It was a place like no other.  He was sure he had never been there before.  It was dark and light at the same time.  The edges of the place were seamless, joined all around him, with no clear ending or beginning - at the same time hot and cold, black and white. It was a place where time didn’t seem to hold stable, where time seemed to stop or slow on its own whim.  There was no sensation in this void, only a feeling of being.  For the longest time, he didn’t think or even seem to be aware of these bizarre surroundings.  He couldn’t remember coming to this place, but felt as if he had been there forever.  What he was before didn’t matter - only what he was now.  And he was alone, all alone in this void. 

His conscious mind drifted without direction, sifting through his memories at a rapid rate.  He was astonished by the way his mind would pause its wandering and focus on certain events, unimportant at the time they occurred, but now somehow worthy of a deeper examination. Yet events that were huge and pivotal paused in his mind only briefly before continuing on their journey.  It was a journey that he knew he was not in control of; he was merely a passenger on a train. He was a passerby of his memory’s every whim. 

He wasn’t aware when the journey came to an end or when he awoke to the empty room.  The change was sudden; one moment he was on the train, and the next he was sitting alone in an old wooden chair. 

Taking in the strange environment in quick glances, his eyes wandered around the room.  It looked to be circular, about twenty feet across, and all around him was darkness - not a darkness that he could see - no, not this darkness.  It was more as if he could feel the darkness in the depths of his soul. 

Suddenly, a loud noise echoed around the room - a single sound that reminded him of a heartbeat, a wounded sound that seemed to be faltering more with each passing moment.  He took a deep breath and frowned.  A putrid smell filled his nostrils and caused him to gag with each ragged breath; it was a smell that he could only associate with death.   

It was the sound of his own breathing that brought him slowly to his senses.  He thought, “Where am I?” 

Standing up, he looked around the room, trying to spy a door, something that might tell him where he was being held.  But the room was empty except for the old wooden chair.  Something about that chair caused him a feeling of déjà vu, but he couldn’t track down the memory. 

He carefully walked around the room, tapping the walls with the palm of his hand, searching for some secret latch.  After a few minutes he gave up and made his way back to the center of the room and stared again at the chair. 

Frustrated at the circumstances he found himself in, he kicked the chair across the room and turned the other way and screamed, “Hello?  Is anyone there?” 

But there was no answer; all was silent except the steady sound of the wounded heartbeat. 

He turned around and jumped back a few steps; the old wooden chair was back in the center of the room.  He snarled out in rage and grabbed the chair and threw it against the wall, smashing it into several pieces.  He walked over and kicked it a few times, spreading the pieces all over the room. 

Feeling better, he turned around and took one step before he stopped; his mouth dropped opened, and he stumbled backwards and fell against the wall.  The old wooden chair was again back in the center of the room.  He yelled out a few curses and leapt towards the chair, reaching out again. 

He didn’t know for how long or how many times he destroyed that old wooden chair, but it seemed to last for days.  He had finally realized that wherever he was trapped, there was no way he was ever going to rid himself of that cursed chair.  He collapsed wearily in it and hung his head in his hands. 

The moment he sat down, a voice called out of the darkness, “Welcome, Justin.  I’ve been waiting for you.” 

Justin jumped to his feet and tried to see who had spoken, but the room was still empty except for the chair.  Justin said, “Hello?  Who are you?” 

“Who I am is not the right question,” the voice countered.   

“What is the right question?” Justin stammered, looking fearfully around the room. 

“Who are you?” the voice asked from behind Justin. 

Turning around, Justin saw a cloaked figure standing in the space the chair had been just moments before.  He took a hesitant step back and said, “What do you mean?  You called out my name; you know who I am.” 

“Yes.” 

“Who are you?” Justin pleaded.  “What am I doing here?  Am I dead?” 

The figure raised a hand and said, “Those questions need to be answered, maybe by me, but surely by you.  But, for now, who are you?” 

