Outdated as of April 26, 2016. Rewritten and posted [ here ].
There is nothing.
No lights staring down, no acid bile bubbling over lips and neck, no pain.
My memory blurs with blood and scribbled words, trying to focus on what happened when they stood over me, with their needles and grey squares. A rush of white cuts the nothing in half and things start to rise. They twist and groan between static blurbs, pulling their grotesque bodies up to the surface and are cleaved in a phantom rush from the stream of light.
Something else moves, or I did.
The white carves out shapes and dimensions, oozing grey that makes the shadows and carve out the veins beating red. In the distant is a beating heart, the thumping growing loud while red bleeds into the carved hallway and making stairs put horizontal from vertical – the white splits it down the center and in a straight line. I feel the wedge-steps my body takes down the pathway, a hall. It’s towards the heart, forward through the black smog and the white and red cutting through it. I keep walking in the awkward gait before there is a shift and I’m walking on them normal, stepping up the dark stairs to an event horizon. The shadows fail, the stairs shine brighter from a thick liquid, the white line makes up the stairs and a metal clang sparks at every step. I hear the sound of two girls laughing through the roar of a massive crowd.
A voice tells me to stop, and goes ignored.
White bends the stairs into a tightening curve and red leaks down the stairs, cumulates in the many puddles, and drips down to the next step. And still I climb, staring up to the next tenth step with a hand holding a red rail. Droplets trickle down from the stairs above and the center column is a waterfall. The heart beats again.
Another step and I’m standing before a double-door entry way. Cream walls hold the red doors up and chains hold the door close, but they are rusty and the lock holding the two sides together unclipped. The same voice tells me to turn back. I don’t and unhook the thick lock, pull a key from it, and drop it to the ground – no sound. I grab the door handles and pull, locked, and I look at the key. Its crude, bent metal making the head and a string loops around it, but could work and it does. A click and the doors jump open to reveal a grand lobby with high ceilings and unfurnished except for three people in the center and sitting on luggage cases – a mother and two children, girls.
A family sits at a picnic, the mother and children with a father. Between them is a small cake and presents sitting behind the father who the girls hug after he sits down. And the girls are hugging him at the doorway and on one knee.
One is on his knee, her arms wrapped around his neck and a cat plush clutched in one hand and a bow in her hair. The second is screaming at the mother, “He’s back, Mama, he came back to us!” She’s standing with her arms around his chest and beneath one of his arms, she has a rainbow octopus. The mother comes over, hugs him, and they talk, hands hold, and their ring fingers are visible – matching rings.
There was a smile somewhere in the conversation.
One girl pulls my hand, the one with the bow in her hair and a stuffed cat, I follow them to the circle and they share their toys with me. How long did I spend with them? Not enough.
A box is pulled from somewhere and my wife hands it to me, her words unheard and motions to the box bound in a puzzle of shapes and colors. The girls, always eager, tell me to open it. I look at my wife, she nods. The first layers are simple and come off easily, the tissue paper barely holding with clear tape. It’d be open in no time, I was even beginning to see a bit of brown and the packaging felt more solid. Balls of tissue paper fell out of some places, all balled up and some traces of black inside, paid no mind. Then the last bit of full wrap came off and there was thicker tape, it was faintly embossed.
I tried scratching at it to find the tail of the wrap and found none but I kept at it. The girls nudge me on. Forfeiting the idea there was a tail end of tape, I begin to scratch and pull at the adhesive at any side I could get my fingers dug into.
White cracks form around the room and grow while glass cries from invisible weight; they go ignored by me, I tell my family I will protect them, still clawing at the box and tugging at any slight budging end till they go white, a small rip forms, and I pull. The ceiling leaks molten stone and glass cracks overhead, the white zipping around any connected surface and bleeding hot steam. My wife is pleading me to stop. The girls cry at my side and pull my arms and hands, I push them away.
I have to find what is in the box.
Glass hits the floor, pieces of grey and tan concrete strike the tile and make holes in the ground. They’re screaming, my daughters, and in the commotion my mind splits into fourths.
Continue ripping at the box.
Escape with the box, leave them behind.
Escape alone, leave everything behind.
Escape with them, leave the box behind.
A slab of concrete decides.
It strikes my wife and sends brain everywhere. I drop the box, pick one girl up in each arm, and run away from the door I came through. They’re crying that I save their mother, one kicking my ribs while the clipped girl shouts at me, asking me, “Daddy, why are you leaving Mommy behind!”
The white lines crawl with grey and the ground breathes suffocating fumes and fire, the ceiling drips with liquid glass and metal. Jerking floors give birth to spires coated in liquid fire and I avoid them the best I can, running towards a bright blue sky and a field of never-ending grass.
In a moment, slowed down, a single superheated leak falls from the crumbling skylight glass and it tears through muscle, bone, and leaves a tiny trail of fragments in my arm; I tumble onto the floor and drop the girls. Fingers dig into the flesh; I heave, and try to dig away the visible shards from muscle and tendons. The limb was dead, I look to the girls.
They’re getting up and still in shock – I tell them to run.
