December 5, 2020

Khotay

(c) J. Singh, 2016

It wasn't the sort of the birthday gift that Nick had expected, or even could have
imagined. It was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him. On his birthday, he received an uncanny ability. He first noticed it while patiently standing in the checkout line at the grocery store. He was holding the single item that he had come to purchase -- a bottle of Merlot -- in his right hand and was waiting patiently, listening to the sounds of casual conversation around him and the beep-beep-beep of the price scanner up front. He saw that there were about four people ahead of him in the line. Getting bored, he dug into his jeans pocket for his phone. But before he could reach it, another phone rang.

It belonged to the woman standing in front of him. She quickly slipped her hand into her purse and answered it. She made a few brief remarks and then hung up. It caught Nick's attention. He looked at her more carefully. She was wearing pencil high heels, skin-tight leggings, and a loose, gold-colored top. Stylish bracelets, a gold-colored necklace to match her outfit, designer sunglasses, lipstick and makeup and had long, wavy, blonde hair.

He was surprised and a bit taken aback when he looked at her face. It seemed like she had blotchy skin, which she had attempted hide unsuccessfully with a poor job of makeup. Her cheeks looked like they were hollowed out, giving her a dark, deathly look. Dark patches under her eyes, and a shriveled, emaciated look made her appear ghastly.

Nick shrank back. Who was this frightful woman standing in front of him, and how
come the children hadn't run screaming out of the store yet? He looked around, wondering how no one else had noticed the ghoulish looking creature standing before him. Trying to appear nonchalant, he walked over to the other, longer line. He wanted to get as far away from her as possible.

The image of the woman in the grocery store haunted Nick for many days after that. He tried to distract himself by putting his mind on other things, but that frightening image always seemed to return to haunt his thoughts. He had been quite disturbed by it. He didn't tell anyone about his experience, fearing that they may proclaim he was crazy. But he did eventually decide to visit a doctor to ask his professional medical opinion. Perhaps, thought Nick, he was just hallucinating.

He was walking into the hospital through the sliding double-doors when it happened again. A doctor in a white coat was walking out of the hospital, and he passed Nick on his way. He was tall and had black hair. But when Nick glanced at his face, he saw a deathly, lifeless caricature. The skin seemed to be turning blue from lack of blood, the cold black eyes carried a chilling emptiness, and the cheeks were sunken, revealing the contours of the bones. He looked like a walking corpse.

Nick stared at the doctor as he walked away. Inside him, feelings of fright and panic began to rise. Why was he seeing such things? He quickened his pace and headed  straight towards the elevator doors. He desperately hoped his doctor would have an answer for him.

Seated in his doctors office, Nick felt a measure of calm. He explained the situation
while his doctor listened calmly and patiently. It was reassuring that his doctor hadn't pronounced him crazy yet. But the doctor didn't have any definitive diagnosis either. He asked Nick several questions, and then advised him to notice whether these episodes happened again, and to keep track of them. He also provided a referral to a psychotherapist.

Nick walked out of the hospital with the referral slip in hand, feeling no better than
before.

Feeling overwhelmed, Nick decided to avoid social contact for a while. Once he returned home from work, he stayed home and didn't venture out for the rest of the day. He played video games on his PlayStation, watched movies, read, and interacted with his friends on social media. He ordered groceries and food online and had it delivered to his front door. Many days he had pizza and burgers for dinner. He found that he could be quite happy just staying indoors. He didn't need to venture out if he didn't absolutely need to.

Nick began wearing sunglasses everywhere he went. He would avoid looking at people out of fear that he might catch a glimpse of one of those horrific images again. At work, he avoided as many meetings as he could, instead preferring to dial in from his desk. He spent most of his time hunched over his desk in his cubicle, working on his laptop. His productivity actually increased, since he was no longer attending the regular breaks around the water cooler to discuss events and news with his co-workers.

But he couldn't keep up this way of life for long. The gnawing fear in the back of his mind was still there. He didn't know exactly what he had seen, or why. He kept wondering what it was. Were they ghosts? Was he hallucinating? Or was he perhaps just going mad? He thought of calling the psychotherapist, but he was also worried that it would prove just as useless as his visit to the doctor.

And then, he had an idea. It had been several years since he had gone to Church, but he thought of speaking with the pastor. Perhaps he might get some answers there. He decided to go on Sunday, so that he could attend the service and then meet with the pastor afterward.

So Nick found himself seated in a pew in the back row on a bright Sunday morning, while the pastor delivered his sermon to the congregation that had assembled.

Nick felt somewhat relieved. The pastor appeared to be confident and calm. It was a reassuring feeling. Nick believed that the pastor would be able to help him. He took a deep breath and allowed himself to relax. The tightness in his shoulders and neck muscles finally began to dissipate. He closed his eyes for a moment, but when he opened them again, all his panic and fear came rushing back in a tidal wave of surging emotion.

