This is the English translation of the short story “Przypadek Alicji K.” from LandsbergOn 2(4)/2019, originally in Polish.

“The Case Of Alicja K.”

You’re floating in a void. Probably. You just don’t have any reference point. You don’t see. You know you are. You don’t know who but certainly you are. You’re starting to feel. You don’t feel anything, you’re starting to feel. You notice that this feeling has been absent until just now. You’re starting to slowly spot unclear, vague outlines. You’re looking at an arm – your arm. You’re moving your fingers just as if you were appreciating the presence of every single of them. You’re touching your face. You feel your facial features. They’re smooth, evanculous. You’re rubbing your eyes as if it was to dispel the obscure mist around. Is it a mist or does your eyesight still fail you? You don’t spot anything else than you. You move your hand lower. You’re beginning to understand more facts. Your height and weight. Your sex. Occurent processes in your body. That you can’t breathe. You wake up.

A girl with dark red hair opened her eyes, catching her breath as nervously as never before. This dream, she thought, what on Earth was that? For a few minutes she was trying to collect her thoughts but eventually she stood up. She was in her room, that’s for sure. A wardrobe, from which she drew out a black shirt with removable sleeves and trousers, a bookcase, a record collection, a Slayer poster on the wall. Everything in place. She put the clothes on her bed and went to take some sandwich. Next to the fridge there hung a calendar for the year 2017. It was only a dream. Only a dream, she kept repeating to herself, trying to drown out still fresh reminiscences of the night by consecutive bites of a roll. And only this kaiser roll, pleasurably titillating her palate, reminded about crossing the border and landing in the material world. Finally, the girl went to the bathroom to brace herself for the day. It was a feeling as if I were… coming into being, she tried to explain to herself in her mind. But it doesn’t make any sense. However, this feeling as if my every appendage was growing out, it was like a flashback from my foetal life while keeping all awareness… Never have I had such a fucked up dream before. When I’m in school, I’m going to tell Grzanka[1] about it and ask her what does she think about it.

She wore a black metal band t-shirt with removable sleeves. She still had a few dozen minutes to leave. Following the association she considered recalling childhood memories, using an old photo album, a good idea. She called by the guest room where her mother was already watching TV. She was so involved that her reaction to her daughter’s arrival was barely tangible. It took her a moment to greet her daughter.

“Hello, Alicja. I hope you slept well.”

“Hi, let’s say that. Listen, do you remember where the album with my childhood photos is?”

“You took it to your room, for sure. You were looking for something.”

Alicja returned to her room and started to forage around her bookcase. There were mostly fiction books. Orwell, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Gaiman, Martin[2]… A few notebooks, the Gorzów short story magazine “LandsbergOn”… The photo album distinguished itself by different size. It had a floral pattern, typical. Alicja took it and opened. The sight of little her, so carefree and innocent was a bit moving. She gave a wistful glance herself blowing three birthday candles, her playing Lego, her blowing bubbles, her kicking the ball. She felt a dissonance between the present her and the past her. How much can a man change? I used to have so much energy and motivation. And joy, lust for life. Where did it all go? One thing remained the same. She isolated herself. She had her own worlds, much more interesting than the ones of her peers. If I had childhood and I do have memories, therefore I must be real. I wasn’t created. I am a woman of flesh and blood.

She opened her eyes wider, not believing she was still trying to prove herself such an obvious thing she never had doubted for the nineteen years of her life. Leaving behind the door with a plate saying “Kruszewska”, she looked at the city. Earlier, she didn’t pay much attention to the fact of living there. It was obvious. But now, after this strange dream, she was wondering how the fact of being a citizen, be it of Zygmunton or Poland, influences her realness. Her PESEL number, her ID she reclaimed with a slight delay the last year, her passport needed for foreign travels when she was young even before Poland accessed to the European Union… Are all these things proofs of her realness? Her, Alicja Kruszewska, PESEL 980219… and so on, with Polish citizenship, born in Zygmunton – does it make her real? Do numbers and letters determine one’s realness, posing a proof of one’s presence in this world?

