Laurie went to work that day with a permanent smile on her face. She felt positively radiant. That day, she had done the craziest thing she’d ever (consciously) done, and it made her feel like she was in control of her own destiny again. If she could, just on a lark, summon up the courage to participate in an event like that, surely she could overcome some little post-hypnotic compulsion.
And besides that, it put the last week-and-a-half in perspective. She’d just proven to herself that it didn’t matter to her if some total strangers saw her naked body. Let them gawk! Let them stare! She had nothing to hide.
That didn’t make the whole trance thing acceptable, of course. It was still a violation of her free will, an assault on her dignity, a theft of her hard-earned money, and a waste of her time. But it wasn’t the end of the world.
After work, she stopped off at home to change again before going swimming with the bookees. This time, she didn’t hesitate to put on her skimpiest two-piece, the draw-string bikini that had been gathering lint in the back of her closet ever since she bought it a few years ago, wore a it a few times, decided it was too revealing, and put it away. Now she put it on and sized herself up in her mirror.
She fancied she could see some improvements in her physique since implementing her workout regimen. It was a revealing suit, that was true—not obscene, but just a bit too daring for Laurie’s taste. But she remembered how it felt to stand bare-skinned in front of that crowd, a few square inches of thong the only thing hiding her body, and she knew this bikini wasn’t a big deal. She lathered up with sunscreen, pulled on some jean shorts and a t-shirt over her suit, tucked a towel into her bike’s rear-mounted carrier rack, and set off.
Her friends all had positive things to say about her “new” swimsuit. Jean pointed out that she was in a remarkably good mood, which Laurie couldn’t deny.
“It’s just been a good day,” she said. They were paddling around in the shallow end, soaking up sunlight. “The weather’s great (other than being hot-as-hell of course), work was smooth, and this morning was... fun.”
“Yeah?” said Jean, “What’s his name?”
It took Laurie a moment to work out what Jean was implying, but then she rolled her eyes. “There’s no one new. It’s nothing like that.”
“Really? But you came into work late, and you missed the softball game...”
“Yeah, I just decided to have a Saturday morning to myself for once,” said Laurie. “I never have a proper weekend, and it was nice to blow off some steam.”
“Yeah, I know how that is,” said Jean. “Say, did you ever get that computer virus thing straightened out?”
“Oh... That?” Laurie shrugged. “I wound up having to take it into the shop. It should be fighting-fit here in another few days.”
“Oh no! I feel responsible, I mean, if it came from my email...”
“Don’t, it’s not your fault. You... probably weren’t even aware of what you were doing.”
A beat of silence, and then, “Well no, of course I didn’t know that clip had a virus.”
Laurie smiled ingratiatingly. “Exactly, so it’s nobody’s fault.”
“So did you ever, um,” said Jean, but she fell silent. She turned over on her back in the water and let herself float.
“What?” Laurie stood up on the bottom, and the water came up to breast level. Her interest was peaked, hoping maybe Jean was about to confess some level of awareness of the nature of the virus.
“Oh, nothing, I lost my train of thought. So what did you do this morning instead of softball?
Laurie shrugged. “Went for a run, did some shopping, had a big breakfast, slept in a bit.”
“Ah. Sounds nice.”
That night, Laurie dreamed of waking up, once again naked and disoriented. As usual, she had no memory of the preceding night. But this was different. She was ensconced in pitch darkness, lying on a very soft, large bed, unfamiliar blankets cradling her slick flesh without covering her up.
She could feel that her body was covered in some warm, slippery-sticky fluid. She felt it between her toes, clinging to the fine hairs of her legs, slicking the hot space between her thighs, splashed on her belly and her breasts, drenching her hands and arms, smudged across her cheeks and forehead, matting her hair. On a strange impulse, Laurie lifted her left hand to her face and licked it along the side, between the wrist and the thumb.
It was delicious. It tasted exactly like sweet chocolate sauce, but indescribably better—pure ecstasy. Laurie found herself licking her skin feverishly, first licking her hands clean, making sure to get between each finger, then starting on her forearms.
