Unburden

By - Michael Formato

“What are you waiting for?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been over this,” I snapped my fingers a couple of times. “Hello? You listening?”

“What the hell are you talking about!” the arms of the man in front of me were glued to his sides like a dead old tree stump, his hands shaking like all hell.

“It’s the only way you’ll ever get better. What are you waiting for?” I repeated, arms outstretched at my sides. I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me – not again.

“I don’t even know who you are… where am I?”

“Marcus,” I replied, coincidently in the same manner a person would speak to a misbehaving dog.

“Who are you!?”

“A friend. I’m here to help you, remember? You don’t remember me?” I walked over to him and forcibly (but gently) raised his right hand up at a ninety-degree angle, the cold metal of the gun in his hand leaving its residual sensation on my skin. The brightness of the room was beginning to annoy me, but not as much as my client was right now. Perhaps I should have selected a different setting.

“It’s easy,” I commented with a smile. I turned from him then, and took a couple of paces back to where I stood earlier. “We’ve been through this.”

“Why are you doing this to me!?”

“You’re losing yourself again,” I remarked, facing him again. “You are the one that requested these sessions, right? You’re the one who said you were ready. I am just the one you enlisted to help.”

He screamed again, covering his face and sobbing. “Wh- hu- why do you keep doing that? Your face!”

I sighed. I kept switching through faces in his memory; enemies, rivals, people he wouldn’t think twice about shooting in the face within the confines of a controlled setting. It usually helps but this wasn’t the usual case.

“I- don’t- know- what- to- dooo!” he fell to his knees now, the gun falling out of his hands and clacking across the blank white floor. I couldn’t help but let out my first visible sign of annoyance. I sighed and walked towards him again.

“I’m telling you! All you’re your fears and your anxieties will be gone! You just gotta’ take that leap! That’s what I’m here to do! To make you take that leap! It’s what you wanted! More than anything in this world– hey,” I crouched beside him, reaching out for his shoulder as my skin changed from white to black. “When I asked you what you wanted most in this world, what did you tell me?”

He started sobbing again, not paying attention. I shook my head.

“You’ve made so much progress… Sooo much progress. We are at the divide now. The one we both have worked so hard to get you to. There is nothing more I could do. Other than encourage you to take that leap.” He peered up at me again and let out another shrill shriek. Maybe the face changes weren’t the best idea. I picked up the gun again and nestled it into his grip. His hands were wet. I urged him to his feet, and once there, I took the initiative to drop to my knees myself. I looked up at him, hands and fingers crossed as if in prayer. “Don’t throw it all away now… It’s your last chance. Take the shot.”

He shook his head.

“Would a change of scenery help?”

The blank room turned into a vast grassy plain, rolling hills. New Zealand. The first thing that came to mind.

“That doesn’t help me! No amount of face changing or room changing is going to help! It doesn’t work that way! You’re asking me to kill a part of me!”

“A diseased, corrupted parasite that happened to reside within the boundaries of your existence. Sapping away at your delicate life, your happiness. I am the personification of this parasite, this tumor, that needs to be cut out. I am that tumor! And you are holding the scalpel. This is what it’s all about!”

I witnessed him calm down a bit, he wiped away a few tears and I decided to change forms again one final time. He didn’t flinch thankfully.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it? You asked for this. We’ve worked for this. I’ve counselled you, trained you… and now you’re here. On the cusp of it all. I’m right here. Please. Take the shot.”

The wind felt so real on my face as it must have felt for him. The new-found warmth in the air filled me with its wonderful scent, as I hoped it did him.

“Time is running out.”

It really was, and I could physically see my paycheck getting picked up by the breeze behind him and fly out of eyeshot. I’m glad he didn’t get to see that. My own blips of thought making its way into the projection I had created for him.

He took a moment, then, slowly, he raised his arm at an angle, pointing it at my forehead finally.

“That’s it. Take the shot. You got this. One more step, and it’ll be done. You’ll be free!”

His hands were shaking now, branches in the wind.

“Take the shot Marcus.”

“I can’t.”

“Do not give up on this now. Take the shot.”

“I can’t!”

I yanked his arm and pressed the barrel against my temple. “Take the shot.”

“I–”

“Take the shot.”

“Please!”

“FUCKING SHOOT ME.”

“I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN!”

“You’ve told me yourself! You hate me with all your heart! You would do anything to get rid of me! I, ruined, your, life! I ruined your life! I did! And now you can end it- end it all! The gun is in your hand! Shoot!”

“I… I…”

“DO IT–”

Darkness.

The gun went off.

The sound it made almost made my ears pop, scary even to me. I quickly deactivated the layer of mental projections and waited for him to get to his senses. He had collapsed to the floor in a slobbering heap. When he would open his eyes again, I had made sure the room before him became familiar. The house he stood in, the room he resided in, it had to be perfect.

This had to be her room.

This had to be the year 2047, sixty years ago.

When he stopped crying hysterically, I hooked an arm under his arm and lifted.

“You did it Markus.”

“Whu- I what?”

“Get up! Get up!”

Once finally to his feet, I looked at him, beaming, urging him to look down at what he had done.

“Look! Look! You did it!”

Flustered he looked down at the small bed before him.

A child laying within it, a bullet through the side of her head, blood spewing from her open skull, pieces of her brain adorning the pillows.

He fell backwards, recoiling as far as he could, his back hitting the wall behind him.

“Oh my god what have I… WHAT HAVE I DONE!? WHAT HAVE I DONE!?”

“All that hard work, all this time… you actually did it. I’m so proud of you,” I sat down next to him. The smile was beginning to hurt my jaw. “This was what you wanted remember? Clear your mind, clear your mind and remember,” I projected my own face this time, my true face, and suddenly his own began to turn. He remembered it.

