Having Entered a Secluded Place, by Austin R. Pick

Driving home from the airport, the clear bell of the Phoenix sky struck Trevor as an apt if unoriginal metaphor for the clarity he’d glimpsed during his strange sojourn. Having flown east for the treatment, he’d been awed by the riotous excess of green, the landscape everywhere frothing with vivid foliage, the clinic surrounded by a sheltering extravagance of trees. He’d expected an opposite shock upon returning to the bristling, muted tones of the desert, but initially Phoenix just looked familiar, all hard angles and dust. Instead it was the sky that held his mind, a vaulting, luminous blue both with and without dimension.

It was probably too soon to determine whether a similar quality remained within him as well. Once he was thrown back into the frenetic relay of cross-country travel, the clinic’s cloistered tranquility seemed distant and a little surreal. ID’ing Trevor as he passed, targeted video ads flashed from luminescent street side screens and airport corridor displays, snapping at his attention with a parade of enticements. Stripped of his usual defenses, he was assailed by a projected echo of himself as perceived by the complex algorithms surfing his data wake. It was a ghostly thing, a staccato afterimage of past purchases and search history that confused his actual sense of self, miraculously altered by the treatment or otherwise.

He was newly sensitized, and half-convinced he felt a little younger, but despite the intensity of his inner experience, Trevor was finding the treatment’s insights difficult to contextualize. The session itself had ended with a fluid tapering of awareness that returned him to the surface of himself, wired to a complex interface in one of the clinic’s isolation chambers. The attendants were respectfully silent as they disconnected him, and though the IV was soon removed, Trevor remained suffused with a kind of placid detachment. He felt scoured somehow, awash with a pleasant admixture of exhaustion and unconcern.

During his post-session interview, the overseeing clinician explained that it would take time to fully integrate the experience, and encouraged Trevor to continue practicing Attendance when possible. With a wry smile, Trevor told him not to expect much in that department. Laughing, his head bobbing sympathetically, the clinician confessed he’d had the same reaction until he began to see real change in himself as a result of the practice. “We’re fortunate to be here,” he said soberly, and Trevor felt inclined to agree.

 “Is all this really necessary, though?” he asked, gesticulating vaguely, his question earnest despite his apparent misgivings. “The whole process seems so… elaborate.” And expensive, he was thinking, knowing he certainly couldn’t afford it. He thought of monks sitting in caves, flesh eroding from their bones; of worshippers prostrating in domed temples, foreheads callused with effort. He wondered if such practices were truly adaptive, in some evolutionary sense, or merely odd compensations for the cruel burden of consciousness. This new treatment, like the archaic techniques it was said to expedite, still seemed to exact a steep price for inner peace. He’d just given a whole week of his life.

And yet, as he drifted along the forested paths around the clinic, he couldn’t shake the impression that what he’d just been through had been nourishing, even redemptive. The sheltering trees rolled their branches with the wind while their columnar trunks remained rooted and abiding, paragons of silent contemplation. Reflecting on his own restlessness in the months since Hailey’s departure, his angry brooding and distracted cloud creeping, Trevor acknowledged that he still felt insecure and a little lost. It was a definite upgrade from sad-sack martyr to his own misfortune, sure, but not exactly a model of enlightened contentment. Clarity was strong medicine, though not the panacea he’d assumed. No golden rays were shining from his ass just yet, though even as he walked, his inward laughter loosened another little avalanche of pretense that slid away with ease.

The other subjects milled about gregariously, delighted with the novelty of conversation after a week of confinement. For the most part Trevor avoided them, preferring the solitude of his own thoughts and feeling residually uneasy, it was true, about his dubious role there among them. These beaming people were self-made green tech savants and Silicon Valley financiers, networking even as they enthused about the treatment and discussed their dynamic personal growth. Trevor was an out-of-work architect living on dwindling severance pay in the midst of another interminable contraction, abandoned by his wife of seven years and now barely making payments on the little casita he owned on a dead-end street in a forgotten vapor city in the desert.

