transformation

Doctor Hyde

"We admit the first trial had its flaws."

                The words woke Gabe Utterson to face the bright lights and his throbbing headache. At first, he couldn't speak, his tongue hung limp and swollen in his mouth, like someone had covered it with a woolen sock. He was dehydrated and bewildered, uncertain of where he was and who was speaking. The voice though, it was familiar.

                "There were… unanticipated side-effects, and some collateral damage, it's true. So it always is with discovery. Never can we create without bumps in the road."

                Gabe knew that voice, and tried to move toward it, but could not. His hands and feet were bound. He was tied prostrate on some sort of table, and as his vision cleared, he could see the devices of medical examination around him. A length of medical tubing was fed into him intravenously, leading up to a amniotic bag on a nearby platform, filled with some unknown viscous fluid, glowing golden.

                "H-Henry?" He began to stutter, and tried to sit up. He could not move his shackled hands or legs, but a shadowy figure moved quickly to his side and forced him back down onto his back. Shoving him not gently, but also not rough enough to bruise. "Wh-what is-where are we?"

                "You really don't recognize this place Gabe? I'm hurt. How long have we been friends?"             

                The lawyer Utterson found he could turn his head and as he looked around him he found he did know this place. A basement much transformed from the last time he lounged here at one of the good doctor's parties. His one-time friend held him bound in a cellar that, once appointed for entertainment, now appeared better suited as a dungeon.

                "Dr. Jekyll," Gabe tried to regain his composure, searching for his stiff upper-lip in the face of trouble and all that. Clearly his friend was quite disturbed. In the thrall of some substance he dare not try to name. "I admit, I find this a little overwhelming. What, what exactly are we doing here? In your basement?"

                "Yes, I can see why this might be a little overwhelming, but your facts are out of date my good man. I am not Dr. Jekyll any more… well, I'm not just Dr. Jekyll."

                As his eyes grew accustomed to the light, Gabe saw more and more of the good doctor's face. He recognized hints and pieces of the man he knew, though he had been much transformed. Some hidden ugliness had been brought to the fore of his features. A snarl etched itself on his lips; his nose was sharper and thin; his eyes, once a dark humble brown, had turned icy blue. But there was no denying it was clear from the fringe of brown hair and a birthmark the shape of a anchor above his right eye, this was, or at least at one point had been, the esteemed Henry Jekyll.

                "Henry… what have you done?" Gabe Utterson gasped, unable to hide his terror.

                More importantly, what will you do to me? Was his unspoken fear.

                "Gabe, Gabe, it is not so much 'What have I done?' as 'What have I become?' I am my best self Mr. Utterson. I am free."

                The esteemed doctor hunched in a chair by Gabe's prone side, perched in it like an animal uncomfortable in human trappings, and continued: "Each of us wears two faces. The polite face, worn towards society, born of false trappings and assumed dignity. This is the face we wear that allows us to walk through the world without judgement or shame for our baser urges."

                He who was Jekyll leaned forward, his features lost again in shadow as he bent into the bright light, all obscured except for his maleficent leer.

                "Then there is the other face, our truer face. A dark face looking inward, built of desires we dare not acknowledge even to ourselves in the quiet. Wearing that face, we are ugly men; and we do ugly things. We try to deny it, but every so often it manifests itself and the consequences are… dire.

                "What if there were another way? What if one could make those two faces one, join these disparate selves. This is what I have endeavored to do these past few months. Not without setbacks. You met Mr. Hyde one night I believe?"

                Gabe's eyes go wide at the name.

                "That was-"

                "-my shadow counterpart. At that moment I am afraid he had full control. A nasty bit of business. That poor woman… is she all right?"

                "She's still alive, no thanks to you!"

                "I do regret her distress and had yet to work out the kinks. But I've finally perfected it. Look at me. Am I not cured?" 'Jekyll' stepped back from the table, a whipcord figure of muscle and gristle, veins straining on his forehead. Gabe doubted that the transformation, or whatever it was Jekyll went through, was truly as perfect as he claimed, but despite his appearance, he seemed calm in a way that Hyde had not, his manner decent in a fashion of which Hyde was not capable. Suddenly, it hit him.

                "Doctor, what is this you're giving me? What is flowing through my veins?"