A pigeon perched on a kiosk’s roof, looking around in its typical way. Alicja was under the impression as if the pigeon watched her but it was an obvious paranoia.

 “I would like a Tymbark[3] and chewing gum”, she said to the saleslady. She hid gum into a pocket and opened the bottle of juice. She took a drink and then she looked inside the bottle cap. There is always a different inscription on it. This time, it was “How do you now you exist?” This sentence shocked her and she almost choked. Stunned as she was, she stared at the cap for a dozen of seconds. How do I… How do I know I exist…? She repeated in her thoughts. Soon, she took off to the school. It wasn’t far away and the road was quite straight.

Thank goodness for Grzanka. It’s obviously a nickname, her real name was Anna Miller and she was the best friend of Alicja. Since the reception class where she poured a soup on Alicja by accidentally lifting the plate with the spoon. It’s completely normal for Grzanka. Now, in secondary school, she was always waiting for Ala before the class and she was talking, with unearthly enthusiasm, about… well, anything. Her nickname originated from primary school and a trip to the zoo where she tried to feed gorillas with toasts and the Polish word for toast, grzanka, rhymed well with Anka. She was an everlastingly happy, fair-haired girl worshipping good, truth and beauty[4].

I didn’t go to the Chemistry-Biology class to learn philosophy, she thought, sitting in the last bench with Grzanka, and listening to the teacher.

“Solipsism, from Latin ‘solus, meaning ‘alone’, and ‘ipse, meaning ‘self’, is the philosophical idea that only one’s mind is sure to exist. Anything outside one’s own mind is only a collection of one’s subjective impressions.” This sentence rendered Alicja to listen more carefully. “All objects, all people one encounters, are only parts of his or her mind.”

“Crazy, isn’t it?”, Grzanka whispered enthusiastically to Ala.

“Solipsism was first recorded by the Greek presocratic sophist, Gorgias,” the teacher continued, “who, in his manifesto of ancient nihilism called ‘On Nature or the Non-Existent’, claimed that: firstly, nothing exists; secondly, even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; thirdly, even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.”

“Are you seriously interested in philosophy?” Alicja asked Grzanka during the break.

“I’m trying to come at everything with enthusiasm. It is easier that way.”

“Have you ever considered how you can tell you… exist?”

“You can feel it, right? With senses.”

Alright. Firstly, the Bechdel test passed. Women can talk to each other about something else than men. Secondly, she’s right. Senses are what I can use to prove me my existence. Brilliant in its simplicity.

When Alicja was sitting thoughtfully, a boy approached. What was his name…? He was easy to overlook because he wasn’t particularly interesting. He wore glasses and had a long nose.

“Hi, Grzanka. Wanna come to the party tonight? Take Ala. We’re going to order a pizza.”

As if I wasn’t here. This time I am being ignored, Alicja thought. But am I? No, it’s rather embarrassment on his part, hesitation. It’s easier for him to talk to Grzanka.

“Well, I don’t know”, Grzanka said.

“Listen, it’s a quite nice idea. We will gladly come”, suddenly Alicja answered for Grzanka, embracing her to her surprise coming from an unexpected role reversal.

“It’s settled then,” the boy answered. Alicja was still trying to recall his name. “At 5 o’clock, at my place. Bring your beer. Bye”

A party is a good opportunity to test if it is possible to feel my existence through sensual experience. By the way, it seems to be a fairly common thing to do… Ah, it was Marcin.

Several hours later Ala went to the party. A humble one, she had to admit. Apart from her, there were only Grzanka, the host Marcin and his pal. The Paweł who was in a parallel class and he didn’t use Facebook so they didn’t know his surname so he ended up as The Paweł[5]. They ate the pizza and began to play a game of poker. But the game quickly became dull when everyone, save for Ala, began to joke. “Check!” “Mau!” “You’ve just activated my trap card!”[6]

 “I’m going to take a piss, ‘cause I don’t want to look at this”[7], Alicja said, turned to the door, and people who recognised the quote, laughed. She was a bit disappointed because she couldn’t feel any joy doing things she used to like. But it was this way long before the dream. She was angry at herself she didn’t feel anything. But she didn’t want to complain to anybody. She didn’t want to be perceived as weak.

