Mind Over Matter
George took off his rectangular glasses and rubbed his eyes. Six hours in front of the computer monitor was taking its toll. He raised his head so he could see over the gray walls of the cubicle. If his boss's room was dark, then he could call it a night. Everyone else had already left. George stayed after-hours to go over the recent surge of applicants from college graduates. It wasn't by choice. Oh no, if George had his way, he'd be the last one in and the first one out. The office was hardly his idea of suitable environment for him. His dream job would be sitting in a hammock on a Hawaiian beach writing for his would-be hit series. George tried to write during lunch break, since that was the only time he could ever pick up a pen without his boss breathing down his neck. But if it wasn't him, it was all of George's cohorts. All they did was yap like puppies, never considering for a minute what George wanted. And when he finally returned to his shabby apartment, the folks in the room above him would throw a party, blaring the music and dancing through the night. He couldn't complain to the landlord. The landlord was always there. Everyone in the complex was there; everyone except George.
He saw a white fluorescent glow illuminating the crack under his boss's door. Of course, George thought, slinking back in his chair. He clenched his plastic cup of water and downed the last few drops of it and expelled an exhausted sigh. The back of his throat was still dry. It was a nuisance every time he swallowed, and he couldn't focus because his mind would transfix itself solely on the pain. He tossed the cup in a plastic garbage can and stood up. The rest of the floor was dark except for the emergency lights at the fire exits. George walked past a few vacant cubicles and into the employee lounge. The vending machine hummed its incessant tune, and there was an open tub of tuna casserole that was stinking up the whole room. George's nostrils flared. He took it with two disgusted fingers and disposed of it. He would hear of his 'misdeeds' in the morning, but it was all in a day's work. After fifteen years at Meyer Incorporated, complaints were almost music to his ears. Almost.
George was startled by the opening glass door of the lounge. It was the janitor, Hank. Like George, he was a long-time employee at Meyer. His scruffy beard and stench of body odor was repulsive, but he was the most reasonable person in the entire building in George's opinion. Hank was a sociable gent, and he enjoyed a conversation like a fine dinner, if he had ever laid eyes on one. Even as age drained his strength, Hank still had youthful vigor in his sparkling brown eyes. Thirteen years at Meyer and George could've sworn that Hank never aged a second. It was as if his age had given up toying with him.
Hank set his mop in the corner and opened the fridge. "How 'ya doing, George?" Hank's wooden voice asked.
"I've had better days, Hank," George answered as he took off his glasses and rubbed the tiredness from his eyes.
"I'm sure we all have." Hank grabbed a small tupperware dish from the fridge and closed it. The dish was the same one Hank used every day, and it was beginning to give way. Two cracks jaggedly crossed the side, and juices from the food seeped out like water behind a faltering dam.
"Ramen noodles again?" George asked, eyeing Hank's food disdainfully.
"If you can find something cheaper, I'd appreciate you telling me," he replied, retaining his calmness despite George's tactless inquiry.
"Not in this economy, sadly." George sat down at a round table, motioning for Hank to join him.
"Sometimes I wish I could go back to the good ol' days," George stated.
"You know. The days when people weren't cooped up inside these cursed offices and weren't forced to work until two in the morning."
"The times may've been different, George, but there was still work to be done. The amenities which you and I take for granted wouldn't exist," Hank explained. "You have to appreciate what you have in front of you."
"I know." He knew Hank was right, but it still frustrated him to know the truth. He'd rather be comforted by a lie than punished by the truth.
There was momentary lapse in their conversation. Hank was the first one to get up, but not out of ill-manner. "I need to finish up for the night," he spoke. "When are you going to be out?"
George gave an exhausted laugh and replied, "I don't know. Another hour maybe. As soon as the boss leaves, I'll go too."
Hank took his mop in one hand. "I don't know if I'm in a position to say this, being a lowly janitor and all…"
"Hank, it's okay," George reassured, his voice firm.
"You seem more strung-up than normal. Is everything okay?"
