I sniffed her ass. She had meatballs with a little parsley in them, boiled and not fried. But more important it was that sour smell, a sour smell that would change, that would ripen. She was almost in heat.
I asked her for her name and she peed on the rock for me. Didn't want to talk. I took a deep breath, letting the complexity of her odors coalesce.
Alexis.. what a beautiful name. I sniffed at her ass again. Careful. She's high-born. you could see that easily and she considered herself superior. From a good home and all that...
A sniff is an art. You want to come close, you ache to come close, to smell more, but if your cold, moist nose touches the skin, well.. she'll know you for the mutt you are. I sniffed and enjoyed. The aroma of the meat balls. If she shits, it will taste good.
And she did. Dropping small, dry pellets. Another urge to resist. I'm hungry, I thought, but if she saw me eating that, well... there won't be any chance.
So I sniffed her again, promising myself that I'll come back for those later.
"Alexis is a beautiful name." I said awkwardly.
"Thank you" she said her first actual words. She had the voice I Imagined her to have. Rich and demure and soothing. My heart was racing.
We walked on the newly wet grass, it had rained in the night, and I became self-conscious, worried that my coat had gotten wet. Would that put her off? She didnt seem to be. She didn't seem to care much about me.
"my name's Black Foot, because.."
"Black Foot. Yes.. I got it. "She said. It was obvious that she would not sniff me for all the pork in China. Probably for the best, I wouldnt want her to know what I had last night for dinner.
"I've never seen you this part of the park before" I said, luckily that I managed to stop myself from completely revealing that it's more than just a park for me. That this was where I lived.
"No. first time here for me."
"Want me to show you around?"
"That would be fine, Black Foot."
I started the tour, walking on the soft, wet grass. Our first stop was the notice rock. It had the odor of almost a hundred dogs, or maybe not, I'm not so good at math, everybody peed there.
General queries: "where is the best place to get a meal?" "Does anyone know if the park attendants are dangerous?"
Notices: "golden retriever, 9yrs. Looking for a partner that's fun." and so on.
She sniffed it all, showing disapproval for some, smiling at others, but didnt reply.
"How about this?" she asked.
"That notice about the symposium"
"Oh..that" I hadn't noticed it myself. 'A Symposium on canine-human relationship in the age of uncertainty.' With guest speakers and so on and so forth, the usual display of the academic types, jawing their way. I never attended the symposiums if I could help it.
But Alexis..She probably was the cerebral type..
But if I take her there, she'll meet other dogs, and I'll have to get in to those ridiculous pissing contests. Especially if it's someone like her.
but if I refuse to take her? She'll see what a dumbass I am and I wouldn't have any kind of chance.
But hey..it didn't mean I had to take the shortest route..
"well yeah, the symposium is a bit far, though, do you have time to travel? Do you have time? I mean your human .."
"Yes.. I have lots of time." she said. Slightly smiling at my confusion. She sees right through me, I thought.
"Anyway, the symposium starts later on, so we have time."
Time to get my act together, I thought.
Kites, what is the human fascination with kites? They run along the walkway, struggling to get that piece of paper in the air.
"so ridiculous " I explained "they run fast, pulling the kite. When they stop, turn around to watch the thing it falls 'cause no one is pulling it..." we stood over them, on the raised terrace. I could see her smiling a little, just a little.
Maybe just to be polite.
This is one of my best lines!
It usually works for me when I take a girl here, to see the apes in action.
We kept watching the humans goofing around with the kites; first the children would try, fail, try again and fail again, eventually tiring of it, and their parents would come , show them how it's done, and fail just as bad.
And then there were the regulars- people who come there almost every day, or at least every weekend, these are the experts, old an wizened in the ways of kite flying, they had no children to show off to.
We met Samson on the way to the orchard. The little mutt smiled at her, grinning his snub-nose of a grin.
"What have we here?"
Alexis moved slightly to the side and gave a slight sprinkling on a rock for him. a high-born would never introduce herself verbally. But I was very happy that she didn't give him much of her pee to smell, really just a few drops.
Was she saving it for better acquaintances?
But then again, Samson was fixed. His humans had gotten tired of paying the vet every time he got into a fight over a female and had him snipped. If they had done it sooner, at least he wouldnt have lost an eye and most of his tail. There was a patchwork of scars on his stomach and back, monuments to the stitches and the fights he had probably lost. Samson was tough, but not very big.
"How you doing Samson?" I called out to him, denying him the courtesy of replying Alexis in kind, and not giving him an Impetus to sniff her ass. He would probably touch his whole wet nose in there and she'll bite him herself.
"Can't complain. You hear about Sweet?"
"No, what happened?"
"The stupid bastard ate rat poison. Again! I mean if you see a human, in a yellow overall putting a bunch of these food pellets around, I mean...no free lunches right?"
"Well, like you said, he is a stupid idiot" a concurred, momentarily forgetting that I was entertaining a lady.
"So is he dead?"
"No. but if you stayed by the pond last night, the big pond, not the small one.."
"He was there, howling all night like crazy, throwing up everywhere. I come over to him and say 'Sweet-didn't know you had so much in you!!' but I saw him this morning, going over the trash near that kiosk so I guess he's back to his usual nasty self"
"He's lucky to be alive. "
"You're kidding? They dont put enough of these pellets to kill ol' Sweet" he said, turning to Alexis "I mean, he takes a mouthful of these, says to himself 'these taste funny' and than tastes the rest just to be sure that it's rat poison. But that dog is so big and so fat that they would need to deliver the pellets in a truck"
Alexis didn't smile. She seemed bored. And the crude language that Samson used was beneath her. We said our farewells and left.
A grove, an orchard where the humans grow fruit, but not in this park, these fruit trees are not meant to produce. No lemon trees or peach or plum. Just long rows of cedars and pines, with winding cement walkways between them, shaded, and cool.
We avoided the hard cement and treaded on the rotting, damp needles. A wonderful smell of earth.
"This is my favorite part in the park" I confessed, as we walked on the slight slope of an artificial hill. "When I feel like I need to think, or just enjoy a moment of silence, I come here.
"It is very relaxing" she agreed but seemed cold. Distant, thinking to herself.
"Are you ok?" I asked.
"Yes." She said hesitantly, "why do you ask?"
I could not say anything. So I didn't answer. We kept walking.
"Tell me about your humans. Are they nice?" I asked her.
"Yes, they are a nice family. A young couple. They had one son, and two years after that, twins."
"Twins? I didn't know humans have litters. How amazing"
"It's not a litter, just the two. Very noisy. And the parents are very busy. Three young children. " she said. " but I have my own place. Near the TV... It's warm there in the winter. The man likes me a bit more than the woman but they both take care of Me." she said, and somehow I saw that this last statement was causing her some confusion.
"I have a human too"
"Really?" she said, surprised.
"Yes. I'm not like all those street dogs here. I have a human as well."
"Ok" she said.
"He comes every day, in the evening, brings me food in nylon bags. Sometimes it's sausage in tomato sauce, sometimes it's some fried chicken. "
"But you don't live at his place?"
"No. I don't. I own him, but he's free enough to go home"
"Don't you mean the other way around?" she said, smiling.
"No, I own him. He brings me food. He pets me. But I don't have to go to his home to get it. It's much better. Nobody sticks me in an apartment all day long with nothing to do but to count the floor tiles"
"Is that what you think I do ?"
"I didn't say that. I just said that this way is better for me. I enjoy all the benefits of owning a human, but none of the drawbacks."
"I see" she said. Hesitantly. "Still, it's nice to be indoors when it rains. "
"It does. But I find places where I can keep warm and dry when I need."
"So you think that my way of life is worse than yours."
"Not at all. If you like that kind of life you can have it. I mean, I've just met you today, but you strike me as an intelligent, free-spirited dog right?" I said, slipping in a compliment.
"I guess so"
"So. You obviously live the way you do because it's what you like best. And if you like something you can have it. If you don't, just change things. "
"I see.. And how about Samson? He looked a bit ragged"
"Oh. him? " I said, unhappy that she turned the discussion over to other dogs. "Well.. He lives here, but he doesn't own a human. He used to. But he got fixed, so he ran out. Doesn't like humans much. On the other hand, he's crazy about cats. Goes dancing with them whenever he can."
"Yes, I could see the scratch marks. " she answered. Smiling.
"I have another question"
"What are you required to do? I mean, you own how many, five? Six humans? What are you..eh.. Required to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you told me about your apartment and the babies. But, what are your responsibilities over there?"
"I don't know, chasing rats out, or barking at strangers, or licking their hands.."
"Licking their hands?"
"Yes. I would say that this is my only responsibility to my human, he gives me food, and I lick his fingers from the grease" this made her laugh for a moment.
"Ok, I would say that I have some responsibilities. If there's a stranger coming, it's expected that I bark. I mean they would more often than not tell me to shut up, but I know that deep in their heart they are quite pleased that I'm keeping them safe."
"Ok. What else?"
"Just keep them company. Humans need love more than anything. And if you show them love, well.. it makes their life happier."
"Your humans seem very needy. Aren't they?"
"They are. Very needy. not so much now that they have the twins, but they are still in need of me to show them affection. "
She fell silent. "But from what you say, the human that you own is just the same. He would come, bring you food, and he needs you to show him some love. Doesn't he?"She fell silent.
"He does, but maybe he's a bit more crude then the humans you own. You should hear him talk, as he pets me. I mean the words that come out of his mouth are just crazy. I think maybe he has problems. I've heard it said that even humans have psychological problems sometimes. But maybe this is because youre a high-born. I'm clearly not. Not even close, so I could only get this poor, lonely, crazy bastard"
"I see." she said. "Maybe mine are better. But of course sometimes they get angry at me. It's even funny sometimes." She said smiling, remembering something. "I mean, I usually control myself, but it is fun sometimes to get them riled up. Let them sweat a bit. You know, appreciate what they got"
"No. I wouldn't, that poor guy is the only human I ever owned. "
She said no more, now deep in thought. I let the matter go and we continued on.
We found a fire hydrant, dripping water down. Was this the law with fire hydrants, that they could not keep their water in check?
We had a slow drink. Refreshing cold water. Here was a place were birds sang, and there was a soothing noise. The sounds and that damp smell of rotting leaves, a heaviness that I always associated with death. You die and you are covered in this mass, slowly become part of if. How rich and luxurious it must be. I could smell her again. She was apprehensive about something but I could still not tell what.
A slight rise in the earth, made in crescent shape was where the symposium was to be held. All around-trees, but humans rarely walked near this place, except of course the odd child; Human children seem to have the worst possible sense of direction. They get lost even in the middle of the park, and start crying until somebody takes them to the police station, and they call for the parent on the screechy speakers, would something something come to the information booth and pick up the little runt..
We arrived just as a learned Dalmatian, slim and clearly high-born had concluded his lecture. Some grunted in respect. He walked away from the center of the stage, his tail raised in pride.
I don't know why , but I have never liked high-born males. There was always something about them. maybe too clean, I don't know. High-born females, however, like Alexis was a dream for me. I was glad we missed that twerp.
Next came an old mutt. Tall and thin, with mangy grey fur. Good. Somebody that would actually have something to say:
"Thank you Dr. Rolls for your wise words" he said, he had a sober, throaty voice. "Friends. My name is Maxwell and I'm a historian. I would like to give today a historic context to the relationship between human and canine.
Let's first identify how canines live besides humans today. I can put it very shortly indeed-not good. The truth of the matter is that it has never been worse.
Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors had chosen to own humans. Perhaps it started when we saw how useful they were in providing food for us; we were in the woods, traveling, half starved, and the reason for our starvation was the human's success. So somewhere, we made a decision; We will tolerate their demands of us in exchange for the food we needed- And it worked. We got what we wanted, and humans became more and more dependant on us. Dependant on our senses, on our instincts, on our compassion." he said, clearing his throat for a moment.
"and this dependency led to a sense in us of ownership. We aren't their partners, a partner you can take or leave.
Partnership also implies equality. And there certainly none of that. we provided safety forf them and kept them as happy as they could be, and they gave us what we needed. But it was clear who had the upper hand in this relationship. So a sense of ownership was created within us. and with ownership, naturally, comes responsibility. We feel responsibility for our property. Sometimes we even come to love them. So Things were good for us. We went with the humans wherever they wanted to go and cohabitated every spot on the plant, with us as a dominating force.
How much power did we have back then? It must have been Immeasurable. An uneducated hunter-gatherer relied on our judgment; whether something was safe or not, whether they can trust this person or that. We needed only to show dislike, or bare our teeth a little and they would get the message. That way we could steer them on a better course. And thus their dependency deepened. Even today, we see examples for this; I have talked with many police dogs who practically govern affairs for the policemen. humans have such blunted senses, much more then their ancestors, that they can't even smell the aroma of cannabis.
Now let's face it- it was for the better. We are, after all superior to them. And unlike them, we are generally benign. But things could not have stayed like this forever; Humans are individualists. They seek freedom. And they sensed their dependence on us, and loathed themselves for it.
And so they forced themselves into changing their existence, their livelihood, to one where they are less dependant on us. We call this change the agricultural revolution.
The first step was a mere emulation, or transposition of the canine-human relationship to other species. Like we controlled them They started controlling herds of cows and sheep.
And all of this, still because they couldn't stand being owned by us! But what do you know- with all that livestock, They seemed to need us even more! Because these animals were even more vulnerable , more unintelligent than the humans! They had to start worrying about wolves and lions and tigers killing their newly-domesticated animals. So instead of losing their dependence on us, they in fact grew to be more so. And we were required to facilitate their needs, of course to our benefit as well.
But As you can guess, this greater dependence was exactly what they tried to escape. And so they developed their agriculture further in hope of distancing themselves from us.
They began to sow the earth, and grow crops. This by the way was a dietary change that they were not equipped for, I mean, just look how fat they are!" he paused with this anecdote, some laughed. But it was obvious that this crowed wasn't big on humor.
