Hm. Wish I’d thought of that. Well, your wish is yadda yadda…
It’s kinda long, but if you read through it and still have the energy to offer any advice, it would be quite welcome.
All right, let’s start. Imagine you exist.
You seem surprised. Is it really so odd to begin a story with existence? After all, without creation, what is there? First things first, I always like to say. So go ahead, imagine you exist; it shouldn’t be difficult.
Ah, feel that? That warm sensation washing through your newfound essence? There’s nothing quite like consciousness to make you feel alive. I bet it even has that new-spirit smell.
Should we move on to physical appearance? Why not. Of course your specific form is more or less unimportant at this stage of the exercise, so don’t invest too much thought into it. I assure you, you are in complete control. If you feel more comfortable as a floating blue ball of gas, then by all means don’t let the laws of physics constrain you. Float to your heart’s content. But it might be in your best interest to give yourself a pair of opposable thumbs, since you will have to be interacting with your environment in a bit.
Which is, I suppose, a nice way of segueing into the next phase: environment. For how can pain, pathos, and prose occur without surroundings? If the story of Hamlet had occurred in a vacuum, the poor Prince’s head would have exploded long before the ghost of his father could make any beneficial contribution. So let’s give you a world. In order to do so, though, I will have to take a few liberties, and I need your permission. You see, the world I am about to describe to you may not, in fact, be the world that you are currently residing in. I may have the rest of this story take place in a crater on Mars and you may be reading this while perched on a stool in your favorite coffee shop. A change of location that severe may come as a great shock to some people, so I wish to give you full warning, lest I be held responsible for any unexpected cardiac arrests. Giving me permission to continue is a simple matter of continuing to read. I’ll give you a blank line of your very own, so that you can take some time to think about your decision.
You’re still here? Wonderful. I hate to cut some people out of the loop like that, but I’m afraid that it had to be done. I simply can’t continue something like this without the full consent of all parties involved.
But now I suppose you’re horribly anxious to find out where you are. In that case, I won’t keep you waiting any longer. You’re sitting on a hard plastic chair in the middle of a stark white hallway. The florescent light above you is buzzing and sputtering quite rapidly as the back of the seat digs into your lower spine. Your shoes squeak as you move them across the linoleum floor, and the sound stands out in the relative silence of the corridor. Off in the distance you can hear machines working, but the sound is very muffled. To your left is a doorway, but you can’t see into the room that it leads to. Likewise, there are doors all the way down the hall, some of which are closed, others of which are hanging open. A brown sign with white lettering outside your door reads “602.”
So what do you think? It may not be anywhere near as exotic as the aforementioned Red Planet, but it’s certainly no Starbucks, either. You should just take it all in, and be happy that you didn’t have to pack an oxygen tank.
Speaking of oxygen, did I mention the smells? There are certainly a number of them circulating around the building. In general they are metallic, but there is one harsh one in particular that bites the inside of your nose every time you inhale and leaves your nostrils feeling raw. The air itself feels heavy and thick, weighing down on you and making you slump down further in your chair as you sit by yourself, lost in thought.
But are you really alone? After all, what is a story without conflict, and what is conflict without other characters? I apologize to any claustrophobic individuals who may pick this paper up, but your world is about to get a tad more crowded. Because at this point in time, a woman walks past you and into the room you are sitting outside of. She wears a white coat that swishes around her knees, and her face has a look of soft determination. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun, and it is this bun that you find yourself following as you stand up out of your chair and follow her through the door.
Inside the room you find still another person, one of a slightly different sort than the woman. He is a man, and he lies in a metal bed, covered with a thin white sheet and blue blanket. Out of his arms springs a bouquet of plastic tubes and wires, and his entire frame seems paper-thin under his polka-dotted gown. His head rests heavily on the pillow beneath it, and the breeze from the air conditioner moves the few silky strands of hair on his head back and forth. You draw back, startled at the sight of him, though you can’t quite figure out why. He certainly offers no physical threat to you; he shows no signs of being able to move from the bed. Perhaps what truly scares you is the fact that behind all the machinery and cloth is a man who looks to only be about 20.