                Before Jekyll answered, the lawyer Utterson knew what the drug must be. A feeling grew within him, avarice. It was clear by the hunger that spread from his head to the tip of his toes, a burning warmth. Anger, passion, lust, they multiplied… and yet. He controlled them, could indulge as he saw fit, or not as he chose. Emotions became exponentially stronger, but also less somehow.

                Jekyll smiled, this one more genteel than his previous leer.

                "Why, I needed to use more than myself as test subject. And where better to look than among one's friends? Tell me Gabe, how do you feel?'

                "I feel…" Smiling, Gabe had to admit he was feeling pretty fantastic. Like a whole new man, in fact. "Well Dr. Jekyll, I feel-"

                "Please, it's not Jekyll anymore." And the Doctor grinned all the wider now that he saw the leer on the lawyer formerly called Utterson's face now matched his own.  "Call me Hyde, Doctor Hyde."

The Long Memory of Bilal

                Ancient places have a memory all their own, stored in the blood that seeps in the sand, and in the dust that pits the stone. Memories of sin and death long since passed haunt the shadows still. Unlike men who are quick to remember and just as easily forget, these memories simmer just beneath the surface. They endure in the wind and in the quiet, dark places. The most sensitive of men and women can sense flashes in such places. Flashes of the traumas adrift in time, the sum of forces bearing us ceaselessly toward the future.

                It was in one such temple to quiescent memories that our ‘heroes’ found themselves. Hounded into hiding by their predilections for bloodshed. A band of thieves, of usurers, of killers, flew to the ruins, deaf to the whispering dark, blind to the grasping wind, forced from a nearby town by a robbery gone wrong. They approached the ancient foundations, remnants of a temple to a lost religion, hiding amongst statues that did not look quite human. Townsfolk gave it a wide-berth.

They did not know, or care to know, the legends of poor fools who came there, seeking solace or fortune. Poor fools who entered those dark places and never escaped. They did not care to even learn its name, the Temple to Bilal, Bilal the rapacious, the bloodthirsty, Bilal the fallen God, worshipped only by the most desperate of men.

                Just inside the temple door, in a hall choked by dust, where was swallowed every trace of light, they paused.

“Are they behind us?” Asked their leader, peering out into the courtyard from the temple shadows.

                “No, no, they stopped at the gate. I think we’re safe, for now.” His #2 replied. They holstered their weapons and moved further inward.

The pursuit forgotten, the motley band turned to their surroundings, still obscured by the shade. Their torches, what little light they gave was swallowed in the black. They could not see the end of the hall they walked in. They could barely see the walls mere feet from their faces. There were five of them, three men, two women, all with innocent blood drawn in their pasts.

                “Was this a good idea… coming here?” One frightened bandit, named Van Zant, asked, glancing around him like for the first time he saw himself deep in the belly of an avaricious beast. He blinked and in a flash saw…

                A man, bound by snakes to a wooden stake, born down the hall by painted warriors, chanting in low voices the name of their forgotten God.

                “BILAL!”

                “BILAL!”

                “BILAL!”

He blinked and…

                …was back to the world.

                “Did you see that?” He gibbered, wiping his eyes as if to clear away the vision.

                “Quiet!” The leader, Arcturus, barked. “They say this place is empty, but I’d rather not tempt fate. Keep yer voices down until we’re further in and we get a better sense of the place.”

                They walked in silence, the five of them. In front, Arc, the taciturn leader. Small pistol in one hand, flickering torch in the other. Blood from a small cut above his eye mottled his brow, he wiped it away, staunched the wound, but instead of clotting it bled through every bandage, painting his face in red. The further they walked into the temple, down an endless hall, the more he heard the whispers. They ceaselessly chanted a strange name, growing ever more familiar as it echoed in his mind.

                BILAL… BILAL… BILAL…

                It stirred something in his blood, reminding him of a past life. Or was it the one he lived now? The name… of a Lord he once served, or served still. This was his place, Bilal’s, and all men here belonged to him.

                Who was he to think any different?

                Arc shook his head, and these foreign thoughts fell away like cobwebs, though he could still hear the spiders skittering through his mind.

                I am my own man, no ‘God’ can claim me!

                “We shouldn’t be here. You all hear it, don’t you? The name, the chanting, this place… it is not certain of when it is. We will be dragged with it to whatever time it can remember.” Van Zant whimpered, but felt certain that what he said was true. They would be claimed. What was the will of man when faced with time’s hurricane winds? They would be blown away, and all that would remain was mindless flesh, fully in the throes of the past.

