most people, the people that have already merged, have two ways of explaining it. the ones that actually liked the transition they went through explain it like evolving into a butterfly. they were a parasite before, moving because they had to move, interacting and doing what was expected of them. they described the merging process as being reborn. born-again, finding god, opening the third eye. all of the cliché things people say about life changing experiences. and like most people that have these things to say, they look down on the people that have yet to merge. they act as if they're too stupid to do it, too poor or just too stuck in their old ways.
these kinds of people are the new evangelicals.
the people that aren't that way, the people that find their merging to be a hinderance, are the new hippies. they're the ones that sit across from him. they make eye contact with him frequently and he doesn't know what they're trying to tell him. they quietly watch through that chain link fence, sitting in a straight line, much like they stand, staring straight ahead. some reach out with a hand, trying to show how badly they want to reach out and pull someone away. others pray, in the way that they pray. then some look as if it's their fault. as if they chose to be there, like they're the opposition against their peaceful protest. they forget that each person is to merge before their twenty first birthday by law.
two different sides, lining up like ancient warfare. some days it feels like a drum is going to start playing, and each side will march to the beat towards each other.
he's been there for two weeks, and since then he's found a way to stop looking at the protesters. at first it was hard to focus on anything else as they were staring a hole through him, but now all he can focus on is the time that's stacking above him. with each passing second that time becomes heavier. he feels like giles corey.
he spends all of his time waiting for the line to move, and when he needs a break from that mind-numbing task, he tries to identify the item that the people around him have brought.
he already knows the woman behind him brought her purple heart. she was too eager to tell the people around her what it was, and what she got it for. anyone who would listen would hear stories about how she was a sniper in the last world war, and how many high-ranking officers she's killed. he's heard the stories a couple of times now. how she had to hide out in a fox hole for three days, looking down the sights of her rifle, or through a pair of binoculars, waiting for the kill. she seemed to take pleasure in answering the question
"where did you use the bathroom?"
she'd smile and say
"right in my fucking pants."
he's not sure how much he believes her, but it doesn't matter if anyone does. she'll still merge with her item, just a few hours after him, and she'll get to see the randomized, permanent result of it.
one morning he wakes up to find that the line has moved a few hundred feet, and he rushes to relocate his tent further up in the line. only after hammering in the last few stakes, does he see the door for the first time. that day he watches as people disappear into it. people always go in, but no one ever comes out.
there has to be a back exit or something.
even after trying to reason with the door, he gets no response, and he can't find a way to assuage the tension growing in himself. even the people around him seem to be anxious about the appearance of the door. usually they spend the morning mingling with each other, sharing coffee and stories. playing cards or reading books to each other. but this morning, everyone stays to themselves. they go about their routines quietly and slowly. even the wall of protestors seem to be different this far up into the line. they shout their stories through tears and breaking voices. a couple of them have joined hands and have started swaying as they quietly chant something. it looks as if they're trying to cast some kind of spell.
but he doesn't pay attention to them, he can't, or his nerves might get the better of him. instead he sits in the opening of his tent and holds onto his item like a life raft keeping him alive at sea. he grips the leather-bound journals in his hands firm and tight.
then the tension of the morning breaks with a scream. it's a muffled scream, muffled by cold hard steel. everyone around seems to notice, their ears perk up, their heads swivel over towards the door.
the voice screams
"i can hear him! why can i hear him?! he's in pain, he's burning!"
the man just ahead of him in line turns and walks over to him. he walks in the way that people do when they’re about to spread gossip. they sidle over, with a slightly pained look on their face, but just under it is excitement. it's a kind of sadistic look.
the man says
"i heard she tried to merge with the ashes of her dead husband."
he looks over his shoulder towards the door, then makes a clicking noise with his tongue.
then, as if it was nothing, he says
"what are you merging with?"
he nods his head at the stack of books on his lap, and his eyes quickly scan the inside of his tent. it's a vulnerable feeling, having him stand over him, looking over all the possessions he owns at the moment. he tries to come up with a lie because he didn't think he would have to explain what he brought to anyone. only now, with the question hanging in the air, does he realize how embarrassing it is.
is it this embarrassing for everyone? does it feel this vulnerable?
"this is my... favorite book series, i'm going to merge with them."
the man, hmms, and nods his head again.
"interesting. i wonder what will happen."
he lingers for a moment.
"what um... are you going to merge with?"
he pulls the glasses off of his face, and then sets them back onto his ears and nose.
"i'm hoping that it'll fix my vision-"
he laughs, shrugs
"-but who knows right?"
then the man makes his way back towards his tent, and two men in surgical masks come over to him. they speak inaudibly to him, then the metal door opens, and he's ushered inside by another. the two remaining men start breaking down his quickly assembled camp site and they carry it towards the back of the building.
for the first time in two weeks, no one is ahead of him. it's just him and the door.
should i move my stuff closer?
he looks behind himself to see a number of anxious, eager people.
i probably should.
as he breaks down his tent, he realizes that he doesn't even need to set it up again. he could leave it all packed up for the men. as he does, another white scrubbed man comes around with the lunch cart. it has prewrapped sandwiches, fruit, bags of chips, single served salads, cookies.
"oh, it's okay-"
he motions towards the door
"-i'll be able to eat lunch at home today."
he laughs to try and make the man understand it's a joke, but he doesn't laugh, and he wheels his cart to the back of the building. just as he disappears, a voice speaks up from behind him. it's a loud voice and even if he wanted to block it out, he couldn't.
