It enters the room at 10:15 on the dot every morning, flitting about for several minutes before hovering over my perishing body. I wait for it to alight and pounce on what remains of my sanity.
It touches down on my chin, before springing to the entrance of my right ear canal, where it continues to hover for several more minutes. There was a time when I would attempt to shoo it away, but it proved to be futile. I remain motionless, as it surveys the area, plotting its incursion. The maddening ritual has been going on for so long I have lost track of the days, but I am certain that the creature has surpassed the average lifespan of its species.
I never regretted being single and childless, until the illness came and I realized I would be facing it alone. My three older siblings, none of whom had bred, began dying off five years ago. My parents, who were not paragons of support to begin with, had been gone for ages. I had no other living relatives, and my surviving friends were all indisposed, insane, or dead. Not to mention estranged, as a result of my maladjustment. Ever the deluded know-it-all, I had convinced myself that I was a free and conscience being, when in truth, my entire life was a series of myopic and confining decisions.
The life I had chosen was precarious at best. I was always in the moment, never looking back or forward, my abstracted eyes perpetually locked on the pavement markings rather than the road ahead. I was not born to be chained to a routine occupation, drifting through the days with no expectations, although I was strangely envious of people who were. It had to be easier experiencing life on autopilot, like the mentally challenged, who knew of no other existence than what fate had handed them. Painting had infected me in adolescence, and although I had undeniable talent, I lacked self-confidence and ambition. In hindsight, I can clearly see that I was more enamored by the idea of being an artist than actually being one. I was terrified of the responsibility and potential criticism that would come with success. It was much safer and less painful to lackadaisically flirt with the dream than to capture it. I was prolific to a fault, but remiss in marketing myself, allowing a false sense of humility and the fear of rejection to dictate my course, which would ultimately lead to an impasse. I was like a boxer who would apologize for his fighting skills before stepping into the ring. When opportunities did come along, I would subconsciously sabotage them, finding some lame excuse or another to remain ensconced in obscurity. In my youth, I thought time was limitless, and that fame – on my ill-defined terms – would eventually materialize. All I had to do was paint, and cling to my contradictory and paralyzing ideals. Then five years went by, then five more, and so on. Now here I am—broke, broken, alone, no achievements to speak of, trapped in an infinite moribund state, and physically incapable of taking my own life, which would be the most logical and merciful course of action.
The creature is now resting on my left nasolabial fold, rubbing its disease-ridden legs together so it can better taste the residue from my breakfast. I glance down at it. It stops cleaning itself, shifts its body clockwise, and scurries up my cheek toward my nose, dropping feces along the way. Its compound eyes meet and lock with mine, but I see it better than it sees me. Thrown by my composure, it takes flight and zooms around the room before returning to my right ear. It repeats the cycle over and over again, while I remain frozen the entire time. It is a battle of wills I refuse to lose. I have long resigned myself to the fact that Death will come when It is ready, and I cannot persuade It to come sooner. In the intervening time, I wait and wither, in deafening silence, as air gushes through the creature’s spiracles, releasing what would be a merciless buzzing sound to the average ear. My zygomatic muscles flex, resulting in a smug grin. I am grateful, at least, that the illness has annihilated my hearing. I take comfort in knowing that when I do expire, the creature will be completely powerless and I will be victorious.
When I reached the midpoint of my shortsighted journey, I found life-sustaining gratification in isolation and alienating whomever I could. Not having to answer to anyone but the Muse, I would while away the hours painting up a storm. Incorrigible and insufferable, even to myself, some of my best work was done during that self-imposed purdah. Of course, no one but the cat ever saw that work. While my estranged friends and family would invariably forgive my unforgivable behavior, I would invariably serve up five more reasons for them to keep their distance. It was not long before they gave up and vanished altogether. I thought I was overjoyed to be rid of them. I was not. I am not.