His fellow subjects knew none of this, of course, and a little networking might have done him some good. It wasn’t actually that simple, however. What they were further unaware of, what continued to send Trevor’s moral compass skittering, was the duplicitous nature of the agreement that had brought him there. By virtue of a college degree and a flexible schedule, he’d been drafted as an infiltrator of sorts, part of an ongoing covert study to determine how this cutting-edge new program impacted consumer habit and preference. Others among them may have also been involved, but there was no way to know. Trevor had simply been tasked to participate as fully as possible—a complete assessment would be conducted back in Phoenix.

It was the only way he’d ever get near the treatment. A market research firm had paid all his expenses, funded in turn by a consortium of shrewd corporate interests. Trevor thought he understood why. A decade or so ago the search for the neural “God spot” had yielded a powerful new class of drugs, sparking a brief, highly marketable culture shift, but this emerging treatment seemed wholly different. It was suggested that the integrated process could actually eradicate aspects of the egoic grasping that fueled acquisitiveness itself, ‘purifying’ the mind rather than simply inducing states of unified consciousness. “Enlightenment Express,” they were calling it, in the media.

Though these claims were deeply compelling, Trevor had done his best to remain skeptical, assuming his customary cynicism would shield him from the complexities of shifting allegiances. What he’d witnessed at the clinic had begun to convince him, however, that despite the exclusive clientele of these early trials, something remarkable really was happening. Still reeling from the intensity of his experience, he was starting to appreciate the nature of his difficult position as he sped through outer Phoenix, his familiar world spinning around him and seen anew, cast in bright relief under the desert sky.

*

“Let’s get him jacked in,” one attendant says to the other, leaning to don Trevor’s closely shorn skull with an electrode web, the mandala of precision sensors attaching with an avid puckering, like a gecko’s toe pads. It’s a phrase from cyberpunk, and recognizing the old genre reference with sudden familiarity, Trevor finds himself reluctantly admiring its offhand adroitness for summating what’s happening to him here.

He’s come to understand the last six days as preparation for what will essentially be a facilitated submersion into his own unconscious mind. This isn’t how the clinicians would articulate it, exactly—their terms are more technical, and carefully devoid of spatial referents—but Trevor knows that this new, secularized science of mind has origins in Eastern spiritual disciplines, which speak always of journeying inward. His attendants, both bearded grad students in blue lab coats, also seem to appreciate this implicit synthesis. They speak a reverent tech jargon of their own, and there’s something in the studied solemnity with which they conduct themselves that Trevor finds vaguely annoying.

The private theatre where he’s seated is precisely conical in shape, a small circular chamber tapering to an unseen height, the dimensions evident somehow in the acoustic refraction of every sound. From the unusual acuteness of this observation, Trevor suspects that the first of the drugs is already being administered through the IV in his right arm, heightening his immediate perception. He can’t discount his own nervous alertness, however, or the subtle, cagey agitation he feels at being immobilized in this weird body-morphic recliner, so like being at the dentist’s, while these two self-satisfied attendants confer quietly over readings of his brain waves somewhere just beyond his line of sight.

Trevor wonders if his annoyance is apparent to them in a colorful display of neurological activity, a bloom of orange or putrescent green. He’d also like to know if they’ve undergone the treatment themselves, both so seemingly smug in their knowledge of the ‘trip’ he’s about to take. You asshole, this is supposed to help reduce your negativity, he reminds himself, smirking inwardly a little. Still, he can’t quite shake the conviction that if this works at all, it’ll only be due to some neurochemical change induced by the drugs—and perhaps the week of deprivation—rather than an actual psychological ‘breakthrough’ of any kind. He’s been encouraged, however, to see that the two things—body and mind—are inextricably linked and completely inter-influential. Even the most reserved clinicians start to sound like rapt converts when beating that drum.

The preparatory week was largely devoted to a sort of basic meditation practice that involved observing the flow of one’s breath to cultivate concentration and progressive inner quiet. The clinicians referred to it as ‘Attendance’ with such deliberate capital-A emphasis that Trevor gathered they were envisioning a trademark in their future. Attendance training was presented as a mental exercise necessary for the introspective rigors of the treatment, something akin to warming up before a workout.