                A woman, rippling muscle on her frame, dark fingers grasping a long curved blade, sneered at his fear, long white teeth sharpened like stakes. “Ah, Van Zant… do you want Mommy’s protection? Come to my bosom, child. You be safe from that which bumps in the night.”

                Ariadne, that was this warrior’s name, laughed at her own joke at the cowardly killer’s expense, and ignored his warning. Even so, she could hear the name, repeated, that stoked her bloodlust. She could hear him calling to hear, appealing to her, demanding a sacrifice for his altar.

                And she was inclined to listen, the blood in the men around her demanded to be spilled. Even though they were her comrades, all bonds of fealty fell away before the cries of the hunt. She looked at her twin sister, Ezreya, and saw the lust in her eyes, and knew they were of a like mind.

                My dear sister, we will wait until the time is right…

                When the altar is before us…

                We will-

                Strike!

                Strike!

                Praise be to Bilal.

                It did not concern them that Bilal was not a name they had known before, nor that moments before they entered this sacred space, they would have died for their fellow killers, and they vice versa. It did not concern them that these feelings pressed upon them from the outside, from beyond, that their minds contorted to fit the echoes of the thousand deaths that bled from the ground. It did not concern them, it merely consumed, their minds entirely open to its thrall.

                Only the #2, only Borsk, remained entirely deaf to the temple’s hiss. Van Zant, he cowered, Arcturus fought, and the sisters gleefully succumbed. Borsk however, marched down the hall like it was any other place. Until they came to the altar, etched of red sandstone, where the voices called louder than ever for blood to be spilled. Still he was deaf to them, turning back to the group.

                “Now what do ye make of th-“

                Now!

                The sisters struck as one, not seeing in their minds eye themselves and their kin any longer, but the reflections of long dead men. Their blades cut into Borsk’s skin and throat, his blood spilled upon the stone beneath their feet, staining it redder still. He quivered, eyes bulging in shock, trembling for a moment as he stood choking in silence, before sinking to the ground, shuddering, shuddering, and finally going still.

                Before the other two men could react, the temple came alive. Light burst from the stone. The ceilings, the walls, and the floor below. The light curved and hissed, and bound the men where they stood, burning their skin where it touched before cooling into scales and fang. They were tied before the altar by snakes of the past, that lived only in the potential moments before, during, and after the living transgressed upon this space.

                Arc spoke first, “Ariadne, Ezreya, what are you doin-”

                They are gone.

                The voice that came from the sisters’ mouths in unison was not their own, quiet and male, imbued with the divine’s certainty, the calm only the omnipotent possessed.

                They are gone. Were gone. Will always have been gone. In all times, only Bilal remains.

                Both Van Zant and Arc’s eyes go wide in recognition. That name, that lost name, that dangerous God who had whispered to them as well. A warning, an invitation, heeded to late and accepted by the warriors who stood before them, scimitars held high above their heads. Once comrades, now it seemed, their executioners.

                “What… who… what are, what are you?” Van Zant stuttered in fear, shivering in the warm darkness of the space around them. In the altar room, the walls fell away, their words did not echo, but disappeared. Even a scream would sound like a whisper, stunted by the sand and the stone, by the blood that pulsed behind every wall.

                The sisters spoke, in their own voices this time. “Bilal… Bilal… Bilal!”

                The newborn snakes bore the men towards the altar in the center of the darkness, tied them to the depressions the length of a man on either side. There they constricted and bit into their flesh, hissing menacingly. They knew their roles, they had ensured many a death before.

                The sisters advanced on the gang they once considered brothers. And Arc saw one more chance to save his skin, of not Van Zant’s.

                “Now listen, Ariadne, Ezreya, remember who you are! Remember what we were to each other. You don’t just throw that away. Bilal? What is Bilal but a name that lives only here in the black? He is nothing! Not outside these walls… but we, we could rule th-”

                Silence! This nattering bores me.

                Ariadne jerked forward, like a marionette caught on its own strings, striking wildly. Her scimitar cut a long, deep slice down Arcturus’ chest.

                You had your chance, Arc, to lead. And in leading survive. But those who do not join me must bleed, we… this temple… requires your sacrifice to endure.

                The gang leader’s eyes fluttered briefly, before he fell slack and limp against the stone.

                And in the altar’s chamber, the stone glows even brighter.

                Now for the quiet coward. Who danced on the edge, who warned of my power. With you… we will take our time.