"But now in the farms, they still needed us," he continued "to scare away the crows, and the foxes. To warn them from thieves. So they were still unable to break free. But the dream of freedom from dogs never died in them. At this stage this unfulfilled dream had new manifestations to antagonize us they began to have CATS, which have absolutely no actual value to them. But this antagonism was not enough to give them the freedom that they needed. So they escalated their hate. They began to have dog fights and used our name as derogatory expressions. And most Important-they began to leave their farms, moving slowly to villages and then to towns. There, the need for us , at least as guards against the wildlife is indeed reduced. But here again- they could not escape the need for us. Because their new, communal kind of existence; living in such close proximity to each other, demanded a way to settle disputes and protect humans from other humans! And we were asked again to guard homes, from thieves and murderers, even to serve in their wars.
Here new change happened; the more they settled in cities, escaping their comfortable servitude to us, the more they began to look on us with nostalgia. Their idyll of the country life isn't complete without the friendly loyal dog. And we utilized this of course to increase our sense of ownership. I mean, if you could, wouldn't you? so this love-hate relationship continued, they hate us , and they need us. for changing reasons. " he said. Pausing again, slightly out of breath.
"But now, my dear friends we come to our recent history. And things are indeed not good. Up until the last century, humans found us quite indispensible; we were efficient guards, we were a psychological crutch for them, especially in their increasingly confusing urban existence.
now , however, we find ourselves in a new era. Developments in how they build their home
have all but eliminated our role as guards, either from man or animal and those electronic contraptions called televisions are superior to us in entertaining them and giving them existential comfort.
More and more we see humans unowned by dogs. Or if they have dogs, they choose to have smaller, less 'doglike' dogs. Excuse me, by the way, if this offends you." he apologized.
"And they use elaborate justifications for this; it's cruel to keep a large dog in a city apartment. it's too expensive. This is nothing less then a shirking off of their dependency on us as their owners! This is the escape they had dreamed about so long.
Of course the hate that humans had long held for dogs, has never died! They tried all these many years to break free, they had to completely change their lifestyles to facilitate this so-called freedom, at their own terrible expense!
But now their goal is finally at hand. They are alienated enough and eventually will be independent enough to succeed now where they could not have before.
Do not be deceived by the pampering that you receive. And some of you do receive much, of that I can see! Some of you are dressed in clothes and treated like human babies. A clear example of displacement if there ever was one! The rest-even if you are lucky enough to still own a human, you are a chore to them, a chore that exists by a declining norms. Inertia snd no more. An excuse is all it takes to have a dog put through intolerable cruelties like castration or worse yet, abandonment. Just think about the idea of castration. It is nothing short of the prevention of the next generation!
Who would have thought this possible only a generation ago? And if this is the present generation, can we not see the next? Will the next generation be kinder, when it's obvious that their entire civilization is based on our removal? Today we can't enter public buildings, tomorrow; we will be altogether abandoned or worse. Don't be fooled by the apparent development of new purposes for us. It is true that they now use us to find bombs, and guide the blind. But even as we speak, new technologies are being developed to replace these newly-found uses. They are working hard at this and rest assured that they will succeed!
And don't forget the cruelties committed against us. ..."
Alexis moved away from the congregation of the listeners, she obviously had heard enough.
I followed after her silently. She obviously did not know where she was going, but I didn't dare interfere with her thoughts. something was on her mind. So we walked on. I will get us both out of any path she leads. I thought.
We reached a section of the park that was flat, and was filled with marble and bronze statues all of the realist variety. Men and women , heroically posing. Presumably the greatest and noblest of the humans; here a man holding a rolled scroll, with a raised hand, as if preaching, his sermon long lost in time. Another one, of a young naked woman, holding a tennis racket.
Beside the statues, the expanse was filled with benches, and weeping willows. Their branches now green with new growth after the bitter winter.
Alexis finally stopped in front of a bronze statue of two men, wrestling each other. They had a strange expression of joy on their face.
She started crying.
I was surprised and rushed closer. She was of course not surprised by my appearance. I made no attempt to hide the fact that I was following her.
"They left me here. " she said, crying Quietly.
"Who Who?!! Who do you think? you stupid mutt." She rasped. Clearly in pain, it hurt a bit to hear her say that.
"How do you know?"
"They.. we..Live on the other side of town. They drove almost two hours to bring me here. They gave me a good meal, patted me and walked back to the car."
So that was it! Everything made sense. This is why she was so quiet.
"I mean they had the first baby, and they lost sleep over it, but with the help of the nanny, they managed to take me out every day. But after the twins were born, I've felt them getting colder and colder to me. They were fighting over me too. And today the woman shouted at me when I hesitated going into the car. Don't you see? I'm abandoned now. And what can I do?!"
I thought for a while how to cheer her up. It is a rare thing to see a being so superior fall so low.
There was this bitter, ache at the roof of my mouth, the feeling I get. I used to have it when I was young, just before crying. Just before the tears flowed. Now the tears are gone. I never cry, but this bitter feeling I still feel sometimes.
We kept silent for a long time. The wind started blowing, ruffling the old fallen willow leaves, and the bows bending slightly, showing their respect to the wind.
"Well." I started. "From all the places to be abandoned at, nothing beats the park. I mean.. Look at me. I'm a street dog by all accounts, but I'm fat! I'm practically waddling around. So don't worry about it, in no time, you'll see what a stroke of luck this is for you. And.."
"If you want to own a human again. It's relatively easy. Humans after all are so easy to manipulate. And you , you are not a simple dog like me, you are high-born and everyone can see that. You're the type of dog that people pay for at the pet store. "
"I don't know how to acquire humans. How to ..get them to want to take care of me"
"My humans got me as a present from one of their friends; I never had to work at keeping them"
"So, I'm not sure if I can do that. What if what that Maxwell guy said was true? What if I can't find a human? I'll live on garbage like a rat?"
I saw where this is going. She actually took seriously the bullshit she heard in that lecture!!
Why is it when we are down we seem to be open to the worst possible ideas? Why can't we be optimistic when we're in need of it?
"Alexis. You seem like an intelligent dog. Why do you take what that idiot said seriously? Don't you know that this symposium is just another in a series for him? Next week it will be about our relations with cats, maybe titled 'why can't we get alone? Contemporary thought about Canine dog-relations ' and later on it would be something else. If you listen to that, and take it seriously it would be good for only getting more depressed. And definitely not good for you. I always say-screw those egg heads" I explained.
"I'll tell you what, if by this time next week you wont be owning at least one human, I'll..I'll..I'll sniff Samson's butt!"
This made her laugh a bit.
"But today, if you would like .. I can take you to my human. Like I said, he's crazy, but I'm pretty sure you will like his cooking. Just remember to lick those fingers. Does that sound good?"
"It sounds good"
And we walked on. It was late afternoon and we had some time to kill before my human came..
The Banks of the Great River
If the world we live in is a gateway to the beyond, and if all religions, past and present, are correct, we are in for a wondrous time indeed.
The cattails and reeds of the marsh by the Great River tickled my thighs as I scanned the muddy shores for bodies. The damned ferrymen never checked when people fell—or got tossed—overboard, leaving the bloated corpses for me to dredge up. Respect for the deceased seemed to be for the living.
Which made sense to me, really, being dead myself.
It's actually a pretty good afterlife. The banks defined peace, with an air of cool mint and warmth of Ra. Or Apollo, I suppose, depending on who you asked--or rather, when you asked.
I would have been content to linger here among the lightly lapping shore, but apparently loitering had become sinful at some point. Squinting against the sun, I scanned the riverbank, feigning interest in my immortal task.
A bright red power tie clashing against the soft brown and green tones of the marsh grasses caught my eye. Another of the ferrymen’s droppings. This one seemed to be a businessman in a fine-tailored suit: water-logged Italian if I wasn’t mistaken. That could be the suit or the person, and I made a silent bet with myself as to which it was.
Back to work. A smoke-filled sigh escaped through the part in my lips where a lit cigarette dangled. There never was a moment for deep contemplation or prayer when you were one of the lesser gods, if I could call myself one. I liked to think of myself that way, in any case. The Angel of Death! I was more a glorified janitor, really, than the fearful myth the people conjured in my image. And that image had suffered so much ever since I lost my flaming sword in a poker game with Brahma, the cheat.
Never play cards with a god that has four heads, that's what I say.
The crumpled gray suit in the reeds had seen better days. The man, as well. His stomach strained against an algae-covered dress shirt causing a broad tie with spots of black mold to list to one side. He looked like a bloated sack of old potatoes sprawled, spread-eagled, with one shoe balanced precariously on his big toe that bobbed in time with the waves. A scraggly mess of hair plugs, weeds, and muck had piled on his head and draped over his shoulders. The pockets were empty. Nice wristwatch, though.
Blowing out a long puff of tobacco smoke, I propped the man up on a nearby boulder and salvaged his shoe from the river before it floated downstream.
The man didn’t look so bad; maybe this one would pass for judgment. If not, I could probably slip him under the constant bickering of the gatekeepers--though the bureaucrat, Rhadamanthys, usually cast most of the refuse I dug up into the recycling center with a wave of his ledger and not much coin lining my pocket. One could assume that, from the general filth and pungent stench that permeated the corpses I found, most didn’t make it into the afterlife. That assumption would be mostly true.
Time to see if this soul was worth his weight. The easiest part of my job was the resurrections. It was surprising more people on Earth didn't figure it out, truth be told. Heck, a carpenter managed to do it on himself eons ago without any special training.
It was simply a matter of knowing about the ‘reset’ button that reanimated the body. This one would only need his sloppy vessel to get to the gates. After that, the matter was out of my hands. I shook the man’s shoulder as if rousing him from a deep sleep.
The man’s head lolled back as though on a well-oiled hinge.
Some people needed a jolt. I curled my hands around his neck, feeling for the small lump at the back of his head where the spine met the base of the skull. The Soulspot. My fingers buzzed with a charge, courtesy of Zeus--or Jupiter, depending on whom or when you asked.
I jammed my finger onto his Soulspot. A tiny snap of electrostatic singed hair, and I wrinkled my nose at the sharp smell.
With a gasp, the man twisted from my grip as he contorted and writhed. He rolled over and vomited a steady stream of black bile onto the riverbank, eyes churning from cloudy to nut-brown with each heave. He sat up, swiveling his head in every direction at once.
When I had first taken the mantle of Death, this part had been fun. I used to delight in frightening the newly deceased, complete with a big old skull mask and rusty scythe (it had been better with a sword on fire, truth be told). But that novelty had worn away with routine. Now I dreaded each awakening, sometimes wishing the Big Guy had put in a system to keep souls from losing their memories of this place after each reincarnation. It occasionally came up in council meetings, but his answer was always infuriating: “It’s all part of my plan.” It’d be nice if he let us know exactly what that was.
The man wobbled as he stood and bellowed, “Where am I? Where—what is… Goddamnit! Who the fuck stole my watch?”
It was good to let them blow off some steam first. I had tried to subdue the first hundred newly resurrected, and usually, we had fallen into the Great River and carried downstream. The gatekeepers, particularly Kepha, didn’t take too kindly to an unruly deceased and a janitor exchanging blows near the doorways to paradise. I had gotten an earful from the Anubis each time as well—and he was the rudest, most foul-mouthed god of all. Probably because he was so short.
The man continued to lash out, screaming at nobody in particular, until he collapsed into a wet, blubbering mess, wiping at his eyes. After he had said his Hail Mary’s and prayers to God, he looked up, as though expecting me to fill in the blanks in his memory. I extended my hand and took inventory of his life through our touch as I pulled him to his feet.
“My name is Jack Corvid,” I said with a casual smile.
The man nodded solemnly.
“You had a heart attack on East Main Street and passed away on your way to the hospital. This is the land of the dead.” Keep it simple, for they were simple people.
The man searched his pockets. The dead always seemed to do that first. Maybe they were trying to find themselves in the soggy lint that lined them. One time a man did manage to bring over a Swiss-army knife--I never knew the corkscrew could be a deadly weapon until he had taken a chunk out of me with it.
“I’m S… Samuel,” he stammered. “Gimme your damn phone. I need to call the hospital and my wife and…” His hands dipped into his pockets again, eyes fluttering, perhaps trying to choke back tears, even though that wouldn’t have made a difference either way since he was already sopping wet.
“Yes, I know. Samuel Johnson, the last name you owned.” I dragged on my cigarette and blew a cloud into his face, hoping it would add a dramatic effect to my words.
“What you had in life and what you accomplished doesn’t have any bearing in this world. What matters to us are the connections to others you’ve made, and what you’ve learned spiritually. Judging by your tailored suit, I would imagine you’ve made several great connections. I hope they were genuine. But I am not here to judge your transgressions. Only the gatekeepers can see your truth when they weigh your heart.”
Samuel’s eyes widened.
“Relax, Sam. Can I call you Sam? That’s just an expression. We’re not actually going to rip your heart out and put it on a scale. I mean, Anubis used to, but that was centuries ago. He’s not allowed to do that anymore--it traumatizes the dead.” Although it was pretty funny.
“Are… are you Death?”
“In the flesh... as it were. It’s just a job, Sam. No hard feelings.”
“A job?” Sam smoothed his lapels, water sloughed to the reeds.
“More like cleanup. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know the details unless you’re given work. Maybe you’ll take my job, and they’ll finally let me cross over.” I laughed into the breeze. That didn’t even happen when I dredged up a cannibal. It’s hard for the gods to recommend reincarnation for me when I have no soul to speak of. Well, not anymore. Just an empty vessel. "Unlikely, however, considering ‘Sam’ is your four-thousand, three-hundred and twelfth name. You seem to be going for the record. Some important lesson you haven’t learned yet?”
“Going for a record…” Sam repeated. “The record for what?”
“Reincarnation, of course. Your first name is Salim, and you were first born of thirteen, in the Kashaf Ud Basin in what you would know as Iran. Your current name is Samuel Johnson, third born of four, in the Houston area of the United States. Welcome back.”
