"contemplation of the dust"
reflection on former civilisations and peoples, and on the knowledge that all things will one day turn to dust
Screaming. He could hear himself screaming. Or maybe it was just in his head; a broken record-player sending the sound of pure insanity round and round his skull… around and around and around, 24/7. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t think. Breathing was pretty damn hard too.
Sometimes he could ignore it, if he tried hard enough too, but he couldn’t ignore the voice that accompanied the noise. That was too loud, too strong, even for him.
Sam had the apartment locked up; the chain fastened across the door, and it was driving him insane. He was an animal trapped inside its cage: he was starving and sweating and his body was permanently ready for some sort of action- be it fighting or running or crying like a toddler having a temper tantrum.
Sam had moved onto sleeping on the couch whilst Brandon lay comatose on the bed or curled up into a foetal position on the floor, clutching a pillow to his chest like it was a teddy-bear. His world was imprisoned in flashes. At least he thought so. He didn’t know what was going on around him. His world consisted of flashes of colour. Of smells. Of noise- blinding, white-hot noise that burned his ears and seared his thoughts.
How long had he been there? Judging by the broiling pain in his stomach, it must have been days. He was managing to drink every so often- small sips that settled his thoughts and his stomach, but the thought of eating… the simple suggestion of some of his most favourite foods like burgers and pizza- squishy food mashed onto a soft, soggy bun- made him want to hurl.
God, of all the things that had to be messed with, his food had to be included? The world was just too cruel sometimes.
There was a low protesting groan as the door swung open, cautiously, almost as if even inanimate objects- things without life or feeling- were afraid of him now. Should they be? Meh. How should he knew? He wasn't omnipotent. Sam was there, just as he always was, eyes brooding and dark with worry. Brandon could practically taste the nervousness rolling off him in waves. He tried for a smile, but judging by Sam's face it was probably more of a snarl. Again.
Neither said a word as Sam made his way closer, bare feet sinking into the carpet, before sinking down to his level. Oh, he was crouching on the floor again. He hadn't realised. Sam had stopped over a metre away, respecting the concrete walls Brandon had set up around himself for the general public's protection, but even at that distance Brandon felt his cheat constrict, his heart stuttering like a skittish horse- stop, start, stop, stop, start, start, stop, start. "Just breathe," Sam murmured, and Brandon raised his eyes to meet his.
Damn, they looked squishy.
Shit. That was not a normal thought.
He dragged in a lungful of oxygen, imagined it sweeping through his system like a ghostly tidal waves, knocking down everything in its path, pushing away everything blackened about him in one smooth motion.
If only it could be that easy.
"Wait," Brandon scowled, "don't you have your whole work thing to be doing? You're still doing that, right?"
Sam seemed to be measuring out his words before he said them, weighing them on his tongue before deciding which way would be best. "I'm taking a year off," he said finally. "Just a year, so you don't need to worry about it."
He buried his face in the pillow. Of course. Once again, Sam Farah had thrown away the greatest things he had going for himself in order to help someone else. The Jekyll half of him wanted to tell him to go back to whatever he'd been doing and to work at it until Sam fixed the jigsaw puzzle of his life together and had exactly what he wanted- he wanted Sam to be happy, to be safe, and to receive everything he deserved on a silver platter.
The Hyde part of him, however, roared that this meant that Sam would be still be around, still fastened to him with an iron chain, and he wouldn't leave him for someone- anyone- else, or suddenly remember how free life could be without Brandon's shadow writhing around his feet like a pit of vipers, reeking of cuddles milk. That was selfish, of course it was: Sam barely left his house even before all of this, but even that was nothing compared to now.
Nine... ten... days of being trapped. And each one had felt so much longer... seconds dragging out into minutes, each minute gouging a bloody mark into his sanity as it clawed into hours.
Each moment was a battle with himself- another war against the insanity and tar that coated his arteries and toiled inside his veins. Sometimes is was worse than being strapped to a roller-coaster. He was forced to remind himself what he could and couldn't do- forced to rebuild the crumbling wall that separated the black from the white, the light from the dark, the good from the bad.
Each breath was nothing but a tease to rob someone of theirs. Each heart beat was just another instant where he was trapped. Caged, unable to do what he wanted to do. What he needed to do.
