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The burnt man came to with a start, air flooding his lungs as if he were emerging from under water. The lag time between sleep and waking was nil, his mind engaged and ready to begin what had by now become a familiar process, for even with all his knowledge of what was coming—all of this has happened before, and it will all happen again—, he was incapable of avoiding even a single step, starting with the room.
Despite the extensive amount of time spent within these four walls—how long… weeks, months, years?—, there was an air of strangeness about them. Perhaps it was the fact that their clean, white surfaces were in such stark contrast to the space inside his mind, where colors he had no names for fought for dominance over the landscape.
It didn’t help him distinguish between his two worlds that the only thing he felt in either was the feeling of no feeling at all. As always, he wondered if what he considered real—this dimly lit room—might well be a dream and vice versa, but there was no answer forthcoming. History dictated that consciousness would only last for so long, and this particular train of thought ran on a circular track. It was bound to return at some point. All he had to do was stay put, which wouldn’t prove to be any challenge at all.
That was the next step.
The recognition of loss of limb. Or, in this case, limbs.
Pulling back the depth of his gaze, the burnt man discovered his left leg ended just below the knee; his right arm came to an abrupt halt at the wrist. In a handful of seconds, he ran the gamut of emotions, racing through the stages of grief until he was once again calm and accepting. Neither limb was responsive to his calls, but in that regard they weren’t alone. No one was answering.
He couldn’t claim any particular memories of the removal of either body part—to the best of his recollection neither had never seen the interior of his room—, but in his memory there were flashes of other procedures he had witnessed. One of the nameless men in white had once phonetically spelled out the name of what was happening to him on a large white card. DI-BREED-MENT, the placard read, the man’s finger tracing along underneath as if he were a spokesmodel on a game show. The definition of the word was rendered unnecessary soon enough. In laymen’s terms, the goal of his caretakers was to cut away the dead flesh from his body, in the hopes that the healthy flesh underneath might survive.
All he could do in the meantime was lay where he’d been placed and laugh inside himself, knowing full well that the actions of his physicians were in vain, for he was dead through and through and black right down to the bone. Too bad he had no way to tell them that they were wasting their time. The only words at his disposal were yes—one blink—and no—two blinks. When they offered to cover his eyes—to prevent him from seeing the act—, he declined, imagining he was observing nothing more than a barbecued chicken parting with its skin.
Besides, his vision was all he had left. Though it wasn’t what it had once been—now nothing more than a fingerprint-smudged window with a lazy shade—he hesitated to have it taken away, even for a short time. His voice had been silenced; his ears—along with their functions—were no more. The fire had stripped everything from him save his eyesight, deadening his nerves and thereby isolating him from his surroundings, driving him further and further into his own headspace. In there, he had no more control over himself than he did outside, but there seemed at least the possibility for change. In time, he spent more and more of his life traveling down the rabbit hole, returning from within only when absolutely necessary.
For all intents and purposes, the burnt man’s body was little more than an empty husk, an address where a man had once resided. And yet that was the point, wasn’t it? To leave him alive but trapped, without any means of escape. He could observe the world around him, but he was helpless to affect or interact with it, as if cordoned off behind the cement walls of some bunker.
At the end of these—his daily remembrances—, he was finally able to concentrate on something else, something more. Though it grew increasingly difficult with each passing day, it was crucial that he retain any and all information he now possessed. It wouldn’t always be like this. Of that, he was certain. One day the burnt man would be released, from the burn unit if not the prison his body had become. He would walk or crawl or be carried out of this space and into a larger environment where he would take advantage of his newfound freedom by accomplishing the one and only thing that kept him breathing, his true purpose.
It would have been kinder to kill him. But then kindness was never the desired result. Instead his adversary had meant to punish him for his transgressions, by effectively removing him from the equation that was his former life and then prolonging his pain for as long as possible. Finished with the first stage of his routine—reacquainting himself with his predicament—, it was time to recall exactly who had put him in his bed, forced him to exist with bandages stretched taut across his frame from head to toe.
First and foremost among his thoughts was a woman, though his present circumstances were no fault of hers. She was his love. It didn’t matter that he could hardly recall her features; her significance was etched so deeply into his core that no mere fire could hope to touch it, much less remove it. In her hands she held a bouquet of flowers, while a flowing white dress hid her feet from view and perpetuated the appearance of floating. Had the burnt man not known any better, he might have considered her an angel.
But there was no such thing.
She was a young bride, about to be married. Or at least she would have been, had it not been for the fire. Its path was both ruthless and determined, encircling her and then barricading her behind an enclosure of flame. As her veil went up like flash paper, there was no way the burnt man could have known that that moment would be the last time he would ever feel physical pain. She struggled just outside his reach, but not out of his sight, his flesh weak and unable to tolerate the heat that blistered and puckered his skin. However, what the blaze did to him was nothing in comparison to the toll it took on her.
Before all his oxygen was gone, he watched her expire along with a parade of other faces known and unknown. Afterward, a sense of emptiness like he had never known crawled inside of him to take up residence. He drew the fire closer about him, pulling it up and over himself as if it were nothing more than an extra blanket on a cold winter’s night. Some while later he woke up in what would become his bed, but there was no way of judging time. There were no clocks or calendars of any kind nearby. Each moment was its own entity, unattached to any other.
Beyond the memory of the woman was a face, this one not as easily forgotten. Though the burnt man did not have a name to go with it, he would never forget the way it looked. Should he ever see it again, under any circumstances, he was bound and determined to destroy its owner, no matter what, for the face belonged to the individual who had shown no mercy when it came to the burnt man. It was only fair that he should return the favor.
As the face hovered in his mind’s eye, he began to hear for the first time a voice to accompany it. It wasn’t loud. In fact, the burnt man first considered that he was overhearing a conversation meant for other ears than his. Of course, that was ridiculous. He had no ears. Nor could he hear anything. Instead, the voice was coming from inside his own head, and its single-word offering became a mantra of sorts, as well as a reason to continue on, worthless as his life had become. He may not have been able to feel it, but the corners of his mouth raised up to manufacture a smile.
Soon, the voice said. Soon.