                And the sisters turned to their next victim. Van Zant, eyes bulging, struggled against the snakes that hissed and snapped and held him fast.

                “No… please, no…”

                They did not respond, their eyes were pure white, so wholly were they under the yoke of the blooded God.

                “Bilal… Bilal… Bilal,” They chanted. Their blades rose.

                And even villagers in the town over heard his screams on the wind.

Bearskin

A visit to Father’s house always recalls bad memories. By day, it looks just like any other old house, imposing, if not truly frightening in its forestalled decay. But the cleanly-kept lawn, well-appointed rooms and jaunty white fence merely paper over the past. It loomed far more perilously back then; when I was clothed in poverty and prisoner to Father’s vices. Even now, when walking the gaily lit halls or drifting through the midst of Father’s boozy parties and celebrations, I can still see it for what it once was: ceilings crumbling under the weight of age, the constant drip-drip of leaks sprung anew, walls curdling with old moisture, the damp scent of mildew plugging my nose.

At night, sleeping in my childhood bed—the site of many horrors—the fear returns with the dark. My eldest sister Bertha hangs lifeless in my dreams, empty eyes searching the distance; her legs stutter slightly as her choking brain futilely seeks ground for some solid purchase. The middle child Maria, pockets filled with rocks, disappears beneath the mercilessly roiling river waves. She stops and turns at my call, teary eyes reproaching me for my part—however slight—in her suffering, before she turns and continues towards her desolation, submerging completely, never to be seen again. When I awaken, again and again, each night shivering, sweaty and weeping, I scarcely stifle the screams engendered by my nightmares. I see him sleeping peacefully next to me, my love, that foul object of my misery.

Who is this man I married?

            Watching him sleep, unharried by the hoary ghosts of our past, I recall—through the haze of sorrow that haunts me daily—the first day we met. My future husband seemed barely human when I saw him then. On my father’s step he stood, a filthy wanderer. Swathed in unwashed, matted furs, he looked, and smelled, more like a wild animal than a man. His skin, dark and grainy, was caked in a patina of soot and muck dragged from whatever hellhole he crawled from. Hair sprouted wildly from his head, an unkempt mop smeared in something I dared not to identify. I remember my father beaming as he paraded this husk before us, his daughters, more happily than the glower that typically accompanied his omnipresent drunkenness.

“Girls,” he managed to speak for once without slurring, “Meet our guardian angel… the answer to all our prayers.”

Leading this gross, grinning thing by the hand, Father told of how they met: in a local pub while he guzzled our family’s last dimes. This bedraggled stranger—after overhearing Father bemoaning his financial troubles (the man loved to gamble almost as much as he loved to drink)—produced unimaginable riches from the depths of a rancid coat—emeralds and rubies and the purest gold—one he still wore when in our home. It may once have been a verdant green. Such an odd garment, the coat was clearly once luscious and rich, but now looked barely more than a rag. How did such a thing produce such beguiling wealth? Father asked no such questions, not with a path out of his self-imposed misfortune dangling before him. This stranger, introducing himself simply as “Bearskin”, asked for nothing but prayers in return.

            My father, who, despite his failings, took receiving something for nothing as a great shame, then suggested the deal which sealed all our fates: “I told him, ‘Nonsense! For reasons beyond my reckoning, you’ve helped save me and my family from the poorhouse. In return, you must make one of my daughters your bride.’”

At the suggestion that Father would offer us up like so much cattle, my sisters recoiled in horror. Accepting such a creature into their home and bed was more than their dignity could countenance.

“Me? I’d rather marry an actual bear!” exclaimed Bertha.

“The Devil himself can take me first!” Maria chorused.

Father glared at them angrily, but even with the unspoken threat in his gaze, they met his stare unbowed. This was one filial burden too far. We were always more commodities to him, to be used like beasts of burden, abused and then married off, than daughters. Countless times, after many a long and expensive bender, he came to my room shrouded in black shadows and an even blacker mood, darkly cursing us and our mother for how we tested him (our mother fled this world soon after I was born, leaving us behind to suffer Father’s unjust anger). He never touched me, nor my sisters, with anything but anger, but his words scarred all the same. His slurred accusations, always blaming us for his money problems. He promised one day we would pay him back… now it was time to make do.

