakes her head shyly. It overwhelms her how attractive he is. With such round eyes, she wonders if he has the gift of clairvoyance, or a knack for seeing right through to one’s thoughts, scrawled on the mind like a blackboard.
“Damn. Not that you know what it is, but you didn’t come up on Google either.” He sighs, but then shrugs with a wide smile. “I wish I studied more history in school. I’m sorry I don’t know who you are.” He gestures to the seat beside him. “Hungry? And, your name is Mizzuni? That’s Italian?”
She shakes her head, a bit surprised. “My name is Mi Sun-Ae.” She enunciates each syllable. “It’s a Korean name, of course. How many Italians do you know who speak native Korean?” she tries to joke as she sits down.
Diem blinks at her. “Holy shit. You’re Korean. The first one, too, which is actually pretty surprising that it wasn’t sooner.” He closes the sudoku book which has been waiting for his return in vain, and he sets it aside.
Sun-Ae gently places a few pieces of pineapple onto her plate, clearing her throat before asking, “Is that because she is Korean, too?”
Sun-Ae doesn’t want to say Hava’s name aloud, maybe because she is here in Hava’s place. Or because Sun-Ae actually is Hava and both are in denial of this.
“Yeah, you probably knew that from the mirror,” Diem says. He hurries out of the room, but only for a second, before returning with a laptop. He points to it with his free hand. “Since I got your name wrong, I thought we’d try for the internet’s help one more time?”
“Most are pretty good about it,” he continues. “You know, seeing Hava there instead of themselves. But some totally freak out when they see an ethnicity not their own. It’s funny how that disorients them more sometimes than sex difference.”
Sun-Ae can tell Diem enjoys talking, and theorizing. This is quite an enjoyable situation for someone like him where others might find it stressful. He sits back down and opens the laptop.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I’m ‘historical’ yet,” Sun-Ae mumbles. “I haven’t done anything that I can think of…”
Diem waves her comments away with one hand as the other types on. “Give yourself more credit! Besides, your memory is M.I.A. at the moment. That means ‘missing in action’, like a soldier that doesn’t come home from war…” Sun-Ae holds back a chuckle, and she is about to inform Diem that she is familiar with the English phrase, but he’s already moved on. “And, a lot of times I meet you all before your prime. It always fascinates me how unassuming and normal you are with me, but historians don’t care about who you are as people, do they?”
“She says hi.”
Diem stops typing and looks Sun-Ae in the eyes. She can tell he isn’t looking at her though; he’s looking at the woman who she should be.
“She always does.” He smiles. “Hi, Hava.”
His use of the name startles Sun-Ae. She almost takes a peek behind her to see if the missing woman appeared in some other body.
“Does she hear you?” Sun-Ae asks.
Diem shrugs. “That would be a rational theory, wouldn’t it? Like a coma patient.”
They sit then with neither speaking. Only the pat-pat of laptop keys can be heard. In the silence, Sun-Ae feels a badminton match going on above their heads. The birdie’s feathers each hold a theory along their spines; it bounces back and forth sluggishly, unnoticed by Diem. Only Sun-Ae senses its presence, and maybe Hava. She understands the birdie’s dire need to stay afloat, for if it hits the ground, the game ends when there is still so much to learn.
“You speak very good Korean,” she says as a way to break up the silence.
“Come again?” Diem’s eyes widen more than Sun-Ae thought possible. He even shuts the laptop. The search seems futile anyway, in Sun-Ae’s opinion.
“Your Korean,” she speaks hesitantly, “I’m impressed. No offense, but your features give away that you are clearly not a native Korean.”
“We aren’t speaking Korean.” Diem speaks slowly, as if to give his mind time to catch up. “I don’t know any Korean. Neither does she.” He points at Sun-Ae’s head where his friend is lost somewhere deep inside. Lost or hiding, Sun-Ae sees not much difference at present.
“Wait, is that why you looked so insulted when I called you Italian?”
Sun-Ae frowns. She wouldn’t say she was insulted, but that isn’t important right now. “Then, why do I hear Korean coming from your lips?”