When Sam had first came in, to examine his most recent war-wounds and to stem the bleeding from his missing tooth, Brandon had thrown him aside, lunging towards Cat with a hungry roar before being thrown back again, a strong arm around his waist. He'd been like a wild dog- even when you pull them off their competitor, they still didn't, yapping and barking and whining even minutes later like should children. He'd let Sam drag him back, his limbs lose and unresponsive, as she could against the furthest wall from him. "It's okay, sweetheart," he'd crooned. "I get it. You're Sammy's new toy, but you don't need to worry, because I'm a toy too."
After she'd left, he'd promised Sam that he'd try to get better. Somehow. He had no idea how he could possibly do such a thing- to find every little piece of himself and patch them all back together again- but Sam's smile had almost been worth it. He'd even felt a flicker of hope for a precious fraction of an instant.
Not that he'd actually been trying now. He was floating in the current, not fighting it but not drifting with it either; he was wound up in strings of his own insanity, letting them twist tighter around his limbs like pythons, letting himself hang in a permanent state of bizarre dispensed animation, feeling the world trickle past like steam water through his fingers as he observed impassively through a fourth-floor double-glazed window.
Sam was still talking to him, and he jerked his head up, pulling up the pretence that he'd been paying attention the entire time. "...you're not trying," he was saying. "You said you'd try to get better, to get rid of... well, whatever this is, but you're not. You're just existing, clinging to each day as it comes, white-knuckling your way through each minute. You're not even eating. If you're going to be like this, then what's even the point of you staying alive?" The instant the words were out of his mouth, Sam winced sharply. "Sorry. I didn't mean for it to sound like that. But you know what I mean, right?"
Brandon nodded vaguely. Push push push. That was what Sam was doing now: You should drink something, Brandon. You should shower, Brandon. You should eat something, Brandon. He understood why he was doing it, but that didn’t mean he liked it one bit- he didn’t understand what it was like, he couldn’t see the world the way he did. Push push push. Do this, do that. You’ll feel better soon.
But people weren’t like toys- you couldn’t simply just stick them back together again after everything; pieces were always lost each time they were dropped, fragments scattering like dust as carried away like feathers in the wind, turning to ash and dirt beneath countless crushing feet.
Of course, he had promised he’d try.
So each morning Brandon left the room at precisely nine fifty-three, marching into the kitchen and pushed two slices of bread into the toaster. He’d spend the following two minutes glaring at a suspicious mark on the wall as the toaster hummed absent-mindedly and Sam sipped at his coffee, his laptop open on the counter in front of him. Apart from the muzak of a city waking up- clawing its eyes open with a laundry list of jobs and chores- the kitchen was relatively silent, the only noise the discordant grating of butter being scraped onto dry bread before Brandon trooped back into the room closing the door with a depressing finality, and Sam knew that he wouldn’t see him again for another nine and a half hours.
At exactly twelve fifteen, Brandon placed his plate delicately on the right hand side of the dish-washer, with his glass positioned on the left of it, approximately three centimetres away from the rim of the plate and fifteen centimetres from the edge of the counter. At twelve thirty, Brandon would clamber into the shower, letting the scalding water tumble over his shoulders, pummelling his back and neck in a way that was half-painful, half-relaxing. He’d breathe in the steam, letting it cloud his thoughts for just a few moments of blissful emptiness. He always turned the water temperature up too high, and when he finally did climb out, his skin would be sore and blushed red.
Back before all of this, he was a pretty go-lucky kinda guy. He’d get up when he felt like it; eat when he wanted to… Sam had been the meticulous one out of the pair of them, the one organising the time and place where they’d meet up, scribbling out dates and lectures days before he even needed to think about them. He didn’t know why he didn’t it- maybe it was an illusion of power, a semblance of control over something in his life, even it wasn’t himself.
He’d sit in the room- it wasn’t his room, it never would be- smelling of Sam’s shampoo and Sam’s soap and swamped in Sam’s oldest, comfiest clothes for the remainder of the afternoon and evening, until Sam would knock tentatively on the door before opening it. He’d peer around the room that had once been his, noticing how everything was still exactly how he’d left it the day before, before casually stating that he’d cooked dinner: either rice and chicken or pasta and tuna- plain and dry and utterly unappetising. Just the way he liked it, or at least, the one way he could stomach. No dressing, just a clear glass of water to drink, and then around and around and around we go!
It was like he was trapped on a broken record- running as fast as he physically could in one direction, his lungs screaming and his limbs broken machines held together by wearied skin and bone as the world threw him back a step with every breath. It was never-ending existence.
He was getting better at ignoring the other half of himself, too, as long as no one did anything to provoke it, like reach out to touch him or to ask him to do something he knew he couldn’t possibly do.