"no one ever said it was against the rules to merge with another person, it's just not recommended. but we're going to be the first to do it."
the people around her start to rumble into conversation, but she talks over them all and tells them that they will merge today, regardless of what anyone says. she says she believes it's her choice what, or who, she merges with. only then does he look back to see that she's not so far away from him. she's only two people behind him, but she talks with her back to him.
then the white scrubbed men come to him, and they seem indifferent at the fact that his stuff is already packed up. they start to carry it away, and the cold metal door swings open, and it's his turn.
the cold air from the room blasts at him as he makes his way through the door way, and into the unknown room. he looks back as the door closes and wonders if anyone behind him also noticed that no one ever exits the same door. one of the men waits to accept his item, and after giving it to him, he walks over to a metal hole in the wall and deposits it there.
through a surgical mask, the other says
"empty your pockets."
he holds out a metal tray, something that looks a lot like a cooking sheet, and waits for him to do so. he pulls out his cellphone, his wallet, a set of keys, and a small knife. they clatter into the tray.
he waits for the men to turn around, but they don't.
they probably see hundreds of naked people a day, i'm sure it's not even weird for them, like how doctors get used to checking for prostate cancer.
so, he gets undressed in front of them, and he sets his clothes onto the metal tray. the ground is cold under his feet, and goosebumps form on his thighs.
"your underwear too, unless you want to merge with them."
he removes his underwear and sets them on top. then he's ushered over to sit in the chair in the middle of the room. the man who accepted his item pulls leather straps over his wrists and ankles. then the two of them leave the room and close a metal door behind them.
the lights go out, and the air runs colder, and he can't seem to remember the room. then his ears ring, then they ring louder than he thought they could. it feels like his ear drums are vibrating so violently that they could come loose. he knows that they would actually tear, but he has trouble coming to that reasoning. he squeezes his eyes shut, and he grits his teeth. only when he tries to cup his ears, does he realize why they strap people down.
the noise seems to penetrate through him. not through his ears, which he's lost track of, but through his entire body. it feels as if the vibrations are bouncing off of his blood, and it's making each individual cell dance.
not like a, dancing for joy.
not like a, shoot at your feet dance.
but the dancing that pulses of electricity sent into muscle groups would produce. it hurts, and by the time it ceases, he's tired. more tired than he's felt in a long time. but he can't think of being tired, because at that exact moment he's a teenager again. he's running away from a party that had the cops called on it, and the helicopter spotlight follows him and his friend for a moment before it trails off to follow someone else. he jumps the cinderblock wall of someone's back yard to find a pool just on the other side. the water is cold, but as he surfaces, he finds it full of friends. full of others that fled the cops and jumped that same wall and found themselves in a pool. they laugh until the owner of the house chases them out, then they run again.
he laughs in the chair because he can remember how hard his heart pounded, how his feet ached. he feels the danger, and he feels invincible. just as he did back then.
the men come back in, and they unstrap him and give him a chance to get dressed before leading him into the next room. he passes through a long corridor where he sees a woman playing an imaginary piano. her hands float in midair and her fingers land on nothing. but they do so with conviction, as if she truly believes she's playing. her argument is all the more believable because coming from her mouth is the sounds of a piano. she drops her hands down, and the sound of a chord is produced, when her fingers dance, so do the individual keys. the men ushering her to a different room don't seem impressed.
then he passes by the body that matches the screaming voice. it still screams, but now it's simply incomprehensible. she lays naked, curled up in a corner. her voice is raspy, but still she continues. her eyes are bloodshot, the vessels in them seem to be full to bursting. from her scalp a trickle of blood drips. two men dressed the same as all the others stand above her, except one wields an extendable baton. he holds it aloft and with the other hand he tries to force her to her feet.
the screaming and the piano remind him of the two lines outside, but both sounds are muffled as the door behind him closes. he's told to sit in a metal chair, and he does. the cold under his legs remind him of ice block sledding as a kid. he feels the burns on his knees from falling, the ice melting through the towel on his butt. he feels the rush of starting to slide a little too fast, and how it will hurt to stop, and how each passing second it will compound. a worse skinned knee, a darker bruise.
he finds himself gripping the seat as another door opens, and a woman walks in. she's not in white clothes, and she doesn’t wear a mask. instead she has a clipboard and an executive quality about her. this quality fills the room and suddenly makes it feel even colder.
she sets the clipboard down, takes a seat, and immediately starts flipping through a stack of papers.
she gives him a puzzled look as she says
"you merged with your diaries?"
she frowns and looks back down at the paperwork.
"that's a first. how do you feel?"
march 21st was the day. it was primarily a blank page but written in the middle was a simple revelation.
every time you hurt someone; they love you less.
he remembers writing that. he remembers that his pen almost ran out half way, and the "love you less?" is lighter, more just an indent than actual writing.
he remembers hurting people, and he remembers being hurt. he remembers his dad telling him that in life, you break hearts, and you get your heart broken.
but what if there is no love left? what if i've hurt enough to not be loved by anyone, and i've been hurt enough to not love?
"i don't know. it changes minute to minute. but everything i feel... i already know."
she writes something down. something far too short for the complexity that he's truly feeling. he's too busy crying to stop her as she stands and leaves the room. like a well-rehearsed play, the second door opens, and he's ushered from the room again.
he walks with them back into the hallway, and where the screaming was, a new kind of thing appears. it's the girl that was talking outside. but instead of being a person, she's something closer to a corpse. she kneels on the ground, and her hands wrap tightly around her neck. they squeeze so tight that they shake, and her face is blue. it matches the cold metal building. the men next to her attempt to remove her hands, but they don't try hard enough.
her mouth hangs open, waiting to accept air, but her eyes are content. she falls to the floor limp, but her hands still squeeze.
one of the men says to the other
"this would be good to post as a warning for anyone else interested in merging with another person. maybe get a full body shot, then a close up on her eyes."
then he's ushered out the door, on the far side of the building