The room was flooded then with pulses of electric red and blue light. There was a police car parked outside, its lights illuminating the room through the window, blinds open and casting thin horizontal shadows over the room with every fresh pulse.
Laurie saw the room she was in for the first time in dim flashes of monochromatic red and blue. There was a human form in the bed next to her, lying motionless. Laurie felt a thrill of fear, but couldn’t stop herself licking the chocolatey substance off her arms.
The door burst open and the lights flared bright and fluorescent in the room. A police officer stood in the doorway, gun held in trembling hands, face stricken, and horrified.
Laurie saw herself then from a third-person view, naked and feral, drenched and glistening in deep-red arterial blood, and devouring that blood with abandon. The faceless body beside her was that of a naked man, his abdomen ripped open and guts spilling out.
Laurie woke in the safety of her own bed, dry and clean, her own cotton nightshirt gripping her skin reassuringly. Morning light streamed in through the blinds, her computer was off, and she was beneath her blankets. She was trembling almost uncontrollably and thought for a moment she might vomit. Faintly in the back of her throat, she could still taste something sickly-sweet, tinged with a metallic essence.
It was just 7:30. She’d had six hours of sleep, and her alarm wasn’t scheduled to go off until 8, but there was no way in hell she was going back to sleep. She turned off her alarm and went to the restroom to wash her face.
By the time she finished her morning workout, Laurie felt well enough for a light breakfast. Afterward she worked from 9:30 to 3.
As the day progressed, the dread planted in her heart from the dream settled into the pit of her stomach and slowly transmuted. It began as a stroke of fear, but developed into a near-certainty as she came near to the end of her shift. She could say confidently, without knowing how she knew, that this night would be a black-out night. The more she thought about it, the more she knew it must be. It occurred to her that she’d blacked out last Sunday, and that it had happened two Thursdays in a row, but never on Friday or Saturday, and it struck her that it might happen at predictable intervals. She would have to wait a couple of weeks to know for sure, of course... But at the very least, she had the undeniable feeling that this day would be one. Besides, it hadn’t happened for two days, and it never gave her more time than that.
Armed with this knowledge, Laurie formulated a plan. If she knew it was coming, maybe she could stop it.
After work, Laurie went home and dug a stack of sticky notes out of her desk. She wrote an exhortation on each note: “Snap out of it!” “Fight it!” “You have a choice!” and she tacked up several of them around her room—around the screen of the laptop, over the lens of the webcam, on the door to her closet, on her bathroom mirror. Then she went out into the kitchen.
Mikaela was lying on the couch reading a magazine.
“I’m going for a long drive,” said Laurie.
Mikaela looked up from her reading. “Yeah? Where to?”
“I’m not totally sure,” said Laurie, “I just feel like driving.”
“Want some company?”
Now, there was an idea... How would Mikaela react if she went into zombie-ho mode somewhere an hour outside of town? She might have been able to talk Laurie back to normal... But then Laurie would have to tell her everything, and her terrible secret would be revealed. At the thought of this, Laurie felt a wash of paralyzing fear. “Thanks,” she replied, “but I might be out pretty late.”
“How late are you thinking?”
Laurie shrugged. “Hopefully not until... maybe 2 in the morning?”
“Do you not work tomorrow?”
Laurie shook her head. “Nope. And I think this will really clear my head.”
Mikaela set down her magazine and sat up on the sofa. “Laurie, is something wrong?”
Yes, yes, god yes. Help me. “No... Nothing definable. I guess I’m just feeling restless.”
Mikaela stared at her searchingly for a moment longer, then she shrugged and picked up her magazine. “Well, don’t be out too late, puppy-cat.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, kitten-whiskers.”