Another drop stabs into the dead limb, and another strikes through the back and lungs. Somewhere in my head a single phrase repeats: Get up. The girls are still standing, not running, I move towards them and push the youngest with my good arm. Again, I tell them to run. From a skylight above I see them running and looking back, they tell me to run, tears are in their eyes as they avoid the crashing of glass and concrete.
Another couple drops of liquid fire tears through my back and legs until I am bleeding inside and out. In the distance is a roar, the first to fall is my heart, then my arms, then my legs and I am on the floor. I feel the floor crumble and a jet of steam press against my neck from a white crack. There’s a slam to the head, pressure pops, ribs are crushed, legs and arms bent out of shape and a terrorized scream.
The girls hover over and swat me in the cheeks.
Fingers dig into the moist soil and pull up blades of grass as I struggle to right myself into a sitting position. The girls are asking about something, it might be bleeding wounds and injuries, but they wonder if I can stand. My head is still swirling.
Pulling knees down into the grass and pushing myself up with one hand the brilliant sunlight makes itself clear and so does a sharp pain in my legs and chest. I tell them no. One pulls my left hand and begs me to get up, the other echoes her plead. Panic fills their voices, I sense their tension, but the pain and confusion stops me. One of their voices crack and they pull and push, forcing me up on their behalf. In my own shadow my eyes fall open.
On top of a hill across the field is a line of white forms without faces. In their hands they held bottomless things that screech, torches dancing at the fronts. The smell of roasting fats and gasoline hits the three of us hard, the girls hold their noses as they step behind me and hold one hand each. I keep my eyes on the white forms, soldiers probably, and I nudge the girls away, telling them to run.
They don’t want to leave me behind again.
The soldiers start to march, the dew and peaceful grass melting and roasting at their feet, leaving a trail of brown and black. Their machines are screaming and belch fire. I hesitate, take a step back and tell the girls to run – my voice takes a hitch – and I tell them I will follow. Their hands escape mine, I can hear the soldiers heavy boots smash into the ground in a slow drumming beat. I turn and run.
We take off down a dirt trail that leads into thick forest that engulfs the trail. Memories torment of the before, yet I still run with the girls always in my sight. The smell of damp soil and bleeding bark overtakes the screaming machines and the smell of burning flesh.
It’s a relief, I think, to smell the elusive rain – I pause. The girls have stopped running.
One points to a nearby clearing, its outlined by a circle of rocks and four logs sit around the edges, a small fire pit in the middle, she asks if they can rest there. I’m starving for air and leaning on a tree, “Sure sweetie, I’ll be right there when I catch my breath.” They’re blissfully unaware of their crushed mother, chattering as they walk to the clearing.
A flash of white, a soldier separate of the rest, stands to my left. There is no screaming thing in his hand. I try to tell the girls. I hear no voice from my mouth, no reply from the girls, I turn.
Looking around, staring each soldier into their blank face and taking steps ever inward on crumbling leaves. Blood pounds and muscles clench, a hand draws his head and eyes to the empty-handed solider and they focus on something in the blank template before the mask splits and curls into five – a mouth grins beneath. And there is a slam to his chest and retching from his throat, eyes jumping from soldier to soldier, watching them raise their bellowing machines to him and let loose screaming fire.
Or was it his own; but it can’t be.
Thick liquid bubbles over his lips – I try to swallow it back; choking and spitting as it increased and dribbles over the creases of his mouth, around the chin, down his neck and chest before dropping on the burning leaves. He’s drowning in his own bile.
Claws dig somewhere in his stomach and up across his lungs, piercing and pushing more blood in his mouth, my mouth, and digs into his heart and his throat, where it becomes lodged. Make it stop, it hurts – it pulls his tongue apart – I am suffocating – it grabs his face and jaw with two hands, pulling itself up and over. My jaw splits in two and flesh tears from ear-to-ear.The soldiers must be laughing; the flames double, and pain and associated words are too less to describe it. They can’t be put on a torn tongue, said with lips turn crisp, heard with melting ears, or sensed with dead nerves in popping black skin. The thing in my mouth is still – don’t leave me – I hear myself think.
It bellows and pulls its body upward and out, splitting the skull and skin as it ascends, eyeballs popping from pressure and heat like a pair of punctured cysts. Don’t leave me – it waits for a second and two before breaking free of the solidified husk I have become, left behind in my roasting as it runs into the dark. I’m crumbling beneath the pressure and into tiny pieces, gasping through the flames before cool air kicks me in the face and I’m staring at the ceiling, watching ribbons flutter back and forth from the air conditioning vent overhead. There’s a swelling in my throat and my heart thumps against my ribs, tubes rocking in my stomach and throat as I try to breathe and swallow my heart down; it’s difficult to calm myself.
I want to hold my face, make sure it was still there and that my mind was not playing tricks on me. It could all be in my head, denying its destruction, but my wrists were still bound, the right still attached to the cold metal with a thick strap, needles wiggling and tape tugging with each movement and a tightening in my chest with those movements. It could be a trap, I might never escape, but I watch the ribbons flutter above and the sunshine bleed through the off white curtains. Somewhere far away and above, there beeped a machine in pace with my heart, barely there through my own breathing but there. There were no doctors hovering above or white figures, the sun and ribbons reassuring the peace and empty bed sides.
