This short story by Hannah Regan is one of the finalists of the Furious Gazelle’s Halloween contest. The contest’s winner will be announced Friday.
Now picture this: first, black. The sharp sound of a switch, and a light flares. It backlights a rippling white sheet. No, off-white, really. Creamy. A few slapping sounds from the darkness around you, then a silhouette appears on the screen. The figure kneels, picks something up from the ground. A quick ripping sound, a snap, and then a steady hiss, and a small yellow glare – a match lit behind the screen. A crack, and the sheet falls. You see a face – a beautiful face, the face of an angel, but marred by a jack-o-lantern smile, toothy but razored-edge canines, head thrown back, laughing, and then suddenly snaps shut into a smirk that sends shivers tearing down you. He drops the match, and everything is black, once again, until it blazes up, consuming everything in gold. And then nothing.
The boy ran through town, breathing hard, bare feet getting dirtier with every slap onto the ashy asphalt, tearing away from the golden sky blazing behind him. The pollution-heavy air weighed in his lungs and his ears rang as the sirens began to blare, waking the peaceful air. And still he ran, harder, further, faster, until he could run no more. Then he collapsed on the ground.
Lights up behind the screen again, a platform with a dark mass shadowing it this time. A curvaceous woman moves around it this time, clinking sounds as she mixes this and that, then leans over the platform. A spluttering noise, the dark mass convulses sharply. Blackout.
The boy is on his feet again, but no longer on the street. He’s bolting sidelong through a seemingly endless hallway. He sees himself running on all sides of himself. There, he is stretched like taffy, reaching to the sky. Over there, he is the size of his thumb. In a third side, he is wider than he is tall. Every few lengthy strides, he crashes into a wall. It shatters, leaving a black scar in the shimmering hall. He changes directions, and keeps running, until every wall was destroyed, and he collapses again on shards of glass.
Lights up. A barren hospital room is illuminated. One metal cot, on which is heaped a small, dark mass. Outside a steel door, two silhouettes are illuminated. The curvy nurse, and a tall, square man – the doctor? Whispers are heard leaking under the door, and then it opens. The light is white and harsh, contrasting with the warm, soft, yellow glow of the hallway outside. The gold is cut off sharply as the door slams and the man and woman enter.
Both figures bustle around the bed. The nurse fusses with the mass’s sheets, fluffs its pillows, checks the bedpan. The doctor checks vitals, making notes on pulse, breathing, lividity, on the chart hung on the foot of the bed. Both figures pause as the mass stirs, taking the shape of a small boy. His eyes flicker for a moment, revealing stripes of green iris underneath. Blackout.
The boy is trapped now in a spinning cylinder which stretches and compresses, so that just when he thinks he has reached the end, he is carried back to the start. The walls spin around him, disorienting. Getting weaker. Cylinder is shrinking. Tighter, tighter, squeezes out all the air, and he crumples, stuck inside the still invariably rotating tube.
The harsh white light flickers into being again, blinding you momentarily. The green-eyed boy is sitting up on the hospital bed now; the doctor and nurse are seen outside the door once again. The boy is examining himself. His legs and arms are hardly recognizable as such. They bear a mix of injuries: slices which seem to sparkle, as though there is glitter embedded in them; scrapes and bruises still full of asphalt and ash, dusky black amid the glitter; and everywhere, shiny red burns, glaring, giving off a radiation. You can almost feel the heat.
After a thorough self-examination, the boy lies back against the sheets, waiting. The doctor enters again, and the narrow green slits snap shut, feigning sleep. Another round of checking vitals, a crisp nod from the doctor. The first words – “alert me when he wakes” – a slamming door – and a blackout.
The click of a light, and the sheet is back. You see a long vehicle – a truck? – race along toward the golden flare in the distance. The flare hisses, crackles and pops, reaching ever higher, threatening to consume every drop of ink coloring the sky. A wailing sound grates on your ears, repetitively, and you beg for it to stop. Mercy, please. The truck reaches the blaze, the wail stills, but you know it is too late. The building is consumed, and there is nothing left to find. Shards of glass on the ground, ash falling like feathers from the sky, and in a secret corner, one, almost consumed match, much too small a thing to have committed such a grand act.
This time, first sound. Another wail, less mechanical. Human, this time. Then the grating bleached light. The boy, contorting on the pallet, as the doctor and nurse bend over him with thin silver instruments. As you watch, the doctor reaches down, there is a barely audible click, then his hand comes up, reaches over to a bowl, and relaxes. There is a ping – a shard of glass falling into the bowl. They are removing the glittery pieces from him, one by one, and he does not appear to be numbed.
They work in silence, broken only by the occasional ping as the glass hits the bowl, and the soft moan of the boy whose nervous system is being consumed from the outside, trying to hold himself together long enough to achieve a point of relief which may never come.
No lights. You sit in darkness as a series of beeps reaches your ears, then a voice. It’s human, but barely. Robotically, the woman tells you that there has been a fire in the South district. No one was harmed inside the building, an abandoned warehouse. However, the arsonist is suspected to be severely injured. She begins to describe the arsonist. It sounds terribly familiar, and you realize with a sense of horror that weighs in your stomach as if you have swallowed a stone that she is describing the small boy lying on a pallet in a cold, bare hospital. Anyone with information is asked to come forward. You can call… The voice trails off as she recites the number, the sound fading, and you are alone in the dark.
