It was summer; the sky was blue, the birds were chirping and Johann wanted to die.
It was a curse. It would lure him in every year, making him feel emotions that weren't his. The excitement, the anticipation, the rush of release; all that which had seemed so wonderful and natural in the moment made him feel sick to his stomach in retrospect.
The illusion of thrill; one not felt in and of itself, but only in its anticipation.
It was a salesman who sweet talked you into buying that oh-so-neat product you always wanted, only for it to blow up in your gullible face.
A monster which feeds on hope.
Summer was a lie which he always fell for.
Johann clenched his fists. He had betrayed himself again. Ceded control of his reality to the illusion, which had lured him to where he now stood.
A holiday cottage.
Oh, how he hated himself.
He thought back to the 'trip planning conference' (so christened by the overzealous sheep of his class). He had let himself be sucked in by the vortex of mind-numbing exhilaration and enthusiasm. Ignoring them would have been best, but who was he kidding: he had lost the moment he stepped foot inside that hope-infested classroom.
Hope is a virus; that room was a pandemic zone.
Thus infected, that night he had done something truly appalling. Something that he had vowed never to do. Something that was utter blasphemy against his beliefs.
That night, he had dreamt. He had hoped. And (oh god have mercy on me) he had desired.
He was a goddamned heretic.
You see, Johann had always considered hope to be a dangerous, treacherous thing. It ensnares you, seduces you into thinking you can have the unattainable. The gold standard. The dream of every single starry eyed teenager.
The rose-tinted façade that is youth.
And summer was the climax of this festival of lies.
Couples cavorting around, not so much in love with each other as with the idea of love itself. Swarming the beach and pool not because anyone particularly wanted to be there, but because it was 'just the summer thing to do'. Getting wasted at parties not because they liked it, but because it would be so #YOLO if they did.
Sheep. Mindless drones living the charade, not knowing what is real and what isn't.
Now, keep in mind that Johann wasn't a bullshitter. He was rather averse to bullshit himself. No, Johann believed himself to be a man of pure rationality, wisdom and experience.
A man who had rejected the sickly sweet dreams of 'youth'. A man who had turned his back to the laughing and screaming mass psychosis that is teen-age. A man who had given up on dreams.
Because he was a man who had once hoped. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every damn second.
But to what end?
Years upon years of nothing but rot and despair.
The brighter the fleeting moments of hope, the darker were the hours of ceiling-staring solitude.
The intense heat forced him out of his reverie. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trailed down his back. The sun seemed to have had enough of his dilly-dallying and was prodding him onwards. Damn heatwave. He glared menacingly at the general direction of the sun and then at the offensive building. Sigh. Abandoning any hope that either of them would back off, he walked towards the entrance.
And even though Johann would never admit it, as he entered the doorway, somewhere buried deep inside him was a treacherous tumor: an obscure hope for something he hated so much, something he had never experienced.
It was 1:54 pm and Johann was mildly amused.
Swanky lights. Polished floor. Proclamation of an 'exotic' buffet. A whole freaking bar.
Cottage my ass.
Johann would be the last person to declare himself as a seasoned traveler, but even he knew a tourist bait when he saw one.
He let out a dry chuckle. This was gold. An illusion of an illusion. A parody of a parody. A facetious mockery of a charade.
And even more ludicrous was the fact that the bait seemed to have failed miserably. There was absolutely no one in sight.
Johann checked his watch and smiled wryly.
Even the sheep were late.
People amused Johann as much as they frustrated him. Like animals. Sure, cats annoy you when they scramble up your precious petunias, but who can help but chuckle as they paw at the mirror, trying to maul their own reflection...
He closed his eyes and smirked.
It's the same with people. So unaware. So foolish. So lost.
"How lost are you, Johann?"
Eyes shot open.
He looked around.
He slowly stood up, all senses on high alert.
Only the rhythmic ticking of his watch punctuated the increasingly unnerving stillness.
Johann was many things but he wasn't a fool. Nor was he a B-grade horror flick extra. Therefore he didn't plan on going about shouting salutations to someone who was deliberately hiding out of sight.
He would do what any sane person in his situation ought to.
Get the hell out of there.
But as he turned around, he jerked to a stop.
Something felt off. Really off.
Then he realised.
A knot formed in the pit of his stomach.
A sense of dread engulfed him.
He tried to fight it off.
Focus, man, focus, goddammit!
But regardless of how much he focused, he couldn't find the one thing that he sought with all his will.
There was no exit.
It makes no fucking sense!
His mind raced as his heart hammered relentlessly in his chest. There has to be an exit. A door. He entered from a door. The entrance. Where did it go?
