I found him there again. I’ll call him Bob since I can’t really say his name. Incidentally, you can call me Julie since I don’t want to write my name here, too. With everything that’s been happening lately, the last thing I want is to get branded as someone sick in the head or something; all I know is that everything itches.
My fingers were bare and bleeding, but I needed to move them. I had to.
I’ve been scratching them, to the point of biting, ever since that man—ever since I got to talk with that man, and… I’ve been seeing things. I could pay someone to talk to. I’ve understood the need for it. I knew people who did, but this one is different.
They called it a mass psychotic breakdown, a mental pandemic. It puts people like us in a position where we would have to be isolated, left to laugh, cry, and maybe… eventually die on our own. Some already chose to do so, but I’m being hopeful.
It started with dreams. I mean, this was my job before getting suspended. I helped the doctors handle those sickos, and I’ve worked with distraught patients, those who would scream at the moon and threaten me with otherworldly curses and bugs. We were the front liners for this kind of thing.
We’re only treating it as a pandemic in the first place because all of our patients reported having the same dream. Besides, we couldn’t even know for sure. They told us not to question it. We laughed, of course, but the way how desperate, almost deranged, their gazes were when it fell upon our faces was so gripping that we had to stop.
Our patients were normal, at the very least. It’s that all of them would spend their time staring into the walls, chewing their own words as they peered beyond the widows. They seemed so passionate, so excited that some of them giggled like a kid looking at the greatest piece of art that mankind had created; in some cases, they would caress the trees like it was someone’s body, brush their fingers through the grass, and at its touch, they would cry, sometimes at the point of screaming.
They all seemed so distant from themselves like fully grown babies experiencing the world for the first time, especially when they start muttering gibberish from time to time. I had one instance when I fully believed that I could understand what they’re mouthing just because of how consistent they were. They would open their mouths wide, twist their lips to smile, bare their teeth and bawl at each other like dogs, their eyes glaring into each other like everything made sense.
The same thing happened to the first, second, third, fourth, fifth… even to the sixth batch of people sent to investigate them. No one was spared—the quickest case being a person screaming for help after hearing an answer to her first or second question. It was deemed too dangerous to investigate them further, so now, we’re just watching them for fun.
But I think I need help.
I know where I’m going. I’m scared. I don’t want to drown in my breaths. I don’t want my hands to tremble like a corpse begging for dear life. I don’t want to scream so much that it breaks my throat. My hands itched like it was buried under an anthill and no matter how much I scratched… even as they bled, they wouldn’t stop.
I want to bite my nails off. Maybe it would get it to stop. I know those who did. I’ve seen them smile in relief as they nibbled their bony fingers. Maybe, just maybe I could do it. I’m starting to feel everyone’s pain, and I mean it.
That’s why I know that this sickness has a will on its own. This itch would only stop when I’m sharing what I know with someone else. Ah…
Now, I can understand why Bob smiled at me that way. He was one of the rare cases who were polite and nice to the people taking care of him. I can understand why he unknowingly got two people infected.
I don’t know why, but when we talked at that time, I had this urge in me to ask him what’s up. It came from that surging wave of curiosity that pulled me in to wonder as to how he could look at that disheveled tree like it was the most beautiful thing in the world. He sat at that bench, his eyes shining with the sun to the point of tears, and his posture, even if he stood straight awkwardly like a robot, didn’t feel wrong. It was like he’s watching a conversation between two people.
It’s not like I could do anything about it, but I want to know. Maybe it was just me, but I wanted to know more. The thought of sharing it with others… I can only imagine how nice it would be if I told my family that I was the one who braved the odds, took the step for mankind, and unlocked the key to solving these breakdowns.
I was prepared. I was curious, and that’s why I recorded our conversation. That was my ticket way out of nothing went wrong, but it went horribly. I can only laugh about it. I had a friend listen to this. He told me that the quality seemed to be too out of balance for my shitty phone like Bob was somewhere else, closer than I am. I can’t seem to find the difference that it scares me.
So, I sat beside him, nodding. He nodded back. I wanted to check up on him. I wanted to appear nice with this kind smile that I had. It worked. He told me that he was doing fine, but I felt on edge. He said that maybe this was it for him. I wanted to embrace him, or at least pat his head to show him that I care. I need him to know what he was going through and that I understand him.
There was this bit of hopelessness showing on his pair of strained eyes as he smiled. It’s enough to make someone like me go “awwwwwwwwwwwwwww” and want to pet his head for suffering that far, alone, but I felt something. My heart skipped a beat—not in most romantic movies do; my body begged me to run.
But, I am a master of my bladder and heart. I told him that I wanted to be hopeful. He’s a special case. There’s a fat chance that he wouldn’t die, and if he does recover, I want to be there to shake his hand and give him a hug to tell him that he did a good job. I want to remind him that I was the one who gave him hope.