 Trevor’s dad had gotten into some pretty weird New Age stuff when Trevor was in highschool, making Trevor wary of what he called the ‘woo-woo factor.’ He had attempted to meditate before, however, in a yoga class he’d taken with Hailey, and wasn’t exactly blown away then, despite the prospect of some elusive calm. There in the clinic, removed from the ambience of prostrations and pungent incense, the act of sitting and simply watching the breath was more tangible but also somehow more bewildering. Trevor obstinately persisted throughout the week, but eventually conceded that he was spending at least half the time spacing out rather than achieving ‘sustained concentration’ of any kind, though the clinicians really only seemed interested in taking baselines of his cortical activity anyway.

To facilitate Attendance, subjects were isolated in surroundings that minimized distraction to the point of austerity. Trevor didn’t really mind the limited interaction, but having so few diversions made him strangely grouchy, and he wasn’t even allowed to read or write except for the waivers and release forms he was intermittently required to sign. Much of the day he sat in silence, dimly suspicious that he was slowly going mad, and Attentively tried to ignore the embroiling flood of memory and fantasy that comprised his conscious mind. He was little more than an anxious primate, he’d finally decided, obsessed with food, sex, and personal finance.

The treatment itself was explained through nightly presentations where a revolving cast of clinicians took turns enumerating various activated brain states and neurological pathways with a host of charts and graphs, including a holographic rendering of the brain that could be dissected with practiced gestures. “Here,” a clinician would say, snapping the hemispheres apart and revealing the inner structures, “lie the amygdala, seeds of our emotional memory and reactivity.” These tiny centers, like the lumpish brain itself, seemed wholly insufficient for producing the debilitating tides of anger and remorse that Trevor knew his own to be so capable of. The rotating, softly glowing mass presented an unlikely simulacrum for any notion of an essential self—a gummy wad of nervous tissue somehow capable of making worlds.

The silently gathered subjects seemed already dosed by the regimen of meditation and scientific jargon, but periodically erupted in bursts of over-loud laughter at the clinicians’ well-worn jokes about boredom and bafflement. The treatment was presented as a way of engaging the brain’s inherent plasticity for psychological recalibration. The basic premise, as Trevor understood it, was this: using targeted drugs to enhance awareness and objective observation, the mind’s negative habit patterns could be affectively discharged and eradicated. Attendance apparently worked along the same lines, though only slowly, through labored progression. The treatment would greatly accelerate the process.

Held fast in the recliner, Trevor knows he’s expected to be practicing Attendance now. Instead what he’s feeling is a sort of What-the-fuck-ness, a low-grade agitation peppered with non-specific indignation. The acknowledgement startles him. The clarity with which he’s able to identify this feeling state—and to recognize it as a defensive reaction against a deeper sense of insecurity—almost certainly confirms that the awareness enhancer is taking effect. He knows little about these specialized, proprietary substances, but can already tell it’s nothing like the drugs he experimented with back in college, when the God Spotters were lamped out on the lawns, proclaiming the start of a new New Age.

There’s no crude uplift or jittery incandescence, just a gradual dawning. Even as he notes his agitation, the feeling is revealed to be distinct from any inherent self-identification, becoming a mere shadow, a temporary veneer. “He” isn’t agitated; there is simply agitation present. Trevor knows in an instant that this measure of objectivity is unprecedented, an intimation of some vast, latent capacity he’d never thought to look for. And in the light of this new lucidity, recognizing his own ignorance fails to prompt any self-deprecation or regret, but simply tacks across the screen of his mind like an errant cloud.

“Open your eyes, please,” one of the attendants says. Absorbed in this unfolding revelation, Trevor has forgotten the treatment’s formal procedures. He can’t feel the individual electrodes or wires, just a cool tactility on his skin, as if draped in a light shroud. Observing this sensation, he notices a coursing vibration throughout his body, perceivable now in subtle pulse. With a loopy little tremor of surprise, he realizes that much of what the clinicians have been saying all week is actually starting to make sense. Shifted only slightly, the cynical edge of his awareness eases to accommodate a tremulous glimmering of awe.

