becoming

It Gets Better

                The Hereafter wasn’t quite what Antoine expected. No fire, no army of demons. Merely an ambling desert, uncertain footing atop shifting sands for as far as the eye could see. There was no sun, but heat bore down on him regardless. His feet burned black on sand hotter than a furnace fire. The young, yet damned soul trudged beneath an empty sky, bereft of any color. Not blue, not red, no matte arrangement of stars, just emptiness, as if the land he tread was all that mattered. This must be Hell, Antoine knew, there was nowhere else it could be. This perdition was not nearly as horrible as he expected.

                And yet… yet…

                How he longed to have someone else to talk to. Alone on the plain, no wind, no noise except for the smacking of chapped, bleeding lips—he thirsted, he hungered, but did not die. He felt himself slipping into madness. Isolation, the most effective torture Satan could develop for mankind’s social soul. Antoine would have tipped his hat to the fallen angel, were he wearing one. This was a subtle Hell indeed.

How he craved a drink. His throat coated with sand. Every swallow brought more abrasions along his esophagus. Antoine bled internally from a thousand tiny cuts. Each breath flushed his insides with desert air, drying him out a little more. He took a step, and then another, less sure with each one why he bothered moving at all. Perhaps it was time to lie down, maybe he needed sleep. Just for a while… or for good. What difference did it make, after all, to the dead?

                “It gets better.”

                Antoine blinked in shock. Time passed him by with indifference, and he did not know how many forevers had come and gone since last he heard another voice. Here one was hanging in the air. The young man looked around trying to find its source, hands shaking with… fear? Yes, and excitement and hope. Something had changed in a static world.

                “Hello?” He asked, and his own voice shocked him, a loud baritone that cut through the quiet and quickly disappeared among absorbent dunes. “Who’s there?”

                “Well, first it gets worse… but it does eventually get better.” The voice again came from all around Antoine. He could not place it. The air itself comforted him, or so it seemed. Was this a trick? Another means to propel him down the path of madness? He tried to weep, but no more moisture availed itself. He was a husk dragging through nowhere to get to nowhere, forgotten by all but Death’s faceless jester who taunted him from the abyss.

                “You aren’t mad. Hopelessness is normal, given these circumstances. We’re about as far down as a man can fall.” The man spoke again, for it was a man’s voice, and this time it did have a direction. Antoine lifted his head and in the distance he saw a speck, a moving shadow, another life in the wilderness. He did not wonder then how it was he heard this man speaking like he was already in his midst, running gladly to him like the stranger brought with him an oasis of the coolest water. Sooner than he thought possible, they met, touching calloused fingertip to calloused fingertip.

                Wheezing with exertion, the young soul spoke first. “An-Antoine.”

                “I’m sorry?”

                “My-my… oh God, my name. It’s Antoine. Who are you? Where did you come from? W-why why are you-” Antoine stopped to catch his breath.

                “-am I here?” The other man smiled, just another crease on a face well-traveled with lines and folds, greyed with impossible age. He scratched his scalp, cracked and bare. “I suppose that will be apparent soon enough. All in Lou’s time.”

                “Lou?”

                “My pet name for our jailer. You know, Lucifer?” The old stranger smiled through every word, unnerving Antoine.

                “Where I’m from…” The man continued, taking the questions in reverse order. “A place, much like this, empty. A void suited best for limitless pain. My time there was done, so I was brought here. Now, as for my name-” He paused a while, chapped, pale lips pursed in thought. “You know, I don’t remember. It’s been so long since it was any use.”

                Antoine shifted uneasily from burnt foot to burnt foot. Suddenly, with a visitor to his hollow realm, he was conscious of his near nakedness in the thin rags that draped his emaciated body. He was a skeleton coat hanger for fabric bleached colorless by the heat. That the other man dressed similarly brought little comfort.

                “So, uh,” Antoine spoke, uncertain how to proceed, “Uh… what happens now?”

                “Suppose, in lieu of my name, I tell you a story. You’ll learn more about me that way than any name’d teach.”

                The young, dead man nodded in assent.

                “When I was, oh, just about your age I’d guess, I killed a man. I can’t now remember why. Maybe it was over something foolish like lust or love, but reasons matter less than consequences. The man died all the same, by my hands, in my arms.” As he spoke, the old soul traced a pattern in the sand with his toe—a spiral growing slowly outward.

                “I didn’t confess. The crime was never solved. I remember… forcing myself to cry at his funeral, being comforted by gathered friends and family. I suppose I must have known him rather well. Anyway, years passed. I married, had children, lived what many might consider a ‘good life’, and died at a ripe old age. And yet still, despite all that good papered over the sin I-”

                “You ended up here.” Antoine interrupted in spite of himself, quietly cursing his rudeness.

                The old man smiled, not minding the disruption. What was a little time lost to the dead?

