by Joshua Chaplinsky
Mary presses her hand to my cheek, her eyes welling with concern. After that my senses fade and everything goes black.
A semblance of consciousness has since returned, if you could call it that. It is more an awareness devoid of sensory information. Darkness remains, although that term is misleading. It implies an environment lacking in illumination, one that would be visible with the aid of a candle or flick of a switch. No, this is more than an absence of light—it is a void. There is nothing but my thoughts, and thoughts do not inhabit a physical space.
But does the veil of thought provide protection from what is beyond? For a dreadful abomination prowls the recesses of my mind. A beast with two heads that should have only one, snarling and snapping at anything that approaches. Its innards are not contained within its body—they trail behind it through a massive stomach wound, dripping mucus and offal. It expels anything that enters its mouth undigested. What is this malformed Cerebus and what is its purpose? Is it a fragment of memory? Or does it stalk me even now?
The unknowable stokes the flames of my fear. I concentrate instead on the image of Mary. Her porcelain visage is my only substantive recollection, and it soothes me.
Her lips move, the words indiscernible. But her concern—it is obvious she cares a great deal for me. If only she would lean closer, that my reflection might show in her dark eyes, that my countenance would jar the remembrance of my own name.
Is it possible my mind has retreated into itself due to some physical trauma? Pray, do not let my body be my tomb, my mind buried alive within, covered by six feet of dirt to muffle any cries for help.
A morbid notion, this. So easily arrived at it calls one’s character into question. Perhaps death is my trade? It can be an honorable one, as unpleasant as it is. The violence of my thoughts disturbs me, yet a woman as perfect as Mary could not love a monster.
“You’ll hurt him!” she cries, in that final moment that consumes sight and sound.
Cerebus growls low in its throat. Its claws click-clack against the ground, accompanied by the wet dragging of entrails. A horrifying realization occurs: What if it is not me it pursues, but Mary? They both occupy my thoughts, therefore both could exist on the same physical plane. The creature could be responsible for my current state, poised to devour her even now.
I beg God for her safety, despite my lack of faith. It is a selfless act, but not one perpetrated without shame. If it were a matter of my own preservation, I would not compromise my beliefs in such a way. Religious observation is something I jettisoned long ago. Still, for Mary I would call any man master.
But perhaps something out there does listen. Cerebus, or what remains of it, doesn’t snarl, it drools. Its tongue lolls. Its vocalization is one of pain, not pursuit. The body has rejected the head, therefore both must die. The infernal beast breathes its last and Mary is safe.
Her hand caresses the back of my head. “You’ll damage him!” she cries. It is an odd thing to say, but the concern is there. She is protecting me, but from what? Not Cerebus. He lies dead on the floor. And surely not those jabbering, simian heads, powered by wire and tubing. As sickening as they are, their lack of mobility belies any physical threat. Their torment is their own.
Do the comatose dream? Some have made such claims, but science tells us otherwise. Brain function is severely limited during a coma, and does not allow for a normal sleep cycle. REM sleep is never achieved therefore dreaming is impossible. Any medical student knows this.
Perhaps schooling is the source of my own knowledge.
But consciousness is not a binary system. There are numerous stages between comatose and wakefulness. It is in these liminal states that thoughts flutter and dreaming can occur.
It begs the question: Does the semi-conscious mind flicker like a light between thought and dream? Skip like a phonograph needle from one groove to another? Or is the afflicted somewhere else entirely, beyond the wall of sleep, untethered by their physical body? These might be questions for the philosopher, not the scientist.
They say the blind dream. It must be a terrible sensation, waking from a vivid world of the mind’s creation, reliving that first moment of sightlessness every morning. Worse still, the dreams of the blind eventually go dark, as they forget patterns, combinations of shapes and color, even color itself. What was once an escape becomes an extension of their torment.
Maybe these are the musings of a blind man, dreaming. My sight is gone and my mind follows close behind.
The nature of dreamstates was something the Doctor and I could never agree upon. But how else is progress achieved, than by the struggle for ideological dominance between educated men?
Ah, yes. The Doctor. My academic rival.
“Education used to be something to be proud of,” he would say. “Something a man earned. Whole towns would spring up around scholarly institutions. This place used to devote itself to the pursuit of knowledge, everyone here in some way related to that cause. Now it has been overrun by immigrant hordes. Immigrants from within our own country, with hirsute faces and tribal markings. Gangs of young loafers conforming to ritualistic dress codes. They have ruined the purity of this once great place, turning it into a maze of hybrid squalor, spoiling its splendor for the indigenous population.”
“Indigenous?” I fiddled with the top button of my shirt, self-conscious of my own tattoos, which I did my best to hide. “As in Native American?”
