He’d pissed himself again.
Thaddeus felt the familiar wet warmth saturate his diaper, one large enough to fit on a 16-year-old’s body. Perhaps he would feel ashamed if it weren’t the third time it had happened that day. And besides, who did he have to impress? The nurses? His fellow roommates?
His unmoving eyes observed them now, the eight other permanent residents of Miss Barker’s Group Home for Disabled Youth. Four on his left, four on his right. It never changed. It was like a TV show that you’re forced to watch every day, and you can’t change the channel or shut it off. You can’t even close your eyes, or turn your head to look away. Because Thaddeus’s body was literally incapable of performing those tasks. He was incapable of performing anything, such as standing up, saying hello, flexing a muscle, or deciding when to expel his urine, which now soaked his inescapable diaper. He couldn’t even blink on command. He was trapped.
His attention was drawn to Tabitha, who repeatedly rubbed her scalp back and forth across the well-worn headrest of her wheelchair, her eyes constantly looking up at nothing as her jaw twitched. At least she could move. He couldn’t.
Not yet, at least.
He had overheard his diagnosis many times, the words total locked-in syndrome, transferred between doctors and nurses, nurses and his parents. Conversations held right in front of him, information passing strictly from point A to point B, without a single glance cast towards his paralyzed eyes. As if he wasn’t even there.
Miguel, who was sitting directly to Thaddeus’s left, suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, clapping his hands together. If Thaddeus could contort his lips and voluntarily pass air over his vocal cords, he would ask what was so funny. But he couldn’t speak.
Not yet, at least.
His brain was functioning just fine, but the connection between it and his body was severed. Like a lone hiker stuck at the top of a mountain, with no radio contact between him and everyone else on the ground. It had been like this for as long as he could remember.
But he was never able to express his misery or frustration to anyone. Not even his parents. They knew the gears were turning in his head through MRI and CT scans. A picture of a bird would be shown, his brain waves would react. Then, a picture of black-and-white shapes, and a different brain wave reaction followed. Proof that he was aware of his surroundings, and that something was going on upstairs.
Gregory, the most functioning one of the group, slowly turned the pages of a colorful animal book resting in front of him. His jaw remained slack as his eyes scanned over the images, occasionally naming creatures that he recognized out loud. The sound of his voice grated on Thaddeus’s nerves, as it did every day. He wanted to get up and snatch that book from him, to hide it somewhere in the house. But he’d never be able to leave his bed.
Not yet, at least.
Like his parents, and the nurses and the doctors, Thaddeus knew what was wrong with his broken body from an early age. It was evident he would never feed or dress himself, never play games or sing a simple melody. Never ride a bike to school, never drive a car. Never get a job, never buy a house. Never get married, or have children of his own.
Samantha, whose parents were just leaving from a short visit, received a kiss from her mother on the cheek, and a tight, squeezing embrace from her father. Her eyes were glassy, and motionless, like her body. She was new to the house, replacing Joshua, who got moved last week. Samantha was pretty.
His attention shifted to the clock on the wall, knowing that any minute now, the overweight nurse would come in to administer everyone’s medication. The time had almost come, but not yet.
Thaddeus’s caregivers were well aware of his physical limitations, but there was one secret that he kept all to himself. Something that he had known since he was just a baby. Something their MRI and CT scans couldn’t observe. Something that could never be explained, and that he didn’t quite understand himself. But every day it would happen, or rather, he would make it happen, and it was the only thing in his life he ever had control over.
The large nurse burst through the door, right on schedule, holding the medication tray in front of her oversized chest. It was almost his time, but not yet. Too many of his roommates still had him in their peripheral vision. Too many witnesses. They may not be able to tell on him, to describe exactly what went wrong between the second he decided the time had come, and the second that followed, but he didn’t want to scare them.
He had done that in the past, acted when the timing wasn’t right. By its very nature, his secret could not be witnessed by anyone, but the consequences of it could. At first, it confused his parents, and then it frightened them. They couldn’t understand how their baby, silent and motionless and helpless, could change positions within the blink of an eye. How they could be reading a book to their severely handicapped toddler one second, and in the very next hear his body collapse on the other side of the house.
Even when he got it under control, when he picked the perfect moment, they would still look at their son with fear and anxiety, wondering when the next inexplicable incident would occur. It nearly drove them insane. He almost couldn’t blame them for leaving him in this group home.
