“So, what circle of hell do you find yourself in today?” Caleb ignored the question, merely sighing heavily in his chair.

“You know, people are starving all over the world, some live in poverty, some are disfigured.” The man in the dark rimmed glasses and death-white lab coat was trying to cheer Caleb up. But Caleb didn’t even bother to sigh this time. His mind was elsewhere and he didn’t feel like talking anyway.

“Tell me about the dream, Caleb.” Caleb’s eyes flickered, the doctor noticed, going quickly to the doctor’s eyes and then back to the floor. Caleb watched him scribble something in his notebook.

“You don’t want to tell me about the dream?” Caleb became aware of the silence in the room, broken only by the swift cutting of air by the fan in the ceiling. He couldn’t even hear the people in the hall; though he saw their disembodied heads float past the small window in his door.

The doctor removed his glasses with one hand. With the other, he pinched his nose between his eyes, rubbing away some mild pain, and pulling his eyebrows up and down, making his face alternate between angry and tired. Caleb scratched his knee. Replacing his glasses, the doctor reached into the left pocket of his coat and produced a video tape. Caleb’s eyes moved quickly to read the label, “Caleb U. 3-5-2003.” The doctor leaned to his other side and slid the tape into the VCR.

The electronic whine of the television and VCR drowned out the comforting hum of the fan. Caleb leaned his head back to look at the ceiling. He missed the sound. He missed hearing the air being ripped apart, flowing quickly around wooden oars, rejoining itself at the other end, only to be ripped through again before its first cry is heard. No sound but the gentle humming of the killer, spinning and spinning, endlessly tormenting the innocent air.

The sound of his own voice brought Caleb’s eyes back to the television. He saw himself, sitting in the same chair. Off camera came the sound of the doctor’s voice.

“Tell me about the dream, Caleb.” Caleb looked at his own image, staring back at him through the glass. He pleaded with the image to remain quiet, he shook his head slightly, something the doctor seemed not to notice. Caleb heard his own voice. The betrayal began slowly.

I can see my back, I can see the world behind it. The ground is light-brown, like the beach. But there is no sand, the ground is hard, parched, cracked. There are no plants as far as I can see. The ground meets the sky in a blue horizon. It scares me. It is the color of a thunderstorm, but the sky has no clouds. The rest of the sky is a lighter blue, but still scary, like the bottom of an empty pool. It presses down on me. The world is empty but I feel very enclosed.

Caleb’s eye began to twitch; the doctor made a note in his book. He also noticed that Caleb was leaning forward a little. He studied him more closely as the tape continued to play.

I see my back, I can see from my waist to my neck. There’s a faint line going from my right shoulder, making a diagonal line, to a point halfway down my back. From there, another line is growing towards the ground. I try to move closer, but the ground crackles and shifts under my feet. The sound is a mix of snapping twigs and metal on metal. The ground is soft though. I try to run to the side, but the earth can move that way too, I can’t get in front of myself.

Caleb stood up; the doctor quickly uncrossed his legs and sat up. Caleb didn’t look at him, only at the television screen. He saw himself, sitting in a chair, surrounded by a barren wasteland of peach-colored mud, dried and caked. His image’s light green gown clashed with the dark blue coldness of the sky. Caleb didn’t show it, but he was beginning to feel a light touch, something cold, on his back.

I don’t know why, but the air smells like flowers. It moves slowly, but deliberately. I can feel it all over. It moves like silk against my skin. It moves faster and faster. The horizon starts to pulse very slowly, between black and blue. Gusts start pushing me towards my back, slowly at first. I step with the wind, but the earth moves again. I stumble and the wind stops. I feel soft touches under my arms, the wind wraps itself around my body like a harness. It lifts me into the air, tossing me towards the image of my back. I can plainly see the lines now. The bottom one is growing, its bright red head yearning to touch the ground.

Caleb felt a cool trickle growing on his back. It was traveling slowly. He imagined a woman’s finger tracing a line down his back. On the television, a pool of bright red blood was growing at his image’s feet. It grew quickly, so that soon Caleb could see the reflection, tinged with anger, of the legs of the chair. Caleb saw himself in the pool, in the television screen, standing in his brown hospital gown. His fear grew, he wanted to get closer; he wanted to be sure he saw what he saw. He stepped towards the television, accompanied by the unmistakable clink of metal on metal.

I trace the red line up my back. A black crevasse is carved there, like a swift pull of an eagle’s talon. A fissure, the edges are black, but they redden as the gash opens. From inside, the black flows. It spills out in all directions, swallowing the life, charring my back. It spreads to the rest of my body, which I see with frightening clarity. The black envelops the rose, the peach, the dirt, spreading along the earth. My body begins to crack like the ground that I stood on.

Caleb raised his hand in front of him and saw the charred remains of his own body. The ashes were already beginning to fall from his arm. The doctor rose from his chair and fell backwards against the door.

“Nurse! Nurse! Someone!” The doctor fled the room.

and then the wind comes…

Caleb leaned his head back, smelling burnt flesh.

I try to scream…

Caleb screamed with the pain of a hundred sleepless nights, months of shock therapy, and years of being alone. Velvet strands of air flew from his mouth. They rolled and tumbled over each other, spilling towards the ceiling. They became entangled in the fan; its spinning blades began pulling the air faster. The fan whirred. Tears soaked the ashes around Caleb’s eyes. At last, the threads pulled taut and the fan pulled hard, one last time.

Caleb’s body shook, then instantly shattered, burnt pieces of paper flew in all directions. The fan pulled the threads. Attached to the end was a white, glowing light. It ripped through Caleb’s body, exiting his mouth. It rose to the ceiling and hit the fan. There, it exploded in a blue flash, then all was silent and dark.

“And that’s the way it always ends. You have no idea how much it hurts, something being ripped out of me.” Caleb lowered his head, his hands gripping an invisible package in front of his chest.

“It’s not real, Caleb. True, I don’t know what you think you felt, but it wasn’t real. Don’t you see that?” The doctor’s voice was calm, barely audible over the hum of the camera.

“Reality is what you see and feel. I see it happen every night. I feel the pain. I don’t even know how to begin describing it,” said Caleb. The doctor shifted in his seat.

“You see this,” he asked, motioning to the room. “Do you feel this,” he said, placing his hand on Caleb’s arm. “This is reality, the true reality.”

Caleb looked around the room. His bed, draped in white sheets, sat unmade in the corner. He was sitting on the only other piece of furniture in the room, a chair made of molded plastic. He thought about the years spent in this room, away from the world. His window, a 5 by 5 inch square in his door, only gave the occasional, and then only slight, hints that other people existed. He thought about how long he had been there and how long he would remain. He recalled the pains he got from lying on his back and the loneliness that seemed to paint the room blue.

“This is reality,” he said, looking straight at the doctor. “I’m not even sure you are real.”

“I’m real,” said the doctor. “And I really want to help you, Caleb.”

“You want to help me?”

“Yes, I really do.”

“Then do something for me.”

“If it is in my power to do, I will do it.” The camera stopped whirring and the room darkened slightly. Caleb leaned towards the doctor, who, for the first time saw the tears forming in Caleb’s eyes.

“Please,” said Caleb, his voice almost cracking. “Please, pinch me.”

Photo by Inge Poelman on Unsplash

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