“No!” he cried. “Those heathen savages lost this land to the Dutch long ago. I’m talking about men of science and industry. Men who have held their ground against Depression era Hoovervillians, the Italian mafia, the blacks and Puerto Ricans in the 80s, and Ikea in the aughts. I would give anything for this iteration to be of that ilk. At least we could tame those foreign bastards. Someone has to serve our food and mop our floors. Hell, some of them even make halfway decent physicians. Don’t get me wrong, I would never send my wife to one, but they can learn the general rudiments of healthcare and are capable of treating their own. Man can train monkeys, but these… these parasites, they swarm in like locusts, born on a wind of inherited money, and proceed to devour everything in their path. They don’t want to integrate, they want to assimilate.”
Eventually I learned not to encourage these diatribes. For a moment there, I could even see the Doctor’s face, peering at me with that permanent scowl of his. Not just remember it, but actually see it, backed by the harsh light of the laboratory. It was as if the recitation of his monotonous screed lulled me into a trance, and I slipped over into another cognitive state. Even without awareness of a physical body, one can become weary. Perchance to dream?
“The Doctor, he means well,” Mary would tell me, in those rare intimate moments. “He is from another time, is all. He is a brilliant man, and brilliant men, like it or not, are not subject to the same rules as you or I.”
“You are defending a man who would wipe someone you love from the face of the earth.”
With a kiss and a whisper the memory is gone. A whisper that remains unseen but present, like background radiation, echoing over and over again in my head. He can never know.
There is a sudden flicker and the blackness is awash in light. It blinks in and out, but is almost too much to bear. My pupils go from black holes to pinpricks to regulate the pain. Yes, pain. It is good to feel again, even if I do not know why or how I am afflicted.
But the pain is quickly replaced by fear, as a horrible countenance takes form. Its skin is pale, almost lifeless, its lips cracked and dry. Coarse hair grows wild on its face. A pair of colorful swallows adorn its neck, their breasts slashed open. Its mouth hangs slack. The only spark of life is in a pair of blue eyes, eyes that rise to meet mine. As they do, the thing lets out a guttural moan, the same cry mirrored by my own mouth.
And then it is gone, and thankfully, everything is dark once again.
If I could feel my heart I’m sure it would be racing, my lungs inflating like bellows, my mouth gasping. That face—somehow it was more horrible than any of the Doctor’s experiments.
Of course I objected to what the Doctor was doing in the name of science. I went to medical school because I wanted to help people, but the Doctor’s methods were inhumane. Barbaric, even. Still, it was hard to deny the influence of his work.
Plus, there was Mary. I didn’t anticipate falling for the Doctor’s young wife, but you can’t choose not to fall in love with someone, the same as you can’t choose not to go blind. Love is a biological imperative.
And to be fair, I resisted as long as I could. But she, too, felt the gravitational pull of attraction, and alas, I am but a man. Had she not been so forward, maybe I could have succeeded in abstaining longer.
It seems the Doctor and I were romantic rivals as well.
Mary leans in. Her eyes are full of concern, but also anger. Just a little closer and I will see myself reflected in them.
“You fool! If you’ve killed him, I’m not seducing another!”
No, my Mary would never say something so harsh. The veracity of these recollections cannot be trusted.
She takes her hand from my head and reaches into her pocket. She retrieves a penlight, leaving a red smear on the white fabric of her lab coat. She leans back in, our noses almost touching…
…the way they used to when we faced each other in bed, whispering so the Doctor wouldn’t hear. It was how eskimos kissed.
“A fallacy,” she said. “A reiterated lie with legs.”
I try to move my head, to rub my nose against hers, but there is no response. I look up to her face, see birds in her eyes…
…and then stars replace the birds as she clicks on the penlight.
The Doctor once asked me, “Do you think the human brain could survive extraction if connected to an external circulatory system?” This was after the death of several two-headed dogs, none of which lasted more than a few days. He hypothesized that if we hooked the brain up to a source of blood quick enough, there wouldn’t be time for the lack of oxygen to have deleterious effects, and the quintessence of the person would remain intact. This nonchalant inquiry came as a shock. As abhorrent as I found his experimentation on animals— all the rats sewn together, the vivisected kittens, the botched simian head transplants—he was now talking about experimenting on humans.
I reported back to the group. We met bi-weekly over free-trade coffee and vegan caramel squares in the basement of the Dutch Reformed Church. We picketed and blogged, but my insertion as the Doctor’s assistant was our first meaningful act of protest. It wasn’t what I initially imagined doing with my degree, but it was the perfect confluence of skill set and ethics.
Oddly enough, it was at one of these meetings I met Mary. She was struggling with her own ethical dilemmas and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. When it came time to take her into my confidence, she needed very little persuading.
Or was the insertion her idea? Memory fails me.
Eventually the Doctor became suspicious of both my “commitment to science,” as he called it, and my intentions towards his wife. He had begun preparation on a new experiment, one destined to be his greatest achievement (despite all the previous experiments having ended in death). He would not share the details, but assured me my name would be right there alongside his in the annals of scientific breakthrough.