I always knew I would be alone and destitute in my later years, but never imagined I would be ravaged by such an insidious and merciless disease. As is my wont, I had painted myself into a corner. Only now, that corner was a precipice with an abysmal drop. I had no choice but to volunteer for the institute’s program, putting myself at the mercy of these mad scientists. I take that back, I did have a choice. I could have killed myself immediately after the diagnosis and not suffered one moment of the living hell that has become my existence. All I had to do was ingest the pharmacopeia in my medicine cabinet, or hang myself with a belt, or both. Instead, I allowed my notorious lack of ambition and fears of failure and commitment to call the shots, my incurable emotional disabilities handing down an infinite sentence of incurable physical disability. After all, death is the ultimate commitment, is it not?
I feel an implosion within my head, as though it has been lanced. A warm, tingly fluid gushes through my cranium, as pitch blackness devours the room. I cannot see, or move from the neck down, but I can hear. For the first time in ages, I can hear. I am surely dreaming, must have lost consciousness. I close my eyes and hear a crescendo buzzing sound, indicating that the creature is closing in again. I feel three pairs of legs scaling the bridge of my nose. I instinctively open my eyes, only to be met by glaring darkness. I attempt to swat at the creature, but remain paralyzed. Slamming my eyelids shut, I am viciously assaulted by a blinding light, while simultaneously realizing that my ability to move has been restored. I must be trapped in a lucid nightmare. There is no other explanation. The buzzing sound has now reached deafening decibel levels. The pain in my tympanic membranes is unbearable. I place my hands over my ears and scream.
I should have married Dana. She was my soulmate, as she used to say. I understand that now, but at the time, the term soulmate was an insult to my self-proclaimed genius. What an arrogant fool I was. Where most people would have found contentment and security, I saw confinement and danger. I was distrustful of her forbearance and unconditional love, the latter of which felt oppressive, with no blame whatsoever on her part. She could not have been more agreeable and less demanding. She wanted to settle in, not down. I wanted that as well, only a decade too late. By the time I came around, her heart belonged to another, who would mistreat it worse than I had, if that were possible. She wanted a child—one, not five. I could have given her that. Especially after all she had tolerated and done in my behalf. She and that child, now well into adulthood, would be seeing to my deteriorating health. I would not be on a rotting limb, my lot dictated by a ring of nameless, faceless, soulless quacks to whom I am a laboratory animal of the lowest form. I would be surrounded by compassion and love, rather than negligence and apathy. I would go so far as to say that if I wanted to bring an end to my suffering, Dana would not only understand, but help make it happen as well. I have never known a more selfless, humane, and loyal person. When I learned about her suicide five years ago, I was rendered permanently inconsolable and tormented by the likelihood that fate would have been kinder to us both if I had made her my wife. Perhaps it is merely a desperate delusion born from guilt and regret, but I believe I could have become the man she deserved. Over the years I had heard stories about her brief but miserable marriage and ensuing failed relationships. She never did have that child she wanted. She would have made a wonderful parent.
I awaken on what I assume to be the following day, but it is later than my usual rising time. By now, I would have showered and eaten breakfast, but I am neither washed nor fed. What a peculiar nightmare that was, its grotesque realism still fresh in my mind. There is only one certainty in a world that has become certainly uncertain. I prepare myself for the creature’s entrance and the daily ceremonial dance. I must admit that, although it is maddening, I have grown accustomed and would feel incomplete without it. I hear it coming. Wait, I hear it coming? How is that possible? I must still be asleep. Disoriented and panicking, I grab the letter opener from the nightstand and jab it into my right thigh, wincing in unmistakably real pain. The startling disorientation combined with the crushing buzzing sound is sheer torture.
The game has changed, but how and why? I do not know if I am dead or alive, but it is clear that I have entered another state of purgatory, one in which the creature is holding the cards. The question is, how long will I remain here?
–an excerpt from A Scar Is Borne, by Díre McCain