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The Beholder

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There is quiet silence.

 

You feel fresh air against your face, not the recycled oxygen you were so reluctant to live upon down below, and you can feel sunshine, all over. You can smell many things, something sweet and buttery was cooking; you can hear it sizzling, and you can hear birds, songbirds singing outside. You don’t smell saltwater, nor blood, nor the acrid stench of death and decay. There were no bullets being fired, grenades being tossed, paranoid ranting of madmen to be heard.

 

If this was heaven, you were glad to be dead.

 

“Good morning, Subject Delta,” you hear a familiar voice, tinted with German inflection, “Or should I say, “John?” That vas your name, yes?”

 

Tenenbaum. The German Nazi scientist, responsible for the death and mutilation of a thousand Jews and a hundred little girls. So heaven is out.

 

You try to speak, but only a dull groan resonates. You are still mute, but that doesn’t matter. There was no seawater. you would take what you could get, especially if it was-

 

Sunshine. On your face…

 

You groan louder, feeling it resonate in your throat but not caring. You lift your fingers, heavy and shaking, to your face, and roar. The pain-

 

“I vould advise you not to move suddenly.” She said softly, “I have removed your armor, yes, but your skin…” She sighed softly. “I did the best I could do with what I had. You have no idea the condition you vere in-”

 

“Father?” And there she is, standing at the door, gasping.

 

Eleanor…

 

You remember now. You remember her dancing barefoot, a bloodstained cherub in a hall of demons. You remember soft kisses goodnight, and her tiny, tiny hand in yours. It used to be she couldn’t wrap it all the way around one of your fingers. Now she stands, grown and strong, more beautiful than you ever remembered her. She is safe. She is safe.

 

Now, you relax.

 

Sinclair comes lagging behind her, severely out of breath. It’s the second time you see the man behind the voice, and upon closer inspection he looks nothing like you imagined. You thought he would be a tall, lean blue eyed blonde haired southern man, with looks as smooth and honeyed as his voice. Instead, he is only inches taller than Eleanor, with chestnut hair slicked back, and the only thing smooth and honeyed is his brown eyes, and even with you lying on the table perpendicular to his body they are the most noticeable thing about him. They shine like marbles..

 

“Sweet baby Jesus,” He whispers when he sees you. “Oh my-”

 

“Father,” Eleanor cries, but she is strong, and she won’t cry, not in front of you. You wish she would, if it would make her feel any better. You sort of feel like crying too.

 

“He is avake,” Tenenbaum interjects, “But I vould advise you do not excite him too much. Between the trauma of his physical body und the mental trauma of removing his conditioning, there is not much else to do but vait. In time, he vill heal.”

 

“And his body? Is there really, truly nothing you can…” She hesitates, unwilling to confess the state your body must be in, but you know.

 

For the first time in years, you can feel your heart beat from the inside.

 

“Aesthetically, there is not much I can do. His skin vas…missing, und his organs vere grafted unto the inside of the machine. I made do vith vhat I had and…vhat you supplied to me. He is not the way he vas before Rapture, nor vill he ever be. But he is alive.” She closed her medicine bag, turning away from the three. “You asked me to save him, und I did. Now, I go.”

 

You feel a hand brush against your face, and turn away. You can’t face Eleanor. Not like this. Not now. You can’t.

 

“If you must,” Sinclair answers slowly, as if chewing over his words and disliking the taste, “Now about the matter of payment-”

 

“Please,” Tenenbaum interrupts, smiling sadly. “It is, at the very least, all I could do.”

 

With that, she leaves, the air leaving traces of a familiar perfume and the tiniest whiff of redemption, and you never see her again.

 

Eleanor brushes her hand against your forehead, and you flinch, half in pain, and half for her sake. You are cold, and you are thirsty. You make a low pitched groan, opening your mouth in dismay and hoping she sees how dry it is. You are torn apart, a broken shamble of what used to be a man and what used to be a monster, and a large part of you wishes you had died on the raft.

 

“Father-”

 

“He’s thirsty, sugar. Be a peach; get your daddy some ice water ‘fore he dries up like the Sahara.”

 

Disobedient but nurturing, Eleanor gives you one last parting glance, and heads downstairs. It’s just you and Sinclair now, and you’ve never heard silence quite this loud. He’s looking at you. You can feel him staring through the corner of his eyes; trying to make sense of what he sees. You wish him luck. You close your eyes, except you can’t, not all the way.

