Cheating the Shroud, by J.C. Hemphill

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All I do is stare. All day, every day, I stare at another face. The face never changes, it simply stares back. Our fate is the same. We remain pitted in a never-ending staring contest. The real kicker is neither of us could blink if we wanted to, which, in all honesty, is fine with me. I’m afraid if I close my eyes, they will never reopen.

Sometimes I wonder if my staring buddy is thinking the same things as me. Does he share my concerns? Does his inaction burden him as it does me? I would like to know if he is happy. I am not. I stare, and I think, and I yearn for change. Still, I am not unhappy either. From the vacant look on his pale face, I imagine his experience is the same. We are like two peas in separate pods.
If only we possessed the ability to articulate our thoughts, time would pass much quicker. We could relate. I would tell him about how much I dislike the liquid we live in, and that I wish someone would dust the glass so I could see clearly. He might tell me about his past, or recite an amusing tale. We would be friends, and life would be easier for us both.

While I think about the things I would tell him, I realize I wouldn’t have much to offer. My knowledge is limited to him and his appearance. His face floats in a jar filled with a clear, viscous liquid. He has no hair, and his gray eyes echo with loneliness. His skin appears distended, ready to float off the skull, which I dearly dread happening. His nose is unique. It reminds me of a cancerous white plum with contusions disfiguring the bulbous end. He may think this funny, and we may laugh together. Lastly, I would tell him about the pink tail coming from the base of his head that curls in a small bundle at the bottom of his jar.

I do know one other thing about him—his grotesque face is like looking directly into hell. But maybe for fun, I wouldn’t tell him, just to have a secret.
The room we occupy is a dark, cramped closet. During what I assume is the day, a fractured light filters in—maybe through a grime-encrusted window, or from the cracks of a door leading to a more exciting room. In my peripherals I see the faint outline of other jars and other faces. They stoically line steel shelving, never speaking, never caring.
I wish I had more to say in the hypothetical conversation with my staring buddy. I’d hate for him to think me a bore. I can’t say how long we’ve been here. Time is a slippery eel, writhing from my grasp. This place is all I’ve ever known, but a sense of something more lingers.

I recall another voice—a voice that shares my mind and calls himself The Memory Keeper. He told me once, maybe long ago, maybe sooner, that I was not born this way and that existence is grander. For some reason, I have chosen to ignore him all this time, so I’m not sure if I should believe him. He might be tricking me. But what he says sounds pleasant. I like the idea of more. What if I had a previous life, one where I could speak and move and connect with others? That would be nice. At least I would have more memories to occupy these endless hours.

I decide to indulge The Memory Keeper. What harm could it do? Perhaps his perspective is greater than mine. I call for him, my voice echoing in the great gulf of my head. He doesn’t respond.

Wake up, I think, trying to rouse him. I’m sorry for cauterizing you all this time. Please forgive me. I’m ready to listen.

No, a child’s voice returns. The Memory Keeper is angry with me, so I must gently coo and soothe him.

Please, I respond. You were right all along. I’ve been foolish. Naive. If you give me another chance, I pledge to you, I will listen.

What more is there to say? The child’s voice is gone, replaced by the crackling of adolescence. I’m getting through to him.

You are wise, much wiser than I. Allow me to redeem my faults. Enlighten me to your knowledge of the world. Make me whole again.

Pandering will get you nowhere. The crackling voice has smoothed with age, transmitting maturity. He will cave, for he must be as lonely as I.

Of course not. My words only reinforce how foolish I have become without you. My intelligence has atrophied; my memories deleted. Allow me to appeal to your sense of reason. You and I are in the same vessel—a vessel lost at sea, drifting farther and farther away from land. I believe together we can paddle back to safety. Together we can regain our sanity. What do you say?

The Memory Keeper does not respond. My spirit—assuming I have one—dissipates. Returned to emptiness, I discover a deeper void of sorrow than I thought possible. Once again, I am alone. All that remains is me, my staring buddy, and the bleak room imprisoning us.

A creeping tingle surfaces inside me, followed by a single word.

Harold.

It reverberates inside me like ripples bouncing off the edges of a pond, gentle and smooth.

Your name is Harold, The Memory Keeper says in a voice like leather, and you are a head.

I rejoice in his return. He has given me something I never knew I missed. He has given me my name back. Harold. Harold the head.

Thank you, I say. Why am I but a head?

Things are as you wanted them.

How could that be? I do not wish this. I want to escape this dusty jar. There is a fingerprint on the glass right in front of my eye, and the smudge eats at my sanity. I want to escape the smudge, and this room. Most of all, I want to escape the gaze of the other head. I can’t bear to stare into his gray eyes and saturated skin any longer. Why would I put myself in a perpetual hell such as this?

Because life is more valuable than death, he says with the authoritarian doom of a televangelist prophesying the coming apocalypse. Because the unknown awaits the eternal sleeper. Because heaven and hell may be the same place. You were afraid. You wanted to cheat.

Cheat what?