Laurie climbed into her Beetle and tacked up more sticky notes. She put one on the top-center of the steering wheel, a few around the periphery of the windshield, one on the back of the sun guard, one on her seat belt buckle, and one on each of her shirt sleeves. Then she made her way down to the highway and left town heading west. She hoped somehow the distance between her and the computer would discourage the change. Or, if distance and affirmational sticky notes didn’t do the trick, she hoped by the time she fell into trance she would be too far away to do anything about it. If she could get a few hours out, her tranced self might not make it back in time.
And so she found herself on a little two lane road, a hundred and fifty miles from town and deep in the hill country by the time it grew dark. Out of range of all her radio stations, Laurie blared an old favorite album and rolled down the windows, more certain with each passing mile that she had found a solution at last. She sang along to Chutes Too Narrow, felt the warm, heavy breeze whipping her curls around, breathing in the rich scent of cedar trees and oak mulch. Whenever it occurred to her, she took a moment to read aloud the notes hanging around her, and—
Laurie woke to her alarm clock buzzing again. Before opening her eyes, she looked back at the previous evening to see if she remembered coming back home, if there was any indication that she had been successful, but she couldn’t recall anything. No, it had not worked. She was naked as ever, the camera was still rolling, and her trench coat lay on the floor in the middle of her room, along with her new hat. The sticky notes were still posted around her room unmolested, except for the one that she had put on the lens of the webcam. That note was nowhere to be seen.
Laurie made a frustrated growl, but she was careful not to exclaim too loudly. She didn’t want a repeat of last Monday morning. Instead she took a series of deep, ragged breaths, unplugged the camera, washed her face, took her vitamin, dressed for a work out, and went jogging.
During her run, Laurie reflected that at least she didn’t recall any of her sordid actions. It seemed the “black curtain” that separated her from her trance state had been repaired. And she’d been right when she predicted she would black out. Did that mean there really was a set schedule? Or did some small part of her mind know it all along?
Laurie bit her lip. How could a part of her not know? It was she herself who was doing it. The crazy thing was not that she finally saw it coming, but that she ever didn’t.
After finishing her jog and taking a shower, Laurie stood in front of her bathroom mirror. In the way of her reflection was a sticky note that read, “You are not a slave.” She took it down.
The reflection that looked back at her bore no evidence of outside control. She saw no trace of vacancy in her eyes, no glimpse of some other creature lurking under her features. She saw only herself—skin pale but slightly sunburned. Faded brown freckles splashed over her cheekbones. Eyes golden-brown and, at the moment, silently pleading. Lips an unpainted pink, gathered in a slight frown. Wild blonde hair dangling in aggressively curled locks. The tips, dyed Mediterranean blue, were losing their color, becoming faded and uneven. It was time to dye them again. This time, though, something warmer. Maybe orange.
It wasn’t yet 9 AM, and Laurie didn’t have to go to work. She wanted to spend the day getting a head start on her reading, but she had plenty of time to fix her hair.
Having wiped up the mess and made sure nothing was stained with orange dye, Laurie stood in front of her mirror yet again. She liked the new look. She thought she looked something like a lion, with a wild yellow mane fringed in burnt orange. It even brought out the gold in her eyes. She curled her right hand into a claw by her face and gave her reflection a few spirited roars. This made her seem more like a kitten than a lion, though, so she stopped.
Feeling good about her change, Laurie settled in with the next book she was scheduled to review. The bookees called her around 3 o’clock to go swimming, but she blew them off. It was an addictive book, and she felt she needed to put more time into her reviews. They’d been lacking, the last couple of weeks. She needed to be reading more thoroughly and writing more thoughtfully. She even kept a notebook on hand and jotted a few notes as she went along—something she’d never bothered doing before.
When she was finally satisfied with her progress for the day, Laurie met up with her friends for dinner, and she felt comfortable in her hunch that this wouldn’t be a black-out night.
She got plenty of compliments about the new hair color at work the next day. Laurie was beginning to love her job more than ever. It was the one place where, more than anywhere else, she could take her mind off her problem and just live her life. She didn’t mind cataloging or stocking or any of the related menial tasks nearly as much as she used to, and anyway, she found those things didn’t take much time to do when she put her full attention on them. In fact, with the recent strains on her budget, she could stand to be working more. She asked her boss about picking up some extra shifts over the weekend.