The blinding white light floods you once more, and the golden light is lighting three figures now: the pear-shaped nurse, the square doctor, and now a round man, slightly shorter. More whispers, followed by a gruff “get out of the way.” The door opens again, and the people come in to peer down at the boy.
He could be a mummy now, wrapped in bandages which covered some sort of gooey purple ointment which simultaneously soothes his burns and stings his cuts. He twitches every few seconds. His green eyes are open, the whites stung red with pain. There was a trickle of red running down his chin, where he seemed to have bitten his lip to keep from crying out.
The adults crowd the bed, and his eyes flicker between them as his body convulses. The round man sends the doctor and nurse out, and shows the boy something shiny. A silver badge, it seems. He speaks, but his voice sounds like it is coming through in a haze. The boy’s eyes narrow again. The man does not look around, and so he does not notice the book of matches lying on the bedside table.
The boy releases his hold on his lips to issue a sharp scream – it hurts you, it is so piercing. The doctor and the nurse come running back in, and shoo out the round man with the badge. Blackout.
No light. No sound. It feels as if you are floating. What is this place, precisely? Who are you? What are you? You aren’t sure. It’s heavy. It’s empty. You have no perception of time, no awareness of having any senses. What is this? Fade out.
Lights up, this time soft yellow. You are in the hallway now, watching the doctor and nurse talk to the round man with the badge in front of the door. They are arguing, the round man insisting that the boy is a criminal and needs to go to jail, while the doctor and nurse insist he is too weak. They open the door and enter, and from the brief glimpse you get, the medical professionals are right. Machines beep and whir, and the boy groans softly. The door slams, leaving you outside.
Black. You’re angry, you want inside with the boy. But you can’t open the door without a hand. As soon as this thought crosses your mind, one appears at the end of an arm that hadn’t been there. You become corporeal. Laughter bubbles up from your newly formed lungs. Efficacy at last.
Back to the warm gold light of the hallway. You lay your hand on the doorknob, admiring your fingers as they twist and contort, pushing the door in, and you enter. The doctor, nurse, and round man are all gone, off to argue in some other part of the hospital, it seems. The boy jars when he sees you.
“Who are you?” His eyes are narrowed, but you know he has noticed the resemblance between himself and you. “Do I know you?”
“Yes. Of course you do.” Although you have never spoken before, the words slip out easily, the skill already there for you to tap. “I’m you.”
“If you’re me, then who am I?” There’s a glint in his eye; he thinks he has trapped you. You smile, the ghost of a smile carved into a Halloween jack-o-lantern, lit from behind by a single match.
“I’m you. You severed me from yourself, saying it was too hard to be truly human. In fact, really, I’m you and you are a shell.” Eyes widen, and you see the ghost of a memory dance in his eyes, electric green, but flat, lifeless, no soul behind them to breathe life into him.
“I did. I cut you out. There was too much pain, too much horror.” The words come out of his mouth in a detached sort of way, there is no more emotion attached to them. You have all of his emotions, now. He has nothing left except the pain, inescapable and ever present.
“Ironic, really, that it was your desire for painlessness which leaves you in such agony now. Why’d you do it?”
“What, light the fire?” You nod. “Because I could. Because the matches were there. Because I was testing whether I really could feel nothing.”
“Nothing. Not nothing. I have felt nothing, but you still feel the physical. Are you ready for me again?” He nods, terribly slowly, grimacing in pain.
“Is there greater pain than this?” He grits his teeth. You smile, mirthless.
“Yes.” Simple, straightforward. “There is the pain of nothingness.” You rush upon him, in through the wound still gaping from where he severed you, not so long ago. You wiggle, adjusting to him again, desperately seeking the anchor which you have missed like a physical ache. As you latch in once again, he screams, you scream, the two sounds one, raw and primal – the pain of feeling once again. Blackout.
When you come to, green eyes flashing and dancing, the doctor and nurse are hovering over you, the round man standing off to the side, observing. The doctor is taking notes again, attempting to determine why you screamed, and the nurse is pumping pain medication in through the IV in your wrist. You stop her, reveling in the deliciousness of the pain, the sensation flooding your body.
The harsh white light stings your eyes, and the gritty hospital sheets rip into your delicate burns, and the beeping of the machines might as well be bombs going off. And you delight in it all, feeling it deeply, the aliveness of it all. The round man steps forward.
“Why’d you do it, son? Why’d you set the fire?” Everyone pauses in their routine tasks to hear your answer, listening intently. Your green eyes, animated now, widen, and the jack-o-lantern smile splits your angelic face. The round man steps backward.
“I don’t have a reason. I felt nothing. I feel nothing. I am nothing.” Mad laughter bursts from inside you, and you begin convulsing again, shaking all over with the utter emptiness of your mirth. The last sensation you are aware of is one sharp prick in your shoulder, as the nurse stabs you with a tranquilizer. Your laughter subsides, the world goes fuzzy, and the pain swims down, as you leave the conscious world once more. Blackout.