By Ro Lamb
“Are we ready to begin?” The words are cold, clipped, said with no emotion.
I raise my head. One shoulder braced against the padded walls, I drag my body to its feet. My teeth gritted against the smarting of the two fresh scars that run the length of my back. Snarling, I will my skin to stay whole as it claws against my flesh from the inside—a matter of time.
The floor, the ceiling, the walls, except for one, are all white. The one that isn’t white is glass—glossy black, reflective. I stare at my reflection: bald headed, bloodshot, weary eyes. The white tank top, pants, and stringless-shoes match the room and make my scarred brown skin stand out.
“Good.” The voice echoes.
The muzzle hits into the floor.
Buckles on the straitjacket release. I shrug out of it and toss it to the side. I roll my neck and shoulders and stretch my arms, relishing the freedom. Fearing what comes next.
“How long have I been here?” I rasp. “You should have enough. Please…”
The voice answers. “Let’s begin.”
I brace, aware of the futility.
The scars on my back split and yawn open like canyons. I will never get used to this agony; it feels fresh as the first time and like I’ll never feel anything like it again.
The lights flicker. Something slinks out of the open scars of my back, carelessly, chafing against my wounds. In the glass, I can see the mass of inky blackness rising, defying gravity, hovering like a set of demonic wings framing my figure.
I scream and close my eyes. When I open them, my magic erects before me dark, beautiful, and writhing. It morphs, wearing the faces embedded in my memories, molding itself into nightmares and dreams. First, it wears my wife’s face, torturing me with her smile, her scent of honey and cocoa butter; it shifts into my sons tussling and screaming for me to join them; then my father, silent, stoic, disapproving. My face is a river. Each new illusion tears something inside of me.
I want to shut my eyes to this monstrosity, but it feels like a betrayal because I created this—it is me.
Then, I see my grandaddy’s face smiling at me.
I remember this. The day he taught me to Manifest.
Delirious, words slurred from the agony, I ask him, like I asked that day, “Granddaddy? What happens when we lose control?”
In a perfect rendition, his eyes never meet mine, but I can see them glistening with unshed tears. His voice shakes as he says, “If you follow everything I teach you today, you’ll never have to find out, son.”
And then it looks at me, grinning.
His first lesson on that day had been, you can only manifest what is a part of you. So as I stare at this shape-shifting monster before me, I despair. Because I know, I am this terror.
On cue, it shifts again. It becomes a dead man. His dead eyes tunnel into me. I am confused.
“Did you murder me?” the dead man asks.
I shake my head. “No. I couldn’t have…”
“Did you lose control?”
I shake my head furiously. “No. Please no…” I back away and turn, not wanting to look at the man I may have murdered. “No!”
Blood red memories, fractured and twisted, fill my mind. I look at the man I murdered.
It shifts one last time.
Now, the creature is wearing my face. Its face—my face—carves into a smile that sets my spine shivering. Victory. I clench my teeth and make a sound in the back of my throat that might be a growl.
I don’t hear its voice as much as I feel it. I don’t hear words as much as I simply understand what it wants.
It says, Together.
I look past it—myself—at the reflective surface.
I hear the emotionless voice again over the speaker.
Whether I killed this man or not, on purpose or by accident, I am guilty. Granddaddy taught me to control this thing. For people like me, there is no such thing as accidents.
I murdered this man, and this is my penance.
“What is happening?” I hear the voice over the intercom, frantic, afraid. “Can you hear me?”
I stand and look at the creature. I nod.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then my world bursts into black. When I come to, I am standing face to face with the reflective surface.
Our hand reaches up and onto the reflective surface. The cool is pleasant on our palm. Somehow our smile grows, stretching our face into something predatory.
The glass splinters beneath my palm.
We say, Together.