George let out a long-awaited sigh, as if Hank's question unlocked his mouth. "I'm not, Hank. You know why?" Hank shook his head. "I'm sick of this place. I wish I could just change it all. The way I want."
"Don't we all?"
"But I have visions! Dreams!" George's excitement brought him to his feet. "I would make the world a better place. Just imagine."
"I can do more than that for you," Hank pulled a book out of his back pocket. It was worn at the edges, and the pages were yellowed.
"What is that?" George asked, with the same disdain as when he had seen the Ramen noodles.
"It's called Mind Over Matter," Hank said.
"Stress management is really sweet, Hank, but I don't think I need that."
"Take a look at it." Hank set the book on the counter. "But read the prologue. Don't skip over it."
Hank lifted his hand in acknowledgement and left. George got up and took the book, retreating back to his cubicle once more.
George flipped to the first page of the old book. There wasn't a date of when it was published or any indication of who wrote it. George scoffed and leafed through another few pages. He stopped once he reached the prologue. His eyes hastily skimmed the page.
"'Tired of the mundane drag of the work day?'" he read aloud. "'Wish you could change that without wasting your valuable time?' Yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it? 'This is all about being able to change everything around you. The process is easy but...'" His eyes skipped over lines as he reading became sporadic, "'One must concentrate...to produce...the desired result.'"
George chuckled. "This can't be real. I've never known Hank to be such a jokester."
Yet the urge to continue reading compelled him to flip the page. "'To be dubious at this point is perfectly normal. It doesn't seem possible. Try it out. Take control of your surroundings!'" George didn't realize his voice had almost risen to a shout. He checked his boss's door again. Still the fluorescent light shone through the bottom of the unopened door.
George set the book aside on his desk and sat, hunched over. His weary, dull eyes scanned his desk. He swallowed, reminding him of the persistent pain in the back of his throat. I wish I had some water, George thought, closing his eyes in concentration. He felt idiotic, being as gullible and desperate as he was. For all he knew, Hank gave it to him out of good humor, not as a magical remedy to all of George's earthly circumstances. Still, he focused all of his thoughts on a cup of ice-cold water. It seemed like each second he kept his eyes shut was an eternity. Finally, after almost a minute of concentration, he opened an eye. There, on the center of his desk, a cup of water stood. Two ice cubes floated on the surface of the water.
* * *
This is a good stopping point if you would like to stop and come back to the story.
* * *
George shut the door to his apartment and guffawed maniacally. The possibilities were endless with his newfound power. He noticed his shabby bed and sheets in a mess in the back corner of the room. Oh, how he resented that bag of rocks. His sleep was only as deep as the grave, and dreams were rare to come by. George grasped the book and closed his eyes. When he opened them, the bed was transformed. Gold-lined silk sheets were neatly tucked into the king-sized mattress. The pillows were fluffed and lay at the head of the bed.
"I could get used to something like this," George remarked as he kicked off his dress shoes.
He danced to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. There were heavy bags under his bloodshot eyes. "A good night sleep should take care of that, but," he pulled on his receding and graying hair, "This needs to change."
In a fleeting moment, his hair was the shining brown that he had when he was an aspiring businessman in his twenties. A content laugh escaped George's lips. How could he resist a drink from the fountain of youth?
His eyes dropped to his toothbrush on the sink. The bristles were yellow and the handle was worn and dirty. "Now this just won't do either," he said. George inspected his teeth. They were yellowing like bits of corn. He grimaced and closed his mouth in disgust. "I'm not gonna go to the dentist when I have all I need right here." He held the book up to his reflection and shut his eyes. "Abra...kadabra!" Just as George had hoped, his teeth were pearly white.
He unbuttoned his shirt and laid it on the toilet. He'd deal with it in the morning. All that was on his mind now was a well-deserved sleep. George returned to his bedroom and shut off the lamp. He tucked himself in and rolled onto his side. The mattress was just as George always wanted: soft but stabile. A grin of satisfaction formed on his worn face.