I’m sore but lax, letting the shape around my head command my sight. But I begin counting the time through the ribbons, keeping minutes and hours by the constant gusts of cool air with mind and left hand – also bound to the side.
One, two, three… fifty-nine, and sixty – one minute, thumb goes down. At three, both thumb and index are touching the bed. At five, it is middle and thumb. At fifteen, all but pinky.
My breathing is steady and calm, I start edging off to sleep.
Then the curtains flutter and the rings move at the arrival of a person, the faint tapping of something on a hard surface is all I hear – apparently echoing – in the room as he passes the edge of my vision, checking the machines beeping above. He is ignoring me and I never get a chance to see his face. The tapping stops when I tap the metal rail with my right hand and everything is silent. In the next moment, I guess he turns a knob, presses a button, or flips a switch, or something, because I feel a rush of cold air and dizziness set in. I can’t hold my breath because it’s also coming through the tubes stuffed into my throat, so I cough and copper touches my tongue. It stops and I try to look over at him – the brace keeps me from turning – and I only see a head of hair before another blast makes me quiet and still.
He’s tasting blood again.
Spitting and coughing it up while something tries to shove a suction onto his face. Hands are at his throat and he feels them squeezing and pushing and pulling something out. The little commotion he hears is just whispers, detached from the hectic gropes and pulls of the white shapes standing in his sight. The grey shields are up again – no reflection, just a one way mesh. No stopping, it all continues and the pain makes him pull against the ties on his wrists and legs, trying to stop the pain and the people. They are doing this to him; a dozen monsters are staring him down and taking him apart while he lies exposed. The suction finally grabs his face and throws him out of sync.
Curtains move and I’m watching the ribbons dance in the light of an artificial sun – I know it’s nighttime but not how I know. I won’t question it, time is the one thing I want now as a doctor leans over and stares me down, saying something I can’t hear. He snaps his fingers in front of my face and says something to himself, looks off to the side, maybe talking to another person in the room – then back to me. I nod, just going to go along with it. His hand goes to the right and snaps; I hear it, but when he moves to the other side, there is nothing. He doesn’t move until I motion to the left with my eyes.
The doctor hands something to his mysterious assistant, saying something to him or her before leaving my sight and the curtain rings roll across the rounded bar again. I sigh, staring at the ceiling. There is still my heartbeat, the needles in my wrist, and the fresh bandaging from below my jaw and around my neck.
It wasn’t a dream, they did something to me.
Again, the curtains shift and the doctor stands at my left, his assistant somewhere else, and tries to speak to me. Shouldn’t he know I can’t hear him?
The brace on my head loosens pain flares within my head. Another pair of hands hold my head off to the right, exposing the left side of it to the doctor. I can only see the green gloves and white sleeves – then the head pain sends another jolt as something inside my head turn, like a key unlocking a door it tugs and pushes until it comes out in a dripping mess. Another fabric wipes away the blood from the hole in my head – my ear I suppose. In the time it takes for the doctor to wipe away almost all of the wet and dry blood the AC kicks up three times, enough to count fifteen minutes on my fingers. I could hear some snippets of the doctor-assistant conversation but it was too quiet and wiping of blood kept it that way until the doctor pushes something in.
“Can you hear me?”
A weak ‘yes’ is all I could say; my throat still hurts.
“Careful Andrew, you’re still recovering.” The doctor and assistant snaps the brace back into the lock position and motions to the assistant before turning back to me. “You’ve inhaled a lot of smoke, you still need rest. But I suppose you want to know for how long, right?” I nod the best I could with the damn brace holding my head in place. “It’s been five months, but I can’t say everything right now with you in your current state. Within the month, Mr. Pottarus, we’ll talk.” With that, the doctor and his assistant left and pull the curtains back around its path. A heavy door slams and a bolt clunks into place, and again I’m all alone.
Good, then that means I can think without interruptions, to rest, to process the handful of information the doctor gave me. First on the list was my name, Andrew, Mr. Pottarus – My name is Andrew Pottarus and I was ‘out’ for five months after an accident or something and I inhaled a lot of smoke, my throat is damaged, I’m mostly deaf, I might have fractured a few bones, hard to tell since I can’t move.
Nevertheless, I can try to test my muscles, to get a sense of how many hurt or how many weren’t. My face might’ve been the first but I was all too aware of how much of it hurts. So I start from the bottom up.
Toes, feet, calves, knees, thighs, pelvis and hips, stomach, then up to – wait a minute. I stretch and retract the mystery muscles and the wraps around my body tightens, something pushing it up. Arm-like muscles work beneath the sheets, two pairs working below the arms above the sheets. So I count fingers – starting from the ones above and down.
One, two, three, four, five, one hand – ten fingers, two hands, one pair of arms. Fifteen fingers, three hands – twenty fingers, four hands, two pairs. Twenty-five fingers, five hands – thirty fingers, six hands, three pairs.
I lay there in the bed staring at the ceiling, my mind racing, and my throat growing sore. The tubes inside my throat thump against one another and I try to swallow them down.