And so I, the one young enough to still fear Father’s drunken displeasure, meekly nodded my head in quiet acceptance, and extended a fair hand to my new fiancée. Fixing me with his eyes, deep pools of gray, he seized my fingers roughly, and pulled them towards chapped, bleeding lips, wreathed by the unkempt growths of a man allergic to razors. His palm was greasy, slick with dirt, sweat and God knows what else. This “Bearskin” kissed my hand, leaving a scent I’ve yet to forget to this day… rotten like diseased gums, half chewed food and cheap wine. His teeth were yellowed and moved in his mouth when pushed up against my hand. They felt like my hand pressed upon damp piano keys. Pulling away, he smiled, a gap-toothed, rictal grin, forcing me to tamp down unceasing waves of revulsion.

“What is your name, dear child?” Speaking for the first time, his voice was softer, gentler than one might have expected, air cushioned in silk. Had his breath not reeked worse than his kiss, I might have found this comforting. In his excitement, my father, still staring daggers at my elder, prouder sisters (their refusal to submit to his will was a transgression that wouldn’t soon be forgotten), had forgotten to introduce us by name to this “Bearskin”.

“Iv-Ivanka,” I whispered, eyes downcast, afraid that if I met his face again, sickness would overcome me. My silent inner rebel screamed at me to flee my father’s yoke once and for all, pleading that this was one expectation too far. But I feared a wrathful reprisal too much to vocalize my misgivings.

“Ivanka,” He whispered, smiling, his breath like death in my nostrils. “A beautiful name, for a beautiful girl. I thank you for your kindness. Such a gift is not soon forgotten.”

He departed soon after, leaving me with half a ring and a promise to return. Time passed, and with a brand new fortune to blow through, Father largely left us in peace (though he never fully forgave my sisters for their insolence). My sisters reproached and pitied me in equal measure. Bertha who often bemoaned my docile acceptance of Father’s abusive persecution, scowled, “Fool, now look at the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Say no to the old lush! When the time comes tell him you won’t go through with it!”

I knew she feared for me, imagining that a life married to some crusty vagrant, no matter his riches, might well be even worse than the hell we’d already endured.

Maria held me, crying, and tried to comfort me: “Perhaps he’ll never return! Father’s off skirt-chasing with his limitless fortune. We’re saved. We’re finally saved! Maybe things will be better now.” The years passed by. Eventually Bearskin, and the odious promise I made to him, were all but forgotten.

And so life continued until three years later. A stranger visited our home—this one, young, strong and smelling of roses. He introduced himself with a grand flourish of his velvet top-hat as Baron Fellmutze. Dressed richly in an emerald green waistcoat, bedecked with expensive rings adorned with rubies and diamonds from far-off lands, bearing a smile bright enough to blind the sun, this Baron also offered to marry one of Father’s daughters.

“I’ve heard great things about your family, and its sudden wealth, flourishing in the Rhine. Here I am, at the end of a long journey, and in my travels, I’ve not found one worth marrying, worth loving. Perhaps my search is finally at an end.”

My sisters swooned at his beauty, but his eyes, familiar and grey, they never left my own.

My sisters, now eclipsing marrying age, ran off to preen, hoping to look their finest for this eligible young bachelor. After they left, this mysterious houseguest kept his eyes on me, piercing through me with a loose grin and offered me a glass of wine. I drank hesitantly. Why did I know this man? But something solid in the glass clinked against my teeth.

In it was the other half of a wedding ring… here was the creature I promised to marry, far less loathsome in appearance than all those years ago. What could I do but fulfill the promise I had made? How could I have known how I helped to engineer the damnation of my beloved sisters?

Soon after we were married, and after the wedding my Father cast Bertha and Maria from his home, proclaiming triumphantly, “I only have one daughter now, the others died years ago when they defied their father.”

Bertha hung herself with the shame. She was always one of a fragile ego and volatile emotions. Maria, grief-stricken by her death fled quickly down Bertha’s path. I can still remember her eyes angrily fixed on mine; I can still remember how she blamed me for Bertha’s death. Even now, when I close my eyes, I hear her guttural cry when she found Bertha blue and dead; I see her turning from me in contempt and disappearing forever beneath the roiling, storming seas.

After their funerals, where I buried my sisters alone, my father too disgusted to attend, I turned to my husband, bereaved, lamenting my part in their death, he just smiled—his perfect white teeth flashed menacingly. “Fear not, dear Ivanka, the Devil has already claimed them. They will take my place in his unholy legion, those poor tormented souls.”