The pastor didn't look at all human. He seemed more like a corpse that had been
decaying for years, the flesh rotting away, the bones and sinew and muscle all
horrifically exposed, open and empty eye sockets.

Nick wanted to scream but no sound came out of his mouth. He scrambled to his feet, unable to breathe. Gasping desperately, he stumbled out of the Church into the sunlight and fresh morning air. What is happening to me? he thought. He kept his eyes on the ground and didn't look at anyone as he made his way back home.

As time passed, Nick's ability grew. The gruesome visions happened more frequently, and with more people. Nick eventually grew accustomed to the terrifying imagery. While it still disturbed him, he stopped panicking. He gained a sense of acceptance and even began to have some curiosity about it. To a large degree, he had learned to ignore it. The only problem was that, it kept growing so that now it encompassed almost everyone he saw. It had become more than a little unsettling, but it was a daily part of his life now.

Standing in line at Starbucks, behind a well-dressed businessman who as it happened was the CEO of a major corporation, he saw a twisted, grotesque monster. Walking through the mall, he saw a woman selling cosmetics that had a look more suited to the green skinned wicked witch of children's fairy tales. Everywhere he turned, he saw these images.

Nick shuddered as he walked briskly back to his car. He wondered whether he had gone completely mad or whether there was some sort of explanation to this strange
phenomenon.

And then he said his first real prayer.

"God, if you're there, please help me. I don't know what to do, and I'm scared."

He was just opening the door to his car to get in when someone caught his eye, standing a few feet away and just getting out of their vehicle. This person was different than everyone else he had seen. She looked perfectly normal and had a natural smile. But there was something else about her. She seemed to be shining. There seemed to be a light coming from inside her. It lit up her entire body, and she was shining with this steady glow, like the rays of the sun but only brighter. It seemed like she was bursting with light from inside.

Nick stared at her. This was unlike anything he had ever seen, especially considering his recent experiences. He quickly ran over as she began walking to the main street.

"Excuse me," he said, calling out to her. She stopped to look at him, and then nodded as if she already knew him.

"May I ask you something?"

She tilted her head and listened.

"Something strange has been happening to me," he began, and then it all came tumbling out, "I've been seeing things. People. I mean, I've been seeing strange people, people are looking different, like, not normal. I'm very scared, I don't know why this is happening. And you, you seem to have this light or glow or something, it's coming outside of you. Am I going mad?"

She smiled in a way that reassured Nick.

"No," she replied in a calm and reassuring voice, "You are not going mad. Quite the
opposite, actually."

"What's happening to me?" he asked in desperation. "What is this curse?"

"What you call a curse," she replied, "others call a blessing. You have been gifted with the sight to see."

"But all I see are horrible things! I see people who look like they are decaying! It's
terrifying! I can't sleep!"

"You are seeing the real person, not the illusion."

"What do you mean?"

"Come with me, and I will explain."

Nick walked with her across the street to the small temple. They removed their shoes and went inside. There, seated in the quiet, surrounded by meditative imagery and sculpture, she explained to Nick what he had been seeing.

"Every time we commit and act, whether it is for good or evil, we are expending our life energy into that act. If it is something altruistic, something noble, something for the betterment of our fellow man, then the Great Spirit uses the energy that we have expended and returns it to us multiple-fold. It is a virtuous circle. And we get stronger, and our nobility increases. We are honored and blessed. And thus, our soul is beautified."

Nick nodded, listening intently.

"But when we expend our energy in a negative aspect, when we cheat or lie or steal, or hurt others, or take from others, then we are doing something that disperses our energy into the void. We are not building anything, we are squandering our vital essence and casting it to the winds. The energy is lost and because it is dedicated to an evil cause, it drains more from us with it, and it is not replenished. Continued acts in that domain cause us to lose our virtue. We are stained, dishonored, and are marked by our lowly and shameful acts. We carry these with us. Our soul bears those black marks, and we are made ugly by them."

She leaned forward. "You have obtained the gift of sight. You do not see the outer shell, which can be masked and covered over by paint and makeup. You see the soul, and in that, you see all the blemishes and marks that are a result of peoples actions."

"You mean," Nick was astonished, "I've been seeing the result of people's sins?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"But, I don't want to see this. What am I supposed to do with it, anyway?"

"The Great Spirit endows us with gifts. We are not the ones to judge why or why not."

"But, you, you are not like the others. You are shining with light! So much light! Why is that?"

"I am cleansed."

Nick fell into a thoughtful state. He sat for several minutes, his mind churning. Finally, he pulled out his smart phone and stared at it. He knew that if he turned on the camera, he would be able to see an image of himself. But he wasn't sure if he really wanted to see it, afraid of what frightful image might meet his eyes.

Without turning it on, he put the phone back into his pocket.

"I don't want to see," he declared, "But, can you help me?"

"What do you need?" she asked, smiling warmly.

"I want to cleanse my soul. Will you show me how?"

She rose. "Come with me," she said, and led him to the meditation hall.

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