Echoes in Purgatory
by Alex S. Johnson
Her face swims in front of him. Curly red hair, green eyes, a concerned expression. In the next second she will touch his hand and it will all come back.
Every scarlet detail.
He wonders if she’s actually there with him, or just a projection of his subconscious. Whatever that might refer to here, in this unstable realm.
Shane knows what the priest would have called it, in Catechism classes. Purgatory. Limbo. The place in between.
Or just some extremely fucked up remake of Groundhog Day.
It amazes him that he’s held on to his sense of humor. But Shane’s ability to laugh at things that should, by all accounts, pin him to his mattress in the iron grip of depression, or catatonic shock, continues into the afterlife. This hinterland, where the only constants are frustration and despair.
She touches him. He glances up, looks into her eyes. She’s about to ask him what’s on his mind.
Honey, you have no idea.
They’ve been friends since the previous semester, when she rescued him from an awkward moment with his Psychology professor. Which was around the same time he’d seen the flyer on a bulletin board at the Student Union.
Test Subjects Wanted For Clinical Trial.
And there was money attached, not a lot, but sufficient to cover his tuition. They hadn’t renewed his scholarship after his grades slipped at the end of Freshman year. Too much partying and not enough diligence in the library. Since then it had been touch and go, living off credit cards and dreading the prospect of spending the remainder of his professional life paying off the interest. Never mind the principal.
“What’s wrong, Shane?”
“Look, we’ve known each other for a while now, and something’s bothering you. Is it the money? Because I can always…”
He headed that one off at the pass. “I can’t, I just can’t. Just be my friend.”
“Of course. That’s a given. But honestly, I can afford it. And it would just be a loan. You can pay me back when you’re able to. I know you will. I trust you.”
The way he’d trusted the men and women in sterile whites. At first he’d been given to understand that the trials were for some kind of new drug, an anti-anxiety medication. But as the weeks passed, the little white paper cups with the tiny red pills gave way to tests. Tests that strained his nerves to the breaking point, induced anxiety rather than dialing it down. They assured him that everything was proper, in order, that they were following strict scientific protocols. But he left the lab feeling like a toy that had been hammered to bits. Or a lab rat that had pressed the wrong lever one too many times. The smell of scorched flesh in his nostrils. His own.
Shane never remembered the sequence of slaughter until he’d been engaged. That was one of the terms they’d used, one of the words that floated around in his head like a dead leaf in a pond. Engaged, or cut into the narrative.
They might just as well have called it being possessed, like the film he’d seen in Cultural Anthropology of the Voodoo Priestess ridden by the Loa. That was what it felt like, a dark imp pressing against his back and shoulders. Razor sharp claws scratching at his skin.
After waving goodbye to Lara he’d dashed across the quad, total tunnel vision, focused on breaking out the weapons cache in the utility cabinet in back of the gym.
Even now he wasn’t sure what the weapons were, just that they fit his hand and he knew how to fire them.
“I trust you too.” He trusted that she would never fully understand why he’d snapped. Neither did he. All he knew was that he’d slung the machine gun around his neck and started in with the pump-action rifle, picking off members of the varsity basketball team before charging into the cafeteria. Then he’d opened up with the machine gun. Shane was just as shocked as the onlookers as the bodies slammed to the floor. As he looked down at his hands, which had never handled anything more dangerous than a slingshot as a kid, briskly slamming off rounds like a professional mercenary.
It was like watching a silent movie after awhile. Deadly quiet, only the noise of his breathing and his thundering heart. Scraps of dialog fluttering by him, around him. The pools of blood spreading on the yellow tile. Sirens. His own voice breaking through, ordering them face-down on the ground. Knowing they would never rise again.
The warmth of her fingers cut him out. He started.
“I’m really worried about you,” Lara said. “You look absolutely exhausted. You really need to start taking better care of yourself.”
In a moment he would jump to his feet and plead some inane excuse. He picked up a single French fry and dabbed it in the ketchup cup. Feeling the surge come on him, fighting it back, hoping somehow that with all his prayers, this moment would be different. With God’s help, he might cut himself out of the narrative entirely. All a bad dream. Waking up in his student apartment with the Bowie posters on the ceiling and the metallic balloons, half-deflated, that bumped about the ten foot square space as a reminder of his drunken homage to Andy Warhol.
“I’ve got to get to my tutorial,” he burst out, looking at his watch as though it were a prop. He slicked his fingers through coal-black hair and regarded Lara with warm brown eyes that now looked black.
“I thought your tutorial was Friday,” she said.
“They changed it around. Look, I’m an absolute idiot at math and I really need to pass this course.”
As he ran across the quad, he looked back and saw her gazing at him through the cafeteria window. Her last sight of him alive.
And he was cut back in. Game on. Behind the walls he saw the green gridlines as they’d flashed to him through the Google glasses, over and over, until they haunted his dreams. Yet until some internal switch clicked, and the clock was running, the grid existed only as a faint flicker at the corners of his eyes, detached from the physical environment of the school, from the trials, from the before and after of his tenure as a lab rat.
Because there was a before and this was definitely an after. It started like a sickness, with Lara’s look of concern, her offer of financial help, wiping off the grease of the meal with a napkin, wadding up the napkin and pushing it into the cup of ketchup, dumping out the red plastic baskets into the trash, Lara half getting up, then sitting back down again, his forcing a smile and a wave as if everything was actually going to be ok, this time.
Shane’s glasses have misted up, but they’re another prop. That morning he’d put on contacts, automatic pilot, as though he wore them every day.
He sheds his t-shirt and dons the bullet-proof vest, puts on the black trenchcoat, slams shut the cabinet door and heads for the gym. His progress is inexorable, his will not his own.
And thus it runs until it stops and begins again, like a tape loop, a film, a memory of the future that slips relentlessly into the past as the past melts into the present.
There would always be echoes in Purgatory.