“Alright. Ala seems to be in no mood for neither cards nor jokes. Let’s talk about something serious,” said Marcin. „What important has happened in the world?”

“The creator of ‘Smile Guide’[8] came forward along with the whole cast,” said Paweł, referring to a popular trippy YouTube series which turned out to be an academic experiment on Internet memes and virals. “It’s very important.”

“But are you serious?!” Grzanka exclaimed. „But what if it’s only another part of playing with the viewer and the creators are actually created by someone else and it’s going to become more and more meta?”

What if my life is going to turn this way? Alicja finished in her thoughts, exiting the room.

Sitting on the toilet and unhurriedly indulging in the process of miction, she summarised what she knew. Since this morning I’m still getting these obvious hints on my non-existence. Or rather existence as an idea, a concept. How is this even possible? The teacher talked about it… Solipsism… ‘Only one’s mind is sure to exist.’ No, it can’t be… ‘Anything outside one’s own mind is only a collection of one’s subjective impressions. All objects, all people one encounters, are only parts of his or her mind.’ But what if it isn’t me who is the subject? That would mean… I’m being observed all the time…? She felt excruciating shame and looked up. In an inexplicable paranoia she was always afraid of the possibility that someone could see her most intimate moments. She feared being observed and hated when people stared at her. She hitched her pants up and went to wash her hands. She was very uptight as if someone actually watched her. She felt her heart started to beat faster.

She returned to the company but she felt more and more that she couldn’t sit here any longer. She drank her second beer. She heard Paweł was telling some story and told him something she instantly regretted because it meant his story was boring. Actually, it was but we don’t say that to anybody to not make them sad. No. Even if they aren’t real as well and they are figments of someone’s imagination, I can’t lace into them. No matter this reality is actually real or not, our friendship is real, I know it. But I don’t want to see them now. I want to go home.

“Sorry,” she said, „I just have enough of it. I’m going to my place. It’s late.”

“Can I walk you home?” Marcin asked. He leches after me. I can tell this from subtle signals sent by his body and voice. He would be disappointed. And I’m not interested. In any way. He’s more drunk than me. The risk he would try something stupid is too high.

“No, thanks. Goodbye.”

The nightly rite of washing daily dirt off has never been so overwhelming. She took micellar water and make-up removal oil. While using them, she contemplated consequences of her conclusion. I remember that painting… ‘The Fall of Man’ by a German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. It depicts Adam and Eve who, tricked by Satan, tasted the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They got to know things which used to be alien to them. Like guilt. Shame. Sin (by the way, according to Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’, a conscious being, a daughter of Satan himself). The first people found they were naked and realised that Yahweh was observing them all the time. He exiled them from Eden and there was no turning back for them because once truth is known, the state of affairs never returns to its earlier state. Therefore, truth always increases entropy. And it cannot decrease in this thermodynamic system. This is what I’m feeling right now. She began to strip down. It was especially stressful as if someone was next to her. Never mind bad deeds. I mean, it’s frustrating as hell to believe that there might be someone who could see everything you do. It’s not fair to share your intimacy with someone you can’t even see. I feel like in some sort of, I don’t know, ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, even. I don’t want to imagine I’m going to feel that for the rest of my life. The hardest part was her underwear. The most overbearing is the thought there might be even more than one of those watchers. We can imagine something collectively, can’t we? But in that case, would the idea exist mutually in its creators’ minds or as many independent creations of each creator? Naked, she went to the bath and cringed. No, it can’t be. I’m telling it myself, it was only a sensation, for sure… I’m telling it myself. No one can see me.

