The Hermit
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The Hermit

Portrait by syuzhetsyuzhet

To exist is to be observed, and to be observed is to interact.

Perhaps we and the quanta have more in common than we think.


The first modicum of feeling is the way the sheets stick to your back as you feebly attempt to roll over. And then the pain hits — something so crushing, so all-encompassing, it overrides even your vision. Your eyes are functional but useless as the rising flames of screaming neurons rip and tear your mind apart.

Focus on the breathing. Focus on the breathing.

In and out and in and out and in and out and in again.

There is no mental bandwidth left to take stock of your situation, or what lead you to your current resting place. There is only enough strength of will left in your mind to focus on keeping your body still and your breathing consistent. Breathing. Even the thought of breathing in your shattered state is enough to push you teetering on the breaking point. You continue, though, because some nagging feeling in the back of your mind keeps you grounded.

You don't know how long it's been. Mere moments, hours, days? It doesn't matter. Holding your body still keeps the pain at bay for the most part. You can hear the steady beep of a morphine IV drip. Maybe that's why you feel better. Your chest rises and falls. It's natural to you once more , and you no longer have to force it so much.

It's still dark.

You didn't realize your eyes were closed. The thought hangs in your mind a moment, before being dispelled just as quickly as you finally open them. The first thing to reach your retinas is the cold-white glow of a bright fluorescent lamp, mercury-bright radiance harsh against your acclimating eyes. The rest of the room is equally hostile, with sterile white walls, a black-tiled sink against the corner, and an overall lack of anything not blindingly bright.

You are facing left. You can hardly make sense of it, but eventually determine your position based on which side of your body hurts the most. Your left shoulder emanates a dull scream, but your right is relatively okay. Thus, you assume you're facing left.

Your skin burns as you shift your body to lying flat on your back. You feel a disgusting sticking, as the skin of your left shoulder peels along where it once connected with the sheets of your hospital bed . You decide, even though the pain is lessened, that moving is not in your best interest.

The right side of the room comes into focus. Or, rather, it becomes apparent that the lack of focus is not entirely the failure of your own eyes. You can make out what appears to be attendants speaking with a man in a white coat, though their voices are muffled and their forms distorted — as if they are being viewed underwater. Between you and the doctors, a translucent curtain of PVC shields you from the rest of the hospital. The curtain is cloudy and yellowed with age, doubtless used in this hospital, or this room, or even this doorway for years if not decades. Through the curtain, the man who you presume to be the head doctor dismisses the rest of his staff and stands at the entrance to your room.

Patient Report: █. █████
Date: 10/14/84
Diagnosis: Acute Radiation Syndrome
█████ was admitted to ███████ ████████ at 3:43 in the morning after a radiological incident at █████████. Exposure estimates range from 22 to 42 Gray. Patient was immediately moved to a quarantined room. Clothing and other personal effects were removed and discarded. Radiation levels outside the quarantined room are now at a minimum, and it is safe for personnel to enter the room to perform medical duties.
Patient admitted with severe nausea and headache, after being recovered from the site of the incident by rescue teams.
Notable laceration on forehead indicates debris impact or other blunt force trauma. May explain seeming memory loss of the incident. Nausea and vomiting have calmed since admission, and more rapidly with medication. Deterioration of dermal cells is progressing faster than initially suspected, and ocular degeneration is observed.
Treatment consists of palliative care. Current treatments are painkiller administration and blood transfusions. Bone marrow transplants may be considered when condition improves. Current prognosis is not favorable, but efforts must be made.

As you see the blurry outline of the doctor approach your room, his voice washes over you like a warm ocean.

"It's good to see you're awake. Is the morphine drip helping?"

You can only muster a weak 'Yes.' It's all he needs.

"I'm glad to hear that. I would come in to check on your condition, but the possibility of trace particles poses too much danger to me, the staff, and the rest of the hospital. So you're going to have to stay in there until we can verify that you're clean. Do you understand?"

Only a croak comes this time. He continues.

"I'm here because I need to ask you a few questions. Can you do that for me?" This time, he doesn't wait for confirmation before continuing. "You were involved in an accident at the █████████ facility. You were exposed to a high dosage of radiation, though not necessarily fatal. I'm going to need you to tell me what happened there. It may be important for your treatment."

You wrack your brain. The doctor needs to know, after all, and you can't disappoint him. The memories jumble together in your head as you try to piece them together, but the more you think the more they seem to fall through the cracks. All you can remember is cold metal, a loud noise, a flash of blue, and then… nothing. In fact, the more you think about it, the less you can remember everything else. Your name you remember quickly , but your age is less forthcoming, and you cannot for the life of you remember the name of your elementary school.

"Can't remember? I figured as much." The doctor purses his lips together in what could be seen through the obscuring screen as a look of concern — or is that a slight smile? Before you can attempt to analyze it further, the doctor is once again gone down the hallway, discussing with the attendants in hushed voices. You figure you should get some sleep before the pain comes back.

Your sleep is restless. You cannot toss and turn like you're used to, and if you try, your skin sticks to the sheets and tears in a particularly agonizing fashion. Eventually, you are limited to holding still once more, keeping the rising nausea at bay through willpower and ignoring the mounting pressure in your head, eyes, and chest.

The room is blurry. But the moonlight, distorted and washed out, shines through the glass window leading into your hospital room. It is comforting, despite its lack of clarity.