He had the audacity to make jokes. It was a good try. He asked me if it was okay for us to talk like star-crossed lovers divided by poverty. We weren’t supposed to, but back then… I was confident that I could take it. I was being brave.
I’m the type that climbs trees and laughs at my playmates for being scaredy-cats. I am the type that kicks the dog who dared to bark and chase me. Maybe, there’s a one in a hundredth chance that I would be able to do it. Maybe it takes compassion and heart to battle and cure this disease; that’s what I thought.
I had to pretend that I know what he’s talking about. He faced the ground as he talked, but I had to keep that smile of mine intact and nod whenever he would stress his words. I gave him some space too.
Bob ended up telling me that he had a childhood friend who got him into this mess. He was laughing helplessly, but he never looked at me as he talked. He was just there, spouting words, and it caught me on edge that I had to start scratching my fingers.
My heart caved into my chest with a single breath. My jaws tightened, my throat ran dry, and I began sweating like I’ve been running around in the past thirty minutes. I drowned in my own words that I had to straighten my back in search of air. I know what happened, but I just can’t describe it. Unknown words were dangling at the tip of my tongue. I know what they meant. I know how to pronounce them, but I just can’t. It was as if my brain was rejecting its existence.
If I had to borrow his words. For a lack of a better term… I didn’t care about the rest he said, but what stuck to me the most was how helpless Bob looked when he told me that his childhood friend gazed at him like a beast that was relieved and afraid at the sight of its prey.
It was the last time they talked. It got harder for him to share, so I told him that I understand, trying not to beg him to move on.
He looked at me, and somehow, I could understand exactly what he was feeling. I felt the same heartbeat, the same heaviness in his chest, the same pain from his fingers, the same uneasiness building on his legs, and the same strain on his eyes. I knew even how wet his shirt was and how hot it was for him to bathe in the sun. It made me giddy like I had become superman, but the world twisted into the dark at that same second.
The skies were blighted, and the grass turned into patches of fingers swaying with the wind, pulling my eyes to watch the surrounding buildings darken and redden. My sights rested on that disheveled tree growing thicker and thicker as arms spawned from the ground and intertwined, fattening its trunk.
I froze, then everything went to normal. Time stood still. Something was wrong.
I almost screamed when he asked me if I was okay. My voice broke almost broke, so I padded it with silence. It was nice to see that he seemed to have forgotten about it. I told him that it was just hot.
He corrected me. Who is he to correct me?
Nevertheless, hiding my bated breath with a smile, I told him to move on. He was telling me something, and it didn’t make sense. What’s weird was that I just blinked and nodded, and there it made perfect sense. I grinned. It was like magic. His words were cut. At first, it didn’t make sense, always falling short, but I could understand him. I just nodded, smiled, nodded, smiled, and nodded.
What he told me was a place. I was scared. It was us, but I know it wasn’t us at the same time. It was bright, probably overly white. It gave me a sense of peace, especially with the sight of others there. It was weird. My heart was being pestered, nibbled by rats. It was definite, crisp, and cold to the touch. I remember being there. I know what I’m seeing, but my brain rotted at the idea of proving its existence. Shapes, they’re shapes. I know them all. It was a place that caged me like a trapped animal. I wanted to scream. I was in pain, but I remember smiling. It just felt like I could do something, but I can’t do anything. It was a place where I didn’t do anything. I existed, I had control, and yet, I smiled and chose nothing more.
I can imagine the things he told me even if it didn’t make sense. That image appeared to me every time I closed my eyes that It made me consider tearing my eyelids away. I know everything that’s happening, I just can’t. I’m scared. I’m aware. I know, and I can do something. I just can’t. I’ve been repeating those words over and over and over and over again.
My brain trembled. I’m trying to not let my fear show.
I remember asking Bob what I should do. He told me it was useless. My heart caved with anxiety once again, so I asked him for the second time, laughing internally as I hoped that it would be different.
Now, this is something I understand. I know this. This is something I can say.
He looked at me, his voice shaking. His childhood friend grinned at me, too, and there were others. Now, I know exactly what everyone looks like. Bob’s eyes were spread wide, his irises trembling. His mouth was agape, drooling, as his jaws were spread open like they broke with his welcoming smile.
His look paled the sun, the kind of gaze that commanded the cold to rake into the bottom of my legs and crack my spine as I watched him tilt his head and turn his murmurs into a high-pitched whisper to the point of breathlessness. He twisted his arms like that dying tree, which curled to his face, and pulled his cheeks down to make his petrifying leer wider as he smiled.
There it was… It was that look of a predator relieved and afraid at the sight of its prey. It’s what made me like this.
It all started when he bared his yellowish teeth upon me, muttering,
“Well, at least… Now, you’re aware.”
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