You dream about space. Far away, you see looming silhouettes of two figures. One is an old man dressed in white. Another is a hard to describe, sizeable monster of meandering shapes and tentacles hanging from something which could be a head. Neither, however, seems to be hostile. Still, you can feel their overarching power. You slowly realise that it’s a dream. But, to your surprise, you’re not waking up. You keep your awareness. What’s equally strange, you do not feel neither anxiety nor terror. But it’s an artificial feeling as if after drugs.

“It’s a dream, isn’t it? Who are you?”

“You can call me the Mage,” the old man said with a calm, low voice. His demeanour actually reminded of a stereotypical wizard. Maybe that’s why you thought he was the one who had pacified you. Is he a human? Hard to tell. He continued: “Seeking knowledge, I have traversed worlds you, at your current level of understanding, would not be able to get the idea of. I got to know light and darkness on a cosmic scale. My ancient companion though, currently resting in the depths of the Lake of the Beast, specialises in exploring of dreamscapes where, as you have correctly noticed, we are at this moment. Never mind our real names. You must understand we are as real as you. I know it is hard for you to accept the fact your entire life was not real. It has to be painful, I am sorry. But by handling the truth you may become strong and sure as you have never been.”

“With all due respect, I don’t believe it. This is a dream. And tomorrow I’m going to wake up and be in a real world with real people.”

“But are you able to tell what your yesterday dinner was? Or what have you watched on the television? I am sorry but you do not know that. Because these are irrelevant details.”

You realise he’s actually right. You feel weird.

“You can always consider it a dream and try to forget it. But trust me and let me show you things which are beyond the frontiers of knowledge[9]. Brace yourself. You are going to see things in a way no one did before you. You will peek behind the Fourth Wall[10].”

He raises his hand. At the same moment you are blinded by an extremely bright glow. After a while you open your eyes but now you see an entirely different world. In different… colours… different dimensions… Before you though, most of all, you see a blurred, obscure figure… He or she looks like a human but, from your perspective, appears to be a titan… He or she operates on a different plane… He or she is sitting motionlessly and is moving his or her eyeballs rapidly… Anxiously, you realise he or she is READING you. Every single strip of your being is being READ by someone who you comprehend with difficulty via your limited senses. You scream out of fright. Shame. Pain. Because you feel how thoughts of this very person form your fate.

“How anybody could believe me in that?” Alicja thought after waking up. In school she talked to Grzanka, as always.

“Grzanka[11], tell me something… Do you know what the Fourth Wall is?”

“The fourth wall? It’s an imagined wall that separates actors from the audience but you can use it referring to any fictional character. But the name was from the theatre. Why?”

“What if I would tell you… I have looked behind it?”

“Did you start to go to the theatre?” Grzanka asked with a dose of uncertainty as if this form of entertainment didn’t fit Alicja.

“You don’t understand. I’m talking about THE Fourth Wall… of this world.”

“What? I don’t get it, sorry. Don’t tell me you’ve begun to take drugs?” Grzanka freaked out. “Oh no! This is why you’re acting strange lately!”

She doesn’t believe me… She can’t even comprehend… I don’t blame her. It’s hard to explain. It seems I can’t tell anyone about it.

“No, it’s not like that!” Alicja denied, “Urgh, I’m sorry for yesterday. I need a little break from people. I feel weird.”

“Well, know that you always have a friend in me. But if you feel worse, maybe you need go to the doctor or something.”

 “I’m afraid no doctor can believe me this time. Or he would consider me crazy for real. But I appreciate your help. Thank you for being there” she confessed and hugged Grzanka fondly.

“Oh,” Grzanka marvelled at it. “You don’t let yourself confess such things very often, you know. I’m really glad you are as well,” she returned the hug and kissed Alicja’s forehead. “For you, I’m always there,” she assured and then she wanted to push emotionalism away by changing her tone to more light-hearted. “But it wasn’t always easy with you, you know. For example when we were sitting with my little sister and I asked you to find some funny family film to watch and you came up with Pasolini and Spasojević[12]? I was ensuring her it was only a fiction for a week but she’s traumatised to this day. Or when you stopped answering for text messages and you told me later you needed to rest from this world? Or when on the trip to Gorzów, at night, you listened to Burzum on full volume when others tried to fall asleep? Or in London where teachers didn’t know where to find you and it turned out you were in a CD shop all this time?”