                “That’s right, I ended up here. For the longest time I was alone in a desert, like you. Unlike yours, mine was a tundra. So cold I could feel my blood freezing in my veins. With every breath I swallowed hundreds of sharp icicles. Each moment birthed unendurable pain. I shuffled along for God knows, well… maybe not, how long. Days, months, millennia. Until I heard a voice.”

                “‘It gets better.’” Antoine intoned, unconsciously mimicking the old man’s voice.

                The nameless one continued as if he had not heard.

                “At first it was impossible to tell where it came from. But then I saw her, in the distance, no more than a mite on the horizon. Faster than I thought possible, there I was in her arms. She told me her story. Her sin is not important, but it was vile. A rough in a vale of diamonds. I asked her the same question you asked me: Why are you here?

                “‘To make you see.’”

                See what? Antoine wanted to ask, but he waited. The answers came in due course.

                “And that’s also why I am here, Antoine. To make you see.”

                Then Antoine did ask. “See what?”

                The old man shook his head, instead saying. “Tell me about your life.”

                And so Antoine did, or so he thought. He spoke of his childhood, a hard drinking mother and father both passing in an out of prison, never really a presence in his life. The aunts and uncles whose hands he passed through, whose hands often found themselves on him in places they shouldn’t. The grandfather who taught him how to shoot a gun, then placed him on a street corner at the young age of 12, pockets full of ‘dust’. He spoke of the life he took a year later, and how he regretted the violence each time. He spoke of his dreams, the poetry he wrote in secret and told only to the boys and girls who frequented his bed. He spoke of his too young death, and stopped, looking at the old man expectantly.

                The old soul frowned and again shook his head. “No, tell me the truth.”

                Again Antoine recounted his life, not sure what the old man wanted. This time he discussed more detail about the darkness that brought him here. How his hands shook after each kill, though less and less each time. About getting high in back alleys, selling to kids even younger than himself. He confessed to killing his grandfather, then his parents, once he realized he could sustain himself without their interference. He admitted that sometimes, after reading his lovers his secret poetry, his knife would dance across their flesh so that they could tell no one else, and how he’d find someone new to play with. Tears in his eyes each time. He told of his death, shot in the back by someone he never saw. He remembered fading as their hands went through his pockets, and then the dull pain as they stabbed his dying flesh, once, twice, three times for good measure. And then he was here. Again he finished and looked back up at the old man.

                He pursed his lips and sighed. “I said the truth, boy.”

                This time, Antoine recounted his tale without emotion. There was no justification. No weeping. No humanizing his actions. Just a list of sins, a long and varied catalogue of transgressions. There was so much wrong. So much hurt wrought by his hands and his alone. Confronting it again and again, the young man rubbed off the scabs over his guilt and finally saw all the pain he caused others. He saw this pain was all that mattered. No one saw how you suffered inside. No one cared about the motivations for your evil. All people see is what you do. The ‘why’ of anything is pointless before the weight of the ‘what’.

                The old man finally nodded. And the young soul found that, despite how low he felt delving into his past again and again, the telling lightened him somewhat. He fell to the ground and might have died of gratitude then and there were his heart still beating. It was over. He could hurt no one else now, not even himself.

                “Like I told you, it gets worse at first, but then…” The voice echoed from all around him again and when the young soul looked up, he was not surprised to find the old man gone. Nor was he worried that he no longer remembered his own name. His sins, all he needed, all he was, stood tall in his memory.

                “It gets better,” He finished the sentence that trailed into the distance, then sat down to wait, no longer burned by the sand.

Smiling, he knew it would not be long before he too was transported.

Jay's Unbecoming

            Jay’s voice was swallowed quickly in the vast dark.

            “So what is it you are offering, exactly?”

            The creature before him answered, a voice coming from somewhere deep within its roiling mass.

            “Time. It is nothing to us adepts, and… everything to you it seems. We will give you our time. Time that does not run out, and replace you in the world you seek to flee, so that you may live your life as you see fit.”

            “So then, who would I be?”

            “Whoever you want. You are about to go to jail for life, yes?”

            Jay briefly flashed back to the night that changed his life on Earth forever. The blood, those empty eyes. The limp figure in his grasp. How fast the rage, how eternal its consequences. The child. His child, gone forever.

            “I am about to pay for what I did, and perhaps I should. I have sinned. What right do I have to-”

            “Right and wrong do not concern us. Only what you can stand. Can you stand to pay for your sins? If so, reject our offer and you will return to your life. To your awaiting sentence. Accept, and you need never wake to your fate. Some other creature, wearing your face, will.”

The creature’s exact nature eluded Jay in the gloom, just as the exact dimensions of the room that held him escaped his comprehension in the black. Its face… what should have been its face was instead a suggestion of a thousand different faces, in just as many skin tones, every time he thought he glimpsed its exact nose or mouth, or could see the color of its eyes through the shadows, he blinked, and it changed. Within it lay the endless possibilities. So beguiling was this being of limitless potential that its face, its shrinking and growing hands, its constantly morphing features, distracted him from the portent in its words.

This has to be a dream. He thought. How can this be real? How can what this thing offers be real? Any minute I will wake up, and I will have to face what I’ve done.