There was still one thing left that he had forgotten. It reminded him in a sudden rumble on the floor above. The other tenants of the complex were throwing another one of their all-night parties. Do they even sleep? George wondered as he rolled onto his back and looked at the ceiling. His mind reacted quickly. His hand seized the meager book. He closed his eyes and thought aloud, Make them go away. Make them go away so I can finally sleep in peace!
At first he thought the book had finally let him down. The music continued to play. Then he realized something was missing: the people. There boisterous shouting had been muted. Another wish later and the music paused indefinitely. With that, George turned over and fell into a blissful sleep for the first time in what he felt was an eternity.
* * *
When George went to work the next day, he was disappointed to find that nobody noticed his makeover. They were all too caught up in themselves. He got one subtle nod through the whole journey to his cubicle. Before he could settle into the cramped space, he noticed a post-it note on his computer monitor. It read:
Meet me in the employee lounge. ASAP
George put his briefcase under his desk and got up. When he arrived at the employee lounge, Hank was already there. He was dressed in his usual black t-shirt and jeans.
"Hank, this book--"
"Sit down, George," Hank commanded fiercely.
George did as he was told.
"You've figured out what the book's capabilities are, I suppose?" Hank asked, his natural calmness evident once more.
"This thing is incredible! Hank, Hank," George could barely stay seated. "I had the best sleep in my whole treacherous life!"
"And look," George opened his mouth and pulled back his lips. "My teeth are white as snow, and my hair's never looked better."
George cocked his head to the side. "You're being rather short with me. Is there something I should know?"
"Nothing you don't already know, assuming you read all of the prologue." Hank stared at George as if he could see into his soul.
"Of course I did. You told me to, so I honored your request."
"Then you know its capabilities and…restrictions," Hank added ominously.
"Yes." For once George felt hesitant about lying. He couldn't figure out if it was Hank's underlying subliminal tone or something else.
"You know what I can do with this book, Hank ol' pal?" George asked.
"You could build or destroy anything you could possibly want," Hank answered.
"That's exactly it!"
"George," Hank leaned forward, putting his elbows on the round table, "Do not blind yourself with this power. I know of its magnitude—I myself used it at one time. But there is a point in time when you need to know enough is enough."
"Relax," George said, offended by Hank's warning, "I know my limits."
George felt a pressing coldness in Hank's oaky voice. He glared at the janitor. "I do."
"For your sake, and humanity's for that matter I hope so. Don't do something you'll regret." Hank looked at the clock on the wall. "I need to get back to work."
"I'll talk to you later when I'm on top of the world," George commented.
He returned to his cubicle the same way he had walked in the first time. He sat down in the office chair and set the book on the middle of his desk. His eyes never left it. George wondered what else he could do with it.
He snapped his fingers and laughed. I want to write! Hank's pressing warning didn't let him focus. It was like a stale taste in the back of his throat. His mind was swarming with thoughts, both rational and irrational. He lifted a page of the book daintily and pulled his finger away. What was the worst the book could do for him anyways? It hadn’t done any harm to him yet, so why would it threaten him now?
He clutched the book and closed his eyes. I wish time would stop. I wish I could have all the time in the world. All of a sudden, every sound in the office ceased. The fax machine abruptly halted. Conversations died in the still air. People stiffened up, becoming life-less mannequins. The traffic outside stalled, and no one was pressing on their horns. Even the wind failed to muster a howling cry. It was perfect silence.
Finally, George thought to himself. Peace at long last, but... He bitterly inspected the cluttered conditions he was confined in. This is hardly a writer-friendly environment.
Another wish later, the floor was devoid of all life and cubicles. George created a white leather couch and a long desk that stood in front of it. He sat down and forged a cup of coffee with milk, warm but not piping hot; just the way he liked it. George took a sip and began to type up his story. It was the first time he had ever felt truly happy. There weren't anymore bothersome office calls or inspection of applications. This was what he had always envisioned himself doing. Now his dream was a reality.