Grzanka was listing all these moments but then Alicja simply hugged her stronger not knowing if she wanted more to laugh or to cry. Eventually she let her out and showed the ghost of a smile. But inside, she was far from happy. Happiness’ condition, according to Orwell, is being real[13].

At night I’m dreaming again. After the last shock I’m more able to keep calm and to maintain greater stability and brightness of the dream. I’m talking to the old man who explains me exactly what I am.

“You are the main character of a short story. Your body consists of adjectives and epithets. Your personality is a sum of letters your utterances comprise of.”

But how is this possible? My body consists of cells, muscles, blood and so on…”

“Not on this level of perception,” he said and Alicja spotted, to her horror, that her arm begins to fall apart… But she didn’t feel any pain. “Your body is also a set of coloured pixels which number depends on the perspective you are viewed. If you watch from behind the Fourth Wall, you have only two dimensions. Few dwellers of this world know this. Only the most powerful: the self-conscious ones and gods. With this knowledge you will be able to shape your reality at will. It is a great responsibility.

“But… Why me?” She hesitated because she couldn’t imagine herself as someone chosen. Sure, she have read various stories and she related to some heroes or heroines but it were only fantasies. Not her fantasies, though. Alicja’s arm got back to normal and it didn’t even hurt.

“You have got predisposition. You began to gain self-consciousness at the very moment of your creation which is not very common. Your case is actually a chance. You are needed so that your world can survive. A disaster, of too complicated nature to explain it to you at this moment, is going to happen soon. But you can prevent it… If you would take this responsibility on your shoulders and master your self-consciousness under our care.”

I remember! I was consisting of only two colours and I didn’t have any individual characteristics! That’s why I can’t remember my foetal life and I remember only alien shapes which were going to make me. Before Alicja was able to phrase a question about the disaster, the old man told her he wouldn’t make it because the REM phase of sleep was coming.

What I see appears as moving pictures. They remind me of some famous paintings I know. I’ve seen a lot of them so my brain plants me various manifestations of art. The first painting: ‘The Nightmare’, 1800 by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard. I’m lying with Grzanka on a bed. A creature sits on me. It’s hairy and smaller than a man. It presses my lungs so I can’t breathe. The second painting: ‘The Death of Marat’, 1907 by Edvard Munch. I’m standing back to another bed. Marcin is lying on it. But there’s something wrong with him. He’s bleeding. I’m looking at my hands. I’ve got blood on my hands. It’s my fault. The third painting: ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, 1823 by Francisco Goya. An old, wrinkled, dark-complexioned, grey-headed god catches my body and begins to bite consecutive pieces of meat. I think I’m waking up… But I can’t move. I feel someone’s presence. I want to scream, cry, but I can’t. I’m still lying motionlessly with awareness that I can be dying and no one would come and help me because I can’t word others up about my pain, I can’t communicate how much I’m in pain so they could save me, draw me out, grab my hand… But no one will come. Therefore, I suffer. Until morning. Then I keep suffering but I can’t lie on my bed any longer.

I stand up with difficulty, dress quickly and go out. I’m not going to school, though. With the knowledge gained during the dream, I’m going to put reality of this world on the test. If I can create reality at will, I can call its rudiments into question. Walking through the city, I’m starting to spot even more things which simply don’t fit. Cars… People in hurry to somewhere… All of this are only words. Formed in phrases and paragraphs which define my case in its entirety. The scenery, found somewhere on Google Images and copied. Realising that, I’ll be able to go outside borders of the non-existent city and seek the source of danger. I’m not sure what I’m looking for but I’m going to try to bend the reality so I can find it. May the reason of the upcoming disaster appear in the next paragraph.

I see… myself. She looks the same. She’s got the same clothes… What? I don’t understand.

