Truth

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

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I read something once that asked me to imagine a world where every lie we told left behind a scar on our bodies. Small lies would leave small marks. Big lies would cut deep, disfiguring wounds, and the more the lie is told the more the wound is re-opened. It tears the skin anew, growing larger and cutting deeper every time. I think that's a terrifying notion. Not that I lie often. Certainly no more than anyone else, I guess. But there is one lie I do tell over and over again.

I died. Not for long, but still. I think it took them less than a minute to start my heart again. Dead then alive. Just like that. Less time than it takes to recall a favourite song or look back on a beloved daydream. It’s hard to even comprehend, isn’t it? I remember so clearly the moment they told me I had been dead, that they had brought me back. It was the longest, most surreal moment of my life. I was too aware of everything. The lights were too bright, my heart pounded too violently against my ribs and the ticking of the clock… that ticking. So loud, so incessant like it was clawing its way inside me somehow, scratching away at my brain bit by bit by bit. That never ending moment, stretched and warped, turning everything I thought I knew into something other, something frightening. I was shocked, relieved, lost, scared, and so many other things my body felt too small to contain it all. Tears dropped unbidden from my eyes and I didn't even really know why. Then the nurse said the words that changed everything.

‘What did you see?’

I stared back, uncomprehending at first. What did I see? The ticking of the clock grated against the silence. What did I see?

Their expectant faces loomed over me, waiting with a curiosity that bordered on desperation. How could I tell them the truth? How could I let them live their lives knowing that at the end of it all nothing would be waiting for them? Nothing. That they would fall into the abyss and be swallowed by it. I didn't know the answer I would give but my lips began moving beyond my control.

I told them I felt warm and loved, that I saw a light. Every sickly cliché my fractured mind could claw hold of. I would have laughed at how pathetic it was if I hadn’t been sure that that laugh would become hysteria all too quickly. So I lied. It tasted like ashes on my tongue but they lapped it up with eager ignorance.

It was only later, when I had the time to attempt to untangle my thoughts that I wondered whether other people who had briefly died did the same thing. All those stories of the light, the pull, the connection to something larger. That feeling of peace and knowing that you’re loved and safe. Had anyone ever really felt that? And if they had, was it just the product of frantically firing neurons or a dying brain? Or had they, like me, glimpsed the void and known that to tell anyone was to damn them. The awareness of our own mortality sets us apart from the animals, sure, but our belief in something more, a point, a reward, anything. That's what drives us.

So I told the lie. Again and again to every well-wisher, every nosy visitor with their desperately hopeful faces that stared intently in to my own. They wanted the lie, maybe even needed it, each and every one of them. So I hid the truth, imprisoned it within the dark recesses of my mind. I let it curse and scream and throw itself against the bars of its cage but I never let it have even a taste of freedom. All the while a new need grew inside me. An idea that laid down its roots and crept and slithered its way through my mind and body like a weed, until it consumed me. I had to find others like me. I had to know what they'd seen, what they'd felt. The lie fell from my tongue so often I was half convinced that maybe there was some truth to it. I wanted to believe it. I was no better than the rest of them, wanting so badly to cling to something, anything. But the truth was always there. Lurking. I had to know what the others saw. I just had to.

Finding them was easier than you might suppose; support groups, chat rooms, churches. A lot of them were to be found in churches. I don’t know if the irony of that was lost on them. All sorts of people and they all had their own way of telling the story. Some of them were animated, others quiet, some confident and others full of trepidation. No matter how the story was told, eventually one thing became clear: It was just a story.

Perhaps one in a hundred believed they'd actually glimpsed some kind of afterlife and even some of them had the glazed look of men who believed what they must because the alternative would break them. The rest lived the lie, same as me. You learn to spot it in people after a while. It's something in the shadows of their eyes and the determined lines that etch their faces. They see it in me too. We share haunted looks when we pass one another in the streets, silently acknowledging the burden we know all too well. All of us dreading the question that comes back to plague us time and again.

“What did you see”?

What would we do if the lie showed on us? If it left us as scarred as we feel, how would any of us cope?

“What did you see”?

The knowledge of that nothingness would haunt anyone who knew the truth. That terrible, oppressive nothingness.

“What did you see”?

The prisoner snarls like a feral beast, rabid with the want to break free.

“What did you see”?

Do you really want to know?