 

When you open them again, he is sitting in a chair by the gurney. Eleanor is nowhere to be found, but the glass of water has left it’s mark on the silver tray atop the nightstand. Condensation never looked so appealing before.

 

You growl in your chest, and Sinclair looks up. Without a word, he tips the water between the fleshy excuse that pass for your lips, and slowly but surely, as if he’s done this before, and your thirst is quenched. Your curiosity isn’t, but you haven’t the words, and you haven’t the voice. Apropos of nothing, Sinclair breaks the silence.

 

“You know,” He whispers, so low that his southern accent hums instead of twangs, “I used to be married. Oh, don’t look so surprised, I used to charm the drawers off a philly when I was a boy. She was a real beaut, too: a debutante. Prettiest face west of Bainbridge, and proud of it. Had enough water?”

 

You shake your head. You’re used to his voice by now, and Lord knows you could use something familiar.

 

“So one day she decides to travel down to Hawkinsville, hopin’ to find some rinky dink cottage she had her eye on, when it shoulda been on the road, and some asshole sleepin’ at the wheel comes rollin over her, swiping the side of our Oldsmobile. Cold?”

 

You’re not, so you shake your head. He continues.

 

“So Debbie May- my wife’s name- barely survives, right? I mean she barely made it to that hospital. I come running down to see her, and go in her room and I almost leave cause,” and he sighs at this, his eyes rewinding the scene in his mind, “Because I didn’t even recognize her. She looked like she got caught in a blender-hair torn off, skin burnt and bloody, half her face melted off, but she was there, and she was alive. Doctors said she was in pain, so much they had to leave her unconscious. They said she wouldn’t make it past the night, and if she did she would never look the same. And you know what I did?”

 

You don’t.

 

He goes on as if he got his answer, and when he looks out the window, remembering, you see just how old he really is. “I let her live. I let her live, beaten and bloody and scratched up as she was, because I loved her, God strike me down, I did. She never forgave me. Tried everything: plastic surgery, skin grafting, hell, if someone had offered, she probably woulda worn a paper bag over her head, too.”

 

“She hated it. She hated me. I guess she hated everything and everybody, even her, cause one day I come home ready to hang my coat, and there she was, hanging from the ceiling. All she left was an old pageant photo of her, and on the back she wrote in kohl, Remember me. As if I could forget.” He shakes his head, once, twice, like he’s trying to get the memory out. You wish they hadn’t cut out your tongue, or you’d tell him that never works.

 

Remembering just how captive an audience you are, he smiles half-heartedly. “Now the whole point of me pourin’ my heart out to you was this; it don’t matter how you look, not really, not to the ones who matter. That girl, she-” He tilts his head toward you, and you gurgle helplessly, not wanting anyone, anything to look at you ever again, but how can you not with those eyes-

 

“That girl, Eleanor,” He stares deep down, ignoring your grunts as you try to pull away, “She looks at you like you hung up the stars, Chief. You’re all that girl’s got; more importantly, you’re her daddy, and that means you are her God, and the weight of that girl’s world is on your shoulders. So don’t you get any ideas, you hear?”

 

Eleanor. Of course you wouldn’t. You missed out of ten years of her life, you are unwilling to miss a second more. But a lifetime of this? It’s something….it’s something to consider.

 

“I ain’t much for consolations, and all that, mind you,” Sinclair admits. If you could, you would scoff, because well, of course. “But I like you Chief, and I’d be awful sore if I had to put you six feet under after all the trouble of hirin’ Tenenbaum to stitch you back up.” He wipes the drool from your chin, since your jaw doesn’t seem to work quite properly yet.

 

“I can call you Chief, right? Gonna have too, Delta ain’t gonna fly, not anymore, and your real name ain’t Johnny Topside, I know that for sure. I guess we’ll never know, huh? Can you spell it out? If I got you some paper?”

 

You are tired and disgusted and angry, so angry at the world and at fate and at this man who won’t stop looking at you, but oh God, you don’t want him to leave, so when he places the pen in your hand, you scribble your name the best you can. The feeling of plastic against skin is new and feels tender, but you manage anyway, and he takes the paper.

 

“Huh,” He whispers. “I never took you for an Isaac. Interestin.”

 

You groan in protest, because Isaac is dead. Delta is dead. Whatever you were, scuba diver or spy or cyborg, you are it no longer. Somehow Sinclair understands, and he nods in acquiesce.

 

“Johnny it is.” And he smiles, and you fall asleep.

 

When you wake up, you are hot.

