Next in Line
He strode silently into the square, as unnoticed and alone as ever. Dreadlocks snaked off his skull. Faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt hung from his emaciated body. He carried a bag.
I hadn’t seen him, our failed experiment of a man, since the procedure. And he had changed, the years of isolation leaving him scarred and withered. But I recognized him at once. Of course I did. What we had done, I would never forget or forgive.
He stopped in the middle of Market Square, sat cross-legged on the cobblestones and closed his eyes. In his left hand he clutched a bag, which was made of cloth and might have been a pillowcase. His right hand twitched at his side, rhythmically keeping time to some inaudible beat. For more than a minute, he sat. Until he opened his eyes and got to work.
First, he opened the bag. He pulled out a small white towel, folded it into a square and placed it in on the ground before him. He reached back into the bag and withdrew a small wooden chopping block. Next, he set the bag aside and emptied his pockets, summoning a lighter, a small notebook and five short pencils. He lined them up neatly next to the chopping block.
Sam was the only other person to notice him. He watched from a bench about 100 feet away.
I sat next to Sam, though he did not know it. Sam could not yet see me.
As always, Sam carried a notebook. He observed, he took notes, he wrote about “the man with the dreadlocks,” unaware that the man’s name was Robert. He noted the way Robert’s skin glistened and he wondered why. It was a warm spring day in Pittsburgh, yes, but not so warm that he should be covered in sweat.
Robert began to sway. His mouth was moving—he seemed to be speaking, but the constant din of the square washed away his words. Sam continued to watch, not because he knew what was to come, but because his new and still undiscovered abilities told him that something was to come. So he observed Robert’s clothes, his hair, his movements, the items on the towel in front of him. He tried to note the reactions of passersby, but nobody else seemed to see Robert. And they didn’t. Not yet.
As if Robert too were having trouble seeing himself, he held his hands directly in front of his face. He turned them over slowly and examined each outstretched finger.
Then, with no warning, no indication that this was his plan, Robert wrapped his right hand around the small finger of his left hand. He pulled, and his face contorted with concentration. Robert pulled so hard that his arms shook and his knuckles burned red. He pulled for several seconds until—suddenly and jarringly—he ripped the finger off his own hand.
Sam gasped. It must be an illusion, he thought, looking around the square to gauge others’ responses. But nobody in the square reacted. Sam concluded that Robert must be a regular here, that everyone else had already seen this act.
Robert placed his finger on the chopping block, then grabbed the next finger up, the ring finger. Again, he pulled. And again, after much effort, the finger simply popped off, bands of flesh and ligament trailing behind as he placed the freed digit on the towel next to his pinky finger. Blood leaked from his hand and dripped down his wrist.
Sam rose from the bench, determined to reveal the hoax or stop it if it weren’t. As Sam crossed the square, Robert moved on to his middle finger. But there was too much blood; he could not get a grip. He used the towel to wipe the finger clean, then yanked again, but he bled so quickly that his efforts were useless. His hand slid repeatedly off his slippery middle finger.
So he pulled out a knife.
Sam was now twenty-five feet away, close enough to observe in great detail as Robert placed his mutilated hand on the chopping block, then sliced off his middle finger.
Then his index finger.
Then his thumb.
And still, nobody noticed. Sam and I were the only people in the square who saw. As I watched the panic rise in Sam, I did not move. Everything I could have said at that moment would only have made this worse for him. And worse would come soon enough.
Robert began to turn pale as he stared out at the people he once called his own. As blood rained down from his hand, he considered his absurd anonymity among them now, and he grinned. He then reached up with his useful hand and grabbed one of his dreadlocks. He pulled—and tore it free. A chunk of bloody scalp clung to its base as Robert dropped it next to his fingers. He grabbed another dread and again, the rope of hair ripped away.
As Sam was deciding whether to call police or stop Robert himself, Robert tilted his head back and screamed. It was a short but awful sound, savage and desperate—a noise that should not have emanated from a normal human being (and indeed, it did not). Only I could comprehend the scream’s genesis, and for that reason I forced myself to listen. I owed Robert at least that much. The sound forced those who would ignore him to finally see. It lasted no longer than a few seconds, but announced clearly that here was a man in more pain than they could ever understand. I winced. I wanted to look away, but I wouldn’t allow myself such relief.
Robert stopped screaming and began to scan the now rapt crowd, pausing on individual faces just long enough to establish an uncomfortable eye contact. He seemed to be searching for something or someone among the faces.
When it was my turn, his eyes narrowed.
I returned his stare unflinchingly. He deserved more than cowardice, and I deserved something less than comfort.
Robert’s eyes then turned, with purpose, to Sam. He focused on his face far longer than anyone else’s and Sam did not know why. Robert’s lips began to move. He was whispering. Sam strained to hear and in the suddenly silent square the words finally emerged: Next in line. Robert repeated the phrase several times, staring at Sam, delivering a personal message that Sam could not decipher. Next in line, Robert hissed at him. Next in line.
Robert broke the connection by closing his eyes. His head lolled back and again he screamed. Moments before, he had been invisible. Now people were covering their ears to block him out.
He jumped to his feet. Blood flowed from his fingerless stump and splashed down on the cobblestone. He looked skyward and again began to shout. At first, Robert’s audience thought he was merely making noise. Then they realized he was chanting actual words:
“All around, and you refuse to see. All around, and you refuse to see. All around, and you refuse to see.”
He almost sang the words, as if pulling them from a long-forgotten nursery rhyme. He repeated the line a dozen times, then abruptly stopped. He fell, almost gracefully, back into a cross-legged sitting position, picked up the knife and twirled it in his hands, contemplating what next to do with the blade.
Sam approached and stood over him. He spoke softly to Robert and reached out his hand. Robert waved the knife at him, forcing his retreat. With Sam a safe distance away, Robert dropped the knife, reached into his bag and pulled out a single wooden match. He scraped its tip on the cobblestone.
Sam rushed forward. But it was too late. Robert touched the flame to the glistening film coating his neck.
And then he was gone.
The flames embraced and swallowed him. He was consumed.
Sam froze. The heat was too intense to get close. Some in the crowd screamed, but Robert was silent. He simply sat there as the flames turned him to ash. I tried to make out his face, but couldn’t—he was completely ablaze, and still he did not move or yell or do anything but burn away. Someday Sam would understand. But standing in that square on a beautiful spring day in Downtown Pittsburgh, I was the only person able to comprehend the perfectly appropriate departure from this world Robert had chosen.
As the flames continued to erase Robert, witnesses stared at his memory.
Their minds were already at work.
To help them forget.
In time, they would succeed. They always did. They would transform Robert’s death into something unreal, a dream, a fiction. I wonder, sometimes, if I envy that about them.
In that moment, however, they were transfixed by a world I had helped create. In that moment, and likely for the first time in their unseeing lives, they saw what had always been there.