“Very funny,” said Angela. Angela was a wiry new-age enthusiast nearing fifty. Her long, dark hair was laced with gray strands and streaks of red dye, and her leathery, tanned arms were heavily tattooed.
Laurie smiled at the joke she didn’t get and said, “Huh?”
“You requested the weekend off, remember?”
Laurie furrowed her brow. “I did? When?”
“Thursday, you called me. What happened, did your plans fall through?”
“Oh...” What the hell was going on? “You sure that was me?”
Angela gave her a funny look and said, “Yeah. You said you had important plans and you absolutely had to have this weekend off. You told me you’d have your book review in a day early and everything.”
Laurie feigned remembering. “Oh, right! Those plans!” They’re planning something for me and I don’t like it. “Thanks for reminding me.” And she went back to the counter to help with a fresh cue of customers. Later she checked the schedule, and sure enough, she’d asked for Saturday and Sunday off. Friday, she worked until 5.
After work, Laurie went with friends to the frisbee golf course, and though she was all smiles as she played and talked with her friends, she found herself growing furious whenever she had a quiet moment. This was a black-out night for sure. She still wasn’t sure if she was anticipating simply because she’d blacked out the previous Tuesday, or because she was subconsciously aware, but she would be very surprised if it didn’t happen, and she was still at a loss as to how to stop it.
And because she already knew her whole evening was down the drain, the book she’d left on her coffee table weighed on the back of her mind. She should have had the time. She should have. What right did her mysterious tormenters have to take it away from her?
But around the time her fury began building up steam, someone would hand her a frisbee and say, “You’re up, Laurie.” And she’d smile and set the issue aside again. It was a nice enough day, after all, and there was nothing she could do about it at the moment.
Nevertheless, when the game was over and her friends ran off to Churo’s for dinner, Laurie went home, chopped some vegetables and stir fried them with rice noodles and strips of a leftover chicken breast. Then she settled in with a glass of wine, a notebook, and her novel, determined to get in as much reading as she could before the trance came over her.
“...me to touch it?” she was saying, her mouth curved in a mischievous smile, her voice sultry and low. Her own image gazed, heavy-lidded, out from her computer screen. She wore the black mesh top over a yellow push-up bra and a very short, pleated orange skirt. She was sitting back from her screen so that everything from her head to her knees showed on camera, and her knees were spread obscenely so her naked cunt could be glimpsed under the folds of the skirt. Her eyes skimmed the series of responses that appeared in the chat window that filled the broad white margin beside the webcam display.
“Dance?” she smiled wider, enjoying the process of drawing out the anticipation of her audience, “Not just yet. Maybe later.” She drew her hands lightly across her skin, pressing lightly against her breast, caressing her waistline. She wore inch-long orange press-on nails that scraped her skin deliciously.
“I’ll tell you what, though,” she said, “I’ll do whatever the next person asks me, so long as he says ‘pretty please.’” And she laughed lightly, reading the first responses, which came in before she finished speaking. “Uh! You didn’t say pretty please!” And then, “Oh, that’s really naughty. You sure don’t waste time, do you, ya little pervs?”
Then she cast a sidelong glance and said, “Well, ok... I did promise.” Then she smiled, because really she didn’t mind it at all, and she said, “But only a quick sample.” And without breaking her gaze with the lens of her camera, she reached behind herself where she knew her vibrator would be waiting and drew it out. At the feel of it in her hand, she thrilled with anticipation. She brought it to her mouth, pressed her tongue against it and gave it a long, wet lick up its length, and when she reached the tip she slid it into her mouth, let her lips close around it.