You are not sure when you drifted to sleep. You are, however, sure when you woke up. The rushing of pain once more into your body snaps you back to consciousness, flooding your nerves with distilled fire. You look, as best you can, to your left. The morphine drip, once sustaining you, has run dry, and pain runs rampant throughout your tattered body. Your sheets, now raw and pus-filled, gripped between your fingers as your hands clench involuntarily. All at once, the true sensation of your form hits you like an incomprehensible symphony of badly tuned instruments. You can pick some notes out of the cacophony - your head throbs, your chest heaves, and your skin, as always, is burning.

If the pain had not been so severe, perhaps you would have noticed that you could no longer make out the numbers displaying the status of the morphine drip.

Patient Report: █. █████
Date: 10/15/84
Diagnosis: Acute Radiation Syndrome
Patient's condition is steadily deteriorating. Presenting symptoms corroborate hypothesized radiation dose of about 40 Gy. Treatment ineffective so far, and likely will continue to be. Vascular and ocular degeneration progressing rapidly. Neurological degeneration is expected, but has not been confirmed.
Current treatments are ineffective. Blood transfusions and morphine will continue to be administered, but vascular degeneration may make this course of action unsustainable. Current treatment will continue until otherwise stated.

The doctor visits you again today. You don’t see him coming until he is just on the other side of the sheet — did they dim the lights in this wing? You can hardly see the orderlies talking outside your room.

"How are you feeling?"

You don't answer him. You can't answer him. The only sound you can make is a tortured noise, almost a gurgle, as a reflection of the pain you are in. He seems to understand your predicament, and his voice softens.

"I'm going to come around the screen now. I'm going to adjust your morphine drip so you feel better, alright?"

You can hear the doctor move, brushing the weathered plastic screen aside. It sounds like a shower curtain, or a piece of laminated paper . You try and think back to when you had last adjusted a shower curtain, but the thoughts do not come to you.

"I see."

The morphine drip beeps a few times, in a particularly agitated manner.

The doctor's voice is darker now. You turn to your side despite the agony to look at him, only to find yourself confused once more. To your recollection, he was supposed to be behind the screen.

If that’s the case, why can I hardly see him?

"I need to handle something. I'll be back," the doctor says tersely, and quickly leaves the room. The pain still wracks your body, unabated by whatever the doctor did to the morphine drip, your one lifeline to comfort.

The doctor does not return. Through the thick haze of pain, you can barely make out that the afternoon light of his previous visit has now been replaced with choking dark. Footsteps across the hall. New ones, this time. Despite it all, your body has no choice but to rest.

You dream, surprisingly enough. You didn't expect to dream, given everything, but for a brief moment the pain is lifted, and you exist in a reality apart from your own. You dream of shower curtains and laminator machines, of receptionists and fluorescent lights, of walls and screens and buildings and the outside world. You dream of PVC, the NSA, of worlds upon worlds, all spiraling back into this hospital, this wing, this room, this bed, and you.

But then you, unfortunately, wake once more. You open your eyes tenderly, gingerly, knowing how harsh the light will be. And yet, when you open your eyes, it's still dark out. Suffocatingly dark, even. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you realize you can't see anything at all. You try to reach for something, anything, anything at all, to hold on to, you try to call for help, but your body does not move and your lips do not cry out. You thrash desperately against your body, against your mind, hoping for a respite, but there is none to be found. It's just you, your thoughts, and the incessant beeping of the machine next to you.

You try to focus on the incident that got you here in the first place. You remember clocking in. You remember the feeling of the cold metal stir-rod as you brought it to your workstation . You remember the way the walls dissolved into fractals as you stepped onto the ladder, revealing the cold and empty void all around you. But that's not real.


You remember your childhood home. Out in the country, where your grandpa taught you how to maintain a tractor, and you helped him carry feed corn to the spots where the deer would frequent. You remember the two wood-carved bears on the outskirts of the woods, standing as sentinels for entry into the place below the canopy. You remember the rusted iron bridge leading the way into town, and the pond beneath it where you caught your first ever fish. A catfish, it was, and you were mighty proud of yourself. You remember the cold blue glow emanating from the abandoned barn deep within the woods, and remember how your parents told you to never to go near. That's not right either, that was —


You remember your drives through the desert, watching the mesas pass by through the windows of your car. You remember the massive expanse of it all, just red rock, sagebrush, and a sky so big you thought you'd never see anything again like it again. You remember the feeling of overwhelming pain as you doubled over in agony outside a gas station, your eyes melting out of their sockets and dribbling into the dry dust below your feet.


You remember your first date, at a drive-in theatre. You remember how nervous you were, but how you became more confident as things went on. You remember the movie being mediocre, but you enjoyed it anyways because it was with him. You remember how your skin started to flake and peel as you held his hand, the beautiful agony of it making its way up your arm as you watched on.


You remember the blue light, beautiful, enchanting, and horrifying all at once.


You remember -


You recall-




You recall nothing. You remember nothing. You float in an inky void, beset on all sides by a strange numbness. Even the beeping has faded out into the void, and you are truly alone here. You don't know how long you've been here. It could be days, weeks, years, centuries. It would all be the same to you. No patient reports, no check-ins, no doctor, and no orderlies. You rest. You don't know for how long.

Eventually, you open your eyes once more. Light floods in, searing your retinas. The last thing you see before your brain shuts down for good is a polyvinyl chlorate screen with nothing beyond it.

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