The story so far:
This is the first chapter in the untitled story of Jack, set in the world of the Aether.
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I ever had.
– Roland Orzabal, Mad World
A kaleidoscope of images writhed over the ground. I knew them all: every face and scene and feeling. They blurred into each other as I turned, then snapped back into focus to reveal a new angle on my life story. Standing in the middle of them felt a little like coming home. Suffocating.
I scowled at the boundless mosaic and thought: What fresh hell is this? It wasn’t really a question, and I didn’t expect an answer. The scenes continued to merge and split in stubborn silence.
Am I dead? And then, shouldn’t that bother me?
The mess that was my kitchen caught my attention first. Dishes unwashed. Cupboards empty. I felt a twinge of guilt over letting it get so bad. The details blurred and morphed into my clinically tidy office. On the wall a perpetually full whiteboard of tasks gleamed menacingly. Then it too lost focus, and I struggled to remember what I had been looking at. The memory was still there, but it danced just out of reach. With a dismissive shrug, I turned away and the kaleidoscope shifted again.
Eyes stared up at me. My family. Their bored, annoyed expressions were my fault, even if I couldn’t recall why. I loved them – of course I did – but that was never enough. The weight of their disapproval pressed down on me until I shriveled in defeat. My grandmother pursed her lips at me too, but it was a call to action and not another accusation. She never doubted that I could do anything I set my mind to. I still missed her.
I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough, I told them all, knowing they couldn’t hear me anymore.
Then the pictures of them yellowed and their centers all melted away like bits of old film. A thick smoke rose from the floor, and I saw that other parts of my tapestry were gone as well. Edges still glowed with red and blue fire, and I peered with morbid curiosity into one of the wounds nearby. A runny strand of film dripped into an inky void below.
I should have felt something. A better wife or a more perfect mother would have cried over their loss. I knew it like I knew my name was … like I knew my own name.
Everywhere I looked more memories melted into the abyss. I felt a stab of pain and then … the opposite of guilt. Joy, maybe. A lightness that uncurled my back and shoulders until I could stand at my full height again. I felt free … but naked without that heavy blanket of their disapproval wrapped around me.
I wanted to laugh, but it was only an echo inside my head. I looked down at my body and saw thick tendrils of smoke that curled in and out of itself like the patterns of the kaleidoscope. Then I realized: it wasn’t the floor that was melting away. It was me. I was the film and the camera.
Tiny wildfires tore through me, hissing hungrily as black smoke poured from my wounds. Those acrid wisps gathered, banding into something that hinted at bone, then muscle. Fascinated, I rose my arm and marveled as fingers stretched like taffy from the stubs of my hand. I turned it over and watched delicate fingernails emerge from each tip.
I am becoming real, my mind finally replied. Whatever was in those empty spaces made me unhappy. I don’t need them now. I can let them go. They were good thoughts, I decided at last, but not mine. They reeked of an optimism that I simply couldn’t fathom.
My new skin plagued me with petty complaints. The side of my head itched, so I threaded fingers through my hair to drag my nails over my scalp. It felt so satisfying, that mix of pain and relief. The movement jostled my hair, and the ends tickled my bare shoulders. I traced the edge of an ear with the tip of one finger, lingering on an earlobe that was still taking shape.
Still taking shape, I realized, and looked down at myself greedily. I fanned the smoke that gathered around my waist, urging it to settle a little further upward. I slapped my palms against my hips hopefully, like an artist trying to sculpt myself out of flesh colored clay. A little more here and here, a little less there. No, a lot less there. I couldn’t tell if it was working, but hey. It was worth a shot.
Then I heard a low hum of many voices all blended together and realized I wasn’t alone. My hands hesitated en route to my backside, and I let them fall nonchalantly. Maybe if I couldn’t see the owners of those voices, they couldn’t see me? I knew it was a juvenile wish, but I was watching myself being made. It wasn’t like I could get any younger than that.
Their chanting rose and fell in a steady rhythm that reminded me of the sermons of my former childhood. That blurry memory left me feeling uneasy, and then the edges of my new mouth turned upward in a smile. The weight of those dark thoughts was still inside me then, even if the reason for them wasn’t. It became my anchor among the swirl of lost pictures and I clung to it like a long lost friend.