No, he had to wait until the exact right moment, when the entire room’s attention was on the nurse, and her attention wasn’t on him. It almost came, when her back was turned, and all eyes were on her. The only one not cooperating was that pretty girl, Samantha, whose eyes were still affixed where her parents had been a few minutes ago. But she seemed completely brain-dead, oblivious to the world around her. She wouldn’t notice if the room was going up in flames, much less comprehend the subtle after effects of his secret.
And he couldn’t wait any longer. The time had finally come.
Somewhere, deep inside his trapped mind, Thaddeus flipped an intangible switch. He didn’t know how it got there, or what exactly its purpose was. But he had found it a long time ago, and had used it every day ever since. The walls began to tremor, shaking violently. Only he could see this, only he could feel it. The static image of the room and his roommates before him blurred and blurred, until it was an indecipherable glob of light and color. And then, it all refocused, coming back into view.
The second hand on the clock ticked one last time, and then stopped.
Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.
Everything in the room was frozen. Time was frozen. Nobody moved, no sound was made. For all he knew, the whole world had stopped spinning, just because he made it happen. And for the first time that day, everyone else was motionless, and he was the one walking around.
Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.
The first thing he did was strip down, removing his soiled diaper and getting into a fresh set of clothes. He couldn’t stand the feeling of his privates bathed in urine. He couldn’t stand the smell. He walked his filthy “underpants” to the nearest trash can and tossed them in with ease. Like a lone basketball player shooting hoops in an empty arena.
The next order of business was confiscating that damn animal book from Gregory’s frozen fingers. Thaddeus leaned forward, bringing his face right in front of the dark-haired boy, waving his hand just inches from those motionless eyes. As if Gregory could somehow still see him. As if he hadn’t carried out this bizarre routine everyday he had lived here, each time inciting no response from the helpless mannequins around him.
And as he expected, Gregory’s eyes betrayed nothing. This day was no different than the last. Thaddeus took the battered book, and hid it behind Tabitha, whose headrest-rubbing had finally stopped, along with all her other movement. Putting the book there was a little cruel, as the bewildered Gregory would inevitably blame Tabitha for its disappearance. But Thaddeus couldn’t help but laugh, the sound of his rarely-used voice bouncing around in the otherwise utter silence.
After that, Thaddeus’ little personal window outside of time was wide open. He walked around the halls of the group home, reveling in the sensation of independent mobility. He stopped in the kitchen to raid the cupboards, grabbing cookies and chips to gorge himself on. When your only form of food comes as a paste through a tube into your abdomen, being able to shove tasty snacks in your mouth is an unparalleled experience.
He wanted to take a pudding cup from the fridge, but there was already a nurse there, her ass permanently in the air as she was stuck bent over, reaching for something on the top shelf. If he took the pudding cup, she would definitely notice it disappear when time resumed. Maybe tomorrow.
Before Thaddeus left the kitchen, he splayed his fingers, and brought them down hard on the nurse’s rear end, the loud smack mixing with the sound of his boisterous chuckle. But then his laughing stopped. He stared at her body for a moment longer, realizing he could do much more to her, and she would never know. After all, he was a red-blooded teen boy, wasn’t he? Being completely motionless for the rest of the day, when else in his life would he ever get to gratify himself?
He didn’t linger on this thought for very long, though, because it gave him a sickening feeling. One of guilt and shame. He knew what it felt like, to be paralyzed and helpless while someone violated your body. It had happened to him before, a long time ago. He could never do that to someone else. And so, because of this resolution, he would never be able to satisfy this most primal of desires, to touch the warm skin of a willing and conscious person. Never. He quickly walked out of the kitchen.
He wasn’t sure how much time he had left, because the clock, along with everything else, had stopped. He only had a rough estimate of how many minutes each window held each day. He had guessed maybe twenty-five minutes—or, what felt like twenty-five minutes—to do whatever he wanted, before his body would surrender control as it got sucked back into real time.
He spent the rest of his time rift sitting outside the group home, staring at the suspended cars in the street in front of him, the birds hanging in the air, and a child on the sidewalk, frozen in mid-stride, as if his foot was stuck in the cement. All of them waiting to resume their day, to get back to reality. Where things made sense, and worked like they’re supposed to. When they would be in control again, and he would be helpless.