“Stop it,” Justin demanded; his temper caused him to take a step closer to the cloaked figure.  “What is this place?  Answer me!” 

The moment he took his second step, the figure vanished.  And as the figure disappeared, Justin heard, “When you are ready, you will know.” 

“Wait!” Justin called out, running to the center of the room.  “Don’t go!”  

But the figure had already gone, replaced by the chair.  Justin fell to his knees and sobbed. “Where am I?” 

The room dissolved and melted into a narrow corridor that seemed to go on forever in both directions.  Justin stood and saw a sign hanging on the wall.  Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm his nerves as he walked to the sign.  It was an ordinary-looking sign; one arrow pointed down the corridor, a single word painted underneath it; it read, Beginning; the other arrow pointed in the opposite direction, with the word, Confusion

“My God, where am I?” Justin cried out to the darkness as he sank to his knees, hugging himself tightly. 

“Choose,” the voice thundered, and this time the voice was inside his head. Falling back in fear, Justin backpedaled across the corridor, crashing into the wall as the voice in his head repeated its cryptic instruction. 

“Why are you doing this?” Justin screamed, covering his ears with his hands.  “What do you want from me?” 

“Choose,” the voice repeated so loudly that Justin jumped up and started running down the corridor.  In his haste to get away from the voice, he didn’t bother looking which way he ran. 

He ran for what seemed like days, until his body cramped up from the pain and his throat burned from lack of water.  He was drenched in sweat when he finally saw something ahead.  It was a bright light, so intense that he had to shield his eyes. 

Walking into that bright light, Justin found himself inside a small house.  Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, his senses became overloaded.  He knew this house and the smell of leather furniture mixed with cheap-pipe-tobacco smoke.  This was a combination he had smelled for over half his life.  And standing in a corner was an old wooden chair. 

“Welcome home, Justin.  It seems you chose wisely.” 

Justin turned his head and saw the figure standing next to him.  He tried to look under the hood that veiled the figure’s face, but failed; it was just too dark. Looking around the house he grew up in, Justin asked in wonder, “How’s this possible?”  Everything was the same as he remembered; his parents sat in different chairs reading the different parts of the evening newspaper. 

“Everything is possible,” the figure said in a soft whisper.  “I’ve been waiting here for a long time.” 

“Why?” Justin asked, staring at his parents in amazement.  They looked older, more wrinkled and a bit wearier then the last time he had seen them. 

“I was waiting for you,” the figure stated simply. 

“Who are you?” Justin begged, reaching out with his hand to throw back the hood of the cloaked figure. 

The figure took a step back and asked, this time in a voice that sounded familiar, “Who do you want me to be?” 

Recognizing the voice, Justin shook his head, denying what his mind knew to be true.  “No!” 

The figure reached up and pushed back the hood, allowing Justin to see the identity of the speaker.  Justin cried out, “That’s impossible!” 

Justin scrambled away from the figure who had somehow stolen his dead cousin’s face, yelling out, “You can’t be Roy!  You’re dead.” 

Roy shook his head, his face filled with sadness, and he replied, “You keep me alive.” 

Falling to the floor, Justin cried out in anguish; his fragile mind could not comprehend this nightmare.  Writhing on the floor, he murmured to himself, covering his ears with his hands. 

Roy looked down and said, “There is much work to be done.” 

“No!” Justin screamed, clawing at his eyes, trying to erase the vision of his cousin from his mind. 

His scream was still echoing in the void as his surroundings blurred and changed once again.  This time he was back in the circular room with that damned wooden chair.  He screamed, and it seemed to last for an eternity. 

When he was no longer physically able to scream, he slowly looked around the room and saw his cousin sitting against the wall, a burning intensity in his eyes.  Vaguely he was aware of hearing the sound of a wounded heartbeat, getting fainter with each passing second. 

Justin pulled himself to his knees, and asked, “How is this possible?  Am I in hell?” 

“Hell, you say?” Roy asked, laughing loudly for a few moments.  “You’ve been in hell for the last seven years.  Not only do you live in hell, but you put hell inside your body on a daily basis.” 