Sam spluttered, denying my words, the reality around him, and eventually, his own existence. That would have pissed off a creator if they were in earshot. Shiva would have turned him to dust on sight. Yahweh, being only a creator, would have settled for something more vengeful and vindictive, or even, dare I say, creative. His revenge strategies made for great small talk at company get-togethers. Like when He gave platypuses venomous spikes on their feet to spite a group of tourists to Australia in the seventies. Yahweh had incredible foresight—though He mostly used it for pranks. His face on a bit of burnt toast, for example.
I followed the flow of the river as I tramped through the tall grasses—Sam followed close behind.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Where you need to go."
“Is this heaven?” Sam asked, his voice on the verge of cracking.
He certainly had low expectations. “We’re trudging through a stinking marsh and you’re wearing sloppy, soaked clothes. Is this your idea of paradise?”
“No, but I thought—”
"Fluffy clouds and angel choirs? Trust me, you don’t want a job in the choir. Unless you like long work hours and a sore throat.
“We’re going to the gatekeepers, who will judge you and proclaim your next destination. Probably another round of reincarnation, from the looks of it.” He hadn't been very exemplary while alive. I had done a quick check of his naughty-nice tally, part of his 'life file,' when we touched. It didn’t quite dip low enough to send him to the underworld, but it wasn’t anywhere near paradise levels.
“The… what? Gatekeepers? To judge me? What should I do?”
“Just be polite. Anything you could do to impress Anubis and Kepha has already passed. That was a pun, Sam. You need to laugh more.” I offered a grin.
Sam gripped his tie with the force of a thousand raging demons. “So… the land of the dead, then?”
The dead were always excessively slow to catch on. “Just follow me–oh, god damn it.”
He had paused to regard the water, though what he expected to find in its murky depths was beyond my own reasoning and ability to read his soul. Something about the river always fascinated the recently deceased, though I hoped he would snap out of his trance before I would be forced to drag him away from the shore.
“Have I been ferried across?”
“No. You fell off the boat. You're flotsam, Sam.” The dead always had a million damned questions. They never could accept what they saw with their own eyes—though that attitude was probably vestiges from their time on Earth. Blind faith went both ways.
I quickened my pace, and as luck would have it, he followed. The sooner I was rid of this one the sooner I could get back to ‘work’--smoking and picking up moldy wallets or shoes that had fallen off the boats. At least that was peaceful.
"Is this the River Styx?"
Sometimes it seemed the dead ran their mouths more than the living. Styx indeed. “I wish this was the River Styx. Good benefits. Cool cave, nice breeze, and no marsh grasses. There are several rivers—Phlegethon, Lethe, Acheron, Cocytus… each with their own ferrymen. You've landed in the Ganges.”
“I’ve never been to India, sir.”
Was that a joke? His sheepish smile told me it might have been, so I looked at him sidelong and gifted him a polite laugh. "‘Sir’ is a bit formal. Jack’s fine.”
He snapped off the end of a cattail and twirled it nervously in his fingers, shredding it to fluff as he walked and getting it all over his suit. "Have I chosen right?"
He meant religion. Here we go again. I bit down on my lip to stop a hailstorm of snark. "Faith isn't about being right or wrong."
"Sure, but... there is an answer. I followed the one true religion." Cattail seeds covered the front of his jacket as he tore the head to pieces. "I'm a Christian. A damned Christian, Jack!."
Damned indeed. "And you spent most of your time in a secular world. Once a year for Christmas isn't faith, Sam, it's insurance."
"But I went. And I prayed."
My eyes rolled before I could stop them. "Mostly for yourself, right?" Sam seemed to have been stuck somewhere between faithful and faithless, a spongy state still undefined because "faithmoderate" didn't quite roll off the tongue.
"But I'm no atheist."
"Their faith in the belief they don't have faith is stronger than you think."
"Yet their assuredness would have kept them from falling off the boat."
Sam's mouth twitched in anger. "What about cults? Surely--"
"Even some cultists have a form of faithfulness. If they wanted to believe in a flying spaghetti god, one of our own would eventually lay claim to having been that being. Or several would, and we would have an insurrection, which generally ended up with several gods sharing the role on certain days of the week."
He furrowed his brows, likely upset that we would give cults any credit at all. "That's ridiculous. Just what kind of man do you think I am? I'm not fucking dumb. False religions are--"
"Who are you to decide what's false or not? Look, it's not my job to debate religion with every vessel that comes to my shores." And it was infuriating--because it was all they ever babbled on about. Why couldn't an athlete who died making an amazing play wash up and brag about how great it felt to break his neck but win the game? That would make for a fun story to one-up someone with at a meeting. "Look around you, Sam. What do you think the gods want?"
"Loyalty. And I--"
"Faith, Sam. Just that. It doesn't matter what religion you signed up for, just that you believed in it, walked with it, and died with it. Life was for you to love. To make spiritual connections with others and live for your faith, whether you believed in any one god, a few of them, or none at all. And you were into spirituality for your own damned selfish reasons. You think any of the gods would have liked that?"
Tears wetting the corners of his eyes, he clamped his mouth shut--at last. Now maybe he would walk in silence.
After a few hours of trekking through the marsh, with Sam grunting after long introspective intervals but never quite forming thoughts into words, the docks before the cavern to the gates of the afterlife came into view over a dip in the path. A ferryman’s white paddle steamer had been secured to them with a thick barbed chain--Kharon's, from the look of the glistening red paddle off the backside. It contrasted badly with the rusty, moss-covered body of the rest of the skiff. He was probably inside the Cave of Judgement, trading bodies and banter with the gatekeepers—the worst brown-noser of all the ferrymen. Probably the only thing St. Peter and I had in common was our mutual distaste of Kharon and his personality that was best described as "loud."
Confronting the gatekeepers with Kharon flitting about their feet wasn’t going to score me any points with them. I had a few things to go over with Sam anyway, and with some luck, Kharon would be long gone by the time we entered the Cave.
Herding Sam under one of the docks where the water of the Ganges flowed to just a trickle, I halted our march by a rotten post and offered him a cigarette.
Sam stared at my offer, face contorting as though sorting through a logic puzzle that was missing half its pieces. "Sin stick?"
He declined anyway. His loss.
"I'm scared, Jack."
I smirked. Judging by his pulse and temperature, he was angry--not scared. Was he already using a narcissist's final ploy to tear at emotions to get his way? Sam hadn't learned anything during his time alive. Neither had Narcissus, either--and the mere thought of that old gazer made me queasy. "Are you truly scared, Sam? Or are you upset that you don't have control?"
With a volume rivaling Kharon's, his entire life story spilled out from his rotten mouth. Nothing he had done was his fault—something that wouldn’t sit well with the gatekeepers. The ‘path to the righteous’ was admitting your follies, or something. Though it wasn't my duty to be his confessional, I nevertheless snuck in suggestions of pious reflection, though each was met with a quick denial or excuse. The smell of death--a fruity stench of month-old raspberries, which is what you get when you let the god of wine, Bacchus, have a hand in creation at a drunken party--became more pungent the more he ran his mouth.
"You should tell your charge to save their breath in this place, Jack, or else you'll be dragging another empty vessel before the gatekeepers again." A heavy hand bore down on my shoulder and spun me around—Kharon. My skin crawled. The damned ferryman must have heard us from inside the Cave and come out to spread his greasy attitude all over my pep talk.
With a smile of muddy silk and a wreath of laurels that sat crooked on his head, covering his male-pattern baldness and bringing a sort of elegance to the wrinkled, reddish-brown tunic open to his naval, he cocked his shoulders back like he owned the Ganges and sauntered over to Sam. But not before squeezing my shoulder in a way to display his sculpted muscles.
“Wonderful! I see you’ve dug up my leftovers," he said, running a finger down Sam's cheek as he circled him like a wolf would a young shepherd. "What a fine bit of sacred refuse you have brought! I dare ask, Jack, if you think this man will put even a minuscule dent in your debt?”
God damn you, Kharon. “I don’t have a debt,” I lied.
Kharon faced Sam, licking his lips. “Tall and dark--if you didn’t have such a potbelly, you’d be Greek perfection, despite, or maybe because of, your sharp Roman nose.” He hung an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “Beautiful facial symmetry. I bet you had a gaggle of ladies pining after you. Men, too.” He laughed. “Don’t listen to Jack, Sam.” Kharon shoved a manicured finger toward me. “He’s using your soul as payment to get his own back. He's not even licensed!”
Kharon wouldn’t flinch at my stink eye, but I gave the ferryman the evilest I could anyway.
Sam ducked out of Kharon’s embrace and took a few steps back, a wild gaze darting to the both of us. Kharon’s grin widened along with Sam’s eyes. The ferryman wouldn't ever forgive me for that time I short-changed him at a company picnic--a petty transgression, but I had learned ever since that the gods and those under them ran the universe on petty grudges.
“Nothing’ll come of that one, you hear me?” Kharon belted out as he laughed his way to his skiff. “Sisyphus is going to love hearing about this. You’ll be paying your debt until the end of time, Jack!”
I kicked a stone into the river in Kharon’s general direction as the boat pulled away from the dock, then turned an eye to the jagged rocks rounding out the entrance to the Cave of Judgement. The gatekeepers were waiting, and the sooner I could get rid of Sam, the sooner I could get as far away from the docks as possible before Kharon’s next load.
“Are you going to sell my soul,” Sam blubbered.
Only if I can haggle a good price. “Let’s go.” Yanking Sam by his blazing cherry-red tie, I hauled him toward the Cave.
One more soul closer to freedom.
This story is true. I've chosen to leave out specific details about the people involved to protect their anonymity. It should also be said that I was hurt by some of the people in this story, therefore, my recounting of the events is probably skewed. However, I've attempted to write the most objective story as I possibly could in all fairness to everyone involved. Mistakes were made. I cannot know a man's motives, his intentions, or his heart. Maybe I shouldn't, but I have and will attempt to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. This is a story about despair and hopelessness, salvation and redemption. It's about helpers and those who need help. I'm writing this story because I am looking to make sense of something that happened to me. I'm not out for revenge or retribution. I've been hurt, angry, and confused about all of this for years, and frankly, I don't know that I have really processed through this experience. Like many moments in my past, sometimes the memories haunt me and sometimes I'm filled with overwhelming joy and gratitude.
I was listening to the podcast: 'The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,' and it was like someone opened up a faucet of thoughts, feelings, and memories. It all came rushing back. The specifics are almost entirely different, but not completely. The thing is, and maybe more will be revealed as I write, I can't quite put my finger on why my brain heard that story and immediately drew parallels, but it did. The only way I can figure it is best summed up by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio: "...I know it when I see it." There are some personalities we cross paths with who are unforgettable. There are a handful of those in this story. One in particular, that to this day, I don't know if I respect or hate. I also cannot say if it was willful ignorance and good intentions, or pure evil I encountered. I know for sure I'm dealing with some level of 'Stockholm Syndrome.' It's confusing and strange. I can go from absolute anger and hate to a deep and true desire to reconcile.
There is a strange place I wandered into as a new Christian recovering from addiction. Somewhere between trauma and forgiveness; whilst knowing the depths of my own depravity, hypocrisy and sinfulness. In the pursuit of healing and clarity, the aforementioned characteristics make for confounding bedfellows. I've prayed and prayed for discernment and wisdom, and I'm not sure I've found either yet. Maybe that's why I was so compelled to write this. Then again, maybe it isn't.
It all seemed too good to be true. A year away from society would be a welcome respite from the world I was coming from. I traded the car I was driving to my drug dealer, packed my things into a couple paper bags, and slept on my parents' couch the night before I checked in. I was strung out bad this time. 31 years old and strung out.
I was thin. Emaciated. When I ate, which was rare, it was usually a scoop of peanut butter or a donut and chocolate milk.
As I write this, 7 years later, I still remember what it was like. The smells are still vivid. Cigarettes, stale meth smoke, and heroin lingered in the air like a putrid demonic stench. It turns my stomach to think about. I was barely human. It came out of my pores as I was sweating, trying to clean up my room. I was staying in a house a few miles from where my family lived. What was said, the timeline of events, exactly how it all went down those last couple days is a haze, but I'll never forget the smells.
I don't remember if I slept the night before I left.
I called a friend a few days earlier and he had sort of taken me hostage until I made it to treatment. It was very strange. I called him for help, and he just came and got me. He didn't leave my side until I was checked in to rehab. This man saved my life.
I was smoking meth off of a piece of tinfoil as we pulled around the corner from the rehab. I was in a strange place. I don't recall observing my surroundings in any real detail. All I remember was I'd never been to this city before, and I had no idea how we had gotten here. My brain was still sluggish from the heroin I had done earlier. It was a flurry of sound, and sweat, and anxiety. I was an absolute mess, but I was resolute in my decision to go into treatment.
I think it might be important to note I still feel utterly disturbed when recounting these last moments. However, I think it is very important to lay the foundation as to my state of mind when I went into this place. Although, it my be hard to read these ugly details, they are important. While I know these lines may be difficult to read, I promise they were far more difficult to write.
I wasn't drug tested when I arrived. Thank God for that. There was a standard, I learned later, that you had to 'test clean' upon arrival to treatment. This is because withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax) can cause serious seizures and be fatal. This treatment center wasn't built for that level of care, so most would need to detox before arriving. It was also used as a tool to test for willingness.
The scene was so strange. I don't remember how it all went down exactly, but I arrived with my bags in tow and was seated at a table bolted to a concrete slab. There were a row of these subway tables running parallel to the sidewalk. When I sat, the street was to my left. Across the street a group stood and smoked cigarettes and talked. To my right were various patio style tables and chairs scattered across the concrete. There were guys everywhere. It was like a little beehive. There was a flat wooden roof stretching over the entire concrete slab. Further to my right there was a black Labrador tied to one of the polls and a doghouse.
Then they started. One after another, introducing themselves, shaking my hand, "what's your name man?"
"welcome home," "you have everything that you need?"
Over and over and over, the same questions and statements. They all looked me right in the eye. Everyone seemed sincere. I was reeling from the drugs, and it all was quite a blur.