A deep, muffled voice rose above the rest. The rhythm of the chanting changed after that, growing increasingly urgent. With that urgency came a sloppiness in the tone that hadn’t been there before. I could suddenly feel each voice like a hand on my soul. Each one pulled in different directions, threatening to tear me apart. The ground heaved, sending jagged spikes of the floor into the air that skewed the projections even more.
Still, the panic I expected never came. This too felt … familiar. Too many masters. Too many hurdles obscuring my view. I pressed my eyelids closed and dove inward, searching for answers that I suspected weren’t there anymore.
It was hot, my skin complained again, and growing more oppressive as the voices rose in their deafening crescendo. I winced against both and heard a growl roll over the back of my throat. Instantly, the voices fell silent. There was a long hiss, like water thrown onto a fire, and the air grew thick as the heat became more tolerable.
When I opened my eyes again I watched bright, fuzzy scraps of images coalesce into asymmetric stars. The darkness in between swam in and out of focus, hinting at pale faces: dozens of them, maybe more. They bowed their heads to a rhythm their voices had given up.
One of them glided forward, its features flickering in and out of shadow. He said something in a soft tenor that dripped with kindness, then he draped a long cloth thing over my shoulders. It itched, but it covered all of the bits that I didn’t care to have on full display. I started to thank him, but his expression stopped me. It held too much sympathy. Pity. Then I saw something else that set my temper on fire. Disappointment.
Why? I howled inside my head. Indignation filled the void my memories had left behind, and it felt good. How dare he look at me like that when he doesn’t even know me. He doesn’t know who I am, or what I went through…
Neither do you, a cool wave of resignation reminded me. It doused my righteous anger and left me feeling empty all over again. Let it go.
I took a deep breath …
Let it go, that inner voice repeated, pleading.
…and smiled. It felt like a familiar dance. All of the pain and rage that I felt simmered just under the surface, and it gave me the fuel I needed to maintain a charade of outward tranquility. I kept smiling, and so did he, but in his eyes I could see the gears turning. The calculations. He was already adjusting his expectations downward, and I hated him for that.
Beyond him, a sea of eyes were pinned on me. I recognized them on a level that ran deeper than memory. They were full of hope. Desperation. Need. Or more accurately, they needed a favor and desperately hoped I would do it for them.
He turned sideways and rose an arm toward me as he spoke to them. An introduction, maybe. To me, they were a string of soft, confident noises that sounded vaguely inspirational. I backed them up with a peaceful, patient gaze, hoping to buy myself the time I needed to calm down and get my bearings. To form a plan.
The room was lit by two sputtering torches, but as my eyes adjusted I could see the light disappear into curious, pockmarked shadows against the walls. It wasn’t a room, I realized at last, then stifled a condescending snicker. Were we really in a cave? Wasn’t that where shady rituals always went down? Zero points for originality.
I gathered that we were entering the question and answer portion of the night. Voices climbed over each other as each sought attention. Someone stole mine with a barked query, and several people shouted their agreement. The man beside me pressed three fingers to his chest. The gesture looked like a promise but didn’t seem to calm whatever worries had been given a voice.
I wanted someone to calm me down. I was the one who didn’t understand what was going on. I was the one who had been torn away from my life without even a do you mind. And I knew that I would stand there all day waiting for anyone to do it for me.
A careful step forward took me to his side. He shifted anxiously, and I knew: whatever was going on here, he wanted it to go smoothly. That gave me the courage I needed to show them all what I was really made of.
I stepped into the crowd of people and hoped I was reading the room as well as I had their leader. Some rose timid, shaking hands to touch my bare legs. It made my skin crawl, but I turned the full force of my tranquil smile onto whoever caught my eye. I touched shoulders and patted heads like a faith healer. They melted under the unexpected attention and folded me deeper into their crowd.
An elderly lady caught my eye, and I bowed my head respectfully. She rewarded me with grateful, relieved tears that piqued my curiosity, but only a little. I hid a grimace as I took the hand she thrust toward me, and gave it a gentle pat before letting it go.