His palms felt sweaty. Throat went dry. He wanted to run but his legs had turned to lead.
He put his hands on a table. His head was spinning…
The heat...must have got to me...
An overwhelming urge to just lie down...and forget all this confusion...
No, no, no!
This wasn't the time to rest. That was a classic B-grade extra move. Instant game over.
He glanced around frantically, his vision hazy.
A door. Almost hidden. At the far end.
He gathered every ounce of his remaining strength and staggered over. Unsteady. Grasping anything he could find to support himself.
Come on, a little more…
His head was throbbing. Heartbeat deafening.
Legs swaying. Close to buckling.
He raised his arm. Heavy. Fingertips brushed the old wooden surface. Rough. Another step. Palm on the door. Fingers splayed.
A blinding light filled his vision before it all went black.
A familiar smell.
The sweet aroma of freshly cut grass.
Where am I?
He slowly opened his eyes and blinked as they adjusted to the bright sunlight.
Rays reflecting off metal.
Swings. Slides. Monkey bars.
Cries and laughter of children running around. Playing tag. Hollering and wailing as one of them fell down. Accusations of unfair play.
Crafty little devils…
A little boy was sitting near the sandbox. Alone. Johann smiled. Just like—
His smile vanished as he noticed the toy in his hands.
The SuperTrain Express 510. His first real possession. His pride and joy.
As the unbelievable realisation struck him, fragments of his memories came rushing. Memories he had buried deep within.
Oh no. Not this.
A big boy who had just obliterated his tag opponents noticed the solitary figure. Ran over to him and shouted something. Johann couldn't hear them. But he already knew everything that was being said.
And everything that was going to happen.
The little boy shook his head and clutched the toy to his chest. The boy called his minions. They were now coaxing and pleading. Pressuring.
As the little boy finally loosened the grip on his train, Johann wanted to shout at him to stop. But for the life of him he couldn't make a sound.
He could just watch helplessly as the boy ripped the train out of his hands.
And stomped it to pieces.
Johann closed his eyes. He didn't have to see to know that the little boy was crying inconsolably. He didn't have to see to know that the boys were all laughing at him. He didn't have to see to know that the little boy would collect all those pieces and carefully keep them in a little box, stashing it away in the back of his closet, where it would rest forever.
He didn't have to see to know that the little boy had just got his first scar.
He felt a sense of vertigo as the world started spinning again.
Another familiar smell.
A lingering aroma from memories long gone.
He gingerly opened his eyes.
Brown wallpaper. Bedroom. Petunias.
Shouting and wailing. A male and a female voice. The little boy sitting alone in his room. Hearing everything, understanding nothing. He was not so little now. He had grown, and so had his pain. He looked lost. He needed someone to comfort him. Someone to tell him that everything will be alright. But Johann knew no one would come. They never did.
And they never will.
The scenes seemed to be flashing by faster now.
Getting laughed at for having his Daddy abandon him and his Mommy going crazy.
"Nobody wants you Jo!"
Being isolated as the weird kid who cried if you talked to him.
"You are such a crybaby Jo!"
Vomiting all over his desk because they added paint to his bottle.
"You are so disgusting, Barfy Jo!"
Getting his first confession shot down brutally.
"Yuck! Uhm, no thank you...Ro?"
Getting beaten to a pulp by the lackeys of the boy who liked that girl.
"Who the hell do you think you are, you weirdo? Stick to your corner and know your place, creepy Jo."
Stealing Uncle Richard's gun and taking the safety off. Finger hovering on the trigger, just millimetres away from blowing off his own head.
Gathering an impressive collection of knives and blades.
Filling a whole drawer with notes.
Getting hurt and hurting himself every single day.
Till one day when he decided that enough was enough.
He stopped crying.
He stopped feeling.
He stopped dreaming.
You cannot get disappointed if you never hope. You cannot get heartbroken if you never love. You cannot get betrayed if you never trust.
His dreams won’t shatter because he had none.
He was no longer the wimp who had hoped in a world of despair. No longer the crybaby who had desired in this wasteland of expectations.
I have become strong. I have become wise. I am no longer los—
"You are lost, Johann."
The voice echoed inside his head.
Who was it?
He looked around. Complete darkness engulfing him.
Where did it come from?
Suddenly his senses were overwhelmed.
A blinding flash of light.
Deafening echo of footsteps.
The putrid smell of rotting flesh.
He recoiled involuntarily.
What in the…
Then he saw them.
A countless number of them. Criss-crossing and intertwining on a mangled body. Like a living, breathing arcane temple of pain.