I feel the need to add another warning in here. There is cursing in this story. I am only going to use it when necessary, however, it is very important for the reader to get an understanding of the vernacular. There was a whole language of its own in this place, and cursing, was a part of it. I will not use it for dramatic effect, or emphasis, I only use swear words in direct reference to the way people spoke. I'm trying to paint the clearest picture I can while reflecting on the crazy psychology of it all. Language, behavior, thinking, speaking, everything had a life of its own. Frankly, the vast majority of the men there were from very rough backgrounds and swearing comes with the territory. When you're unhinged and addicted to serious drugs, living under bridges, in jails and institutions, you learn to express yourself like the trolls and demons. You become a creature, and creatures do not speak the 'Kings.'
I had been to treatment before. I had been to jail before. They are not the same, but they do have similarities. No matter where you wash up, you are kind of always ready for anything and on edge. This was all unexpected. I think the best way to say it is I was disarmed immediately. When one wanders amongst the monsters of this world, he so arms himself. Multiple personalities, defenses, hiding, secrets, pain, suffering, pure unadulterated terror, borderline psychosis, lying, violence, cowardice, and evil make up the armor we wear upon entering into new situations. I was disoriented, still intoxicated, and burned out, but I was still watching everyone closely.
Directly in front of me was the house. This place sits on an entire block with multiple buildings. We always called it 'the house.' The main house sat on the corner of a 'T' style intersection. From the front looking directly across the street was an incredible view of a harbor. It was quite literally a house. Two stories, white with blue trim. The concrete area was set in the back. I found out later this concrete patio gathering area was called 'the Pit.'
There was a short staircase leading up to the porch with railing that stretched the width of the building along the back. There was a white podium seated directly in the center of the deck area. Behind it was a bench. There were two doorways. One on the left and one on the right. Each doorway had a short staircase in front of it. Both had screen doors. I couldn't see the second floor from where I was sitting because the roof of the Pit blocked my view. I could see the stairs leading directly to the second floor to my right. It was an external staircase. It was obviously old. The paint was cracked and faded.
I was staring directly at the doorway on the left side of the house trying to get my wits about me, shaking hands, and responding as politely as I could to each man, when the screen door popped open and out came a man. He came down the short staircase as the screen door slapped shut behind him.
He was a short square man with broad shoulders and short arms. He didn't look very old. Maybe in his early forties. His arms were covered in tattoos. Back then I would have said he was 'sleeved out.' Meaning the tattoos covered his arms like shirt sleeves. I saw right away this was not professional tattoo parlor ink. It was prison art. Prison tattoos don't have any color. They have a greenish black hue. Usually, they have skulls, demons, nude women, and symbols. Again, "you know it when you see it." He had dark short hair, kept in a messy crew cut.
I watched him as he sort of bounded down the steps energetically. He came over and sat down directly across from me. He looked directly at me with cobalt blue eyes that didn't seem to blink. I remember thinking there was a familiar mischievous twinkle in those eyes. He shook my hand and introduced himself without breaking eye contact. I remember this moment clearly. Relief washed over me and I realized this person saw me as a human being. It was surreal and authentic. I wasn't a patient in that moment, or a client, I wasn't just another body to be cycled through in 30 days. This man looked at me like he cared, understood me, and was sincerely interested in what I had to say for myself.
I don't remember the details of our conversation. I do remember he never broke eye contact with me. I'm sure I lied about the details of my using, and especially avoided telling him that I had been doing so up to the moment of my arrival. He knew what was up.
He said, "So you'll probably be dope sick for a few days right? Like the flu."
I said, "yeah," not really knowing how severe my withdrawal would be.
"I don't want any whining, okay?"
I chuckled and agreed.
Then he laid out what my life was going to look like for the next 9 to 12 months.
"Alright, so the program is 9 to 12 months no contact; could be longer, could be shorter, depends on the person. No letters, emails, phone calls, visits, of any kind. Your family needs a break from you. We got you from here. You'll be up at six every morning and in bed at ten every night. There's no hanging out in your room and 'chilln,' no naps, TV, newspapers, no books except for approved AA literature. Everyday you'll have groups, classes, and 12-step meetings. This is a social model program with 100 men. If you can follow directions you'll be just fine. Can you handle that?"
"Sure," I replied.
He had one final question.
"Are you willing to go to any lengths for your sobriety?"
"Yes." I said solemnly.
He had me fill out some paperwork, I said goodbye to my friend, and I was in. That was January 7th, 2015.
I was in. Immediately, I was escorted into the House by a young man. He looked like he was about 17 years old. It was so weird. He told me that he'd be searching my stuff for contraband. I don't remember our conversation exactly, but I remember him telling me that he was an intern there. I thought that was interesting.
I had lost all real sense of personal privacy. I wasn't embarrassed anymore. I had to drug test in front of people, shared small rooms with criminals, been stripped searched, even my secrets didn't stay that way for very long.
After I was all searched and checked in, someone took my belongings to my room for me and I was sent to get a haircut. No long hair, no beards, no mustaches. I didn't know all of that when I sat down. They sent me to a house across the street from the main one. Another crazy looking Victorian. It had tall white pillars between the first and second floors and a string of windows along the bottom and the top. The building was white with blue trim and looked to be about the same age as the main house. As I walked across the street with my escort we went up a long wheelchair ramp along the right side of the building to a door. Inside we went and to my left was a hall. Along the right side of the hall were commercial grade washers and dryers. To the left was a long table. The hall lead into what looked like a living room. To my right was a small room with two windows and sure enough there was a barber chair right in the center.
My escort also happened to be my barber. He was different from the guy who checked me in. This guy had nautical tattoos on both of his forearms. They were not jailhouse or prison tattoos. He was shorter with blonde hair. And this dude had the craziest lazy eye I have ever seen. My barber. I pretended to ignore it and proceeded to describe how I'd like my haircut.
"Just leave it kind of long on the top and clean up the sides."
He only nodded.
I wasn't really watching what he was doing. But, before I knew it I realized I was getting a buzz cut. Number two all the way around.
I wasn't even mad. I realized it wasn't an accident, and I knew he heard every word I said. This was my introduction to "you ain't runnin' shit around here." Still makes me laugh to this day. He was a good guy and ended up being one of the faces that would appear in this place for treatment more than once.
It was a Wednesday. The handshakes continued, it was a warm and overwhelming experience. I asked everyone how long they'd been there. Some of the answers were unbelievable. Three years, two years, four years! I was shocked. I remember thinking that was probably a good thing.
Then, suddenly, someone yelled, "Primary, go eat!"
The sound of all the metal chairs on the cement was deafening. Everyone started to migrate towards the right side of the house down the long driveway to the sidewalk. There was someone by my side the whole time. Chatting me up.
We walked in pairs along the street. I don't remember who walked with me. The whole heard of men traveled down the street. To my right, were the harbor view properties. A sign hung from a two story house. That was one of ours. As we continued, we passed a Swedish church on the corner of the next block.
As we crossed the street towards another large single story building, I got an important lesson. My walking partner pointed to the stop sign on the right of the crosswalk and said, "always go around that stop sign, we don't cut corners." This would be one of many many rules I'd learn about here. My world was about to dramatically change, and I couldn't be happier.
I was dying for some type of structure and discipline. I welcomed all of the order and the rules. I was 31 years old and had been living in the middle of utter chaos for many years. I was exhausted. I had spent so many years aimless, without sails, rudder, or map; I was dying for some direction. My spirit was crushed, I was literally starving, for food and for friends. I spent years pursuing pleasure and my very own heaven-on-earth, that I ended up in Hell. This place was very strict, and it felt like heaven.
We walked up a narrow walkway lined with nautical style rope and post decorative garnishes. The building itself looked like an elementary school on the outside.
To the right of the walkway was an open space that was paved with bricks. It ran into a large wall with two cement seats against it. The wall was the back of an autobody shop next door.
The walkway took us through a rod iron gate where we hung a left and there were 2 coatracks on either side of the door. No hats allowed in the "Barts." That was the name of the large commercial cafeteria.
The floor was vinyl with huge round plastic tables scattered throughout. Chairs encircled each table. Everyone lined up on the right wall and waited to use the bathroom. We all had to wash our hands. At the end of the wall facing out was the serving window. There were a handful of guys in white t-shirts shuffled around busily. I remember the noise was crazy. Every one was chatting away happily. There had to be 60-70 guys in there.
When I came out of the bathroom, someone yelled, "new man to the front!" Everyone started clapping and pushing me to the front of the line. They were letting me eat first. I was mortified, and I'd never felt so welcome anywhere in my life.
After dinner, we marched a few blocks up the street to another building. Two by two. Everywhere was always two by two. This was by design. One was never left alone with his thoughts for too long. Those thoughts were out to kill us.
We marched up to an AA meeting. There were people from the outside there along with our group. We clustered together on one side of the room upstairs. The building looked like it used to be an old church. Everything was old and made of wood. There was a small kitchen where we could grab a cup of coffee.
Everyone milled about outside of the building, smoking, waiting for the meeting to start. It was here I was briefed.
"Best you just listen. This is about sharing experience, strength and hope, of which you have none, so keep your mouth shut and sit in front."
Fair enough. I didn't have much to say anyway.
I don't remember the meeting, but it was warm and by candlelight. The meeting ended and we marched back to the Pit. It seemed like all 100 men were there milling about, sitting in groups, talking, and laughing. Some guys were across the street smoking. I didn't really care to sit and chat at the moment, so I took my place at the driveway by the street, turned and faced everyone and yelled, "new man needs a ride!" My first few weeks I'd be on 'New Man Status.' Never alone, and if I wanted to go across the street, I was required to turn and yell for a ride. Boy was that humbling. That was the whole idea. This was another one of many lessons I'd learn there. If I didn't seek humility on my own, I'd be humiliated.
We all sat around and chatted. Someone yelled for clean up, and like ants, everyone grabbed chairs, tables, old cups, books, brooms, and starting putting everything away. We all circled up, and someone made a few announcements about the next days, things that needed correcting, and I don't remember what else. We all placed a 'foot in' for all the alcoholics and addicts still suffering. We said the Lord's prayer, and headed off to bed.
I was coming off a bad run doing heroin and meth for I don't know how many consecutive weeks. I was completely exhausted, my spirit was sick, my body was badly broken, and my mind was reeling. I'll never forget, that after my head hit the pillow, I slept the deepest dreamless sleep I'd had in years.
As I reflect on my time in this community, I often wonder what others would think about it. I’m not even exactly clear how I feel about it. I can say a few things for sure. The time I spent in treatment and for a couple of years afterward changed the trajectory of my entire life. I learned valuable lessons, made lifelong friends, and became a Christian, (a miracle in and of itself). I learned about generosity and grace at an extraordinary scale. I learned empathy as I wept with those who were around me. I’ve seen firsthand the spirit of God sweep through a community and change lives forever.
I also witnessed how cults start. I have languished about using that word for literally years now, and for obvious reasons. I want to be as precise as I can, and all indications are yes, I did belong to a cult. It’s hard to draw a line between the treatment center and its culture, and the extension of that treatment center I belonged to after I left. For all intents and purposes, I don’t believe anyone tried to form a cult or hurt anyone, spiritually or otherwise, but there was a cult and people were hurt. Be it negligence, hubris, or naiveté, those are the facts. I believe one man was responsible. More on that later.
I saw many men get saved. Men who are still strong Christians today. I saw many men walk away from the faith. More realistically, I saw men confess what they really believed once the social pressure was lifted. Hundreds and hundreds of men went through this place. Many recovered, many did not, some died, and some are still lost as I write this.
The treatment plan was more like gorilla warfare. When I arrived, I had been through several other rehabs, and this place was like none of them. The overarching theme was that everywhere else had it wrong. They were keeping people sick. We had arrived at, “the Harvard of recovery centers.”
I heard that quoted more than once when I first arrived. Frankly, it filled me with confidence. There had to be some truth behind a claim like that, right? It is amazing what statements like that will do to a culture.
“My guys have more recovery in one year, than people with five outside of here.”
“You only have to do this one time right, and never go through this again.”
“I guarantee you’ll get better if you do what we say.”
Bold statements in an arena where the statistics were not in their favor. I think at the time, most treatment centers were wildly successful if they had a 20% success rate of five years or more of continuous sobriety. At the House, I was told there was almost a 90% success rate. I saw no evidence backing up this claim, but I believed it. It made sense. I needed it to make sense. I was desperate and willing to do anything to get better.
I think this is what made it easy to overlook some of the red flags that arose during my time at the House and afterward. To be honest, I was never looking for red flags. I trusted everyone completely. I gave myself over to the program and its leadership. My commitment only grew stronger as I got better. Even to this day, I don’t realize how crazy some of this sounds until I describe it to someone who wasn’t there.
There were a few things that filled me with dread. We had a group twice a week on Mondays and Fridays. It was officially called ‘Resentment Group.’ We called it ‘Group,’ and it was clinically noted as ‘Conflict Resolution Group.’
When you’re brand new, you are required to attend a tiny version of this group before you go to the big one. I think it was about two weeks. It is a well-known axiom in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous that “resentment is the number one offender.” Meaning, unresolved disturbances, grievances, guilt, bitterness, grudges, were the primary motivating factor when an addict or alcoholic picked up again. I couldn’t say if this was for certain, but it seemed logical. What is true, are men that ended up in this treatment center were not emotionally well adjusted. What’s more, and what I can say for certain, is many of us had resentments that were decades old, slowly eating away at our spirits. Were they the cause of relapses? I don’t know. Did they contribute to what created an alcoholic or an addict? Absolutely and without a doubt.
What is a resentment? I got many lessons.
“Anything you think about more than once.”
“Picture a soda bottle, with all the little, tiny bubbles. Each bubble is something small that frustrated you over time. More and more of them gather and pressure builds. Either one day the bottle explodes, or you can slowly open the lid and release the pressure.” Group was important. To release the pressure.
“Imagine you have a backpack on. And all day long you gather resentments in your backpack. Little pieces of shit. The bag gets so full that not only is it breaking your back, every time you turn around you smear shit on an innocent bystander.”