“Haven’t you guessed already?”

“No, it’s a mistake, why do I see myself?!”

“You wanted to know who’s going to destroy this world. You wanted it.”

Far away, I see my friends worrying because they haven’t heard from me and I didn’t come to school.

“I don’t want anything bad happen to my friends.”

“Don’t think about it now. You wanted to know the truth about yourself. This is the truth: there was a time there was nothing around you. You haven’t had your colour. Sex. From that period you kept only your nose and the shape of your face. You were only several black lines ordered in a human shape which was yet to be drafted. You were only a concept of a CHARACTER, nothing more. Do you remember the voices you had heard? ‘I think you can start from determining appearance or personality.’ ‘I think she should be relatively realistic and I don’t want to associate her with anybody by both appearance and personality.’ You weren’t sure neither about what they were talking about nor whose these voices were. Eventually, you heard ‘Alicja’. The first name you heard was the right one. Soon after that, you received your surname. It was invented by somebody else. Your friends were yet to be created. Sorry for explicitness. But now you know the whole truth. You can keep living in this world but the awareness and the pain of existence will never disappear. Are you able to sacrifice all your ease of mind for the sake of others?

I see a reminiscence of other CHARACTERS’ concepts. Shapes without any possibility of distinguishing. Without personality. Outlines, blurred frameworks which don’t let even to establish their sex. Some of these frameworks became important to me later.

“This is hard to believe in all of this,” I answer confused and shocked. But not less than that, emptiness of my emotions shocks me. “But after all I’ve experienced I think it’s actually true. I think that, knowing all of that, I’m not able to continue such exhausting existence. What happens with my friends if I would decide to end it?” I asked, coming closer to my friends, frozen in time. Grzanka, Marcin, Paweł. I touched Grzanka. I didn’t feel anything apart from a huge mental sting of regret.

“They will not feel anything,” the other me assures me.

I see how the reality falls apart. Another pieces slough off. I hug Grzanka and I feel I’ve got wet eyes. Eventually, she slips from my hands and darkness falls around me. My reflection stands back to me and says:

“It’s time to end it, Alicja.”

“Yes,” I agree. And I follow her into the darkness.

[1] Grzanka /ˈɡʐan.ka/ – literally a toast. Here, a nickname of Anna Miller, a friend of Alicja. The nickname is explained later.

[2] Authors: George Orwell (“Nineteen Eighty-Four”), Franz Kafka (“The Trial”), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (“Crime and Punishment”), Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”), George R. R. Martin (“A Game of Thrones”). They are not random. For example, “Nineteen Eight-Four” is referenced later in the story, “The Trial’s” main character is called Josef K.

[3] Juices produced by Tymbark have iconic recognition of the inscription on the cap, e.g. “Smile!”, etc.

[4] Platonism

[5] His real surname, as a joke, is actually Ten. Ten Paweł means literally the Paweł or this Paweł.

[6] Various card games references, not fitting a game of poker.

[7] A quote from Polish 2000 cult gangster comedy film “Chłopaki nie płaczą” (“Boys don’t cry”). It’s heavily inspired by “Pulp Fiction”.

[8] Kraina Grzybów TV (Mushroomland): Poradnik Uśmiechu (Smile Guide). A Polish web series of trippy short films, popular also abroad. This:

[9] A joke lost in translation, relevant in a moment. “the frontiers of knowledge” – “granice poznania” sound exactly the same as “borders of Poznań”. There is a scene in which characters appear by a board informing about exiting the city of Poznań while actually leaving their plane of existence. That would make no sense in a translation. So this short excerpt is omitted.

[10] The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this “wall”, the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. It concerns various media as well, not only the theatre.

[11] In the Polish version she uses a diminutive “Grzaneczka” (“a little toast” which sounds really cute) to indicate proximity. But it wouldn’t be obvious for an English speaker.

[12] Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy) and Srdjan Spasojević (Serbia) are both very controversial directors famous for violent and sick films.

[13] George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

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