And it was approaching him.
Who—what is this?!
Then it stopped. In front of him.
The face unobscured.
Johann was paralyzed with utter shock. Disbelief. Revulsion.
It was bruised and battered. Mauled. Tortured. Hideous.
But above all…
No, no, w-what is this...this can't be…
"But it is, Johann. It is."
A voice he knew too well.
"Did you forget me? Tell me, Johann..."
The man of flesh and scars stepped closer. Face to face.
“...did you forget yourself?”
Johann was staring at himself.
A mangled, mutilated, bloodied shell of himself.
A sad, tortured smile crossed the lacerated face.
"Don't be so surprised. We were together for the longest time. Best friends. Soulmates."
A single tear rolled down his cheek.
A tear of blood.
"I am what you hide. I am what you suffered. I am your pain, Johann."
No...it can't be...I don't have...
“You have neglected me, my dear friend. Instead of trying to face me you rejected me. Cast me aside. Abandoned me. But I never went away. Do you know why, Johann? Do you know why?”
He spread his arms.
“Because I am you. Your true self.”
No...no...no! That's not... that's not…
"That's not what? Hiding behind our facade again, are we, Johann? You say you aren't scared anymore. Then why are you trembling? Do you realise now? This is you. I am your true—"
NO YOU ARE NOT!
The dead eyes stared at him. Those eyes with their unfathomable depths of despair.
This...facade...it protects me. Shields me. It lets me live...
"By shutting off the whole world? Rejecting anyone who tries to connect with you, tries to help you? By pushing away those who love you? Is that what you call living, Johann?"
Memories flash by. More recent ones.
The shy girl in class who always offers him her books when he forgets.
"I don't need your help."
The concerned teacher who had tried to encourage him to make friends.
"Mind your own damn business."
The brash uncle who had offered to take care of his bullies.
"Quit forcing your disgusting pity on me."
The weepy old lady in his house asking him how his day went.
"Just leave me alone."
"You are no saint, Johann. Every time you reject someone, every time you withdraw, you hurt people who care for you. Just because we are hurting doesn't mean we have to hurt others."
It's the only way. The facade keeps me safe. It has kept me safe for a while now.
"Do I look safe to you, Johann? Tell me. Tell me, Johann. I need to know, we need to know."
It doesn't matter.
The dead eyes stared.
It really doesn't matter whether you are safe. I rejected you because you can't survive. It's a cruel world, Johann. The moment you show your scars, show your weaknesses, people will hunt you down like a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. Accepting you is suicide. It's death, Johann. It's death.
The scars were bursting. Blood seeped through every wound, dripping down to the floor.
Crimson tears flowing from the bloodied eyes down the lacerated cheeks.
Silently he stepped forward and placed something in Johann's hand.
He stared at it.
Uncle Richard's gun.
The safety was off.
"I know the truth is hard to bear, Johann. But we cannot live this lie forever. It's time. Make your choice."
Johann held the bloodied gun. Gripped it.
It suddenly seemed too heavy to lift.
"What will you choose? The true self or the facade? The real thing or the empty shell?"
He raised it, his arm trembling.
And pointed it at the bloodied wreck of himself.
It's not my fault…I had no choice...
"It takes a strong man to deny what's right in front of him, Johann. Maybe you were right. Maybe you really got stronger."
I...didn't want it to turn out this way…
"I don't care anymore. All I want is peace. You know why? Because it hurts, Johann. It hurts so fucking much."
Finger hovered on the trigger. Shaking.
"Don't be too hard on yourself. Because, after all, you can still go home. Lucky you."
The fingertip caressed the curve.
I promise...this won't be in vain...I promise…
Lips twisted into one last smile.
"Farewell, old friend."
Johann pulled the trigger.
He opened his eyes.
Only the rhythmic ticking of his watch punctuated the comfortable stillness.
He heard the arrival of a car. The sheep were here. Inane giddy chatter filled the entrance.
"It was so crazy, I tell you! Anyway that was how it was— hey isn't that Jo?"
"It is, isn't it! Hey, why are you here so early dude? Wow, were you sitting here all alone waiting for us? Isn't that funny?"
"That's hilarious, man!"
Johann smiled at them. He spotted the book girl. She smiled shyly and quickly averted her eyes.
"Anyways, dude, the damn heat! I swear, if I have to spend another day in this heatwave…"
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
Yeah, that's all it was. Just another day in the heatwave.
A wry smile crossed his face.
A face untainted by crimson tears.
It was summer; the sky was blue, the birds were chirping and Johann didn't want to die.