“Have you ever gotten up, and just started the day angry? Someone pisses you off, and it keeps getting worse from there. Then someone says, ‘good morning,’ and you hear ‘fuck you.’ That’s what resentments will do to you.”
These were the lessons I learned in my first two weeks. I would go on to hear them many many times while I lived there. I would teach those same lessons myself.
I remember my first Resentment Group. Someone yelled, “Everyone go to group!” All the guys got up and somberly walked down the driveway along the right side of the house out to the sidewalk. There we turned right and walked a short distance to one of the other Houses. This was another big Victorian. The colors were really just multiple shades of grey. Picture 50 men all in a herd going through a single doorway. It was a bit of a controlled scrum. There was not chatter. No laughing. Everyone was strangely somber. Serious. Over the threshold to my right was a staircase going up to the second floor. To my left was a huge living room. To the far left was the street side. There were windows across the front of the room. Couches lined the walls in the front. Sort of in a horseshoe shape. To the right was a large archway and in the middle of the room were rows of chairs. Cloth chairs with wood armrests and feet. Like 90’s conference room style. Lining the right wall were more chairs leading into a smaller entry to the kitchen. Lining the wall in front of the kitchen and the left side of the room were more couches.
I was directed to the front left couch with the other new guys. By this time, we had learned that the new guys had assigned seating everywhere. Everyone took their places elsewhere. The room was full. The wood floors creaked as everyone settled. The air was thick and heavy. No one really made eye contact. A sign in sheet made its way through the room. Someone yelled, “let’s pray in!” I don’t remember if it was the Lord’s prayer or the serenity prayer. And then we sat in the silence.
We were literally crammed in there.
The program director came in last. He bounded in and sat on the couch in the front of the room. Dead center. He looked over at us, the new guys, and individually asked us all:
“New guys are off limits.” He announced to the room.
I remember thinking that was a curious statement.
“Let’s do resentments.”
And it began. I was in shock.
It was an ordered chaos. Each man went and rattled off the things he was angry at.
“So and so, it pisses me off when you…!”
That was the format. I came to learn later, the general idea was to express what you were upset about and attach a specific feeling. It was clear, the resentments were usually directed at individuals. Some behavior, action, or statement. It was loud. Not everyone was loud. Some yelled. Furious. Others were more measured. It was scary. Somebody called me out for something. The director stopped him and reminded everyone that I was off limits. My heart was in my throat. I didn’t even know these people yet.
Everyone in the room went. There was another theme developing. Everyone’s focus was directed at a single individual. This guy was getting called out by everybody. I felt so bad for him.
“So and so, it really fuckin’ pisses me off the way you act around here. You ain’t about shit!”
“…it seems like your building a case.”
“I got so angry when I tried to give you help and you battled me!”
It was strange the way they spoke.
These phrases were part of the colloquial vernacular there. They would become arrows in my quiver too.
Then everyone was done.
The director had chimed in at various times to prompt individuals to:
“Do some fucking work right now,” or,
“Time to get honest,”
“Get your shit above board.”
He asked everyone to take a deep breath and then it started again.
Only this time, the tone was completely different. The first guy stood up and began apologizing to each person who had called him out for something. It was so weird.
Never in my life had I heard a group of men be so honest with each other.
“I apologize for what I said to you man, the truth is I’m just really insecure and I was trying to get attention so I can feel better about myself.”
What! And so it went, all the way back around the room. Apologies. Honesty. It was remarkable.
You could feel the air in the room begin to lighten. Postures changed. The tension died down, and we were done.
I remember walking out of that house and reeling. I felt like I was on drugs again. I was sweaty and confused. I immediately did what I do, and retreated into my thoughts. We were walking to lunch, and as always, my thoughts were interrupted during our usual march.
The guy who had gotten absolutely lambasted by everyone in the room ran up to me. He was quite overweight. Hispanic. Brown hair and eyes. Apparently, he was ex-military. An Iraq war veteran who’s life had spiraled out of control when he came back from active duty. We had chatted briefly before, and he had shared those details with me. There were 100 or so guys there, and I’d only been on campus for two weeks, so I’m sure I didn’t even remember his name.
“Hey man, I wanted to talk to you about what happened in there.”
“Oh really, what about exactly?” I lied. I knew exactly what he was talking about. This was the pariah. I felt like I might acquire the scarlet letter just being near him. I knew he was an outcast. He wasn’t “about it.”
“I know you’ve never been to group before, so I wanted to let you know that those guys were helping me in there.”
He was trying to soften the blow, I thought. Trying to make sure I’m not scared away.
“I needed my brothers to point out things that I don’t see, they’re being my mirrors.”
“Oh, okay,” I said.
I was completely uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to be talking to this guy. From what I saw, he was in serious trouble and I didn’t want anyone to think I was in cahoots. He continued as we walked.
“Sometimes you get a lot of help in group, everyone has a group like that.”
“Not a chance in hell I’m going through that.” I thought to myself.
Call it judgmental or mean. It was both. But, when you get into situations like these, you must learn the social structure right away. You must observe everyone’s behavior and catch on quick to what is and isn’t accepted, or your life would be miserable. In jail, you’d get beat up for breaking the social rules. On the street, you had to learn how everyone operated to ensure you got what you needed, and nobody was trying to come after you for anything. Call it a survival mechanism.
I asked him, “Why do you call it help?”
“Well, when your brothers are pointing out things to you, they’re helping you, giving you help.”
“Oh I see.” I said.
What I thought was, “got it, we call it help when you get yelled at.”
That’s exactly what it was. Sort of. Like many of the sayings, slang, idioms, etcetera, there was a well intentioned design behind it. “Help,” was supposed to be exactly that, help. However, as these things did there, it had a life of it’s own.
That is the crazy thing about social model and peer to peer feedback. Things would travel through the community. Jokes, sayings, slang, euphemisms, even actual physical behaviors. We had communal vocabulary.
There were many times, when you’d cross paths with someone looking glum and dejected, myself included.
“What’s up dude?”
“I got a bunch of help in group today.”
or, “I just got a bunch of help from the program director.”
We had many euphemisms for this process.
“Getting laced up.” One of my personal favorites, although it was discouraged by the staff to make a joke about getting help or group. It was a big no no. If you did, you were sure to get a bunch of “help.”
One common theme in this story, is this program was about as well-intentioned as one could be. Everything had a purpose. Was it all within the ethical bounds of counseling and the other regulatory bodies? Certainly not. That is where the tension lies. Was some of this over the top, too intense, did it cause problems? Yes, for sure. Did it help people? Yes it did. I’ll get into this more, but where it really got ugly, was when we were no longer in the confines of treatment. It was a weirdo socialistic spiritual commune, and it helped save my life and the lives of many others.
There were other groups on Mondays and Fridays. Sometimes, we’d have a “come above board group.” Those lasted for six to eight hours. We’d have to break for lunch and come back and finish. These groups were basically a giant confession. I won’t get into all the details, but some crazy crazy stuff would come up in there. People wanting to leave, sneaking into the office to call their girlfriend, the guys in second phase talked about porn and selfish desires.
Now, if someone else, “brought you above board,” the consequences were always greater. Secrets were treated like cancer. Straight chemotherapy. Nuke the system. If it was ever found out someone had secrets and others were keeping those secrets, there was hell to pay for that.
There was pressure on everyone to participate. If you didn’t have something to say, you’d better come up with something. Time to get honest. We all got pretty good at this after three or so years. Sometimes it was honest, and frankly, it was refreshing. It felt good to be free of all your secrets after so many years. Being honest about the day-to-day weirdo thoughts that go through your head as you recover generally get a good laugh.
It was in these groups that I saw the directors really do something special. I hated these groups. We all did. But, what I can’t get over was when someone would be honest, on their own, and would put it all out there, the directors would show them so much mercy. They wouldn’t yell, or embarrass, or shame. They’d simply relate, sometimes we’d all have a laugh, and move on. Don’t get me wrong, there would be consequences, but often they’d be mild, and the guy would be held up for his honesty. It always made me cry. I’d never felt safe to be that honest in my life. With anyone. Ever.
There were times when they’d embarrass and shame. That’s for sure. But never with the most damaged, weakest guys. They’d usually embarrass the heck out of the macho cocky guys. But the guys who were awkward, shy, and generally traumatized were handled with love and grace like I’ve never seen. It was so admirable.
The directors weren’t perfect. They weren’t particularly pleasant all the time. They made many mistakes, and were blind to many things. But the way they handled broken men was truly remarkable. I have great disdain for both of them, but often, “the least of these,” were cherished and cared for.
 Matthew 25:40
Like 9/11, or the JFK assassination, everyone remembers where they were when it happened. It's been almost two decades since then, the unfathomable twist in our story; The Coup.
I remember it clearly.
A svelte woman with business shoulder pads and a power suit glistened on air, “Great news citizens! Our country has been liberated from tyranny! True patriots everywhere are rejoicing in the streets, tasting the sweetness of freedom.” The woman smiled brightly among the crowds of people, all red, white and blue. “John, let’s show clips from across the nation,” the top left corner of the screen flashed crowds of celebrators, reeling from city to city; New York, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, Boise, San Francisco, and it continued. She waved her hot pink tipped hand towards the screen, “As you can see every corner of this great country is celebrating the take over, or rather, the ‘taking back’ of our country. From the tyranny of corrupt politicians into the hands of true patriots.” As she clapped and cheered along with the crowd she brightened at the appearance of a hollering, white, blue-eyed man.
She beckoned him towards the camera, then placed her hand on his shoulder, lightly, so as not to smear the red and white stripes painted on his body. His manic smiling face was encrusted with white paint in the shape of a star and framed by a blue clown wig. This ensemble was finished with the American flag worn as a loincloth. The newscaster began to interview him, but my focus drifted inward.
I was in the ‘Grizzly Den Diner,’ a favorite stop along highway one, coming back from a hunting trip deep in the mountains. I was sitting at the chrome trimmed counter between a wooden sculpture of Bigfoot and an older gentleman wearing a tweed blazer and sporting an impressive comb-over. I noticed his body freeze as the newscaster rejoiced, a forkful of eggs floating inches above his plate, losing their steam.
A soft murmur broke out as people tried to confirm what they were seeing. The man in tweed regained his senses and called out to the server, “Lilly, what is this rubbish? Put it on the other news network… let’s see what THEY are saying.” He pushed up his glasses and settled into his seat, crossing his arms and drawing his brows. Eggs forgotten.
Lily commanded the TV set to turn to the public network as she polished a glass, “TV, play public station eleven.”
A square-rimmed, buttoned-up broadcaster appeared, “The terrorist organization True Patriots are threatening media outlets across the nation. Their demands include reporting only the quote-on-quote, ‘truth’, or else ‘grave things may occur.’ When questioned about what the ‘truth’ is they are referring to, their response was, and I quote, ‘whatever high commander, Reverend Michael D. Bray, says.’ The free press is refusing to respond to terrorist demands at this time. We are waiting on our White House correspondents …”
An eruption of noise; chair legs scraping linoleum, the din and clatter of silverware on ceramic.
I watched one of the young families bundle up their two young children and head quickly out the door, tossing a wad of bills at their table. One of the bills fluttered into a kid-sized puddle of ketchup, George Washington’s face painted red.
Lily tried to take control, “Now listen up everyone, this does not mean you can’t enjoy your meals. Just calm down and act normal, now, we got nothing to be afraid of, for heavens sake. This will all be over before you can fry an egg. C’mon now.” She picked up a chair that had tumbled over and calmly tucked it under a nearby table. Some people were hungry for reassurance and followed her lead, “Sit down now, yes, that’s right. Nobody panic, have some grub! We’ve got a turkey club up… here you go.” Lilly started bringing out all of the orders that had piled up on the warmer.
Tweed coat piped up, “I don’t get it. Lilly, what does it mean? What’s happening?”
The server put her hand on the man's shoulder, “It’s gonna to be alright, Mr. Green, this is America. Just go home after you finish your coffee and stay inside a while. Watch the news. Things will get back to normal. Like the man said, the special reserve is going to set it right. They are being called in right now. And if that fails, we have allies around the globe; no one is going to stand for a coup in America. There’s never been a successful coup and there never will be.”
Mr. Green looked relieved, “Okay, Lilly, if you say so.”
The broadcaster continued in the background. I tried to listen over the rabble, “…Sources say that all leads related to the Reverend and the True Patriot Movement had been destroyed months before the attack.”
Despite myself, I let Lily convince me. I wanted her to be right. I took a bite of my sandwich. Tweed coat and I sat quietly, munching our food as the world fell apart.
I’m thinking about that moment when Xan waves his hand in front of my eyes, “Hello, anyone home?”
I blink and shake my head out, “Oh my gosh, I was in another world,” I straighten my spine and take a breath, getting reacquainted with the present.
“Ah there you are! Now, drop whatever you were thinking about and focus on food. I got a granola bar, Twinkies, ugh, crushed up potato chips…” Xan begins rifling through his provisions pack, all sweat and dirt. He lifts his brow and eyes me, a smirk catching his cheek.
“Okay, okay,” I cock my head and contemplate these options, “You know, as soon as this is over I am planting a vegetable garden.” I reach over, “hand me a goddamn Twinkie,” I grab the plastic wrapped industrial food item between my thumb and finger, like picking up a stranger's dirty sock.
We are perched on limestone boulders, a sea of crisp green sword ferns spreading below us in all directions. Towering Douglas fir, sitka spruce and cedar provide a cool and comforting shield from the sun. The rainforest here managed to survive decades of fires, thanks to the skyscraper trees and leeward slant of the Olympic range. The peaks hijack every eastbound cloud; a geological shakedown for moisture. Still, the haze of burning forests, cities and towns loiters across the entire region like an unwanted guest.
“We’ve got at least six more hours through these woods. The king-all-father himself should be sleeping soundly when we arrive at the camp. The hardest time to wake someone is during their deep sleep cycle. We should arrive just in time!” Xan’s excitement animates his whole body as he speaks.
I give Xan a wry look and reach into my pocket, “We are going to need some help getting there,” and I pull out two blue powder pills, displaying them on my palm next to some golden crumbs still stuck to my fingers.