I tried to coax more information out of the man. He became enraged, questioned my loyalty, to him and to science (again). I broached the subject on more than one occasion. The group kept pressuring me for information. Mary, bless her heart, urged caution. Finally, I told the Doctor if he didn’t reveal his plan to me, I would report him to the authorities for misconduct. A mistake. That is when he came at me.
He struck me a terrific blow with a blunt object. As fast as it happened, I was still able to identify the bludgeon: an antique pestle I had given him for his birthday. Immediately, Mary was between us.
“You fool,” she hisses. “You very well might have killed him.” She takes my head in her gentle hands. Birds are reflected in her eyes. There is a flash of light and they are replaced by stars. When the stars fade—I see him. The hideous man with the wiry beard, swallows etched into his neck.
He is the same interloper I saw during my brief resuscitation. The one with the horrible mouth, which screamed in silence, no lungs with which to produce sound. The slash across the swallow’s breasts was the ragged perforation where his tattooed neck ended. It was my own decapitated head, staring back at me from a mirror.
“You see?” the Doctor said. “I told you it was possible.”
He angled the mirror. There was one of our poor canine specimens, unconscious but alive, split open from throat to stomach. Veins ran from inside it to the stump of my neck, pumping the blood that was keeping my brain alive. Mary looked on over the Doctor’s shoulder.
“Not only have I successfully connected you to an external circulatory system, I will prove that the human mind can survive corpus extra.” He pointed to the body cavity.
My mouth opened in protest but nothing came out.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised. That was surprise, wasn’t it? It was always going to end this way. Despite possessing a modicum of ambition, you are still a member of an invasive species, better suited to serving coffee in a hip boutique than working in medicine. Did you really think I wasn’t aware of your pathetic scheme? You aren’t the first test subject Mary’s acquired for me, you know. Although, if it’s any consolation, I do think you were her favorite, wasn’t he, Mary?”
Mary averted her eyes.
“Uh oh, it looks like I’ve gone and embarrassed her,” said the Doctor. “Anyway, activism is such a bore. If there’s anything to take away from this situation, it’s that you can’t straddle the fence when it comes to science.”
The Doctor stepped away from the mirror, leaving only Mary. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or not. My vision was soft around the edges, like a camera lens coated in petroleum jelly. If she was crying, that meant there was still hope. I put everything I had into one final look, tried to simultaneously convey the enormity of my love and a desperate plea for intervention. The result was an odd expression, no doubt difficult to discern.
The Doctor reappeared, this time in the reflection of the mirror. “I hope you’re comfortable in your new home,” he said, patting the unconscious dog’s rump. “I look forward to documenting your experience. Who knows, you may even survive to tell me about it.”
And with that, the Doctor cut the flow of blood. As he did, Mary cried out, reaching towards my remains. Was she springing into action or just saying goodbye? It is possible the anguished lament issuing from her mouth was my name, but my senses were fading fast. My brain translated her cry into a whisper. I tried to latch on to the word itself, repeating it over and over in my head, but the syllables broke apart into a jumble of phonetics.
Everything went black once again.
Was it a dream? Have I entered a liminal space between this life and the next? Or do I live on inside some poor beast, nothing but a lump of matter generating thought? And if so, how long do I have before my host succumbs and I am swallowed by the real darkness? Not the black brought on by lack of sight, but the all consuming darkness of eternity. The never ending nothing, from which not even time can escape.
It is too much to bear. Even more so than betrayal at the hands of my beautiful Mary. Her face still haunts me, along with my own, as well as the futility of my final moments. They continue to replay, but to what avail? Each time they are different.
I only wanted to do good.
My thoughts turn to the god I have rejected for so long. Would he help me if I asked? Humbling myself does not seem like such a compromise now. But no, even if he does exist, what kind of deity would allow such torture? Not a benevolent one. Something monstrous and indifferent to human suffering. It seems I am truly beyond help.
Dread takes hold like a vice. Claustrophobia, despite the lack of a defined space. Pressure builds. No, not pressure—a presence. There is something here with me, I can feel it. Not the repressed memory of one of the Doctor’s experiments. Something much older than that, an echo of a memory that is not my own, existing outside of time.
My rational self tells me this isn’t possible. It’s all in my mind, even if my mind is housed inside the body of an animal. It’s the product of fear. Isolation. The blackness. I just need to stay calm.
But I can’t. If I had a body it would be shaking. If I had a mouth I would scream. Scream into the void. Because there is something out there, waiting for me. It always has been. And it intends to claim me, whether I believe in it or not. Of this, it assures me.
Hopelessness consumes my being. The presence feeds off of it, siphoning my strength. I wither as it grows fat on my fear. Soon I will only exist in relation to it. A small part of the entirety of nothing. It is something my mind cannot even fathom.
I concentrate instead on the image of Mary.
Joshua Chaplinsky is managing editor at LitReactor.com
You can also visit him at www.joshuachaplinsky.com