“Mmmmm.” Once the implement was nicely lubricated, she drew it out of her mouth and clicked it on. She was delighted as it came to life in her hand, its familiar rumble and buzz sending shivers down her back and into her wet inner thighs. She gave the camera a devilish smirk, and then she guided the instrument down under her skirt. She slid down in her chair and flipped the front of her skirt up, and when the vibrator touched the lip of her already-very-wet pussy, it sent a delicious shiver coursing back up her spine and she made a soft moan. She drew it back and forth a bit against her labia, let it brush lightly at her clit, which peaked out at the world when she pulled back on the overlapping skin with a single long nail. And then she pivoted the vibrator around and pressed it—
Laurie woke in bed, this one snippet of memory ringing clearly in her head. This wasn’t like the last time she remembered things from the blackout. If the curtain had been torn before, then this time it had been momentarily brushed aside, as if by a stray breeze, revealing everything that lay beyond, as if it was never there at all.
She rubbed her face with her fingers and nearly scratched her eyes out. “Ugh,” she muttered groggily, looking at her fingernails. “So tacky.” She sat up, gazed into webcam, and studied the creature that looked back at her. She looked just the same as last night. She could almost feel that lecherous grin she’d worn so comfortably, waiting to break across her face.
So that’s what I’m like? It was just so odd. She hadn’t felt like she was being controlled. She hadn’t felt compelled to act a certain way; she simply was that way. She’d been a different person.
Nala. The name stood out in her mind and wouldn’t go away. As far as she could recall, no one had called her that. She hadn’t seen it written down anywhere. But she had known deep inside that she was Nala, a performer, just as surely as she now knew she was Laurie, a confused and terrified girl sitting naked in her bed.
She had thought she could fight this thing. Resist the changes they were trying to bring about in her. But she was changed already. There was no constant external force, no puppet strings. The things Nala did, she did with Laurie’s hands, Laurie’s tongue, eyes, fingertips, Laurie’s pussy. The things Nala thought, she thought with Laurie’s mind. Nala was Laurie. Laurie was Nala. She was Nala. Nala was she.
Laurie’s head was buzzing, confused, and she felt she was on the verge of losing her grip completely.
Go out and jog, she told herself, It always makes you feel better.
She knew it would. She went into the restroom, battled with the press-ons until they came off, washed her face clean, and changed into her jogging gear. Just being back in her own clothes made her feel a bit better.
And the jog helped, too. The fresh air, the sight of her city’s skyscrapers filling the skyline and reflected in the lake, the other joggers and the bicyclists, these things helped to draw Laurie out of her own little world.
And she decided to continue thinking of her blacked-out state as being something remote and alien to her—for the sake of her sanity, if nothing else. Her mind, she concluded, was like a partitioned hard drive. Two separate personalities, two separate operating systems. The trick was in figuring out how to cut off the access of the corrupted partition. Once she managed that, she could work on how to get rid of it altogether. (She was terrified to think how much of the changes might possibly be... permanent.)
Laurie returned home already anticipating a hot shower and her book, which was almost finished. She fiddled with the lock for a moment and came inside.
“Oh, honey-boots!” Mikaela exclaimed. She was standing in the kitchen, her bag in her hand, evidently about to go out. “There you are! Aren’t you going to softball practice?”
Laurie winced. “It totally slipped my mind.”
“Well I was going to come out with you and watch...”
Laurie checked the clock. “Well we can make it if we hurry. Just let me change my clothes and take my vitamin.”
“’Vitamin?’ Laurie, are you doping?” Mikaela said in a dramatic hush, mocking shock and disapproval.
Laurie laughed and flexed her thin biceps, saying, “These guns didn’t build themselves, now did they?”
“Seriously though, what ‘vitamin?’”
Laurie was puzzled for a moment. She wasn’t supposed to think about it, but... “Actually, technically it’s birth control.”
Mikaela gasped entirely unironically. “Who are you sleeping with?” Laurie hadn’t had a boyfriend since college; a fact that only bothered her now and then. She hadn’t been particularly pleased with a date in over a year. She was happier just hanging out with friends, and confident that she’d find someone when the timing was right.