“And if I agree, what then?”

“We begin immediately.” Out of the blackness, another creature of a thousand faces and of every race and gender approached, but as it grew nearer, it began to coalesce. As it stood before Jay, it was like Jay looked into a mirror, every feature, down to the freckles on his tan cheeks, the little scar above his eye, was the same. Even the haunted look in his pupils was the same, that of a man who had committed a sin he could not take back.

As if reading his thoughts, the Jay-copy spoke. “We would not be a convincing copy if we just copied the physical. We will have your memories, your regrets.”

A single tear streaked the doppelgänger’s cheek. “We will bear your impossible to live with sin. We will suffer for your crime.”

Then Jay seized on the one question that mattered. “This can’t be free. You aren’t just doing this out of the goodness of your… do you even have hearts? What do you want from me?”

The first creature quivered, rippling like a standing pool of mercury. “In your… after life. We will call on you to serve us. As we have served you.”

Jay knew he had no choice to accept. He could not go to prison. Not for life. He would wither and die in there, and there was so much life left in him. So much left for him to accomplish. What was the after-life? A myth, a potentiality. Behind him lay the certainty of losing everything. He dare not walk back down that road.

“So how do we beg-”

Jay-2 interrupted him. “We sense your acquiescence. Your agreement is bond, and all that we require. We start now.”

Not walking, not flying, the Jay-copy glided toward him. Before Jay could move, or protest, it gripped his arms. Its eyes, dead now, bereft of all his emotion had displayed before, bored into his own.

“What are you doing?” He shouted. “You said you would come in my afterlife. I don’t know if I-”

“It is too late for regret.” The creature whispered. “Our becoming has already began. Relax, this will go easier if you relax.”

“But my-”

“Afterlife? Your life is over. It is mine now. Where do you think you are? Hush now, and give me… give to me everything.”

And then the creature walked into him, and for a moment they were the same flesh.

In that moment, Jay felt everything stripped away. Every memory, every vestige, fading into the black. His childhood chased by his emotion chased by his sins and accomplishments into oblivion. Jay receded, and as he receded, he saw the thing in front of him become more and more himself. The set of its jaw, that of a defeated man. The dazed, haunted look in its eyes. The name of his child ‘Rachelle’ escaped its lips, and as he spoke it, the one who was Jay wondered. Why do I know that name? What did it mean to me?

He felt his skin slough away. His eyes crumbled to dust in the dark.

Who am I now?

After a moment, an eternal moment. The man who is now-Jay, and the one who was Jay, stepped apart. And now-Jay turned to the other creature and nodded. “We are ready.”

“Good,” It replied. “You may return to life.”

The one who was Jay watched the man, the despairing, condemned man, disappear dispassionately. The suffering of men meant little to a creature who is eternal. Such as itself.

It looked at its hands. One moment, each finger bore a long pink nail, the next they were nibbled by nervousness to nubs. The next they were dark and wrinkled, the next they were a baby’s hands. It knew its face shifted similarly. And in it, it felt the ability to become whatever it saw. The room that was black was filled with light, an ebullient brightness that came from within. And where there were once shadows, it saw row after row of its brothers/sisters. Waiting for it.

“I am here,” It said. “I am ready”

And it slid to join them and waited.

Waited for a chance at becoming again.

Man in the Mirror

The man stands before the mirror, having completed his weekly ritual. Removal of the beard that hides the face that hides the man. He stands before the mirror, pondering who he has become today.

Every time he shaves, the face in the mirror changes a little bit more. Who is this new man? What happened to his selves that came before? Every time he shaves, he cannot name exactly what's changed. Were his cheeks always dimpled? His chin? Was his jaw so angular or his nose so flat and broad? His eyes, amber with flecks of green, were they always so distant?

Searching his features for the ones that were there before. Searching his memory to see if they match those that remain. He cannot tell, but the feeling remains. Though his friends and family recognize him, though his lover calls him by name in the throes of passion, he knows each week, behind the beard, he becomes someone new.

Days pass, a week, stubble grows and then a beard. Every day, he looks at himself, wondering when he transforms from who he is to who he will be. At week’s end, once again at the mirror with a razor, the man in the mirror smiles and waves.

“Hello again, and goodbye.”

The man does not remember speaking, the words came from his mouth yes, but not the sound. No vibration in his jaw, no echo in his inner ear. The sound… the sound came from the mirror.

“Who are you?”

“I am you. Who you are becoming.”

“Who am I?”

“You are me. You are who I once was.”

“What’s the difference?”

“There is none, or maybe there is. Or maybe…”

“Maybe?”

“Maybe something in between. What’s the difference? We share a flesh, a mind, a memory. What’s the difference if you are you or me, or the ones who will come after?”

The man in the mirror raises the blade to his face, and so does his reflection. He shaves, and so do they both. Every time he shaves, they shave, the man in the mirror changes, and so does he. He smiles. A thrill rushes through them both.

He cannot wait to see who they become today.