Like talking about what had actually happened, for example.
The first time Sam had brought it up had been at dinner. They’d been facing each other across the counter, Sam having cleared his plate whilst Brandon fidgeted, poking at his meal with his fork, a suspicious frown crumpling his face like used newspaper. He’d grown more and more haggard with each day- weary lines gouged deep into his forehead like claws marks, shadows collecting and writhing beneath his eyes, a splintered pattern of tiny red veins dancing around his pale irises like a snakes closing in on a kill.
Every day was the same. It was almost as if Brandon believed that he could keep himself under control by controlling the rest of his life- crushing himself beneath his own strict regime. Maybe it was working, maybe it wasn’t. It’d been over a month and they were taking stumbling, tottering baby steps- dragging each other further forward, a glimmer of light or hope pushing them another centimetre, another metre forward, struggling, straining to continue moving. But then something would always go wrong, something would always snap. One morning it’d been almost great- Brandon had changed the topping on his toast and taken a mouthful of coffee before asking how Sam had slept, and he couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Maybe Brandon was finally better, maybe he really was going to improve, but he’d been foolish. Stupid. Impulsive.
He’d reached out to grasp Brandon’s shoulder- he hadn’t been completely sure what he was doing himself, maybe it’d been to congratulate him, to hug him, or just to feel some semblance of life beneath his palm- but Brandon had screamed, full on SCREAMED, before collapsing in on himself, his eyes wide and his heart thundering against his chest. Sam had barely been able to withstand the wide-eyed terror that made him want to cry.
Brandon had locked himself in the room and hadn’t come out until two days later, despite the countless times Sam had called his name. He’d known not to push him, but Brandon had just looked so happy. He was his friend. He wanted to help.
God- forget the whole one step forward and two steps back. This was one step forward before being hurled backwards off of a cliff, arms pin wheeling in a desperate attempt to cling onto life before plummeting down and down…
When Sam suggested that Brandon talked about what had happened to him- or, of course, who had done it- Brandon’s eyes had narrowed to slits, his breathing torn and ragged and heavy, his chest heaving as the burning glare struck Sam and stayed there, like a sniper’s laser. It had taken him a moment to calm down again, dragged down lungfuls of oxygen in starving gulps, before standing slowly and staggering away, fists clenched into tight balls and hanging, tense and heavy, by his sides. Sam had assumed this was a definite ‘no’.
Brandon had used up the hot water- spending hours in the shower as Sam sat at the counter, pretending that the one earphone he’d plugged into his ear was managed to distract him from the noise of muffled yells. Every scream made him jump, every thump had him almost bolting out of his seat, ready to run in and drag Brandon away from the gaping jaws of his own insanity.
He wished for the old days, for the times Back Then, when the most help Brandon needed was a comforting word and a lift back to his university dorms. Oh, those good times, when he was going to be a surgeon and he could call Brandon whenever he had a nightmare, waking up screaming, drenched in his own sweat and convinced that it was blood instead.
Brandon still hadn’t left the bathroom by six o’clock, the walls in Sam’s apartment humming discontently as cold water rushed through the pipes into the bathroom- the hot water long since been used up. Sam expected Brandon to go back to bed once he did eventually turn off the water- climbing beneath the thick duvet like a child after a nightmare- so he did as he always did, pulling his spare blanket over the sofa and starting a movie on his laptop.
It was the one part of the day that he kept to himself: a few peaceful hours when he could lose himself in the adventures and torments of others, sinking into the sofa and just letting white noise wash over him in a relieving wave. Tonight was Kick Ass. He hadn’t watched it for a while, so he sat up against the back rest with a pillow behind his head, pressed play and wished he had a bag of popcorn.
“In the world I lived in, heroes only existed in comic books.” Dave Lizewski explained as the door behind Sam creaked open, the hinges groaning sleepily. “And I guess that'd be okay, if bad guys were make-believe too, but they're not.”
Brandon didn’t say a word as he made his way over to Sam and Sam didn’t say anything either. What was he doing? What did he need? He felt like Brandon’s parent- always watching, always worrying, always waiting for something bad to happen so he could scoop them up and dust them off and promise them that they’d feel better soon. But instead he sat down next to Sam, his head resting on his shoulder, and fixed his gaze on the screen, almost as if he was afraid that something would happen if he looked anywhere else.
Brandon was desperately trying to force himself to breathe normally. He’d expected the fight-or-flight response to fire through his veins, just as it always did whenever someone touched him, but he wasn’t expecting it to be so strong. If he didn’t stay calm then he’d burst into tears and totally ruin this moment.