The woman in white picks up a clipboard and begins writing. And just like that, as her pen touches the paper, your mind snaps into clarity and you know where you are. You are in room 602 of St. Margaret’s Hospital downtown, and the woman in white is the attending nurse for the patient in the bed. As for him, he looks very familiar to you, as though he were an old friend of yours, but for some reason you can’t remember who he is.
Everything seems fuzzy. Perhaps it is the medicinal dullness of the air, or maybe you have some deep-seated fear of hospitals. But whatever the reason, your mind is working at a slower pace than you’re used to, and because of this you can’t clearly make out the words that the nurse is now saying to you. You focus harder, and can finally understand her.
“I’m afraid he doesn’t have much time left,” she is saying. “But he wanted to talk to you. I‘ll leave you alone.”
As she walks past you, you’re confused. Why doesn’t the man in the bed have much time left? Who is he, and what has happened to him? And why, most of all, would he want to talk to you? Nothing is connecting, and you turn to the man for help.
But when you turn, his eyes rise to meet yours. They are the dull, cloudy eyes of a person on painkillers, but deep down behind them you see a glimmer of recognition. His mouth opens slightly and he lets out a soft sigh. Looking down, you see that he has raised his hand and stretched it out towards you, beckoning you to come closer.
Well, I seem to have gotten myself into a bit of a dilemma, haven’t I? Here I am, leaving everything up to you through this whole story, and suddenly I have to dictate how you act. After all, who am I to say what you will do? My use of the “you” pronoun as a subject has certainly opened up the proverbial can of worms. How do I know that the “you” with the goatee and collared shirt reading this will do the same thing as the “you” with the black hair and striped tie?
The simple answer, of course, is that I am the narrator, and it is my job to tell you what to do. But as I said before, I always feel uncomfortable exerting my will so forcefully on people. So it has come time for me to ask your permission once again. May I continue, and assume a course of action for you that may not mesh with your particular beliefs? If so, then please continue to read. You once again have an entire line with which to make your decision.
Now, if you’re still here, on to the action.
The patient in the bed has reached his hand out to you, and you find yourself frozen in place. All you can do is gape, as his dull eyes hold yours in place with a force that belies his weak state. Questions fill your mind faster than you can process them. Who is this man? Why am I here? Everything is happening as though it was a dream, and you can’t make yourself remember. Still, the man holds his fingers outstretched towards you.
Reluctantly, stiffly, you take a step towards him. The only sounds in the room are the hum of the machines next to him and the soft whisper of rain on the window outside. Your breath is coming quickly as you approach the side of the bed, and you find that you are sweating. You force your arm to raise, reach your fingers towards those of the man. But just as you are about to make contact, just before you can take hold of his hand, he puts on a weak, pasty smile, and fear rips through you like an electric shock. Your hand spasms, contracts into a fist, and you pull it back down to your side. All at once, everything seems to be exploding, and you have to get out. You wrench your eyes away from the man’s, which are now filled with a question of their own. You turn and sprint out of the room, your legs churning as you make your way down the hall.
People stare at you as you run by but you don’t care. Memories are flooding into your mind but you can’t make sense of any of them. All you are aware of is a mass of pain and grief; you can’t yet distinguish specific instances or faces. You stumble through the doorway to the stairwell and somehow manage to make it down into the lobby without falling. You push past a knot of doctors and nurses and shove the double doors open, practically falling out into the cool night air.
Winded, you lean against a pillar and feel your legs and lungs burning intensely. The rain on your face helps to slowly bring you back to reality, and you are once again aware of your surroundings. Exhausted, you turn your head to look back into the hospital.
And now, I have to ask your permission to take the final step of our trip. Though I realize that at the beginning I told you that physical appearance does not matter, I have to say that a floating ball of gas would simply not fit into the rest of this story. Because what is about to happen is that you are going to look up from your exhausted crouch, straight into the front window of the hospital. You are going to see yourself, and I am going to tell you exactly what you see. In short, I am going to let you know who you are, and answer some of the questions spinning around inside your mind. Instead of plunging ahead without you, I felt it would be best to get your full permission. This is a big decision; I will give you two lines to decide.