“Oh no, no, no! I don’t need that,” He flaps his hand at me, looks away. The medusa pills. Drugs like these have become mythologized, used only for the most important missions, like this one. Yes, they make your eyes bug out and your face look crazy, but they work.
I blow air in a chuckle, “You want to do everything from your own damn muscle. Take the pill, Xan. Or am I going to have to save your ass later?”
“Peggi— you, my love, are very convincing,” he reaches out, palm up. I gingerly place one tiny pill onto a smooth patch of skin between calluses. He flips it up in the air and catches it on his tongue, swallows. I bug my eyes out as it sails through the air, but, he catches it, looks at me like its nothing, “We’ve been resting long enough, let’s go fry that authoritarian fuck!” He propels his body with his arms, swinging his feet over the massive fern just below, landing gently on two feet.
I take one more breath of rest, eyes softening on the beauty of a nearby Sitka spruce adorning garments of soft moss, and then leap off the boulder, landing in a squish of soft mud, “Let’s do it.”
We start down the ravine, light feet, making use of low branches to swing through denser parts of the understory. The pills soon act to make our bodies feel feather light, making our efforts feel invigorating rather than draining. Senses primed, we feel, smell, taste and see with utter clarity. I feel my mind clear, too.
As we weave through the forest I begin to reflect on the mission.
Xan and I are going to assassinate the Emperor of Everything, as he is now known, Reverend Michael D. Bray, leader of the military coup that drowned international trade and communications, split the country into wards of isolation, outlawed history, burned books. He is the one that Shepherded America into the age of unstoppable fire, runaway climate change, and endless war. Among his crimes are innumerable deaths, all in the name of his brand of ‘freedom.’
The whole plan started with Xan.
As the only intact forest this side of the Rockies, we had a few tattered refugees join us from the South. Xan was one of them. When I met him he could barely breathe for the smokey journey he endured through the coastal rubble. I helped him the best I could. Despite his fierce eyes and liberal sense of humor I thought he would die.
But, like me, he is a survivor. He just kept showing up, everyday, trying to get better.
We were lucky to have him. Anyone considered a part of the ‘intelligentsia’ had been culled years before; the Reverend was adamant that God would heal us, not doctors, and definitely not scientists. “I saw what was coming,” Xan explained, “patients stopped listening to my advice flat out; people became downright hostile. Almost like a wave of protest, patients would book appointments just to tell me I didn’t know anything, that the only prescription worth anything was prayer. So, I grew a beard and packed a bag, forged the ID of a recently deceased patient and assumed the identity of a lifelong janitor. Skipped town and drifted. I could have helped others do the same but,” and this is where he would always tear up, “I was afraid.” He was determined to right that course. To be brave for everyone.
It was at a full moon meeting when he confided in us about his true intentions. “I didn’t just come up here for the fresh air,” he looked around the circle, trying to catch eyes with each of us, “I came here to end him. In Reverend Bray’s capitol he sits pretty in a palace full of opportunity for a hit,” Xan looked almost child-like huddled under his woolen blanket, cross legged in front of the fire. He let the words hang around him, giving us a chance to make our judgements. Someone gave a “huh,” others shifted around uncomfortably, waiting for more details. Well, I thought, it wasn’t like we all hadn’t already considered it. The problem was that the security was impossible, his cronies fully brainwashed. And, none of us wanted to spill blood.
I spoke up, “Well, we’ve been living in these woods and keeping eyes on Bray for a long time now. I can tell you that he is always guarded and keeps a close watch on everyone around him. We have yet to see a weakness.” I shook my head and opened my palm, letting my hand drift out, like letting go of a wish from a dandelion seed. But then, an idea took root in my mind. I started seeing the potential. “But,” I pointed my finger out, “if we could kidnap and convince a few of his guards into sharing some intelligence, we could do it. We have a few long-banned substances that could really help with convincing.” And I looked at everyone, met their eyes individually to gauge confidence in the idea. Some skeptical furrows, some brows raised with excitement, “Remember, Bray sometimes leaves his palace, right? We saw that happen before. We just had no idea why or where he was going or for how long. If we could get a hold of that information I think we could take him out.” More skeptical looks; I sighed, “I was a therapist, remember? I know how to push mental buttons, get into peoples heads. With a little help I bet I could convince at least one of them to pass on information.”
Xan piped in, “And if that doesn’t work, we can always bribe them with free therapy sessions,” Xan slow punches my shoulder. We all giggled at that, enjoying a moment of absurdity.
All except for the usual naysayer, Skeena. As wise as she is, Skeena tends to disagree with everything at first. She crossed her arms and shook her head slowly, her wild grey bun of hair swaying with the movement. Her voice was stern, “You weren’t there, at the public executions. These men are brutal. They have no soul left. If your drugs and whatever else you’re planning to do doesn’t work, and I can’t see it working, then we are going to have to kill them. Then it is just a matter of time before they are going to come looking.” She looked me up and down, “I don’t see a killer here in front of me, I see someone swept along by the dreams of her rosy-eyed lover.”
I blinked slowly and tensed my lips before replying, “I wasn’t there but the executions were broadcast on every station,” I straightened my back, “Of course I know that they are horrible, but these are also human beings, not monsters. You should know this, Skeena, most of those people are just trying to survive, like all of us.” I gestured around the circle, “These soldiers are doing whatever they have to do to keep their families alive. They aren’t all soulless.”
Xan got up from his seat, placed his tea on the flat rock we’d rigged as a table, “Skeena is right, though.” He brushed my shoulder with his hand. “We will have to be completely sure about whoever we target.”
Skeena moved her hands to her hips, her eyes blazed in the firelight, “That isn’t what I meant and you know it. No matter how careful you are it doesn’t make up for the fact that it is a stupid idea. You will get yourselves and possibly all of us killed by those demons.”
She was wrong about the guards but she wasn’t wrong about the risks.
I had wanted to wait to do the mission until we had recruited at least one person connected to Bray’s inner circle. We had only just started our spy network when we got word that Bray had begun planning an ‘extermination’ of the forest witches, hoping to hang a few of us for the Christmas celebrations.
We had to act. When Charlie told us the news he said we had seven days to plan before Bray would be returning, using the old highway. He gave us the location of the overnight camp. This was our last chance.
We take another short break at a beach formed beside an elbow in the river. The water still looks turquoise from glacial silt, like it did years ago. The crunch of river rocks under our feet are barely audible against the singing waters. The sun, a spark of orange in the sweaty haze, is hanging low. We unlace our boots and bob our red swollen feet in the waters, resting our rumps on a bone white trunk.
I muse, stretching out my toes, “Ever since the coup I’ve felt like… like my world has gotten so much smaller, like the continents have spread impossibly apart, went to a different dimension, even.” I glance into Xan’s eyes, “it really feels like no one else exists anymore.” Xan watches me back, considering my words. “We’ve trained for this for so long, but I barely remember what it was like before.”
The water kindly absorbs our fatigue, rivulets of sensation curl around my body, through vessels and bones, through my tongue and scalp. I breathe and close my eyes.
Xan speaks gently, “We need to focus on the present. Just remember, there may still be books out there, people alive who remember. We will find them. Either way, this is our chance to reinvent what it means to be human; it’s never going to be the same as it was.”
I consider his words as we pack up, set out again, trailing the river. I let the weight of that idea anchor my mind to his sense of hope; we can reinvent what it means to be human.
As we get closer to the camp we divert from the river and skirt to higher ground on the other side of the highway. We do this a mile out to avoid detection from their scent hounds. From this vantage we can get a good look at the camp layout and see where the guards are posted. We can even track the scouts in the forest from their torch light.
“Remember, we have folks on the inside so don’t murder anyone, killer.” He gives me his side eye, winks.
We planned the ambush nearest to the new moon; with help from the medusa pills our night vision will be able to adjust quickly. We can see them, but they can’t see us.
I tighten my boots, double check each weapon hold, finally, I reach into my satchel and bring out the ultimate weapon. I unfurl the necklace from its velvet nest, six pouches of dreaming powder dangle from the leather braiding. I look up to Xan; the soft look of his eyes reminds me that this might be our last moment together. I gently hook a stray strand of hair back behind his ear, move to my knees and bring the necklace over his head to rest the pouches along his chest. I place a hand on his heart and lean in; a deep and beautiful kiss sends fire through our bodies, and for a moment we forget everything that happened, and let go of everything that will.
Xan drops first, his arms perfectly tuned for the descent, clasping rock holds and ginger steps, he silently clears the ridge and moves towards the gap between the guards. He will take care of the front line, my mission waits within the golden tent.
When I reach the edge of the camp Xan has already snuffed out the torches; I easily avoid detection. I have about 90 seconds before someone comes to relight them.
Bray’s tent is at the center of camp, obvious even in the dark night with its weave of gold, silk, and beautiful wools, fine materials mined from the catacombs of department stores, hidden well within the sea of rubble.
I stalk along the dirt track between tents, my charcoal rubbed skin blending in with the shadows, and I approach the back of the tent. I have to stop myself from marvelling at the rich and impossible textures, the beautiful glint of gold, like stars against the shadows. I steady my heart again.
My knife is drawn, I cut a slit, peek through a moment first before stepping inside.
I hear a deep snore rumble through the air. Crouched, liquid, I glide towards the head of the bed, a cot of suspended canvas over a sturdy bamboo frame. Lush blankets and fluffy pillows envelope the beast. His face is tilted upwards, his crown sitting heavily on his brow, a manicured beard lines his chiselled jaw. My heart wants to escape the cage of my ribs. I avoid panic; I have a task.
His last wife would have been here too, had he not executed her. What was it this time? Oh yes, she didn’t fully appreciate his genius, evidenced by her suggestion that perhaps he could spare some of the books on medicine and science. He was as brilliant as Einstein, she was made to confess, he didn’t need books.
I blow a puff of sleeping dust over his face, I listen for a moment. His breath is steady, still. I reach into my satchel and pull out a carefully crafted tincture, a concentrate of old growth forest mushrooms and Stim-ex. It tastes like a dirt and rot martini, but it works quickly. I bring my hands to his temples, focus.
My hands grow warm, then a faint red glow from my palm illuminates his cheeks; I take a deep breath.
A soft white ribbon of light spontaneously connects between my hands, surrounding the emperor's head— he awakes. His eyes widen in terror as he realizes what is happening.
A choking voice, “Witches! Greselda, where are you?”
I whisper back, “Shhh. You killed her, remember?” I send a surge into the folds of his mind, showing him the pain she felt when he betrayed her.
He shudders, gasps again, managing only a whisper, “Doona? Doona!” His closest friend and ally had stayed at the palace.
“Doona is not here, scum.” I spit the words at his struggling ego.
“You can’t steal my mind, witch. I am Emperor of Everything, Sole Genius of the land,” he coughs, “the sire of all children…” I send another surge, the fear and disgust that was felt when he took his ‘wives,’ funnels through his body, he calls out again, “it is god’s will!”
“Your echo chamber of grandeur is over. You will know what you really are.” My eyes fall back as the energy in my hands pulses again.
Just then someone approaches the tent, “Sir? I heard something. Are you ok?”
A cyclone of grief, the stabbing pain of betrayal, bloody fear, and the heavy despair of every orphan he created, every widow, each forlorn parent holding the limp bodies of children, the collective pain of each family he broke channeled through my heart into his.
A final surge. “Your eminence?” The guard pushes through the tent door, gun drawn. It is too late for me to recoil, my body is electrified in place, my mind melded. He leaps towards me, trying to pry my hands away. But it is too late.
The emperor’s body spasms and contorts, he gasps desperately before going limp, helpless against the new feeling of grief and loss.
Finally, his furious ego has drowned.
The guard looks confused as the Emperor’s eyes bead with tears and begins to sob. I whisper to the guard, “You have nothing to fear now,” and I grab another pinch of sleep dust and blow a puff into his face. The guard drops, unconscious.
The emperor brings his hand to his heart, looks at me with wet eyes and a jagged breath. He can't seem to find a word to utter.
“You’re welcome.” I say, and I leave his bedside.
I peek through the slit I had made, first just a slight crack, then when I see a pile of sleeping guards and Xan’s bemused smiling face I pull it wide and step through. He whispers, “Sounds like it worked, then?”
I nod. The light from my hands fading, we sneak out of the camp, into the woods and across the river. Finding a mossy nook a few miles in we make camp together, completely exhausted.
Xan wraps me in his arms and we’re gazing at the stars through reaching branches when he says, “Peggi, I probably would have just killed the guy.”
I laugh, “Well, he definitely would have deserved that. But... we will see what happens. If he fucks up again, we can do it your way.”
8 Hours Until Paradise
The little scrap adorned with a pixel of some fruits felt heavy in my mouth. Not bitter. Rebecca across the hall said something about it being bitter. I don’t remember if it’s a good or bad thing. The paper sat for a second on my tongue, a little dry and unusual, but was gone by the time I reached the kitchen.
In my twenties, the idea of me taking drugs was unseemly. I was a stand up member of society. Not one who would win a Nobel Prize any day or would make a high school history book, but an accountant. I took part in living the way one should live. I worked odd labor jobs until school. That was interrupted, but a girl’s dad gave me a chance. Her hair bounced and twinkled like a dancer in the spotlight. My hair was stick straight, thin, and destined to fall out in twenty years; I do not know what she saw. Colette waltzed up to me one day, many many years ago, as I looked at the flowers in a florist’s shop and stated, “Buy me one and I’ll go to lunch with you.” I didn’t even notice her before her sore interruption. But a smile drifted up my face, warming my cheeks with a soft rosy glow of love. I nodded silently and she followed behind me as I brought a pink carnation to the counter. We went to a nice diner a door down. She got tea and pancakes for us to split. And that was that. Sometimes I wish we never split those damned pancakes. I cannot bring myself to eat pancakes anymore, nor many other things. I find myself to be tired, emotionally and physically, of living. Sometimes I wonder if that is how she felt. I wonder if she truly found that peace she seemed to be searching for.