It took at least half of the film for him to relax; he’d tried to focus on the film- it was one of his favourites, after all- but Sam was still next to him, altogether too close, and Brandon could still smell his aftershave. That reminded him that he hadn’t shaven once since Sam had placed him under house-arrest. He was probably afraid that he would use it to try and kill both of them, somehow.
“If it wasn’t for you,” Kick Ass said gratefully, “I’d be dead.”
Hit Girl fixed him with a cold look. “And if it wasn’t for you… my daddy wouldn’t be.”
He dragged in a deep breath. “I don’t remember what his name was… is.” Sam tensed next to him, suddenly stock-still, immovable. Brandon didn’t dare move either, terrified that if he did, if he dared to look away from the laptop screen and meet Sam’s eyes then the spell would shatter and the fragments would scatters, pieces so small and sharp that he’d never find them again, would never be able to say what he so desperately needed to say. “It’s kinda hard to remember what exactly happened… but it’s like the way you’d train a dog, ya know? You made them do something good and then gave them a shitload of praise for it, or you yelled at them or smacked them if they did something bad.”
“That’s kinda what it was. I was just trapped in the dark for so long… there was no-one there, nothing to do… I thought I’d go insane. And then they- he- just started pulling me apart, made me hurt people and then he made me enjoy it. And then he threw me back into the dark again until he pulled me out the next day and repeated the whole damn process again and again and again.”
Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
“It was terrifying, because… well, I was just a toy by the end of it. I was nothing but an experiment, to see if he really could play God… if he could make people the way he wanted them to be. He called himself an angel. He said that he and the angel were one, and they were going to make the world better again. And he had so many followers, so many people who wanted to believe in what he promised, but there was this smaller group… his precious eleven. And I was the twelfth. The Twelve Disciples, right? And then there was this priest guy. He said… he said that everything that the angel was saying was wrong… that it was poison and he was going to do something about it… and the angel… he said that this was my… my chance, right? To do God’s work.”
Deep breath. Huh, he was shaking. No, scrap that, he was vibrating- every molecule of his body trembling. He was like a mobile phone… ring ring ring… needed attention… like a child… vibrating… channelling the Beach Boys... I’m picking up good vibrations… she’s giving me excitations… good good good good vibrations… oom bop bop.
Deep breath. Calm down. He was fine. He was going to be just fine.
"So it's like... I can't go to the police, right? Because I hurt people and I don't remember how many. I don't remember how much."
He was still talking, words spitting out of his mouth like grease from a frying pan- burning, scalding, unpleasant, unwanted- but he couldn’t stop them. Hell, did he really want to stop them?
“And the worst part is that… that I can still hear his voice in my head. And I. Can’t. Get. It. To. Stop.”
Even now, he could hear it: Let’s play, Brandon Hope… We can rule this world, Brandon Hope… You and me… we shall save it… This is our mission, Brandon Hope… Don’t pretend that you don’t enjoy this… Hurt them, Brandon Hope… Hurt them all…
“And it’s terrifying… but I still like it… It makes me want to throw up and my skin crawls… but I wonder if that’s a bad thing? Crap, is it a good thing? Do I like it? Do I hate it? It’s always the same damn voice in my head… And it hurts… not a good hurt, like other times… maybe it is, maybe I enjoy it and I haven’t realised it…”
Brandon stopped abruptly, words wrapped up in spider’s silk in his throat. That’s enough for tonight, Brandon Hope. Sam was watching him, eyes wide and cautious, as if he’d finally realised how messed-up Brandon really was. Maybe this was the final nail in his coffin, and Sam was going to abandon all hope, to throw him out of his apartment and leave him to die in the streets like a stray dog.
It was only then that Brandon realised that he really didn’t want that. He wanted to live. He wanted to be better. He didn’t want this hollow existence. He didn’t want to remain as this… a shadow of himself, a ghost of what he had been.
Sam was close to him, so close that he could feel his breath against his neck. The sound cut off with a sharp bullet-crack as Sam paused the film at the most exciting of moments- Big Daddy was on fire and Hit Girl was first-person shooting again and committing mass genocide. “Listen,” he whispered and Brandon felt his heart flutter. He wasn’t meant to talk- just listen to him. “I’m going to help you. I will help you. I promise.”
And then he twisted around and pressed the spacebar as Mindy McCready turned to the camera, her small frame burning with anger and hatred. “Show’s over,” she snarled, and there was a gunshot and the screen shattered into black.