At this thought, he laughed, a deep-throated chuckle that blanched me to the core. Here is when I realized that once more, I was caged, just with a new jailor—my nose pressed hopelessly against the bars of holy matrimony.

And so here I lie, in my old bed, beside my new husband, under the roof of my father. Here I wonder what sort of monster I agreed to marry, and am now bound to. In my dreams they laugh together my drunk father, my satanic love. In my dreams they dance on the graves of my sisters: sacrifices at the altar of their cloven-footed Lord. In my dreams, I am bound to the stake, they dance around me, their faces demented by glee as they set my pyre alight. And when I wake, I know it is only a matter of time, before I chase my beloved Bertha and Maria into oblivion, recompense for the unforgiveable sin of acceptance. Retribution for allowing this creature into our lives.

And I know: It is no less than I deserve.

The Attic Ghosts (Dirge)

Once there were attic ghosts, haunting the top of an ancient manse, thumping and moaning in the dust. The ceiling above their humans' heads creaked with ethereal weight, terrifying and delighting the fleshed in equal measure. There is comfort in fear. In the reminder that this world is populated by forces the living will never understand. There is a purpose in frightening, in knowing that even after death, our souls, our echoes, still have a will to work in this world

And in their way, both the living and the dead were happy.

Once there was a community of the dead, composed of both housed and listless spirits. A community of those dead who haunt and possess a single place, and those who wander the Earth, drifting from home to home to see who resides inside, to see who died there and remains there still. The attic ghosts received these creatures of living light and decaying shadow with grace, grateful for their company. Glad to know they were not alone in the universe of the just beyond.

Once there were many incorporeal souls, but one day they began to fade, called onward by a breathing light to some unknown afterlife. Freed from the liminal space of half-being. But the attic ghosts remained. Once they entertained the prodigal departed, but no longer. All spirits passed beyond even the realm beyond, into the bliss of oblivion, leaving the attic ghosts on Earth, their souls standing apart and alone.

But still they had the living, and still they haunted their manse. Still they whispered that some dead were still here; that their souls remained. "We still have a place in the universe!" Was their voiceless cry.

And as long as the living remained below their feet to frighten, and abode to be reminded of the unknown, they were happy.

But then a final change came. The last of the men willing to live below the strange passed away. Their children moved into more modern homes, with more modern sensibilities. None with room for ghosts. Now, in the old house, the windows are boarded, the rooms are empty but for louses and dust. The ghosts are left alone with none but themselves for company.

Long after even those they haunted have been forgotten, the attic ghosts continue to howl and dance. The floorboards creak beneath transparent feet.

Now, alas, they frighten no one but themselves.

 

The Quiet King of the Universe

At night the man dreams of the stars. Not in the sky above, but beneath his feet. Glittering granules of sand caught in still cooling obsidian. He dreams of magnificent, impossible beings, bathing him in silent adulation.

He never speaks, this homeless man. Fellow travelers, fellow men who are lost and forgotten, in lieu of a name, call him Stargazer or The Quiet King of the Universe.

How he spends his days: wandering the Earth his eyes constantly skyward. He wonders about dreams where he drifts in the heavens. Are they of a life to come, or one that was? He waits in a liminal state, listless and just on the edge of becoming. He waits, stuck in-between. He waits for the calling, waits for them to pull him out of his life and up into the night.

Even in the day, and in the sun, the blue skies, the clouds, do not fool him. Beyond he can see it is always black. An igneous matte that calms him, calls to him. Even when he sleeps in the rain, drops pattering on the hull of his aluminum lean-to. He can see through the metal and through the darkness, through to the stars that call him home.

And still he waits.

One evening the wait ends. Bright lights shake him from reverie, dreams of standing above the stars. Lights pull him from his hovel. Up, up... Opening his eyes, he is hemmed in by impossible creatures who exist only on the edge of imagining. In a translucent craft in the midst of the stars. He is one with the night sky, one he has watched each day since he was a young man.

He is home once more.

They do not speak, neither does he. After a fashion they bow, one by one, inclining heads or probosces, bending knee or tentacle, even the living shadows sink towards the starry floor in supplication. Quietly, they rejoice. For he has returned; their lord has ascended: the Quiet King of the Universe.

Adrift in the dark, the Quiet King dreams of stars. Not on the floor beneath, but above his head. A night sky. A ceiling coated in pitch and diamond. He dreams of a life that was-

-or is yet to be.

 

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.