The Man with the Lined Face
Martin Hooijmans | Lars de Ruyter
“No, Lisa, not again, not again!”
Karen woke up for the fifth time tonight. Lisa was the fifth name she’d heard. The others had been Paul, John, Mia and June, probably amongst countless others that she’d been lucky to sleep through tonight. In fact, she considered this a lucky night. Sometimes she would wake up around thirty times. Sometimes she would not sleep at all.
She turned to face her husband, John, who was now reliving some memory of a drowning girl named Katy. It broke her heart to see him like that, forced to go through a seemingly endless stream of pain and suffering. Every morning he woke up as tired as when he went to sleep. The first thing he then did was grab Karen and hold her tight, terrified to go back to sleep, terrified that he had woken up in another nightmare. She would comfort him as long as it took for him to retrieve his grasp on reality. It always came back, no question, but over the years this morning ceremony had increased to ridiculous lengths. It didn’t matter to Karen. She knew what her John had done for her. Had done for so many people. She loved him for it, and he needed that. John could not love himself anymore.
A car passed outside and momentarily lit up the bedroom, exposing John’s face. It showed wrinkles upon wrinkles, deep grooves that made his face look like he was ninety-nine going on one hundred. In reality the man lying next to Karen was thirty-eight. He was young. The rest of his body was as well. Only his face looked as if all the worries in the world had decided to meet up in his head, which was not necessarily untrue.
John was what he himself referred to as a ‘Bearer’. He was one as his father had been before him, and his father’s father before that. He had first started when he had been dating Karen, who at the time had been haunted by a terrible dream that ate her up emotionally. Her little sister had been the victim in a fatal car accident some years before, and Karen had been witness to the entire thing. It had damaged her, and she felt that the hurt was rooted so deeply that no one would be able to help her. Then John had come along. She had fallen for his kind eyes, which were a shade of hazel brown that seemed to be made out of comfort itself. John had loved her unconditionally. He had listened with patience and understanding. He had held her for hours on end, whispering little sweet words into her ear, kissing the tears from her cheeks. John had eased the pain, but the dreams had stayed. When she had told him about that, he had asked her to simply close her eyes and go to sleep. When she had woken up the next day, a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She had felt reborn, thanks to John. Something had changed in his appearance though. Worry had shown in his eyes, and a deep wrinkle had formed on his forehead. It had been a few years and many more wrinkles later that Karen had woken up at night, hearing John scream her sister’s name. She had understood, then, that John did not simply make bad dreams go away. He absorbed them, made them his own, and by doing so was forced to relive every single one of them, every single night. And it scarred his face with wrinkles, one for each worry he eased.
There had been arguments, many of them. All of them were one-way. Karen could not understand why John had to be the one to bear all these burdens. It was beyond her comprehension that he sacrificed his own sanity like that. John had listened to her accusations, never entering into the discussion himself, until one day he had invited her for a walk. He’d taken her to a number of people he had helped who lived in the neighborhood. He had shown her the joy in life that these people had rediscovered, thanks to this ability that he somehow had been granted. This gift. And who was he to have this ability, but not use it to relieve hundreds, maybe even thousands of people of unbearable grief, only because he wanted to be happy himself? It was a sacrifice he was willing to make. After the last visit, John had taken Karen’s hands in his. He had said that as long as he had her, he would be able to carry the burden of the world. He had told her that happiness is a much stronger emotion than grief, and that the happiness she gave him was worth more than anything his gift had taken from him. Then he had asked for her hand in marriage.
Karen loved him so much. Her love had grown every passing day. It still did. And it would until her dying day, she was sure. She did not care about the restless nights. She did not care about her husband’s lined face. To her, John was perfect.
She put her arms around him and pulled him close, whispering sweet little words in his ears and kissing the tears from his cheeks.