He gazed at the sun, its heat and brilliance even seeming stale and unmoving. He wished he could feel a breeze roll across his face, or hear a dog barking. Perhaps the sound of someone’s voice, and follow it to its source. To finally talk to someone for once in his life. But none of that happened. He could do anything he wanted, but he would be doing it alone.
Though he probably had a little time left, he walked back into the group home, and returned to his hospital bed. Sometimes twenty-five minutes to himself was too long. But before Thaddeus laid down, he noticed something in his bed. A small piece of paper. He snatched it up, his eyes scrolling across the handwritten text.
Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.
Thaddeus squinted his eyes, reading it again and again, confusion fogging him. What did that mean? Was this note left for him? No, that’s impossible. Who would leave a note for someone with total locked-in syndrome? And under their ass, no less? It must have been dropped there on accident. Probably by one of the nurses, while they were changing him. Maybe it was a reminder they wrote for themselves, and it had fallen out of their pocket and into his bed. Yes, that must have been it. No one would leave a note for him. That wouldn’t make any sense.
Pushing strange notions from his mind, he crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash, then plopped down in his bed, positioning himself to where he had been right before the clock stopped. The walls began to shake again, the image before him getting blurry. He could feel the control leaving his body. And then, it all refocused, and things started moving again. Time had resumed.
For the rest of that day, and all the next morning, Thaddeus couldn’t get 10:18 A.M. out of his mind. As much as he told himself that the note wasn’t meant for him, he couldn’t help but feel that it was. He laid motionless, propped up in his bed, all of his attention on the clock. Paranoid thoughts teased him, making him wonder if anything would happen when that time came.
But then the hands struck 10:19 A.M. that next day, and nothing had happened. His body was already in a constant state of relaxation, and now his mind could finally join it. His ridiculous, anxious notions amounted to nothing, and things were back to the way they had always been. In fact, everyone’s attention was on the TV screen now, that same damn cartoon playing on it again. It was the perfect time. He reached into his mind, and flipped the invisible switch. The walls shook, and the clock hands stopped at 10:20.
He stood up again, poised to journey through the silent halls of his group home, but something nagged at his mind. Something he couldn’t shake. It induced an eerie feeling of fear and curiosity. He had to know. He slowly craned his neck, his eyes falling onto the bed he had just risen from. It was empty. No note, nothing. He let out a sigh of relief, and dropped his pants to remove his soiled diaper.
And that’s when he saw it, a piece of paper stuck to the back of his pants. His hand trembled as he picked it up, bringing the text to his eyes.
Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.
His eyes darted around the room, searching in vain for any clues as to how the note got there again, and why it was there. Who had put it there. He looked at it again, realizing it was in the same handwriting as the day before. But he also noticed something else there, something faint. He turned the note over, and found a single letter: S.
He looked around the room again, until his eyes fell onto the pretty new girl, up ahead and to his right. The one who can’t talk or move or even blink.
The note fell from his hand, a horrifying sensation coming over him. It was the odd yet unmistakable feeling that someone knew his astounding secret, and was in that very room with him. How could she possibly know about him? Is she locked-in too, able to witness and comprehend everything around her, including the nuanced evidence of his secret? Had he not been careful enough?
And then a chilling realization hit him, that, beyond knowing his secret, she was actually able to write him a note, and leave it in his bed. Did she possess a similar secret as his?
He slowly laid back down in his bed, keeping his eyes on Samantha. He didn’t move, and he hardly breathed. For the first time in his life, while everyone and everything around him was motionless, so was he. And he stayed that way, until the walls shook, his vision blurred and refocused, and time resumed.
His attention never left Samantha, and she never moved. The hours seemed to crawl at an agonizing pace. He had eagerly awaited the passing of a day before, but this was absolute torture. He didn’t know what would happen at 10:18 A.M. the next day, but he needed to find out.
In time, Thaddeus fell asleep, and awoke the next day, anxiety gripping him, giving the feeling of a knife in his chest. Samantha was still there, still not moving. Yet he knew she was conscious of everything around her, watching the day unfold. Watching him. The minutes ticked away, all the while making him feel as if he were about to explode, until the hands finally reached 10:17 A.M.
One minute left to go.