Diem chomps down on his toast. This new discovery seems to have sparked a sudden hunger. “I don’t know,” he says after swallowing, “but I don’t think I’ve ever asked the ones before you what language they thought we were speaking…I mean, there have been Russians, Italians, Frenchmen, Germans…Did the letter upstairs look like it was written in Korean?”
“No,” she says. The post-its, the letter, the books. All were in English, except for a few titles.
“Did that seem weird to you?”
“No,” she says again. She doesn’t appreciate the repeated answer. It makes reality feel less real, like she’s been given only so many ways to respond with, and, once they are used up, her only option left is to reuse or be silent. “English is a wide-reaching language, so it wouldn’t be weird to see books written in it.”
“That makes sense,” is all Diem comments. A notebook materializes in front of him and he jots down a note beneath a few existing bullet points. These words are written in English. How strange that her auditory and visual senses are disconnected. Her eyes are genuine, but her ears deceive her. Why?
Sun-Ae feels more overwhelmed than she has all morning. “This is too surreal.” Diem laughs. “Try being me!” But then his face grows serious as if he worries he was just overheard.
Maybe he was, Sun-Ae ponders. Could this body ever wake up as him? She knows better than to ask this out loud.
“And you go through this every day,” she decides to ask instead, “but with a different identity sitting in my seat?”
Diem shakes his head. “No, no, not every day! Wow, that would suck. Just a couple of times a month.”
“The letter said we can’t be certain how long I’m here for. She phrased it as the second last day of my life. That’s not much time,” Sun-Ae probes. While it confounds her to be a part of something so unheard of, she cannot help being curious.
“I lived with Mahatma Gandhi for ten days once. Saved a lot on groceries. Hava picked up his personality right in the middle of a fasting, I guess. He wouldn’t believe me that the British Empire no longer controlled India. I showed him book excerpts, online journals, even primary sources. What else could I do? You’d think that would be scary since it was Hava’s body that was starving—right?—not the real Gandhi, but after experiencing Sylvia Plath, Gandhi was a piece of cake. No worries, though. Plath was here for just a day. A relief, trust me. Not that she wasn’t interesting, but her mental state worried me, you know?”
Sun-Ae nods. “I remember learning about them.” Secondary school, she remembers, was actually not that long ago. She wore a uniform and preferred a seat by the window.
Diem smiles thoughtfully as he adds another bullet point to his list. It gives Sun-Ae a warm buzz in her cheeks. She wonders if the real identity of this body feels similarly when she sees that smile, and perhaps this is just another reaction from the body she inhabits.
“Okay,” he says, “So you know what a concussion is, view English as a universal language, learned about Gandhi and Plath…”
“I know what Google is.”
“Yes.” She laughs and adds, jokingly, “I’ve dabbled with it.”
“That means you are a more recent influential figure…”
A recent influential figure. Sun-Ae considers this, but she keeps her own theory to herself for now, tucking it safely away on the birdie’s tail that still bounces above them. She needs to confirm the facts first.
“Why does this happen to her? She mentions Multiple Personality Disorder in her letter, but she doesn’t seem to believe it herself. Why can’t I, as hard as I try, bring her back if this is truly her body?”
Diem’s warm expression fades some. “No one really knows. The specialists like to think they do. Wouldn’t be good for the sleep patterns if they lay awake at night piecing this together when there are actual patients they can definitely fix.”
He takes in a sharp breath. “Not that Hava is someone that needs fixing. It used to be harder, before we created the system and learned what to expect. I wait for your call, explain what’s going on. You read the letter, you see her in the mirror, blah blah. It’s easiest when they find their name in one of the books or see their image on the wall.”
“And they are usually dead.”
Diem bites his lip. “Always.”
Sun-Ae sucks on the pineapple in her mouth, removing as much juice as possible before chewing. “Always isn’t synonymous with forever, you know.”
“In this case, experience proves differently…” Diem trails off into a nervous laugh.
Well, Sun-Ae thinks, I’ve always awoken in my own body until today, now, haven’t I? She doesn’t yet know how she feels about Diem’s insistence on believing in the impossible, but only when it coincides with his current model.