*

He didn’t know if he’d ever practice Attendance again, or if the old patterns of his life would still be intelligible to him. As his auto-navigated car paced with the syncopated flow of traffic along the unfinished New Phoenix Parkway, however, Trevor was momentarily stilled by the persistent clarity of his perception. It was a relief to be free of airports, where the rushing crowds had blurred around him, faces pinched in hurried angularity, so different from the spirited and serene people at the clinic. He felt displaced and a little adrift, unsure of himself without the familiar rudder of his own ratcheting tension to guide by. After all, he had nowhere in particular to be, no one to speed home to.

He was surprised to find himself disinterested in the vehicle’s flashing dashboard displays, with their promise of connected dataspace. During his week of isolation before the treatment, he’d constructed a vivid itinerary for his return home that involved immediately synching with the cloud and listening to electro-jazz at high volume while the car raced him directly to Jimenez Huge Taco for an off-menu smothered chili burrito and ice-cold orange soda, a fantasy that had been in heavy rotation while eating the clinic’s blandly wholesome vegetarian food. Instead he found himself silently cruising home, observing the expansive azure sky and desolate fringes of Phoenix with a detached regard that bordered on the meditative, like some clinic convert.

Seated within the domed glass of the car’s windowed interior, he became a lucent speeding eyeball, observing the semblance and structure of his familiar world without the interference of habitual filters or deliberate media saturation. All around him the smudged desert monotony was broken only by scattered, sun-bleached buildings from the last big construction boom, empty strip malls and big-box retailers whose sprawling floor plans were no longer even legal. Their cracked black lots radiated the visible waves of heat that lent dying cities like Phoenix their telling epithet: vapor cities, collapsing inwardly from escalating temperatures and lack of water, their prosperity and possibility evaporating. Beyond a thin scrim of animated billboards, receding lines of light posts crowded toward the horizon, long unlit and canting lewdly.

It was difficult to avoid seeing the blistering landscape as a metaphor for the aimless stasis of his own life since Hailey left. His days had become an auto-navigated cycle of dissipation, half-heartedly putting in for contract work he didn’t want and spending too much time obsessively theorizing about where Hailey might have gone. He assumed she was at her sister’s on the coast, but she could be just about anywhere, working in some blockish office or even pulling weeds at a New Resolutions commune. Trevor imagined she’d claim some spiritual imperative for leaving, something vague and aspirational like the need to “see into herself” or “explore transitions.” Everyone was invoking the now-clichéd credos of the God Spotters to explain why they’d become a janitor or lost their homes to foreclosure, framing their failures as part of some baroque karmic equation, always for the better. Not that his own justifications were any more forthright.

It seemed inexplicable now why he’d stayed so long, trying to hold on, and yet what he discovered in his ocular traversal of outer Phoenix wasn’t his usual misanthropic appraisal of deterioration, but a subtle undertone of fresh possibility. The ruin around him, like the emptiness of his own life, was so reduced to blank essence that it seemed now like an invitation for renewal, a slate awaiting blueprints. For the first time since his emergence from the treatment, the question of whether the change he felt was neurochemical, or merely the result of a reprieve from his ordinary confines, seemed entirely irrelevant—either way, in an immediate, tangible sense, he actually felt free. Observing the tremor of buoyancy that coursed through him with this realization, Trevor recognized that he was also pretty hungry, and that Jimenez Huge Taco wasn’t entirely off the table after all.

Resuming control of the car as he left the freeway, Trevor steered through the narrowing streets of his neighborhood, here too registering the subtle progression of decline. Another windowless home, stripped of its fixtures before being abandoned, crouched hollowly amid encroaching scrub and wind-blown refuse, ocotillo exploding from the husk of an old truck like an arrested firework. The truck had been there for years as a sort of impromptu garden ornament, but the vacancy and invective graffiti were new.

Set back on a narrow rockscaped lot, Trevor’s weathered casita was shuttered against dust storms and shaded by two low, ragged palms. He stepped warily into the heat and circled the house before letting himself in, taking stock of things. His college friend Dirk, an old God Spotter who scraped by in Phoenix selling ice cream and other, less legal offerings out of a retrofitted van, had been tasked with keeping an eye on the house while Trevor was away. Despite a litter of beer cans out back, the place appeared to be intact. Trevor owed Dirk dinner for this service, he remembered, in addition to tales from the treatment.