He was afraid. He didn’t know what to expect, what he should do, or how to prepare himself. In truth, there was no way he could. His only option was to go into the unknown, and hope something horrible wouldn’t happen.
He flipped his inner switch, and as the walls shook and his vision blurred and his body gained control over itself, he shut his eyes tight. He wasn’t ready for things to change, for everything he had ever known to be turned upside-down. He wasn’t ready for his universe to implode.
The voice cut into his ears, making his heart beat faster than he thought possible. His sweaty palms gripped his sheets, his knees shook with tension. This was real, this was happening. He wasn’t the only one like this. He wasn’t alone. But he still wasn’t ready.
He heard the soft steps of a light body come his way, stopping just a few feet in front of him. He could hear her breathing, he could feel her presence, he could smell her. Luckily, the nurse had changed him right before this, so he didn’t reek of piss.
She took another step towards him. “Hey. I’m Samantha.”
Thaddeus finally opened his eyes, the girl’s smiling face filling his vision. She wasn’t frozen, but swayed slightly as she stood. Her hand was extended to him for a shake, a gesture completely foreign to him. No one would expect a vegetable to shake their hand. He stretched out his arm, and placed his hand in hers. He felt overwhelmed by the shared, mutual contact.
He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but realized he had never spoken his name in his life before. Heard it, yes, many times. But never spoken it. He struggled for a moment longer, before simply settling on, “Hey.”
And even saying that felt uncomfortable.
“Not used to talking, friend?” Samantha said, her eyebrow raised. He shook his head. “I understand. But I already know your name. It’s Thaddeus, right?”
He didn’t respond. Of all the things he wanted to know about Samantha, whether or not she knew his name wasn’t one of them. He had a million questions for her, but couldn’t will his voice to ask them. He had no way to express his bewilderment over what was taking place. It was very frustrating. He grimaced, and pointed to the clock. “H-h-how?”
“How is this happening?”
“I’m not exactly sure myself. I’ve been able to stop time for as long as I can remember. And I thought I was the only one in the world who could… until I noticed you, last week. One second your right arm was resting on your stomach, and the next it was your left. Pretty impressive for a guy who doesn’t move the other 23 hours and 59 seconds of the day.”
Thaddeus laughed at this, but then quickly silenced himself, wondering if his guffaw sounded weird to the first person other than himself to ever hear it. His face became red. But Samantha laughed too, and grabbed his hand again, pulling him up in his bed. “You’re stuck in that thing the whole rest of the damn day. I’d want to get on my feet if I were you. Follow me to the kitchen.” She passed by the seven other motionless roommates, and weaved around the large nurse, moving toward the hall. Thaddeus quickly followed her, still not sure if all this was actually happening.
“Now, as far as the two of us meeting like this, I had no idea that was going to work. Just thought I’d give it a shot. And sorry for the notes, by the way. I didn’t mean to scare you. Did I scare you?”
“N-n-no,” Thaddeus said, wondering why he lied.
“And sorry if the note was a little vague. I didn’t want to be too obvious, in case one of the nurses happened to read it.” They arrived in the kitchen, and Samantha stopped by the fridge, leaning her back against it, arms crossed. “So, from what I can tell, you can stop time whenever you want, once a day. Right?” He nodded.
“Well, I can do it two times a day, but only at 10:18 A.M. and 10:18 P.M.”
“T-two?” Thaddeus asked, completely shocked, and, perhaps a little jealous.
“Relax,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not as great as you’d think. You know how many chances I missed, just because someone happened to be looking my way when the clock struck 10:18? Or I happened to be sleeping?” She sighed as she shook her head again, and opened the refrigerator door. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t waste time complaining about things I can’t change. You want a pudding cup?”
Thaddeus nodded, and she handed one to him, and a plastic spoon from a nearby counter. She began to devour her pudding greedily, offering genuine smiles between bites, but he just stood there, still and silent, watching her. He wondered how she could be so at ease in a situation like this, or how she was able to talk so free and easy. And so much.
“Y-y-y…” he started, wrestling with the words he wanted to say. He imagined his struggling lips and jaw looked ridiculous. He felt embarrassed again. “Y-y-you t-t-t-talk… a-a-a-a-a…”
“I talk a lot?” Samantha guessed, and he nodded again, grinning sheepishly. “And why would a girl who has no one to talk to talk so much?”