“What?” 

Gliding over to where Justin crouched on one knee, Roy grabbed one of Justin’s arms and traced the track marks with a bony finger, saying with disgust, “I never thought you’d turn into a junkie.  You were always better than that, better than this.” 

“How do you know about that?” Justin asked, his bloodshot eyes widening in amazement.  “You’re dead.” 

“I know everything about you,” Roy stated in a soft voice before adding vehemently, “and who says I’m dead?” 

“I saw you die,” Justin yelled, wrenching his arm free from Roy’s grasp.  “Here, in my fucking arms.” 

Roy laughed, his face twisted in a sneer.  “If I’m dead, then how is it that I’m able to do this?” 

Faster than a thought, Roy lashed out with his fist, connecting his hand with Justin’s face, causing the confused boy to fall backwards onto the floor. 

Holding a hand to his jaw with a stunned look on his face, Justin stammered, “You hit me.” 

Rushing over to where Justin lay, Roy sat on Justin’s chest, preventing him from moving.  He raised his fist again, and said, “Yes, I did.”   

Then he grinned wickedly and began to punch the defenseless boy over and over again.  And each time his fist fell, Roy screamed, “We made a pact, the two of us, remember?  We swore no matter what, we’d never do heroin.  You broke that promise.” 

“No!” Justin yelled, trying to block the blows that rained down upon his head and face.  “You lied to me!  You said we’d be together forever.” 

“I fucking died,” Roy screamed, his fist falling yet again. 

“And it was all my fault,” Justin screamed out in pain, no longer bothering to block the blows. 

Roy’s fist stopped falling, just inches from Justin’s face.  He shook his head sadly, saying, “It wasn’t your fault.  It was no one’s fault.” 

“No,” Justin denied, blood squirting as he shook his head.  “It was always my fault.” 

Roy’s face saddened, and he stood up as the sound of the heartbeat grew fainter still and walked back to the center of the room.  He faced his bleeding cousin and slowly dissolved back into the figure with the dark cloak. 

“Wait,” Justin called out, scrambling to his feet.  “Come back.” 

The figure spoke, his voice hollow and emotionless, he asked, “Who are you?” 

“Fuck you,” Justin spat, turning his back on the cloaked figure.  “I’m sick of this.  I want to go home.” 

“Home,” the figure said breathlessly.  “Do you even remember home?” 

Justin stopped, and tried to gather his fleeting thoughts.  Did he remember home?  It had been years since he had been home.  And his one wish, almost from the moment he was born, had been to leave that place and never return. 

The memories came rushing back, and his face twisted into a sneer.  He whirled around and said, “I do.  And I hated it.  My parents treated me like shit.” 

“Then why do you wish to return home?” the figure asked, taking a step closer, one arm raised. 

“I don’t know,” Justin admitted, shaking his head in frustration.  He couldn’t focus his thoughts; everything was so confusing.  

“I think you do,” the figure said, reaching out and grabbing Justin’s arm.  He whispered, “Remember.” 

Immediately Justin began to convulse as his memory began returning unbidden: sights and sounds from his childhood that he had long forgotten, memories of when he was a little boy and his father would pick him up and throw him over a shoulder as he carried him up the stairs, memories of the love in his father’s eyes as he tucked the half-asleep boy safely into his bed, memories of his father’s lips gently touching his forehead, and a deep voice that whispered of his love for his only son. 

He remembered the sound of his mother’s voice as she sang him to sleep.  He remembered her gentle touch as she would wash away the blood from his scrapes and the feeling he felt when she’d kiss away the pain.  He remembered the way she would always stop whatever it was she was doing just to ask him about his day. 

He remembered all the times his mother would get up in the middle of the night to soothe the nightmares away from her scared little boy.  Memories upon memories of the selfless sacrifices that both his parents had made for their little boy cascaded into his tortured mind.   