Inside it was quiet and cool, the air system having been programmed for his arrival. He checked the house’s solar battery array and then imprinted with his tablet, pressing a hand to the screen while the device brought the house online. As the window shutters cycled open, glazing the rooms with afternoon light, the casita looked for a moment like a model or playhouse, a life in miniature. Tired of designing homes he could never afford, Trevor had renovated the little dwelling for Hailey and himself as a showpiece of sustainable efficiency, its compact multi-use spaces and thin sliding doors almost Japanese in their functional aesthetic. He was reminded of her everywhere, the stone flooring and salvaged sconces she’d meticulously chosen, the modernist flair of her integrated décor.

Once intimate and sheltering, the house had proved too confining for the inevitable discord of domestic life, where every irritation was amplified by enclosure. He could picture Hailey there still, chilling the rooms with icy resentment or blooming in moments of spontaneous joy, electric either way. She was a guarded beauty, habitually closing herself against acquisitive gazes, and Trevor had once felt privileged to know her beyond her defenses. Their relationship had strained as the contraction tightened around them, and though she seemed unfazed when Trevor lost his job, there was a growing distance that mere proximity couldn’t cure. And then quite suddenly, without intimation or explanation, she was gone, the house holding a shucked vestige of her like a muddied echo, a mirage.

Despite the adhesion of memory, Trevor relished the sense of rediscovering the casita after being away. With Hailey gone the house had become a conservatory of cacti, Trevor’s homage to the resilient desert quietude of sand and saguaro, which he’d always loved most about Phoenix. The sills and shelves were lined with a profusion of tuberous, alien growths that bulged everywhere from improvised pots, their pleated forms and spiny fingers reaching earnestly for the light. While away at the clinic, sequestered in his own head, Trevor had remembered the place being cramped and restricting, every surface bristling. Now, however, the house felt welcoming and spacious, full of life and open to the light.

*

Rapt with attention, Trevor finds himself marveling at the poignancy of the present moment, the rhythms of breath and heartbeat orchestrated in an autonomous, living music. It suddenly seems incredible that he is so often unconscious of what actually defines him, and that in many ways he is still a stranger to himself, a floating head enmeshed in a tangle of thoughts. Trevor wonders if the treatment’s objectivity enhancer is still lagging, or if the gratitude he feels is itself a form of equanimity, a felt appreciation of being alive.

Reminded of the ephemeral insights of youthful nights stoned, a part of him is quick to dismiss this philosophical spin as a sort of side effect. Another part of him, however, detached in gradually enveloping placidity, observes these very turns of thought with his architect’s eye, perceiving structure and connectivity, levels and lines. Trevor feels as if he’s hovering outside his own cobbled-together construct for the first time, watching his mind endlessly striving to assemble meaning, yet essentially only building an empty temple.

He detects outer signs too, hears the toned chime signaling the start of an Attendance session, the neutral feminine voice instructing him to relax and quiet his mind. The lights have dimmed further, the attendants have quietly receded, and the body-morphic armature has inclined him into an upright position, cradled before the diffuse blue glow of the curvilinear wall screen, afloat as if in darkness washed with moonlight.

Slipping easily into the practice, eyes open but unfocused, Trevor concentrates on the natural flow of his breath and almost immediately sees the screen’s glow change before him, coalescing and drawing inward to form an incrementally brightening orb. The image’s rapid response is captivating, and there is something nebulous but definite in the felt connection between his mind and the screen’s feedback, a sense of intuitive control he never thought possible. Absurdly, the wizardry of it makes him want to giggle.

Trevor had struggled during training, frustrated to watch the blue light ripple only tentatively while trying not to wrinkle his forehead with effort. During hour-long sessions over the past few days, he’d learned that by linking this visual component with the brain’s activity, consistent concentration can actually be learned—in theory, anyway. For Trevor it had seemed, like Attendance, to be an obnoxious education in his own deficiencies.

The setup wasn’t dissimilar from the biofeedback modules that had become a popular fixture in malls and health spas—hokey credit card-operated booths that promised instant improvements in test scores, relaxation and on-the-go energy. This was a more rigorous system, however, and had none of the cheesy, faux-psychedelic graphics that always went so quickly out of style. The elegant, watery blue glow seemed to resonate with an almost primal impulse toward tranquility, like a tunnel opening onto distant, clear light.

