Straggling through a tangle of suburban streets, clarity found me swaying at the brink of some nameless back alley. It was there, teetering at the threshold of strewn refuse and raw sewage, that I caught my first glimpse. A vague shape crumpled limp in the muck, wedged between tarmac and relentless concrete. My bleary eyes blinked and strained deeper into the gloom.
Was it… a person?
A person! The excitement spat and sizzled. People! The grim laneways of my tumbling mind snapped into a technicolor carnival of infinite possibility. Thousands of people! Anticipation crackled high above our heads, raining showers of shimmering silver before our eyes. The beats strolled out warm, wealthy, and luxurious, so we wore them loose like an old pair of jeans. Everyone was here. Everyone was moving. Everyone was fucking amazing!
Though Curiosity teased with her tight swinging curves and swivelling hips, it was the wide eyed Naivete who took my hand in hers. Syrupy sweet euphoria melted over me, and staring into those wild sapphire eyes, I knew in an instant that I would follow them anywhere. Everywhere. To the end of everything and the beginning of forever. The bass kicked up like a long lost friend, and together we romped an audacious path through the tattered edges of reality. Carefree, careless, and utterly carnal, we plunged ourselves deep into the throat of that foul alleyway; as it retched, and spat, and choked, until it swallowed us whole.
I was fool to follow, but the inevitable can be a stubborn mistress.
Then she was gone. The carnival was over. Beneath the dim buzz of burning neon I was alone again. When did she leave? Abandoned to the mounds of rotten filth that lay spattered over cold tarmac, the stench was nauseating. Where did she go? Wind whipped sharp streaks of drizzling rain across my cheeks, and it streamed bitterly from the tip of my nose, rolling over cracked lips, dripping from an unshaven chin, into the rotten swill that washed about my feet. In that moment, I thought this was the end of everything; but it was just the beginning of forever.
At first, I didn’t even recognise him.
Pressed into a brutal angle against the cold concrete wall, he lay just inches from my feet. Unmoving. Was he… Air rushed from my lungs as if squeezed by thousands of invisible hands, but the final dreadful word never arrived. Rigid and awkward he made no sound. Time slowed. Cramps clenched the pit of my stomach, tightening to a suffocating, seeping dread that climbed to my throat with spindled fingers. He can’t be… Terror burst from my chest like a parasite, bringing with it a crushing stampede of primal hysteria. I had to get away. Anywhere. It didn’t matter where, I just needed to run. Run. I’m think I’m fucking losing it.
The body twitched.
My eyes adjusted to the dirty gloom and drew focus. It twitched again. A withered head balanced precariously on it’s rotted stalk, scarred and stained for years beyond what could be natural. I watched in slow motion as cracked lips peeled barely apart, unveiling a swathe of ulcerous sores and cankered gums. Rust-red smears wept slowly down one side of his sharp crooked jaw, while a single clouded eye lolled slowly inside its socket without focus, purpose or intent. Alley-worn and filthy as he was, relief washed me clean with welcome release. He was alive. I snapped from my drifting haze with the weight of reality. He was alive; he was alive, and I had to say something.
“Hey… Man, are… Are you okay?”
A sensation I could not place swept jaggedly up my spine and into conscious thought. Somehow this man was familiar, but I was convinced that I stood before him a stranger. The notion persisted, and my mind circled. How did he end up here? How long had he been here? Was this where he lived? Did he have family? Is anyone looking for him? Who was this man? No sooner had the words formed clearly in my mind’s eye, than his head turned slowly upwards to face me. Him, sprawled at any awkward angle barely alive; me, swaying beneath broken neon like some two dollar saviour.
Our eyes locked, and for a fleeting and fragile moment, time stood completely still. We connected.
An overwhelming barrage of vivid tragedy poured unrelenting from wide open floodgates, drowning my tiny island of reality under wave upon wave of everything and the emotional beyond. Hopelessness. Loss. Grief. Isolation. Failure. Regret. Betrayal. It was all there and more, yet this torrent of unwelcome memories rushed over and through me until I was saturated with sorrow. Then, at the most lucid point of irrevocable climax, came a chain of revelation that I am still unable to understand. Somehow, standing naked and alone at the centre of this collapsing bridge, with angry waves of angst crashing around and above me, it all made perfect sense.
This was the real me.
Not a parallel or alternate me, borne from tangential science-fiction fantasy. Not a Professor Jeckyl kind of me, confronting the irresistible urge to become something monstrous in the name of science. Not a clone, copy, android or simulacrum. No, it was far simpler than that. He was indeed me, and it was I who was not.
Then who was I?