What does anyone want to cheat? The inevitable coming of the shroud. The paranoid creature with sharp teeth stirring in the back of our heads. The gloom which awaits us on the other side of the closed door. Death, Harold. You wanted to cheat Death. And you have, in a way. Death stalks you. It desperately aches for your soul, but Death can not find you in this place.

Vivid images begin to flash. The Memory Keeper is showing me my past. I was a young boy once—parted hair, blameless face, bruised knees. I’m playing baseball in a yard with a man who shares the glint of joy in my eyes. The image blurs, fast-forwards, and I see myself as a young man. I’m getting married. A beautiful woman in a flowing white gown hangs on my arm as the man from my childhood, aged and wrinkled, takes a picture.

Why are you showing me this? I ask, but the flashes of a forgotten life continue.

I’m older, closer to my current age. The beautiful girl from my wedding is pacing around a hospital waiting room. She shivers and I drape my coat over her shoulders. A doctor enters, his eyes announcing bad news. “Your father has passed,” he tells me. “He fought all the way, never giving up on life.”

Stop! I yell.

Years pass, but the scene remains the same. I’m in the same hospital waiting room; the same doctor with the same news in his eyes is there. The beautiful woman is not. “Your wife has passed,” he tells me. “She fought all the way, never giving up on life.”

A vague sense of truth surfaces, and I realize why I shunned The Memory Keeper in the first place. He reminds me I was happy once, and that hope is a mirage, drawing me deeper into desolation.
What is this place? I ask, afraid to hear the answer.

You thought you would find happiness again, given enough time, so you set out to cheat death, but you never intended to end up here. The plan had been simple. You purchased a new body—one of wires and gears and plastic skin. You hired a doctor. Money was tight, so you found a surgeon to do the work cheap. You had your head and brain removed from your dying body, and when the time came for the budget-doc to remove your brain from its head, something interfered. You ended up here, on a shelf among many others. And it is here we wait.

What interfered? What are we waiting for?

The images return, and I see a man in a white lab coat as he places my severed head in a jar full of gooey liquid. His hair is white, and his hands shake as he lowers me in. He smiles, revealing three angled teeth. Shadows move behind him. A light breaks. The doctor turns, raises his hands, falls. Men in masks grab my jar. I’m sloshing as they run.

I was stolen? I ask, knowing.

More images blink in and out of focus like a blurry slideshow. I’m in the shadowed back of a van. The van is replaced by a glass building with a sign reading ‘Personal Kinetic Droids.’ I see money change hands. Next, I’m in a white room drenched in white light. A row of identical plastic men sit in identical plastic chairs along a wall. Each man has a white beard framing a black goatee and a satisfied grin. They all wear tuxedos and white gloves. The final image is the room I now occupy.

Dark.

Silent.

Haunted.

I am you, Harold, he says. The trauma split us apart, but together we form a single consciousness. I am your memories, your knowledge, your wants, needs, desires, emotions, spirit, everything human. You are the naked instincts–the nerve endings. You are the impulses–fear, hunger, pain … survival. They will leave you intact. They need you. You will become the processor for one of their servant droids. But me…me they will erase. I am of no use to them.

That can’t be, I protest.

Survival, Harold. You wished to escape the end. Wish granted. With a new rust-resistant body, the end will never come. Enjoy your name, Harold. When I’m gone, you won’t remember you had one.

I push him away, and he doesn’t speak again.

I’m returned to loneliness and my staring buddy’s bloated face. The brainstem coiled beneath him scares me. It looks like an oversized rat tail.

A white radiance fills the room. The overhead light shocks my relaxed pupils, blinding me. I move. The sound of footsteps goes with me. We stop. I’m set on a table, I hear a pop above me, and the pressure in my head changes. Hazy outlines encircle me. They’re dark and menacing, like monsters circling a sleeping child. A sharp pinch on each side of my face startles me. I try to see what is clamped to my skin, biting, but they’re too far back. The clamps pull up, tearing my soggy flesh. If I could scream, I would. I’m lifted out of the comforting liquid into the air. The oxygen refreshes me, but already I sense my consciousness fading. My eyes are open, but my vision is gone. Sleep lulls me to its embrace with promises of tranquility.

When my vision returns, warmer light greets me. I am pleased to be out of the bright white room. Time has passed. Shadows still encircle me, but they no longer appear cruel. I call out to The Memory Keeper, hoping for his knowledge to enlighten my situation, but he is gone.

My vision clears, and details come into focus. The fingerprint smudge and liquid is gone. Instead, I have a body and arms and legs and feet. I’m wearing a tuxedo and white gloves. Each figure around me has golden hair which shimmers in the warm light—one man, one woman, one boy and two girls. They smile and laugh and clap. They are happy to see me. I am happy to see them.

I wonder if they think the same things I do. Do they share my concerns? Does their inaction burden them as it does me? The smaller girl, with dimples at the edges of her smile like exclamation points, turns to the woman. “Mommy, will he clean my room?”

“Of course, Honey,” Mommy replies.

“And my bathroom, too?” Honey asks.

“The salesman said PKD-7 can clean anything.”

They are nice. They have given me something I never knew I missed–a name. I am PKD-7, and I can clean anything.

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Posted in 2011, Fantasy, Fiction
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