He’d learned that the body-morphic recliner also operated as a form of biofeedback, responding to shifting musculature during the treatment and subtly coaxing the body toward a more openly aligned posture. “So it’s a chiropractor,” he’d joked, prompting one clinician to snort derisively, a response that struck him as pretty definitely unobjective.

He’d watched for that during the week, scrutinizing the staff, themselves apparent adepts, for lapses in supposed clarity and equanimity. They were balanced and congenial on the whole, though Trevor questioned whether this was more a professional affectation than the result of some inner transformation. He could forgive them for seeming a little cultish about their new program, though—he wasn’t completely without hope himself.

 The whisper of breath, so difficult to observe before, is lit now like a neon cascade. The recliner responds as he settles into himself, tension evaporating with each exhalation. Only peripherally cognizant of the condensing orb on the screen, Trevor’s mind snaps through several progressive stages of absorption, each flash revealing some newly self-evident subtlety. Entrained to the natural, rhythmic immediacy of breath and body, the practice feels effortless, like an old skill instinctively resurrected.

 As the orb distills to a mere pinpoint of concentrated light, Trevor closes his eyes again, diving inward and observing the subtle activity within. He’s been expecting to find Hailey there, expecting the open wound of her absence to be exposed at last, interred just under the surface, his chest bursting with the effort of clenching every fault line closed. How was it possible for her to leave him and yet come to possess him more completely than ever? He’s been haunted by this contradiction since the afternoon he found her discarded keys on the kitchen table, declaratively splayed in the jagged shadow of a potted cactus.

He’s been expecting to find Hailey, to find the aggregate of that complex emotional charge burrowed like a landmine in his psyche, tripwires stretching along every nerve fiber. And despite himself, in some reserved spore of guarded optimism, he’s been expecting the treatment to somehow touch it all off in a controlled explosion of release and blessed relief. What he finds instead is more vibrant than he could have anticipated, a dynamic landscape of shifting interrelation, his body a sensory extension of mind, a reservoir of memory, feeling and desire. He is a desert outcropping after rain, afire with life—prickly, tingling orbs of pleasure flowering along his extremities, barbed whorls of pain clustering along the ridgeline of his spine.

Scanning repeatedly, he sees reflections of these feelings in the associative contents of his thoughts, lucid bursts of remembrance that pop and flare like burning embers. Removed for a week from the continual rush of distraction, Trevor’s past surfaces now in its inherent psychosomatic makeup, becoming conscious in graphic montages of fulfillment and loss, longing and regret. His body is shaken by intensities that encompass the entire spectrum of sensation. He is watching, he realizes, his life flash before his eyes—everything arising, clambering for reaction and, finding no foothold, eventually fading away.

The process unfolds so relentlessly that Trevor loses all bearing, spinning in a void with only an expanse of equanimity to anchor him. Unlocked through this excavation, this exfoliation, his body is vibrating with constellations of reactive patterns, the scripted yes-no sequences that habitually drive his mind. In this exposed scaffolding he sees his cycling moods of frustration and defensive cynicism: his own convoluted, deeply conditioned personal version of the biological imperative to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Trevor has never been so aware of himself, so open and without judgment, and he recognizes that this tangled knot is ultimately his alone, at once everything and nothing. Compelling but without inhabitance, Hailey strafes occasionally through his thoughts, only one among a parade of catalysts. The fact that his responses are actually choices, however, is immediate and inescapable. Centered now in direct perception, accepting his experience unconditionally, he watches as these inner impulses bloom and gradually dissolve, one after another, tireless teachers of the crystalline insight that everything is impermanent and really not such a big fucking deal after all. And when the white-hot burn flushes brightly, flooding him with the bliss of dissolution, Trevor is present with a self that is boundless and without circumference, encircling everything in warm embrace.