What you see in your reflection is a man. A small, thin man, with large black glasses that hang down at the edge of his nose and constantly threaten to fall off. A man whose black hair is so saturated from sweat and the rain that it looks like a black mop, and whose dark blue trench coat hangs from his thin frame like so many rags. A poor, pathetic man of about 20, who stands winded outside a hospital.
And in that second, the man in the window steps out, reality snaps, and you realize that he is now you. Everything that has been floating around your mind is brought into focus, and you remember it all. Your name is Jacob Colby, and you are a visitor to this hospital. The man who you were visiting, the one in the bed, is your younger brother Paul. He has been battling a bad case of cancer for the last five years, and it seems that now is the time for him to finally lose.
When you first heard of Paul’s diagnosis, you isolated yourself from him. You refused to take his phone calls or meet with him in person because, to put it bluntly, you were afraid. The two of you were very close growing up, and the thought that you might lose him at such a young age was too much for you to bear. So you ran away, you hid, you left him to deal with the problem on his own because you did not want to deal with it, too.
But when you got a call from the hospital saying that Paul was on his way out and he had specifically requested to see you, you decided that it was time to stop running. You owed him at least one final visit, in which you could say your final goodbyes and make amends for leaving him alone. But you were unprepared, and as your chest heaves and steam rises from your mouth into the sky, you see tears spreading like cracks across your face. You weren’t expecting the fear to come back but it did, and once again you found yourself running away.
Turning, you contemplate going back up and trying to talk to him again. But almost as soon as you do, your hand spasms, your head aches, and you walk instead out into the raining night, shoulders hunched and head hung. You have had your chance, and you are sure that it is the last one you will get.
Do you feel it, Jacob? The guilt, spreading like a web through your mind, branching off into new avenues and making you feel like you are smoldering? Do you fully realize what you have done? That you, in the moment of decision you waited years for, at the one point when you could change, took the way out that you’ve always taken?
You do? Well, then, I suppose it’s about time that I introduced myself.
My name is Jacob Colby, and you are me. At least, you are now. I hope you can understand why I have kept my identity secret from you through this entire exercise. You see, Mr. Colby, guilt is a nasty thing. Alone, it can consume a person whole, eat away at him until he is nothing but a shell, incapable of action. But if two people share a feeling, well, that doubles the chances of their escaping from it, correct? If guilt can be spread around, then it’s less of a burden for everyone involved to carry. So what a relief when I realized that I didn’t have to face this alone! No, Jacob, you and I are now one, and because of that, we can carry the weight and hopefully come out of this as something more than just empty men.
At least, that’s what my plan was at the beginning of all this. But, dear Jacob, since starting off on our little journey, I have come to realize something else, and I must admit that I have one more secret agenda to reveal. True, less guilt is a good thing, but no guilt at all? Well, that would be absolute heaven. And you see, Jacob, by narrating this moment in time, I have given myself the perfect opportunity to obtain a guilt-free life! For if you put this page down, then the story is over, yes? And when a story is over, well, that means that the narrator is gone too! Poof, no need for little old me when there’s no more world to dictate, and no responsibility for someone who doesn’t exist!
Unfortunately, you are not in quite as good a spot. By imagining yourself into my place, I’m afraid that you have left yourself with a bit more...lasting...of a situation. If I go, which I will when things are over, then that means that the number of Jacob Colbies in the world drops back down to one. That one, Mr. Colby, is you. And one Jacob Colby means just one person to shoulder the guilt of a lifetime.
Do you see now why I asked permission? I didn’t feel right just thrusting all this guilt onto some poor passerby; I had to make sure that I had the subject’s full consent. If someone was to become me, they had to “climb the ladder,” as it were, and go through all the steps.
You could have put this page down at any point, and I would have been left alone with my feelings. Instead, you chose to continue, and that means that there’s no turning back now! I thank you very much for your charitable attitude; you are quite the trooper.
But now, Mr. Colby, I must take my leave. My work here is done, I have ensured that there is someone out there to bear the guilt of my mistake, and I have also made sure that that person is not me. It has been very good working with you.
Oh, stop looking at me like that. You brought this upon yourself. Now why don’t you put this page down, walk away, and go imagine that you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life.