I haven’t agreed to anything, my inner voice screamed over the audible relief that spread through those around me.
When I finally reached the back row, I turned to look at the man again. He seemed proud of me. I pressed three fingers to my chest, mimicking his gesture, and he returned a sad but genuine smile. Then I held it out toward him, my palm facing upwards like an invitation to dance. All eyes shifted his way, except for two.
Another person lounged in the shadows near him. It looked like a girl in her middle or late teens, but I couldn’t be sure with the distance and the dim, flickering firelight. She leaned casually against the wall of the cavern as though she were bored but cold, predator eyes followed my every movement.
I took a deep, calming breath. It didn’t matter. We couldn’t be further apart. She was on the other side of the crowd, and I was darting through a large mouth in the cavern’s back wall while everyone else was looking the other way.
My bare feet slapped against the stone floor of the tunnel outside. It wouldn’t take long for them to realize that their person of interest was interested in being very elsewhere. Behind me, the voices from the cavern bounced off the walls with a rising tone of panic. Where is she? I imagined they were saying. She was just here a moment ago.
The man’s voice cut through the chaos like a razor. It still sounded warm, but carried an authority that hadn’t been there before. People shouted and shuffled, and it gave me a burst of ill-timed speed. I slid into a corner too fast and thudded into the crudely cut stone wall. My hip and shoulder throbbed from the impact, but I wasn’t about to give up my head start to nurse a bruise that hadn’t even gone purple yet.
I had to get away. Where, I didn’t know. I was sure that, if I could run far enough and fast enough, I could find a quiet place to put my thoughts in order. My cosplaying kidnappers didn’t get to decide anything for me.
The tunnel grew wider and more rectangular as I went. A faint glow saturated the stone beneath me. Smaller corridors branched off, and I held my breath as I passed each one, but no one leapt out to stop my escape. Except for the cavern, the entire place seemed to be abandoned.
The shouts of my abductors began to fade, and I slowed to a jog to catch my breath at last. I dared a glance behind me and saw a shimmer of light in the distance. The torches, maybe? No, the color was wrong.
Eyes. They were the eyes of the scary girl. Her bare feet danced soundlessly over the glowing floor. Panic filled me when I saw the look on her face. I wasn’t sure if she meant to catch me or kill me, but I wasn’t interested in either one. Fear pushed me back into a solid run, and I managed to resist the overwhelming urge to keep glancing over my shoulder at her. Every time I did, I lost speed.
My heart sank when I saw a wall ahead of me, but soft moonlight, blue and peaceful, illuminated a side passage. The outside! Until I tasted that cool, sweet breeze I didn’t realize how sick the air in the caves was. I skidded through the corner and launched myself through the door.
What happened next, I only understood in pieces. The wind caught my hair and whipped it into my face. My feet still pedaled uselessly against a floor that wasn’t there anymore. I tilted backward. The girl with the dead eyes hung from a window above me. Past her, I caught a glimpse of soaring arches and windows that sparkled with the light of a full moon.
The simple robes I wore snapped madly in the wind because I was falling.
I couldn’t turn my head to see how much time I had left. A paralyzing terror gripped me as I imagined the blood and mess. My blood. I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped I wouldn’t feel anything when I —
Later, I would tell the story many times. I would joke about how “remarkably uncomfortable” it was, though “not as lethal as it should have been.” It was a script that I eventually memorized and recited like a history lesson, because what really happened was too much to bear even as a memory.
I felt it happen… when my body exploded. Every nerve lit up for an instant. In that moment I was pain… but the grass didn’t bend under my weight. The dust and dirt lay undisturbed. There was no blood. It would have been more kind if my story ended there.
My body billowed outward in a shadowy cloud. Wispy tendrils of me danced wildly, some doubling back into my core and others tearing away to fly like leaves on the wind.
I was a ghost again, and I learned the hard way that a ghost couldn’t faint. I felt everything as my body twisted itself back together. This time there wasn’t any room for detached admiration: there was only pain. Each second felt eternal on its own, but they stretched into minutes just for the hell of it.
Finally, I became human enough to scream.