*

Trevor dropped his bag and went into the kitchen, intending to water the plants. Just then, however, his tablet chimed to life in the other room, automatically summoning him. Fully synched now, the device was flooded with a stochastic, influxing blur of information accumulated during his week away. Projected on the living room’s visualization screen from its desk dock, the tablet’s enlarged contents were arranged in a three-dimensional virtual city of stacked and aggregated data, thin spires of messages and alerts extending into the room, glinting with the pixelated shimmer of dust motes in the air.

He watched as the vibrating grid continued to mushroom, catching the flash of random updates as the information sorted itself: flyer miles had been added to his meager account; a favorite band was on tour, though nowhere nearby; his credit rating was unchanged after a week of inactivity; the beleaguered Suns had drafted a new starting center. Scrolling interstitially, Trevor noticed several ads for chakra alignment and other questionable, ‘holistic’ therapies, his data wake already reflecting his time logged at the clinic.

In addition, his calendar showed several upcoming appointments with Xcelcyon, the market research firm that had paid for his trip, reminding Trevor of his awkward responsibility as a study subject of a different sort. The sensor arrays calibrated as he stepped toward the screen with raised hands, readying himself for a tentative ascension into the cloud. Paging through his messages, Trevor noticed that a part of him was still searching for one from Hailey, a habit he was relieved to find had little meaning anymore.

His reverie was broken a moment later by the jangle of music from outside, a strident reggae remix of the nostalgic ice cream jingle. Dirk had arrived, his van idling in the cul-de-sac out front, and Trevor was grateful for the interruption. Tapping his tablet to lock the house, he climbed in through the van’s passenger side and found Dirk surveying him from beneath the trademark cowboy hat he swore he never removed, even during sex, its rim festooned with a coil of neon barbwire and the tattered remnants of an American flag. The cab was a warren of food wrappers and energy drink bottles, an antique shotgun propped against the dash like in an old police cruiser. Hailey hated Dirk, the way she claimed he always leered at her, and Trevor was glad to be in his dubious friend’s company again.

“Get my message?” Dirk asked, steering the van instinctively for Jimenez.

“Only just connected,” Trevor said, brushing inexplicable ash from his pant leg.

 “You lost weight, man, need to get some sun.”

This was funny coming from Dirk, whose weathered features made him look nearly twice his age, which was betrayed only by the manic spark of his eyes and perpetually lopsided grin. Time with Dirk inevitably transported Trevor to their heady days together as undergrads, when the two had read voraciously to supplement their experimentation with altered consciousness of nearly every sort. Dirk had tuned in completely as the God Spotting movement took shape, eventually dropping out of school to follow the emerging caravan circuit and later becoming chemist in-residence at a repurposed prison complex turned experimental arts colony. Embittered by the movement’s diffusion, he became more resolutely uncompromising with every passing year.

In Hailey’s assessment, Dirk had simply refused to grow up. Trevor’s own feelings about his friend, however, were tinged with amorphous guilt, with a sense that while Dirk had remained committed to their project of changing the world, one mind at a time, Trevor himself had progressively compromised his youthful beliefs for the exigencies of financial stability and married life. That the whole era had largely been a predictable repeat of the 1960’s, with only incremental progress made toward a truly transformative cultural shift, somehow hadn’t provided Trevor much comfort in the intervening years.

Sitting across from Dirk at their favorite rickety table in the dirt lot of Jimenez Huge Taco, Trevor realized he was happy to be sharing his treatment experience with his friend, to be reentering their familiar territory of exploration and possibility. Trevor had over-ordered, knowing Dirk would welcome the leftovers, but was surprised by his own appetite. They spoke haphazardly between mouthfuls of smothered burrito and sugar-dusted sopaipillas, but picked up their conversation as the food dwindled and Trevor waved for another round of beers.

“So these drugs,” Dirk mused seriously, “maybe something analogous to jnanapropam and, whatsitcalled… dexichrome? Wonder if this stuff will hit the market eventually. I’d love to see the chem-specs, do cross-checks with PiHKAL and TiHKAL.”

He was in his element, but Trevor found himself struggling to follow Dirk’s particular species of jargon. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly, “but I think the treatment works on more of an integrated model, a combination of environmental control and contemplative technique, with the drugs lending support.”

