“Just remember, once the gas starts flowing, count backward from 10 nice and slowly,” the voice said.  

“Ten…”

His eyes darted around the room, trying to get one last look at his surroundings, but the room was nearly featureless, a shrine to utility and purpose. Tile and stainless steel, all harshly bleached under fluorescent light. 

“Nine…”

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The smell of the gas had now thoroughly replaced the disinfectant that hung in the air before.

“Eight…”

He tried to get a look at the faces in the room, but they were all moving too fast, bobbing in and out of focus as everything started to blur. 

He didn’t make it to seven, but that was sort of the point of the counting. His brain was well and truly on fire now. As the second between eight and seven stretched out into the infinite, it not only gave him forever to live but also forever to think about who and what he was and what exactly had caused him to be in this situation. He didn’t actually feel he deserved this, but in some sense, he supposed he must. This didn’t just happen to everyone after all. 

As the gas surged through his mind, he tried to remember. He started small; he would just go back to that morning and work from there. He had woken up as usual in a small room nearly as sterile as the one he was in now but unlike normally, there had been a lot of commotion and people. Normally he was left alone in the morning so today must be something special. He saw himself walking down the winding, whitewashed hallways surrounded by people, their shouts and hollers echoing through him. At the end of the hallway, he got to talk to a nice man about what was to come and what had caused all this. The man asked him over and over if he was afraid. But afraid of what? Surely this happened all the time. 

He needed more. There had to have been a life before his room, before the routine, before being watched all the time. He strained against the gas and the pain to remember a time before. Flashes of memories flooded in: a house, a dog, a job. He was happy then, he thought. But he couldn’t stay there in that time — the gas wouldn’t let him, it kept chasing him faster and faster into darkness. Desperation. Life turned into violence and crime, not even living, just scraping by, forced to leave a life of comfort and live like a dog. 

Back. He had to go back to the happy times; he tried to force his mind to remember more of his happy house. A tree flashed before him, big and strong, comfortingly stoic. Then the image shifted to him digging a hole next to the tree, getting more and more desperate as the hole got deeper. The memory shifted again and he was filling the hole. Something was at the bottom, but he didn’t know what it… no. He knew what it was. He just didn’t want to face it.

Another flash, and this time he was in a house, but it wasn’t his. He was watching a man attack someone, hitting them over and over. Flash, and it wasn’t another man he was watching. It was just him. The hitting ended and now he was looking, ransacking, but he couldn’t find it. Now it was time to go. He dragged the body to his car, and flash, he threw the body in a hole under the tree.

Flash again, to a courtroom, faces and people everywhere — all eyes were glued on him, his every move scrutinized. He sat quietly, listening to a judge read off name after name after name. Bang, the hammer came down and the sentence was passed. Death. 

Everything was clear, who he had been, who he was now, what had made him this way, everything … everything except what he had been looking for. He hoped desperately that he had earned this. It just wouldn’t be fair for him to take this experience from someone else. His mind, so sharp before the gas, had been taken away from him. Now everything was confused and confusing. Luckily, it seemed like he was falling toward infinity and would have forever to work it out. 

Email Andrew Ankersen at [email protected]

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