“Do you know how many times I’ve died?” A long drag on the cigarette can’t mask the trembling of his hand, nor the acrid smoke disguise the sneer twisting his mouth. “How many times I’ve been torn to pieces? Beaten? Burned? Raped?” He draws again on the cigarette. The embers spark a brief light in his eyes but fail to warm his frozen gaze. “I can’t remember which moments are real and which are nightmares or hallucinations; everything’s muddled by fever and fear. Maybe some of those delusions are even sick fantasies. Maybe after thirty years of madness not only have I lost my memory, but I’ve lost the ability to discern between desire and revulsion as well.” He laughs as if amused by the notion of his own corruption. “I guess suffering makes masochists of us all, huh?”

There’s no comfort I can offer that he would accept. What must it be like not to be able to trust your own memories? To question every experience and sensation because you have no anchor to keep you steady, no grip on reality? It’s little wonder he believes himself a psychopath. All he’s ever known is the sickness, the fever nightmares, the drift between unconsciousness and waking hell. No man could suffer such torture with his sanity completely intact.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up and find you’re just a delusion like all the rest,” The cigarette burns forgotten in his hand as he stares into some future I can’t share. “I think I’ll open my eyes one morning and be back in that shit hole apartment, laying in a pool of my own bloody vomit. You’ll have been nothing but a fever dream; nothing but a desperate fabrication of my damaged mind. Wouldn’t that be ironic? The one time I actually want the lie to be the truth?” His gaze slides over, holds mine, and the disassociation in his eyes sends a crawl of unease up my spine. A part of him believes this hypothesis. He holds me forever at arm’s length so when I do finally disappear, it won’t hurt. He doesn’t expect me to stay. Even when he’s staring straight at me he doesn’t really believe I’m here. I’m just another insubstantial phantom in a lifetime of terror and loss.

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