Laurie shook her head. “I’m not, that’s not why I’m taking them.”
Mikaela looked incredulous. “Huh?”
Laurie frowned. Why was she taking birth control? “They’re supposed to give you lighter periods...”
Mikaela was not convinced. “Been having some problems with heavy flow lately?” she said, making it clear that this was a stupid explanation.
“It helps with acne...”
“Laurie...” Mikaela intoned. “You simply don’t take birth control if you’re not at least planning on having sex with someone. Tell the truth. Is it Gil?”
You... don’t? The truth hit Laurie like a pop fly to the back of the head. “Oh my god...” she groaned, and she dashed into her bathroom.
Mikaela followed her into her room. “What’s with the sticky notes?” she commented. “’You have a choice?’ A choice about what?”
Laurie found her pill box and examined the little blue pills, wondering how she could have been so blind to what she’d been doing. She didn’t even remember getting the pills, but she’d been wide awake when she took them, unthinking, as if it were as natural as breathing.
There were two sets of terrifying implications. What else had she done, unthinking, as if it had been her own idea, when really it was hypnosis? It could have been anything. Any random action she did in a day. She cast about for a possible example, but the bedeviling thing was that anything she could think of, she could rule out immediately as being obviously benign—but could she really rule it out, or was that the hypnosis?
She looked in the mirror. What about her hair color? Her alter ego was called Nala, and wasn’t that a name for a lion? But she liked her hair. And it really had needed recoloring, she was certain. It hadn’t been at all out of the ordinary for her. She was sure of it. But... was she really sure of it? How could she be? How could she be sure of anything?
And then there was the really sickening thought... ‘You simply don’t take birth control if you’re not at least planning on having sex with someone...’
“No. No no no no NO!” The time off... This weekend, that was when it was going to happen. They were planning to whore her out. Laurie pounded her fist on her porcelain sink. “FUCK NO!”
“Laurie.” Mikaela’s voice was a little frightened, but insistent. She was trying to get a handle on her roommate’s strange behavior. Laurie turned her attention to her. Mikaela was standing in the middle of her room, looking at Laurie where she stood with the bathroom door open. Mikaela held yellow sticky notes in her hands. “Laurie, whatever it is... drugs or whatever...”
“Drugs?” repeated Laurie. And then she considered the sticky notes Mikaela was holding: “You have a choice,” “This isn’t you.”
“No, Mikaela, I’m not on drugs. This... I can explain this.” But she couldn’t find the words. At the thought of explaining anything, Laurie seized up. Her heart thudded in her ears, sweat gathered on her forehead, and she could hardly draw breath. “I can’t explain it right now, though. I... need to change for softball.”
Mikaela stood rooted, clearly unsure of what to do. Laurie spoke again, “Just give me a minute to change, and we’ll... talk about it later, ok?” Mikaela nodded and left the room.
Laurie felt oddly numb. She found her softball gear and dressed up, her thoughts flying faster than she could catch them. She felt she should be crying. She wasn’t much of a crier, but this was... this was just beyond the pale. But no tears were coming. She was too shocked; it was too much to take in.
Crying was pointless anyway, she consoled herself. More certainly than ever, now, she would find a way to stop this. If she had to, she’d get herself arrested, spend the weekend in jail. She’d swallow a bottle of cough medicine, or down ten shots of whiskey. Or she’d take both, along with a bottle of sleeping pills, if that’s what it took.
It was Wednesday morning, and she had until Friday evening to plan her escape. In the meantime, she would go to softball practice. It would make Mikaela feel a bit better if she acted normal. Explaining all of this to her... would take some doing. The truth... the truth would probably be best, if she could find a way to make her believe. Yet... yet Laurie was just too afraid.
Why was she so afraid? Was that hypnosis? It seemed obvious that there would be some element of fear, of embarrassment, in confessing. But to this extent? It almost seemed certain that it was not natural fear. So the question became, again, What else is unnatural?