“So it’s like a set and setting thing? Makes sense, for sure. But then there’s a weird paradox of using conditioning to achieve deconditioning, kind of manipulative. Like how long before that blurs into some sinister form of reconditioning, or personality augmentation or whatever? And you said it wasn’t religious or anything?”

“There’s definitely an Eastern flavor, but the same could be said about physics these days, so no, not really. Spiritual for sure though, whatever that means. One of your favorite words, I know.”

Dirk snorted. “Did I ever tell you about the week I spent at a Stations of the Cloud convent? Fuckin’ glassy, man, you can’t guess! Do you know Stations of the Cloud? Sort of a New Resolutions offshoot and re-ligi-ous—they wanted me to shave off all my body hair and…”

He then went off on another digression, apparently certain Trevor was enthralled. One of the things Trevor had long found disconcerting about Dirk was that despite his levity and effortless immunity to social convention—both real, hard-earned benefits, as Trevor saw it, from his career as a God Spotter—the man absolutely lacked any consistent train of thought. He was an attention-deficit avatar of free association. What Trevor was only now noticing, with another residual burst of treatment-induced clarity, was that Dirk’s every tangent was self-referential and suspiciously scripted, as if rehearsed.

“And you said a market research firm paid your way,” Dirk remarked pointedly, coming back around, “so they could study this treatment’s effects on you?

Trevor had glossed over this before, expecting an excoriating lecture, accusations of ‘selling out,’ dark conspiratorial ramblings. “It’s this company called Xcelcyon, based here,” he admitted. “I saw something in the cloud, and it checked out. Only way I could afford the clinic, because the treatment is still in its early stages, like a boutique thing almost.”

“So that makes you like a double-agent, huh? Pretty twisted, man. You gonna fuck ‘em? I actually know Xcelcyon, parked up over there once. Those people do not like ice cream.”

Trevor laughed, welcoming Dirk’s approval. “I don’t know what will go down yet. Hopefully I can at least skew the thing in the clinic’s favor, make it seem innocuous.” Dirk nodded, distractedly herding beans around on his plate with a bent bottle cap.

“So this unity moment you dipped into,” he said, returning to a theme, “did it have the ‘Thou Art That’ flavor of GBS?” Trevor was having a hard time conveying what he felt had been so revelatory about the treatment, and realized this was because it was only becoming clear to him as he attempted to convey it. He still remembered their GBS trips as some of the high points of his life, yet Dirk already seemed convinced that what Trevor had experienced wasn’t any different from the God Spotters’ revered unity of consciousness.

“That’s the thing, though,” he said, leaning toward Dirk, “the experience of dissolution seemed to be a result of the process, not a triggered effect. Deconditioning was the real focus of the treatment, I think, but it operated at such a deeper, more fundamental level than any psychotherapy I’ve ever read about. Like it went to the root, you know? It was profoundly intense, and I don’t really understand it yet, but I feel changed in a way that I never did after tripping. Like some new vista has been actualized, or something.”

“Yeah, but you only just got back. Probably afterglow,” Dirk said, eyes shaded by his hat brim. The conversation then drifted, as ever, to the established terrain of old times, and after another beer they departed, Trevor happy to have come, and happy to have gone.

Alone again at home, he stood before a darkening window and looked out over the back yard, sunlight fading beyond a distant procession of idling wind turbines. Trevor met his own reflected gaze on the glass, studying himself. He was sure now that something had shifted within, freeing him from the inertia he’d been unable to shake or even articulate before. He felt lighter, untethered from the strictures of the past. It was, he understood, the beginning of something rather than an end. Pessimists and profiteers would abound, as ever; for the moment, he was simply grateful to have found a route beyond his own confines. The rest could wait, tranquil under the evening’s vaporous haze. Some residue of unease was with him still, stirring like a slowly approaching dust storm, but Trevor felt prepared to weather it now, without barbed defenses to guard him, knowing that it too would pass, and gradually open to a bright, unencumbered sky.


Austin R. Pick was born in North Carolina and has traveled widely while pursuing an interest in contemplative practice and a love of the world’s wild places. Austin’s writing has appeared in Epiphany, Tahoma Literary Review, Pleiades, Metazen, Adbusters Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in Colorado, and his website is www.FudoMouth.net.

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