We had two kids, Maryanne and Addison, or Addie, as she used to demand to be called. Addison was too formal for my lil’ drama queen. But now she is thirty-six and has her own kid with a lawyer a few hours south. Maryanne and I have not spoken since Thanksgiving three years ago. Colette had passed a week before.
Colette needed me. I needed her. She was my everything from the moment I met her. I didn’t know what to do when she decided she wanted to leave this world. I do not know what made her so tired or what made her feel so fragile. Until the day she left, I never felt old. We may have been far past our biological prime, but we still had so much time left and so many memories. She left our grandkids and our daughters and somehow they are mad at me. Maryanne swore I should’ve always seen she needed help, that this would happen. That her poor mood and bleak behavior were a warning sign.
I could always eventually cheer her up. It may have taken a few days or longer sometimes, but I couldn’t this time. I didn’t. I don’t know if I tried hard enough. I was fed up with her sitting stale with buzzing flickers of some neon people on the TV casting shadows on her face. She stole all the blankets and plates would pile up. I loved her. I did. But the one time I should’ve been there more than anything, I decided to not take her seriously. I was mad that she was seeing the world through this myopic lens of negativity.
Why did I do this? I kept asking myself. My youth was over. It isn’t my turn to be rowdy or wild anymore. Plus, that never was never really me. Colette and I met in California in the early seventies, if that answers any questions about her. She needed a ride back home after heading a few states away for band. When a girl like that leans over the hood of your car at a gas station? You say yes. While I drove, she wrote a bucket list in this notebook she had. Swearing, we were karmic and destined to finish them all. That we would and under no circumstance would there be a box left unchecked. We were kids, so most were silly looking back on it, but sweet. I hate myself for arguing some were unrealistic. She eventually scribbled those off the page and I’d give anything to see what was under those angry lines. I don’t remember too many of those anymore. But we went to the Grand Canyon and the Atlantic Ocean. We hitchhiked and partied together. We took our kids to Disney Land. We got married on the beach. We painted our kitchen cabinets yellow. The only thing I could buy to answer my question was Colette’s face. I promised her so much. The very least I could do in the last months or weeks or even days I have left is to keep a promise or two. I crumbled the soft, aged paper of the forty-year-old dinner napkin I had in my hands without even glancing at the notes on there. It felt like a tumor, the way it rested against my thigh, an infection stuck in my pocket.
I glanced towards the scattered papers, MRI scans, receipts, and bills on my coffee table. They are all stained from Sunday. I spilled my mug. It has gotten heavy nowadays. The mug is still tipped over. I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up. I cannot bring myself to do much anymore. The walls are all tan now; it’s a decent color, yet, not the best. Addison and Maryanne painted the whole place for us a while back as a gift. The floor squeaks as I shift my weight to grab the latest file. I stare at the black, oozing rot on the paper. I let myself go after Colette. She would be proud, though. I’m finally doing a few things I had promised her when we were young, with hearts as empty to the world as a new journal to a poet.
These last few years, since the passing of my dearest Colette, the world feels heavy. Much like she used to describe the few months before her accident. I feel the oxygen in the air sticking to me like flies stick to a horse. And the trees have lost their green even though it’s July. There is a puddle outside of our apartment complex that won’t dry up. And I can never bring myself to turn the lights on in my apartment. I guess at my age, I should expect myself to be this tired.
What is that?
What is that sound?
“Mary Anne! Stop slamming your door!”
Please go away.
Mary Anne isn’t here and the knocking likely isn’t and that shadow that has been staring at me for the last ten minutes isn’t real either, nor the wave of the walls nor the buzzing. The buzzing is not real. The buzzing is not real. The buzzing is not real the buzzing is not real the buzzing is no-
“Mr. Regdell! How are you hangin’?”
It is Rebecca. Rebecca Young. It is Rebecca from across the hall. Slowly, I rise from my chair and the world shifts from under me. I can feel the sun rising in Australia.
The door handle slips out of my hand. It resembled a mass of that playing dough the girls used to have. God if only I could figure out how to open this god damn-
“Isn’t your key under the mat? I’ve been watching the door handle bobble for like five minutes man, can I just let myself in?”
I try to orchestrate my brain to work in conjunction with my mouth but before I can agree, she is on my couch with my key in her hand.
Rebecca has eyes much like Colette. They remind me of the pools of honey she would leave on the counter after making tea. Rebecca acts like Mary Anne, but I am yet to be on her bad side. They both happen to be stubborn, loud, and abrasive. In Rebecca’s case, what else comes with youth besides just that. I met Rebecca a long time ago when she was around twelve. Her and her mother moved across the street and after Colette and I experienced months of the mother’s screaming, we invited the girl over for dinner and she soon became a fixture in our home. I remember her playing with Addie’s old Barbies that just sat in a box in her closet after she moved away to that university in Pennsylvania.
She used to sit in the kitchen at the round table that used to be in the corner of the kitchen, near the windows, with them all set up in their plastic shoes and nylon skirts. The dolls would argue about each other’s boyfriends or friend drama. Colette would sit with her, silently stitching a new coat out of some scraps of fabric she found in the closet. As Rebecca got older, the barbies were passed to the vintage toy shop down the street to pay for a new chair in the living room, this gaudy velvet green piece, and her entertainment became boys, friends, and some activities I cannot approve of. But I loved her like a daughter.
Rebecca was a good kid. The only one who came around anymore after Colette. I was bored. I was alone. And she took care of me like I used to take care of her.
She’s the only one I told.
The couch feels like marshmallows and Addie’s old bunny named Bonnet.
Everytime I look at the ceiling, I swear it is dripping onto me. I can see it. I swear it is.
“Mr. Regdell, how are you doing?” she interrupted while I slipped in between the cushions into a far memory of mine.
I watched Colette from the door as she sat at the piano in the office, playing some beautiful, improvised melody. The light from the window, even though it faced a brick wall, fell on her profile and graying hair, making her glow. My god, she was iridescent. I could never look away. She was beautiful. Not just looks, even though she was, in her youth and still is, a stunner, but in who she was.
“What do you think,” she chirped from slouched over the piano keys.
“Wonderful,” were the only words that came to my lips. Maybe I was describing the music, maybe her, I still don’t know.
“Not yet,” she stated. Even as we aged, her passion never did. It remained as green as Persephone. That’s who Colette was. Passionate. While she never liked living much, she was thrilled with everything life had to offer: music, art, theatre. Colette was everything I was not. Back in ’67, as soon as I saw her, I knew I wanted to spend every single moment I had left laughing with her, crying with her, protecting her, and with her.
But now I have more moments left, not many, but some, and she robbed me from spending those with her.
I can’t be angry at her. I knew she struggled. I knew she could feel her want to be here slipping away, and to be honest, I saw it too. Her eyes went from the color of a sun’s kiss to dull, uninterested, uninvested. I should’ve said something. I promised. I promised to be there and I did nothing. I didn’t think she would.
I knew what would happen but I hoped she wouldn’t be as selfish as she was.
She wasn’t selfish, I regret saying that. She was just tired. So tired. So so tired. I’m so tired. I’m exhausted.
The couch spits me back out and I’m thrown back into an orange room with blinding yellow lights that buzz constantly. I can feel their hazey, sickly glow around me, sticking to the walls like a disease. I hate this room. I repainted it to get rid of the mural Colette had painted who knows how many years ago and now it reminds me of her even more.
I’m heavy with the weight of missing you, Colette. I- I can’t do this anymore but, but it isn’t much longer. There aren’t many days left. Those papers on the table say so. Maybe only a week, a month at most and I- I can’t wait. It went dark without you Colette and it wouldn’t stop raining. It rained and it rained and it rained every day without you. I know you would criticize me for the way I live. Without want, without love, without hope, but I can’t see anything past the day Mary Anne and I found you. I thought I had done enough for you and the girls. I thought I had shown you that the day I met you I found paradise. I thought you were happy with the world we had created, but no, I was never enough. I tried so hard and you didn't care. I was somehow too much when all I did was show you that I loved you. But I guess I was never what you wanted.
I was never what you wanted, was I?
“Huh?” Rebecca asked. I still don’t think my mind and mouth are working together yet. My tongue feels heavy. Maybe it will swell and strangle me.
Rebecca had left for her boyfriend’s. And I sat. Sitting in this apartment alone, I felt her heavy on me, like a blanket suffocating my heart. It has been near fifteen years without her here but I still see her in the orange wallpaper in the kitchen with her bay window. She thought in colors and intangible ideas.
I sat staring at some picture Mary Anne had painted for me back when she was in art school. She had her mother’s talent. Addie had her mother’s temper. And they were both the best daughter’s I could have wished for. I just wish I was there more often for them or had corrected my mistakes earlier. Addie doesn’t see me much now. Mary Anne won’t see me.
I sat staring at the picture. The strokes of Mary Anne’s brush shifted and turned as I studied this painting for the first time. I was never the parent they needed. I was obsessed with providing for them and never thought about being there for them. I missed every first step, first word, first game, first dance performance. I didn’t just miss the firsts. I missed it all. I don’t know if I even spoke to my girls until around their sixth birthday. The paint shifted around my head, taunting me, mocking me for my failures. I’m sorry girls.
The walls began to breathe in rhythm with my aching heart.
The floor felt like sand and my body like gelatin.
I inched my way down the hallway, past the office with the piano, past Addie and Mary Anne’s old rooms into mine. I stood staring at what my life had been boiled down to. Piles of papers, medical documents, and Colette’s old things. The box her wedding dress is in peaked out from under my bed and all of a sudden, Colette and I are dancing. Her blonde hair was curled perfectly behind her ears and her blue earrings sang as they knocked against the clips in her hair. I melted into her eyes and then onto the bed.
The papers on my bed swallowed me. Medical bills and treatment plans raced in front of my eyes as I could feel the bug in my brain pulsing as it ate me alive. I should’ve told the girls about the tumor.
The aged napkin fell out of my pocket and I stared at the empty boxes written in pink ink. Our bucket list. Unfolding the napkin, I stared at her handwriting. Colette wrote in the most wonderful cursive.
I promised her to go to the Grand Canyon. I promised her we would go horseback riding. I promised her that we would have a dog, a Cocker Spaniel. I promised we would attend a Fleetwood Mac concert and I promised her I’d finally agree to do LSD with her there. I also promised a son and a Porsche 917.
She was wild. I was not. She lived and I didn’t. I only survived.
We used to go on picnics where I’d watch her string dandelions together into a crown for the little girl we saw on the swings. She would tell me about her old boyfriend and the protests they would go to. Or about the time she got arrested in Portland. She told me all these wonderful stories, but at the time they scared me. She scared me, but in the best way.
I was a coward. I was afraid. I was afraid to commit to my responsibilities. I was afraid to show how much I cared. I didn’t show her or the girls. I thought I did by providing for them and bringing the food home to put on the table but I never provided my love.
I cheated Colette. She deserved a life where she could fulfill her wishes. She deserved someone to keep their promises. So here we are. I am staring at these words we wrote, hoping to find some remainder of her in my heart but I- I can’t remember what paradise felt like. The tears pooling in my eyes were oceans swallowing me, drowning me as they fell down my face.
The walls breathed in synchrony with me and there I was, in the dark, swimming in my papers, tears, bills, and reminders of my dear Colette. I waded in the papers, trying to keep my neck above, trying not to be pulled under. I was Alice and she was my cake that seemingly was the cure but left me with a void too big. The papers lapped at my feet and arms, joking together about what fate I should meet. Their fluttering and crinkles mimicked laughter in my ears. I search for a light, I search for some place to rest, but I’ve been swimming for years at this point and I’ve grown tired.
What awaits me?
What will greet me?
Will I be met by the warm embrace of Colette or her stern stare or by an empty nothingness? Will the rot in my brain overcome me and leave me to the rats in the walls? Could I be found weeks after the day I journey off to find Colette? At my funeral, I am afraid I will have little to no attendees. I won't receive flowers on my grave on the anniversary but I guess it is karma. I was too mad at her for too long. Am I to only be dust and grass fertilizer? Am I destined to live through all this sorrow, heart ache, and isolation to only be alone yet again?
My thoughts, memories, and the papers cut deep into my skin as I attempted to sleep, but I laid there, curled up, sobbing.
Suddenly, the color returns to the walls and I can see her dress draped over the rocking chair and Addie’s old sneakers in the closet. I soon feel the sticky glaze of the yellow lights and find myself clutching our list.
I need to sleep. I can’t sleep despite how tired I am. Every time I close my eyes, I can see the veins in my eyelids pulsing against my corneas like the red river Addie told me about from Bible school. I am so tired. Am I always this tired? Have I always been this tired?
I know all that holds me is a thin, knit blanket but I swear I can feel the weight of her with me, on me. I miss her.
I stare at the little piece of paper and throw it in the trash. I kept one promise. I loved her. I loved her as best I could. Damn did she tire me out, but I was never too tired. I do not believe that I can be faulted for loving too much. I turn to my side and close my eyes. Still, memories suffocate me. Maybe I am forever uneasy; possibly, I must pay penance of sorts. That thought brings me some peace. I can see myself resting soon. The walls have quieted down and I no longer am stuck within them and the photographs they wear. Though, I do hear Rebecca and her boyfriend fighting as he walks her up the stairs. It is faint like thoughts of Colette, at least for now. I wrap the knit blanket tighter, hoping to feel the shape of her again. Instead, I feel the presence of sleep. It creeps along through my toes and up to my eyes, and finally, I can rest.
The Jottings of Death
Around me was a veil of colorful bookshelves, closing me in on three sides. I was nestled in the corner of the bookstore’s lowest level, but could still see outside through a window because the store was built into a hill. There were separations between books in the bookshelves opening up cosmic holes to other dimensions; the trails left by whoever bought what was there before.
The lights burned yellow and turned the paper in my journal golden. My pencil danced with an awakened intensity. My skin was uncomfortably hot and my eyes were tired, but they lit up at the text performing on the paper. My sinister thoughts flowed out like the River Styx, my “incredibly imaginative and twisted mind,” as one reviewer called it, coming to life on the page.