 

Sinclair is gone, and Eleanor is nowhere to be seen, but the heat is all around you, and every inch of you is burnt out and sensitive. You need water, cold water, fresh air, anything cool, because pressed against the sheets you will die again, you know it.

 

You stumble out of bed and collapse, because the skin of your feet is new and very sensitive, so excruciatingly swollen that your nerves are on fire. You moan in terror, in panic, loudly and as deep as you can, knocking everything to the floor: the half-empty glass of water that spills all over you, the glass splintering in tiny pieces, digging into you, and you don’t care, because of the pain, the pain-

 

Until you turn your head and see your reflection in the silver tray.

 

There are stitches, stitches everywhere: some have popped open, and an ugly pussy mass of skin has poked through. Your eyes have staples all around, and your skin is pulled back so tight you can see the muscles flex as you gasp for air. Your lips look like beef jerky, dried with blood and god knows what else, and it looks like your face is made from three different skin colors. You are lying on the floor, a living Frankenstein, crying, screaming, wailing, but only groaning and gurgling and gasping, and no one can hear you, and you’ve never been this afraid of nothing in your life, and the pain, the pain-

 

But the door has slammed open, and Eleanor is screaming at Sinclair, screaming for him to do something, anything, and the first thing he does is not move you or the glass, but that damned tray, and you think, ‘This is someone spectacular’ right before that fucking gurgle comes back, and you are chocking on nothing but grief. Soon, they get you back on the gurney, with another glass of ice water, (no tray) and Eleanor is yelling through the telephone for Tenenbaum to return, but from the sound of it, she won’t be, not with all those little girls to return home.

 

Sinclair brushes the tears from your jagged cheeks, and you moan, long and low, the way humpbacks did when you started out at your job, but you doubt they ever felt like this. Nothing should.

 

Eleanor kisses you on the cheek, crying, crying, promising she will return soon with a doctor, and you are amazed that she only looked back twice. Sinclair is stronger, so he holds you down the best he can and tries to give you water, but unless it’s laced with cyanide you don’t want it. You are selfish, it seems, because you would like nothing more, more maybe than you love Eleanor, to just collapse into nothingness.

 

“Hush,” Sinclair breathes, “Hush, now. Ain’t no need for tears, I got you. I got you.” He is just as overcome as you, and if you had been woken by the baritone of a freak in pain you might have been as razzled as well. But he seems shaken, almost as much as you.

 

“Hush, now,” He repeats, and without warning he presses his lips to yours. “Shhh. It’s all right. I’m here. I’m here.”

 

His voice is smooth, like whiskey, but it goes down burning and cutting like razorblades. He shouldn’t be here. Not with you. Not like this. Oh God, not like this, and the booming gurgles continue, and you suppose to shut you up, he leans over you and moans, slipping you tongue even though he knows you haven’t got one, and of course the one part of you that works fine is pressing right against him, because it’s been so long and you’re so lonely, so, so lonely, and his hand reaches down the drawstring of your pants, cupping you, and even though it hurts so damn much, you wrap your hands around him, around his waist, around his tanned chubby ass and you squeeze and squeeze and so does he, and his mouth presses harder, harder, forcing every last note of sorrow down, down, as he kisses your new skin gently, gently, until finally he reaches-

 

He’s humming now, around you, and you make the mistake of looking down, and at least now you are glad that you’re incapable of blinking, because those eyes have made you come, and he looks right through you, eyes heady, cheeks flushed, hands shaking, as you watch him swallow every drop and then some, stopping only to lick the beads of sweat and come he missed off your limp sex, and then putting you back in, and everything is back to normal and okay except it’s not. The pain is almost gone, except it’s not. Your life is not over, except it is.

 

Sinclair, gentleman that he is, wipes off the remaining residue from his swollen lips with a handkerchief, then rubs his face against yours, his hand wrapped around your fingers, just barely reaching all the way around.

 

“Like I said,” He reminds you, looking more smug and satisfied than he had the right to be, considering who he’s just been slumming it with, as he brushes the back of his knuckles against your face and smiles, with those swollen lips and bright brown eyes and all you can ask is why? And you suppose some hint of it pops through the valley of scars, and he leans closely and whispers, ignoring Eleanor’s worried footsteps along with a much shyer ones, ignoring the lesions and the pus and the staples and the stitches, and looking at you.

 

“It don’t matter, not to the ones who do.” And you think you might survive this corpse, this living carcass, if only he would smile at you again, and joy of joys, he does.