Observer effect

I wrote this for Quantum Shorts , a competition for flash fiction inspired by quantum mechanics.  I’d really recommend reading the winner Acceptable Loss by Polish writer Przemysław Zańko – a punchy story strong on emotions, with a double twist. You could imagine it being in Amazing Stories. 


I’m walking in the park again. Or I think I’m walking in the park again. I’m not sure any more.

It’s high summer. It’s cold, but dry, and there’s still a thin band of red light, low in the west, making black shadows of the crowded tenements.

I take out my phone: 01:11:11… 12… 13… The seconds pass by, marked by the liquid crystals twisting and straightening, twisting and straightening, twisting and straightening.

The phone goes back in my front jeans pocket. It feels warm. When I get back to the hostel I’ll put it on to charge.

I don’t like the hostel. I don’t feel safe there, especially at night. I don’t like institutions. They give you all their rules, and all their procedures, and all their laws for living, but they can never, ever do the basics. They can’t keep you safe. They won’t keep you safe. They’ve never kept me safe.

So I walk the streets and parks at night and at 10 in the morning, I go back. I go back to my boxroom and lock the door. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I look at my phone. Sometimes I sleep. Most of the time I lie on my bed, looking at the two bare electric wires sticking out from the wall above my head. I don’t know if they’re live or not. I’ve told them about it, but they won’t come to see. Sometimes my hand reaches out to test it, to put an end to the uncertainty, but so far I’ve always pulled it back, or just let gravity pull my arm back down to the mattress.

Too much. Too much in my head. The thoughts going round, and round and round. The same thoughts. My job. My wife. My daughter. The university. That time I saw my dead dad on the bus. The police. The clinic. The darkened strip lights. The same dark thoughts, ever orbiting. I can’t escape them.

Last year I threw myself from a bridge. I can still feel the rush of the air on my face. When I woke up in hospital, I panicked and screamed. They gave me injections. My jaw was broken. My hip was broken. When I got out, when they sent me back to the hostel, I used my jaw as an excuse not to talk to people.

Because I’d noticed that when I talked to people on the streets, they would never speak back. It wasn’t just that they didn’t hear me, it was like they didn’t even see me. They never looked at me. It was like I was never there. That I was unobserved. It was easier not to talk to them.

That was before the bridge, but after the motorway. About eighteen months ago I walked across the motorway. I went there at night, across the fields and down through the brush trees on the steep embankment. I saw a roe deer hiding in the shrubs just a few feet from the speeding cars. I kept my eyes fixed on a lamp-post in the central reservation and stepped out from the hard shoulder. When I got to the fence, I turned round and walked back. Nothing happened. I don’t think anything happened.

But I’m not sure. The cars. The motorway. The people not seeing me. The bridge. Each day so like the day before. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I walk up the hill at the edge of the park. As I leave the path and step out onto the grass, I can feel the texture of the ground change under my boots. That must mean something. I can feel it getting steeper.

At the summit, the hill comes to an end. There’s a steep cliff on the other side of the slope. People throw themselves off of it sometimes. There’s a fence. I can smell leaves and grass and honeysuckle on the gentle wind blowing in my face.

I stop and look at my phone again. 01.11.35.

On the fence there’s a sign with a phone number. A crisis line. I look back at my phone. I dial the number. A voice.

“Crisis line. How can I help?”

“I… You’re going to think I’m mad. This is going to sound mad. But, can you hear me?”

“Yes. Yes, I can hear you.”

“I… I sometimes think I’m dead. I’m not sure if I’m alive or dead. I don’t know if this is real. Can you tell me if I’m alive.”

“I… well you’re speaking to me. Do you not feel that you’re alive?”

“Well, there are only two possibilities: yes or no.”

“Well, I’d say, yes. You’re alive.”

I feel a wave of relief pass through my mind. I collapse onto my knees, leaning against the fence.

I can still hear the voice from the phone: “Hello? Hello? Are you still there?”

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