They loved their son fiercely and unconditionally. He couldn’t deny the love he saw in their eyes, but he fought back the memories, screaming out, “No!  They hated me.” 

“They loved you,” the figure countered, and with a wave of his hand he revealed even more memories. 

“Love is a lie,” Justin screamed, sinking to his knees with exhaustion.  “They never loved me.  Love doesn’t exist.” 

The heartbeat grew fainter. 

“You are wrong,” the figure said simply. 

“No,” Justin sobbed.  “They hated me because I killed Roy.”  Raising his head he stared into the blackness.  “They stopped talking to me after I killed Roy. They never loved me.” 

“You stopped talking to them,” the figure stated bluntly as he approached the boy.  “You pulled back - you, not them.” 

“No!” Justin screamed, anger flashing across his face.  “You don’t know; you’re twisting it all around.  I was there.” 

The figure grabbed Justin and roughly pulled him to his feet and stood there face to face and said, “So was I.” 

Justin reached out with a trembling hand and threw back the hood.  His eyes widened as he was allowed to see behind the mask.  His scream, filled with horror, escaped his lips as he stared into his very own pale face. 

The heartbeat grew slower, fainter, until there was silence.  It had stopped beating entirely. 

Justin sank to the floor, clutching his chest as he gasped for air, fearing that his next breath would be his last.  He struggled to kneel, but the pain was too intense, so he stopped trying and collapsed to the floor, his blurry eyes staring up into his own mocking face. 

The figure in black, his tormentor with a stolen face, looked down in contempt as Justin raised his hand in a silent plea for help.  The figure spat out, “Oh, what’s wrong, Justin?  Are you in pain?” 

“Help me!” Justin pleaded, turning away as he fell back in a heap. 

“There you go again, always running away from the truth,” the figure accused, reaching down and rolling Justin over to stare down at him.  “You are always afraid of the truth, aren’t you?  You were never willing to face the truth.” 

“I’m dying,” Justin said, fighting for every ragged breath. “Help me!” 

“Help you?  Why should I?” the figure asked, laughing loudly.  “You won’t even help yourself.” 

“I’m you,” Justin stated, his voice a whisper.  “If I die, you die.” 

“Maybe that’s for the best,” the figure said, crossing his arms.  “If you cannot even tell me who you are, what is the point of living?” 

“Help,” 

“You are pathetic, Justin,” the figure declared, kicking the boy in contempt.  He quoted, “’No one loves me; no one cares.’  Boo hoo, poor little Justin.” 

Reaching out, Justin clasped the figure’s arm and tried to pull himself upright, but his fingers slipped; he was just too weak.  He sobbed, “Help me.” 

And though it sounded far away, Justin faintly heard someone calling his name.  It sounded like his friend, Sheila, but he couldn’t make out what she was trying to say. 

“Do you hear that?” the figure asked, cocking his cloaked head to one side.  “Can you hear what you're doing to your friend out there?” 

“Sheila, I can’t understand you,” Justin shouted.  “What are you trying to say?” 

“She is yelling at you,” the figure said, laughing. 

“Why?” 

“Because she knows that you are giving up,” the figure said through his laughter.  “Back there, in the world, your body is dying.  And all you can do is lie on the floor.” 

“But I don’t want to die,” Justin whispered, staring up at his other self. 

“Why not?” the figure asked, taking a step forwards.  “If love does not exist, then why bother going back at all?  If nothing is ever good enough to make you happy, then why not just end it here?  Why don’t you stay there and let yourself die?” 

“No!  I don’t want to die,” Justin cried out, sobbing as he writhed on the floor. 

“So finally you can truly admit it,” the figure said, smiling as he took a step back. 

“What?” Justin asked between his sobs. 

“Admit that you are scared,” the figure answered, nodding his head in encouragement.  “Love makes you scared.” 

“No.” 

“In the real world, Sheila is scared right now because she loves you.  She does not wish for you to die.” 

“No,” Justin denied, shaking his head. 