“Wh…”

“It’s me Markus! Look! Look– stand up and look at what all those sessions and all that training has done for you! Don’t be alarmed!”

He got to his feet and looked at the corpse, like a small child analyzing a lizard.

“You took the shot buddy!”

“I did it…”

“It’s what you wanted,” I stole a glance at my watch. Right on time too. “You wanted this, and you went out and did it my friend! A success!” Thank fucking Christ.

“Yeah!” He was beaming now. Fully remembering the task he had laid out for us both. Suddenly realizing the success we had both equally fulfilled. He swiftly turned to the girl’s nightstand and brushed all the toys and pill bottles and machines off the top and watched them crash against the floor, punting them around the room.

“How are you feeling?”

“Relieved.”

“Like a weight has been lifted?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You wont be needing those machines anymore… the pills to keep her alive, right? No more expenses, bills, the minivan you hate, the physiotherapy, that wheelchair you need to push around, all that money you threw away, the debts. Its over now. You have what you wanted. Calm. Peace.”

He jumped from the room and tossed the wheelchair, the one he had once bought for her comfort, and tossed it down the flight of stairs outside her room, passed the electric lift he had once installed along its length for her. He was on top of the world. Dare I even say the happiest I’ve ever seen a person. I suddenly felt a vibration on my wrist, the kick, and with a final look of what pure ecstasy felt like, perhaps something I’d never feel, I removed my physical projection from the environment.

I watched, like a ghost, as Marcus returned to the little girl’s room, completely forgetting my existence altogether and laughing. He had picked up the carcus, like a doll, and began dancing with it; laughing as only the happiest man in the whole world could, blood pouring from the open wound, the child’s body flailing limply as he shuffled across the room. I stared at my watch again. I let him enjoy one last moment of ecstasy, the last he’d ever feel, before I hit the all stop.

I quickly removed the diodes from my temples and the ‘Halo’ mechanism from my head, setting it on the table beside me as I put the real world back into focus once again. I was greeted by a myriad of medical machines blaring, all to they’re own tune. A solid flat line across the heart rate monitor. I found my tablet and peered towards my watch once more.

Time of death: Ten minutes to 5:00 pm.

I leaned over and snapped the heart rate monitor off, along with the life support machine, before standing and removing his own ‘Halo’ from its mounting points and the diodes that sent the projections from my brain directly into his, hijacking his dream and implanting my own. I nodded, and one of the nurses who oversaw the operation began removing the tubes from his nose and the iv from his arm and prepared the body to be removed.  I looked to my tablet again, filling in the rest of the post-mortem information necessary to satisfy the mediators who by law had the final say over the success of the operation.

Time within: ten and a half minutes.

The time on the outside world was minimal. It always feels longer on the inside, where hours within accounted for minutes in the real world.

Target: reached with success. Transmission sent to base. 

With everything off him I looked down at the elderly corpse of Marcus Ball, ninety-eight, and dead of multiple organ failure. Even in death, the cutting out and the replacing of his memories had done its job. He died smiling, believing that what he had done within his own mind had happened in reality. The faintest of grins etched across his feeble dead lips.

Notes: Died happy.

Without another thought I shut off my tablet and left the hospital room, closing the door behind me.

“Doctor!”

I froze. My heart dropping from my chest. I turned, and a woman with tears already streaming down her face approached me. I had hoped to avoid this confrontation.

“They called me– they- they said he was dying and… I– came as fast as I could… I…” she burst into tears and I lowered my head, giving her space.

“I am sincerely sorry for your loss… I want you to know that the staff and I took every measure at our disposal to make sure he died peacefully.”

She nodded, regaining some resolve. “He was the only one I had,” she said with a short chuckle, trying to see the bright side of it all, wiping her eyes. “When I was young he… after my mom passed away, he was the only one who took care of me. I loved him so much…”

I nodded “He was a great man. He was so proud of you.”

She turned her electric wheelchair towards the door.

“Can I see him?”

“Of course Ms. Ball.”

She didn’t move from the spot, peering at her father though the glass slit in the door.

“What were his final moment like?”

“We made the preparations to make him comfortable. I’m afraid he was asleep in his–”

“No. I mean his final moments.” She wheeled back towards me, the small electric motor humming softly in the already silent corridor. “I know he had the procedure done.” She smiled. “You gave him once final experience. You fabricated a memory, a moment he believed he lived. His final moment. I know he did.”

“I see. I apologize Ms. Ball. He requested to keep the procedure private. He didn’t want to alarm you. The operations can be quite intense.”

“I understand. You reconstructed a memory, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Was it about me?” she asked. “I always remember him telling me that he would see me walking and sprinting and jumping in his dreams and it would make him so happy. Was that it? Was that the memory you constructed for him in his final moments? Me getting up from my chair and running into his arms one last time?”

My lips parted, but no words came out. She shook her head.

“You don’t need to tell me.” She nodded and reached for the door handle. “I loved him so much… but deep down I knew he always loved me more.”

She pushed through the door. “Thank you doctor. I appreciate everything you’ve done for him.”

She disappeared behind the partition, the door closing behind her. I stood there motionless, and after a few moments I walked towards the door and laid my fingers on the handle, peering through the glass.

I stopped myself. Ms. Ball held the hand of her deceased father gently. A fresh fountain of tears streaming from her face. I stood there at a crossroads.

She believed her father loved her… was she blind to how he truly felt? A burning hatred, masked by a façade of unwavering love and support.

Would knowing the truth even change the way she thought about him?

Would she resent him for it? Would it change anything?

Would it change everything?

I felt my hand slip off the lever.

It was there in that moment, through the small slit of glass in the hospital door, that I witnessed the reality of what love truly was – a cage that imprisons us all, suspended in midair, being held by a thread.

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