“Y-yeah,” he uttered.
She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”
She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”
She led him back out to the common room, stopping in front of Miguel’s wheelchair. Miguel’s eyes were closed, and Thaddeus wasn’t sure if he had been sleeping when they stopped time, or just happened to be frozen mid-blink. “I got bored a long time ago, and had to find ways to entertain myself. Here, watch this.” She put her thumbs on the kid’s eyelids, pulling them up to open them. She placed her hand on his head, and moved it back and forth, as if he were a doll. Whichever way she posed him, he stayed that way.
Then, she grabbed Miguel’s chin, moving it up and down. “Hi, Thaddeus!” she said in a mock voice, manipulating the kid like a puppet. “My name is Miguel. Do you want to hear a joke?”
Thaddeus didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he liked this or not.
“Why wouldn’t the clock cooperate?” she said, syncing her words with the movement of Miguel’s mouth. “Because it was ticked off!” Her fingers pulled the unwilling jaw up and down, making Miguel laugh, then brought his hands to together, mocking the fit of clapping he would often break into.
But it wasn’t Miguel doing this. He had no control or say in the matter, no awareness. It reminded Thaddeus of a few days before, when shameful thoughts crossed his mind, looking at that nurse in the kitchen. And maybe Samantha’s ventriloquist act wasn’t as depraved as those thoughts, but it still didn’t seem right, and Thaddeus couldn’t bring himself to laugh.
Samantha noticed his silent indignation, and stopped laughing herself. “What’s wrong, Thad? Didn’t think the joke was funny?”
He couldn’t answer her. There was no way he would be able to describe his objection, with only his grossly insufficient language skills to convey it. And even if he could explain, doing so might reveal too much about himself. This girl was still a stranger to him. Instead, he took her hands off of Miguel, and rearranged his body so that it was back the way it was before she had manipulated it, ending with closing the boy’s eyes.
“Oh,” Samantha said quietly, her face lowering in shame. “Sorry. I see what you mean. It’s just… It’s just that I got so tired of being alone, ya know? So tired of finally having the ability to move and speak, but no one to interact with.” Thaddeus nodded slowly, beginning to understand the reason for her actions. He had felt this way many times before. “So I made friends for myself. I gave myself some people to talk to, even if it wasn’t really them talking. But I guess that’s kinda messed up.”
Her face became somber, and she started to walk away, but Thaddeus stopped her, grabbing her hand. She looked up at him, and he smiled. “M-m-m-me,” he said.
Her eyes widened, and her lips turned up, mirroring his optimism. She wasn’t alone anymore, and neither was he. After sixteen years of solitude, years filled with bitter feelings and unanswered questions about this strange ability he possessed, he finally had someone to talk to, someone who shared his loneliness and frustration and grief. He wasn’t alone anymore.
The two of them spent the remaining time walking freely around the halls of their group home. He would run, she would chase. She would talk, he would listen. They laughed together at the funny expressions frozen on people’s faces. At times his skin would accidentally brush against hers, and they would stop to smile at each other, giggling at the foreign occurrence.
When their time was nearly over, they both returned to their beds, ready to go back to reality. “Same time tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, already feeling more comfortable talking.
“Good. And you’d better not stand me up, buddy. I know where to find you.”
The two shared one last laugh together, before the walls began to shake, the image of the room blurred, and time sucked them back into their beds, their bodies helpless once again. He kept his attention on her the whole day, and the thought that hers was on him gave a warm feeling in his chest. He couldn’t wait until their next meeting.
10:17 P.M. rolled around, and everyone else in the room was asleep, except for Thaddeus and Samantha. He knew she would be stopping the clock for her second time that day, and it ached him that he couldn’t join her. And when the clock struck 10:18, and the second had passed, he noticed a slight change in her position, knowing that in that rift in time she had ruled the group home without him. He wondered where she went, what she ate. And even though he couldn’t laugh, he actually giggled inside at the thought her moving his mouth up and down, making him talk. He wouldn’t have minded.
But he also noticed something else, something very faint, almost impossible to detect. It was a slight warmth on his right cheek, and the tiniest hint of moisture on its skin. He knew what it was: his new friend had given him a secret kiss. And he wanted nothing more than to get up out of his bed, and give her one in return. But he couldn’t.
Not yet, at least.