“She does not.  Listen to her cry out; she is telling you in so many different ways,” the figure said, bringing his hand to his ear.  “She is begging you not to give up, just because she loves you.” 

“No!” 

“Just like your parents do.” 

“No!” 

“Just like Sheila does.” 

“No!” 

“And just like I do.” 

“No!” Justin screamed, a haunted sound filled with all the pain of his broken heart.  “You can’t love yourself.” 

“That is the only way you can continue to exist,” the figure said, shaking his head in sadness.  “You are me, and I am you.  I am everything that you once were, I am everything you want to be, and I am everything that you are running away from.” 

“I’m not running away,” Justin said between his gasps for breath.  “I’m right here.” 

“No!  You left me a long time ago,” the figure argued.  “But I never forgot what we once had.  Just stop running.” 

“What am I running from?” Justin asked, his breaths suddenly coming a bit stronger, the pain in his chest a bit lessened. 

Once again, the image of Roy appeared.  But this time he was standing in between the two Justin’s.  Roy whispered, “From me.” 

“No!” Justin screamed out, shaking his head.  “Never from you.” 

“And from me,” the figure that was his other self stated in a gentle voice. 

And for the first time, Justin really looked at the figure that wore his face.  It was his face, yet it wasn’t.  Though his face was saddened, his eyes were blazing and full of life.  It was nothing like the stormy eyes he usually saw when staring into a mirror.  The face wasn’t the same, either; it was young, more youthful, and he realized he was seeing an image of himself long ago, long before the drugs and the guilt, long before the death of his cousin. 

His eyes shifted to his cousin’s face.  Roy looked the same as he did on the day he died: young and filled with life.  Shaking his head, Justin asked in a quiet voice, “How can you be here?” 

“You won’t let me go,” Roy said sadly.  “You have cornered me inside your mind, and you won’t let me go.  You will never find peace until you can forgive yourself.” 

“I can’t.  I love you,” Justin cried, the tears streaming down his face.  “It’s all my fault.” 

“No,” the figure that wore his face shouted.  “It was never your fault.  It was never God’s fault.  It was just life.” 

“It was my time,” Roy said as he reached down to hold the tortured boy.  Leaning in close, he whispered in Justin’s ear, “Let me go.  I don’t blame you.” 

Justin cried.  They were not sad tears, yet they were not tears of acceptance.  His breath became harder, bursting in and out of him in torrents of pain, threatening to swallow and consume him.  He grabbed onto Roy, as if the image of his fallen cousin was the only thing that could save him. 

Roy stroked Justin’s hair; smiling he said, “Let me go.” 

“If you want to finally be free, then just let go,” Justin’s other self whispered. 

Justin shook his head and gripped his cousin tighter as the weight of guilt pressed down into him.  His heart ached, as though it would burst at any moment.  His mind reeled from the emotional turmoil that had wracked his spirit for so many years. 

The pain in his chest grew to unbearable levels, and he knew that he was about to die. 

At that moment, a spark somewhere deep inside him ignited.  He was sick of feeling all this pain, all this guilt.  He wanted to live and be free of it all.  He did something that he could never do before.  He squeezed Roy one last time and then let go. 

Roy immediately began to fade, and the last thing Justin heard from him was, “I will always love you.” 

His other self grabbed him, brought him close in an embrace, until every inch of their bodies was touching.  And still his other self squeezed tighter until Justin could feel their two bodies begin to merge. 

At first he fought this sensation, but the memory of what he was before, what he could be again, prompted him to surrender to that part that was everything good and pure and right.  The moment he surrendered, his mind exploded with forgotten feelings of love that he had tried so hard to run from.  His heart stopped hurting, and his breathing returned to normal as the last walls of resistance came crashing down.  He hugged his other self even tighter. 

And then there was only one Justin. 

As the darkness slowly dissolved into pure light, and as he passed the point of no return, Justin heard a voice whisper so softly, “Finally, it is done.”

 


 

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