She chooses not to push the subject of death further and asks, “What’s the date today?”
“Oh, I’m not sure if you’re ready for that.”
Sun-Ae laughs. “I think I am ready for anything now.”
Diem smiles and his voice softens, slows its pace. “Touché, but nine times out of ten, it doesn’t go so well when they find out what year it is. Either because of how long ago their, uh, death occurred, or how recent it was. I know Hava talks about it in the letter, but it’s completely different when you hear it.”
His sensitivity to death moves her. She wants it to be because he’s sensitive at this moment to her death, Sun-Ae’s death. She wonders how he copes with the idea of speaking with the dead.
“What do you usually do when she wakes up as someone…What do I do now?”
“Hava told you. Whatever you want. To some extent.”
“What about you?”
“My job is flexible. I work from home. Besides, I’m just killing time until she wakes up again.”
Sun-Ae nods, but his words hurt. Although he sees her as just some figment or extension of his friend’s psyche, Sun-Ae feels real. If she were to stab herself with the fork she is holding, Sun-Ae would feel that pain. Sun-Ae would, not the woman who has locked herself away. And if that woman returns, Sun-Ae disappears. In this reality, from Sun-Ae’s perspective, she would ultimately die. And, according to Diem’s track record, she would be dying again.
“So,” Diem says, his beautiful eyes not registering the irrational ache written across Sun-Ae’s mind, “What do you want to do?”
“I want to tell you everything that I can remember about myself. About Mi Sun-Ae. And as requested, I will write a letter to her. Then, when I die in this body and she returns, I want you both to go find me if I am still alive out there.”
Diem’s mouth falls open slightly. “But, you…I’m sorry, I thought this was understood. You passed away at some point already. That much must be clear? If you are here, if you are her—” He takes a deep breath. “She only ever becomes people from the past.”
Sun-Ae scoffs. “How can you abide to such a guideline when your daily life goes against the definition of routine for the average person?”
“But, it’s always been that way…”
“Remember when the earth was once always the center of the universe? Or when Korea was together in language, culture and politics for over a millennium until 1945? Or when potatoes could always be depended on by Irish farmers until they weren’t?”
“You’re beginning to remember more…” Diem nods, but his words disagree. “Those changes occurred because of outside variables, or newfound knowledge.”
“That just proves that anomalies can happen,” Sun-Ae reasons patiently. “Predictability and rules only work with patterns and observation. You cannot predict what evidence doesn’t have the means to suggest, what has not yet been discovered. What if I am a new discovery?”
With her explanation and the use of words like anomalies and discovery, a piece of Sun-Ae clicks into place. Her tongue enjoys the familiarity. She’s beginning to remember more, and this more may be the key that this body has been waiting for. It’s a sequence of numbers.
Sun-Ae shakes her head, smiling as if she’s beaten a riddle, as if she’s ready for the birdie to finally hit the ground, and she points above her. “Up in that room, her bedroom, the most recent copyright among those books is a year I lived. If that year is this year, then there is a high chance that I am still alive.”
Diem’s sharpened eyes reveal the turning of gears behind them. Ah, so those eyes aren’t to see with, she muses, but to be seen through. Like a shop window.
“But what if this really is Multiple Personality Disorder?” he asks. “What if you aren’t a person of the past or the present?”
And the answer Sun-Ae was searching for is revealed, the reason for Diem’s limited acceptance of the impossible.
“If I am not real, then at least I won’t be here to learn of it.”
Sun-Ae reaches across the table for the notebook and pen. She writes in the space below Diem’s list and pushes it toward him. “It’s the most recent contact information I can remember. Once I leave, and she returns, call this number.”
Leandra Griffith is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. After graduating from SUNY Geneseo with her BA in Creative Writing, Griffith knew that the best way to challenge herself and her writing was to live abroad. When she isn’t scouring Antwerp for the best frituur, Griffith is writing a series of bilingual stories in English and Dutch as a way to document her time in this beautiful country.