OCTOBER 1, 2012
The math teacher Stanley Davis sat in the hospital bed in front of the policeman. The scene was like a nightmare. A man dreaming with his eyes open, watching himself in a mirror. His leg burned beneath bandages. The room was too white. Too bright. Too starchy.
The policeman was a large man, round, thick around the waist. The chair seemed to disappear beneath him. A funhouse effect. The world warping.
We need to take your statement as soon as possible, he said. We know you’re recovering right now. But the more we can find out about what happened, the easier this will be. The easier it will be to get back to normal.
Tell us, Mister Davis. What exactly happened?
“He killed them,” Davis said. “It was like Hell itself fell like a wave. I’ve never been in war, but I think I can imagine one now.”
you killed them, Will.
classmates. friends. enemies. you’re a motherfucker.
Black smoke clogged the air around him, lingering, formless, at the edge of the small ring of light where he stood. Within the smoke, he thought he could catch the barest of glimpses of trees intertwining into the distance, some kind of fractal pattern lost in an exponent. There were hundreds of them, shifting, moving, as magicians’ hands, twiddling, touching, turning. The sight made him sick, as if the world were spinning, as if gravity had lost hold. He almost felt lighter on his feet, and the sensation made his head swim.
Is that why I’m here? he asked.
The smoke took form and danced in tendrils, as if becoming one with the spindly tree fingers. He couldn’t tell where the branches began and where the whirls ended. This place wasn’t real.
Am I in Hell, then?
It didn’t feel like Hell.
does it feel like Hell?
The smoke twisted and took with it his head, encircling. When the voice came next, it was above him.
Jesus, he cursed, and his head exchanged places with his stomach. The world was turning on a strange axis about his head. I’m going to be sick.
you were a student.
Will dropped to his knees and held tight to the ground, breathing in and out, pressing his eyes closed. If only he could get his bearings back–if only it wouldn’t feel that the world was off its axis. If things could get normal again, he’d be okay.
in high school. you had a girlfriend. she was beautiful. you killed her too.
Will thought of the face he awoke to. He turned his head toward the tree where she sat and studied the touch of light against her profile. Was that her? Did he bring her to this place with him?
it was all very graphic. lots of blood. you didn’t expect it would be so bad. you didn’t expect it would go the way it did, but you didn’t mind.
Where are you? Would you come out of the dark already?
Something twisted inside his stomach. He wasn’t sure if it was nausea or frustration.
The voice was silent.
What? Where’d you go?
Hey! he said. The voice had gradually crawled into his head, intermixed with his thoughts, and installed itself. He’d accepted it almost before he processed the words. Now that the words had faded, he felt, in a way, hollow inside. It was a connection, perhaps his only connection here, and now it was missing.
Where are you? He was nearly shouting now as he blindly crawled to his feet again, thrashing his way into the smoke even as the ground seemed to tilt and drop beneath him, as if in a funhouse where the floor dipped and changed in the dark.
Please come back.
His assault on the smoke was the way one would run into a tangle of vines and twisted jungle-like greenery, and he felt as absorbed, as knotted, as caught.
Please come back.
remember this, boy. without me, you have nothing.
Will gasped, as if the air had lightened around him, a pressure removed from his chest. He was not alone anymore. He wasn’t alone. He was okay.
Please, come forward.
He could almost feel the thing smirk in the air next to him.
for a killer, you’re awfully needy.
and if i left? would you stand there thrashing about like an infant?
i am everything to you. i am your connection, i am your vitality, i am your eyes and your voice and your mind. I am how you see and how you touch. I am the neurons between your mind and your skin. I am the brain before your soul. I am how you see the world and you will respect that. Or I will hurt you.
Then there were hands against his face, pressing, without stopping, sliding about his head and his hair and his neck, pulling tight, without tenderness, until it hurt, until the hold was fast, clutching, strangling, squeezing. Will’s teeth cut against the insides of his cheeks and his throat pulsed.
Do you understand me?
Will tried to nod, tried to speak, to mutter even a syllable. He gurgled.
I carried you here on my back. I can make the smoke into tree branches and take away the light. I can show you pain, hold it before your eyes until you want to bleed, wishing you were still alive so that you could die.
Light exploded before Will’s eyes, blending with his reality, white and purple galaxies against black. The mass had grown thick against his body, and his arms became heavy even as he tried to thrash.
As far as you’re concerned,
I am God.
Do you understand me?
The lights went off like fireworks and his lungs burned.
And then the presence was gone from his body. He fell to the ground again, squirming against the dirt and the sticks, pressing his shoulders into the growth, breathing air that stung like hailstones and tasted cold, like ice. Black and white specs rotated before his eyes; the dust, an urn released over a cliff, a handful dropped on a coffin. From between the blurry stars, from the blackness, a shape appeared, a human figure staring at Will with his head cocked to the side.
Will stopped thrashing, his fingers clinging deep within the earth.
The man before him crouched, and the dim glow spread to his face.
At once, Will felt a kind of repulsion wash across him, a fascination blended with disgust. He raised a hand toward the man’s face.
It was Will’s own. He could not remember who he was, what kind of life he led, who his parents were and how he grew up and why he was here, but in an instant he knew that this face was his own, that the small gleaming eyes were his, that the sneer was his, that the power in his presence was his, and that he’d held this power before.
Give it back, Will said.
What do you see? he asked.
Tell me what you see.
I see myself.
Of course you do.
The man reached to Will’s face again, and with a sure fist, pummeled the boy in the jaw. Once, twice, three times. A fourth. Each time with a surety that broke bones and vessels, that brought blood against skin and ground and a purple bruise to come crawling, without hesitation, like an insect that lived in the broken places.
Will cried out, screamed into the night, half from the pain that burst along his jaw, half from the slow registration, with the dawning that yes, there was sense here.
WHY? he shrieked.
The man didn’t answer, but Will didn’t need him to.
When the man stopped, Will eventually opened burning, bleary eyes and looked into the dark again for the man. The face looking back had a certain kind of familiarity, but in a forgotten way, different, he knew, from his own. Holding trembling fingers, Will gently prodded the bumps and raw spots along his jawline and forehead and brought the black around him as if it were protection.
In the same way that the man’s fists brought with them a pain and a realization of nerve endings inside his meat, there was suddenly a memory in his mind where before there wasn’t.
What? Will stopped, his hands before his face, his eyes looking upward and unfocused.
A young boy stood on a street corner peering out from behind one of his mother’s legs.
No face came to mind. No name. No other memory. Just a leg and a pair of faded blue jeans that his small fists clung to.
She was speaking to someone. This someone was looking at him, smiling, beginning to crouch down. This someone was another woman with dark hair, overweight, but with a pretty face behind narrow glasses. She was wearing a sweatshirt and lazy pants—
That’s what his mom called them, lazy pants.
He covered his eyes. The two women laughed.
“Of course,” his mother said. “If he can’t see you, you can’t see him, right?”
When his eyes focused again on the darkness around him and the two hands before his face, held in the way of the child in his mind’s eye, he pressed them against his eyes and squeezed closed his lids. Starbursts filled his vision, supernova spectacles, shifting colored gasses like the northern lights, like clouds at sunset after sunset after
flickering white days, blue, orange, black, orange, blue.
He felt the whole of the universe behind his eyes, the cosmos stretching far past the nine planets in his solar system, the rings of rubble, the toxic gasses, the bonding of rock and fleck, and–
and there was the big man, the face past his hands, laughing.