After a good chunk of time, George was content with his progress on his latest work. Now he wanted to see the world around him, and appreciate what he had long neglected. He walked to the windows of the office and gazed at the herds of yellow taxis of the New York traffic. He shut his eyes and clasped the book, muttering, I want time to start again.
A spike of panic rose in his chest. He closed his eyes fiercely and focused harder in a desperate plea with his inanimate overlord. I wish time would start again!
Still the same results. George felt his stomach churn. This wasn't happening. He must be in a dream. He'd wake up soon and find himself in the king-sized bed again. Even his old mattress would've been a welcome surprise. It never came.
George flung open the cover of the book and turned to the prologue, searching madly for a solution to his predicament. His eyes locked onto a line towards the end of the page he had skipped on first examination.
The process is easy, but one thing must be remembered. Changes are irreversible.
The last word of the sentence brought his austere and inalterable reality crashing down upon him. He couldn’t gather the willpower to feel pity for himself, let alone for those that he had killed indifferently. Not only that, but the world around him was stuck in a freeze-frame of time. A thousand stories of tomorrow would never see the light of day. George pressed himself against the window and let his tears trickle down his face.
“George,” a voice called from behind the distraught forty-six year old.
George spun around in surprise. Hank was standing in the center of the room, arms folded, and a look of disappointment on his face. “Is that really you, Hank? Surely I must be hallucinating.”
“Then how…how are you moving?”
Hank unfolded his arms and placed his hands in his pocket. “A certain immunity from the laws of that book, which I see you didn’t read with as much caution as you probably should have.”
George didn’t quite understand the janitor.
“I’m an angel, George,” Hank declared. “Your guardian angel, in fact.”
George’s mind played a slideshow of images of his past that he had forgotten. A man, brown skinned and shaggy, was a part of every one of them. That man on the corner that had always unnerved him as a child as George passed by, or that Good Samaritan that held the door for him…Hank was a ever-present visual in each memory. “It’s not possible! I don’t believe in that sort of thing!” He tried to shake the notion from him, but it was like a straightjacket, and it never let go of him.
“I gave you that book as a final chance for a man desperate and perhaps partially insane. Of course my decision was reluctant, but I was foolish enough to believe that you would prove me wrong. I thought you would do what you said and more, but instead you kill four dozen people and stopped time forever!” Hank’s voice reached a yell as he finished the last sentence. “You had potential…you know that? I could see the change in your eyes last night, but this morning it wasn’t the eyes of the same gleaming man I saw! You corrupted yourself! Why were you so ignorant?”
“I didn’t think it would have amounted to this.”
“George, George,” Hank put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “You should have realized after your first little test run with the water that this wasn’t something to be taken so lightly.”
“If I had known that this was irreversible, I wouldn’t have—“
“I’m sure you wouldn’t have. Yet you lied to me about reading the prologue and now you have forced yourself into a horrible situation that neither of us have the power to amend!”
George threw the book down on the hard carpet with all his might and screamed. “Then what am I to do?”
Hank’s face cleared of red splotches, and he was calm again. “You have created for yourself an artificial Hell. There is no way to reverse it. So that leaves you with this grim ultimatum. Kill yourself, take your own life just like you so foolishly took those of your neighbors and colleagues, or live your pathetic and miserable life until you can build up the courage to do the deed. Time will not age you, so you have a long time to sit around and ponder the decision, George.”
George felt a cold sweat perspire on his brow. “I don’t have the will to throw myself out the window, or slit my wrists, or anything of the sort right now.”
Hank asked, “Then it seems you’ve chosen the other option?”
George nodded sheepishly, his head hung low.
“Very well then. Until you decide to end your existence, you can take a vacation. I’m sure the views from the eastern beaches of Hawaii are magnificent. The sun should be rising right now. You always wanted to see that, didn’t you?”
Again, George shook his head in compliance.
Hank began to walk away, but added grimly, “And while you’re there, I’d be sure to prepare a plea for the devil, because God has already judged your soul.”
The door slammed shut, and George was left alone with the book at his feet.