I was sitting down on the stiff carpet with my back to the third bookshelf. Open on my lap was my newest work-in-progress novel, which I was writing by hand; to my left was an English dictionary and thesaurus, and to my right was my previous published work, critically acclaimed for its unique worldbuilding and vivid descriptions. “A magnificent debut.”
I looked through the holes in the bookshelves to get a shot of the wide window on the other side, overlooking the descending hill, now decorated by a street and a town. I remember when this building was first built, and people dressed in elegant attire or inventive costume would waltz inside because it began as an opera house. I remember when the willow trees outside were first planted, and their leaves began to droop more heavily as they grew. I remember when none of these buildings were here yet, and children would roll down the hill into the fields below. I remember when one of them shattered her head open, and I had to carry her up to the sky. I remember when the town didn’t even exist, and there was nothing but beautiful verdure for endless miles.
A crowd of angry people was marching up the road, carrying handwritten signs.
Every generation, I take a new name. And every generation, I write more books. Writing is my passion: twisting my existence and my truths into unique and creative stories, spreading the world of my origin to the world of humans. When I think back on all the names I have taken and discarded over centuries, I think about the impact their stories have had. Many of those names are still spoken today. They make me real.
But my true profession could not be ignored, and it was time to return. There was work to do. I returned my published novel to the shelf and gathered my possessions, covered myself in my cloak, and flew away.
Barely awake, and still wiping the crusty sleep from his eyes, a Policeman was showering in his bathroom. Steam from the hot water seeped through the porous curtain, wrapping the room in fog just as clouds were wrapping around his apartment like a python. The larger building next door cast a shadow over his, obscuring the grey sky. The world was bleak and lifeless, as if not a single star or planet had wanted to witness this day.
Hopping out of the shower, the Policeman stretched and flexed, tightening the skin throughout his body, which was less than muscular and paler than the moon. He shaved before the mirror and threw a few pills into his mouth—blood pressure and high cholesterol. Then, he buttoned up his striking blue uniform and donned his shimmering golden badge.
Appearing as a messenger of dread and advice is a job I enjoy far more than being a bringer of Death. It’s always so amusing to me, the confusion and fear on people’s faces when they meet Death for the first time, knowing it won’t be the last. Whether they accept the advice or not depends on a few factors, but being able to influence them without knowing exactly how: it’s entertaining.
The Policeman’s heavy boots forced deep imprints into the carpet as he stomped through his empty bedroom—no family, pets, houseplants, photographs, or decorations. Arriving in the den, which was also the kitchen and the living room, his heart stopped. He immediately pulled his standard-issue pistol from his belt and pointed it directly at me: the unexpected, shadowy figure standing in his living room.
Terror filled his eyes, now fully open and aware. He failed to speak for several seconds before managing to shout “Get out of my house! I will shoot!”
I strode out towards him, silently, like I was drifting on the air. Two ear-piercing shots were heard, phasing through my ghastly form and breaking a vase on the mantle. I pulled him an inch from my face, my curved, steel blade wrapping around him from behind. My resonant breaths lasted centuries and turned his ears into an echo chamber. His mortified countenance, I will remember for lifetimes.
“Let me give you some advice… some guidance…” I bellowed. “You are going to want to change your ways… or you will regret it.” My breath was like fire, boiling his skin, making him sweat. “I know all that you have done… all of your sins.”
He stood petrified like I was Medusa, his gun crumpled into my chest, unable to fire again, knowing it would be pointless even if he could. His skin was trembling violently, not only from the fear but from the cold aura expelled from my soul, twisting around my scathing breath, spinning a storm in his brain.
I twirled him in a circle with my scythe, initiating a dance with Death. I swiped my blade around in every direction, grazing his arms, legs, and neck, barely slicing his skin, causing single drops of blood to drip out, but nothing more. He was gasping violently when I caught him, and he dizzily fell backward against the wall and to his knees.
“I hope…” I whispered, “that you are closely aware of your decisions today.”
I dissipated into a smog, my every molecule fading away, and the Policeman was left nearly crying on the ground. When he finally brought himself to move, though he was still shaking, he didn’t have time to make coffee. He arrived at the station several minutes late.
An infernal pyre raged through the desolate crag, consuming all in its path, joining everything into its monstrous form until it could swallow the mountains themselves. The scarlet river snaked its way between the hills, across the endless countryside, devouring the fire with joy. Filling the red sky like stars were the spiked, evil Eyes of God. At the center of their gaze was a gaping ravine that curved around the Black Tower in its center, which ascended from the core of the earth ever upwards. It was spiked with cathedral spires and black flames.
A coven of cloaked creatures was circled in the summit of the structure. Their garbs were jet black, just like every other object that entered the ravine, the sole exception being their crowns, which were horned and glowed a brilliant, divine gold, mirroring excruciating light into the crevices of every black object there. The Grim were conversing, though not with sound but with the absence of it. In movement, they did not stir.
Nearby, the landscape sloped down into a pasture of hellish crops. Sticking up like scarecrows amongst the tall, stiff grain were laborers, their color all drained away from years, decades, perhaps millennia of torture. Their wrists, ankles, and necks were held taut by ethereal strings, caught on the other side by cloaked wardens. The reapers would cut the grass with their scythes and the slaves would load it into containers. There were millions of them, and monotony, stagnant time, was the only thing any of them knew.
But then, flowing through the field, there was a shining yellow light, flattening the wheat that was the tortured souls’ bane. They raised their heads to the figure, which was guiding a mob of angry shades behind it, and for perhaps the first time since death, their eyes lit up. The figure moved with great rapidity, spreading light into the eyes of the reapers, the slave drivers, and vaporizing them into piles of translucent cloth. It swung its golden sword in every direction, severing the ties that restrained the dead souls, and they began to rally behind it, joining the mob.
They continued to charge in the direction of the Black Tower, leveling the remainder of the wheat fields. They trampled over the blazing valley, flames scalding their feet, but they endured because they were free. Demons—lanky, impish creatures which wandered the lands of hell uncaged—reached out their fingers to stop them, but all succumbed before the golden blade.
High up in the counsel room, the Grim were still in debate. A constant howl flooded the room, only ceasing when one of them raised their hands and warped the soundwaves, letting the lack of sound speak for them. Finally, when they seemed to have come to a consensus, they started to descend the stairs single file...
The ravine finally came into sight, and the souls were tripping over each other to approach it. A long, black bridge with seemingly no support led across the bottomless abyss to the Tower’s entrance. On the cliffside, the flaming river plummeted and morphed from red to black, the fire changing color with it.
The army of souls pushed past their leader and flew towards the bridge, blind with fury. When they first crossed the threshold, their skinless skeletons began to wither into nothingness, crippled piles of sludge upon the ground. But then their leader entered behind them, and the golden light radiating from its sword reinvigorated them all. Nearly every tortured soul in the underworld stormed across the bridge, throwing down the Tower’s doors and bursting inside.
But there, at the entrance, wielding death and silence, the Grim were lying in wait.
I emerged back into reality on top of the hill, where the roads of the city square converged and City Hall stood. The group of protestors was congregated outside, yelling angrily, their signs painted with messages encouraging equality and justice. A significant portion of them were black. They faced a wall of police officers, side-by-side with flat, metal shields that read riot. One of them was the Policeman from earlier. I stood behind them, invisible now, watching the red eyes of the crowd.
From afar, it appeared unorganized, chaotic, but zooming in, I could hear repeated chants. Words spoken simultaneously, echoing across the crowd towards their opposition, often drowned out by layering sounds of anger. The attendees were so great in number that they filled up nearly the entire square, and they went so far that their tail end disappeared behind the hill.
Suddenly, the chanting seemed to muffle, and a figure climbed onto a pedestal, now standing over the crowd. He held a microphone and a paper, and his skin was the darkest of anyone there. All the protesters turned to face him; the ones nearest had to crane their necks. Even the policemen were staring, and I like to think that the politicians, wielders of the blades of law, who sat at the top of city hall, were watching too.
The man’s name was Elijah Marcus, and he commanded the ultimate attention of all around him. Everyone in the square was listening to him now. His dress was not polished; he wore torn jeans and a plain white shirt. However, he radiated an air of intense wisdom and refinement. He spoke in eloquent and ornate prose, and his words resonated through the crowd.
He preached about non-violence and equality, abstract concepts that crystallized into beautiful significance when converged with his poetry. He announced that all people should treat all others with respect no matter what the eyes see. That they should grow blind to color and judge everyone only on their character. That the only thing that truly divided them was government-gifted authority, and that if those without it are to respect those with it, those who have it should equally respect those who do not.
And then, I heard the shot. A booming explosion, shattering the minds of the front of the crowd. Elijah collapsed, and there was screaming, panic. 911 was called, and bystanders tripped over each other.
I shook my head. No one ever listens to my advice. Regretfully, I drew my scythe, wrapped it around Elijah’s soul, and pulled it upwards.
When I returned to the surface, it was chaos. The protestors were raging at the policemen, raising their fists, howling their criticisms. The other officers had distanced themselves slightly from the Policeman I had spoken to earlier, but none said anything about the smoking gun he had fired at Elijah.
Ambulances had arrived quickly; the crowd was in the middle of town, after all. But it had been hopeless. He was dead the moment the bullet hit him. Insults and slurs were flying in both directions, from both sides. Weapons were being created. There was most certainly violence. Police backup was arriving on the scene. Mourners were crowding around the body of their prophet as authorities attempted to zip him into a body bag.
That’s when the second shot rang out.
The policemen immediately leapt to the ground and tackled the protester who had a gun. They slammed their shields upon him repeatedly with murderous force, throwing off anyone who attempted to stop them. There were a dozen of them, all flattening this one man, their golden badges glimmering. The only policeman missing was the one who killed Elijah, who was lying on his back with his shield fallen over his face. Blood soaked the concrete around him. Horrified screams filled the air.
I sighed, sorrowfully, before rounding up the souls of the Policeman and his murderer and descending into the earth.
That night, I sat upon the porch of my cabin, looking out at my acres and acres of monochrome land, crumbling and cracking like a desert that suffered an earthquake. Bloody, violet grain seeped out from the crevices, bringing color to the field. Past my soil were bare, ominous trees, their branches protruding like arms. Even further in the distance, I saw mountains.
Words were once again flowing into my book like I was a river’s mouth, or a machine churning out products. I absorbed the atmosphere of this world, channeled it into my creativity. Focused on all the boldest differences between it and the bookshop, then the sharper, more subtle ones. One interviewer once asked me how I create such magical worlds, and I told him “to take someone somewhere, you must first go there yourself; let it totally consume you.” But, when I cannot envelop myself in the environment about which I am writing, I go to the most drastic opposite and invert it.
Some of the things in my novels, I sometimes wish were real. Periodically, I long for the companionship of the Grim who hold council in the Black Tower, in contrast to the solitude of my farmhouse and the inability to ever communicate with my fellow reapers. But some things I’m very happy are not true. I prefer the way they are in the real world…
My writing allows me to envision a world where things are different, for better or for worse. It lets me fantasize about spending time with others, about feeling the warmth of human love. And then, I can flip on my head and conceive the most vicious realities possible, and remind myself how well I have it here.
Death is not someone people love. People hate Death, reflect their anger onto it. Some believe I do not even exist, my true form being that of a faceless, uncontrollable phenomenon of nature. But by publishing my stories, I can live in the human world, feel the embrace of admiration. I can live forever, and be beloved by the population because they can no longer deny that I am real.
Idly, I stood up from my desk and wandered into the field. I drew my sickle and started chopping down bales of the reddish crop, which resembled amaranth. The shreds drifted out into the air, spiraling in the wind, the screams of the damned. Nobody tended these pastures, nobody harvested them, and nobody ate from them. They existed solely to give my house some scenery, and often they grew to the height of a bleeding jungle.
Once I had cut myself a path through the meadow, I continued walking. My feet kept dragging me further, off into the wilderness of eternally comatose trees and smoldering earth. Finally, I drew my blade and cut open a pocket in the universe, and I stepped through, emerging on the other side.
Above the clouds, and higher still, the knights of Heaven were lining up into grids. The cold and powdery substance beneath their feet, like the snow upon the mountaintops that made up the closest pieces of earth to them, they called sand. Around them were white, cubic tents, where many provisions and tools were stored.
At the head of each squadron, angelic generals began to bark commands, wearing veils of a clear, soft silver, their wings glowing faintly in the sun, which burned more brightly here than any place on earth. Slowly, the soldiers began to march, their golden spears and swords shining like God’s lightning. Some attached them at their waists; others raised them into the air in a display of authority.
They walked a great distance across fluffy but barren paths that resembled a desert. The heat was making valiant attempts to destroy them, but a little heat was nothing to the holy warriors chosen by God. They came across the Temple of Eyes, where the angels known as the Eyes peered down at the world—the surface and beneath it as well—with their telescopes, scanning for sinners. Angels disguised as magnificent and violent vultures soared over their heads like comets.
They rearranged formation when they arrived at a gushing, golden waterfall, its production as bountiful as spring. It flowed relentlessly from above their heads into a hole in the clouds, going for so great a distance that neither its top nor its bottom could be seen. The generals beckoned, and at their command, the knights leapt into the vertical river, falling for eternity.
One after another, they flew past columns of clouds, then wall-like mountains, then the blue sky of the surface, then the brown dirt and gray stone of the crust, and splashed into the yellow pool far below, shattering it like a crystal. The pond filled a grotto lit only by its honey-like liquid, and dark shadows danced on the rocks jutting out from the ceiling.
On the shore, depressed souls stood single-file in their faded, grey cloaks, chained together by invisible ropes made of an oppressive material, inching forward every few minutes like a traffic jam. A reaper at the front, who paid no mind to the incomers from heaven, dipped a cup into the pond and spilled its golden contents into the mouths of each prisoner. Upon consumption, they transformed, their coverings solidifying into shiny, light-colored metal, and their eyes becoming mad and deranged.
After all the knights landed, they congregated on the shore and listened further to the intense orders of the angels. They were all handed goblets, which they dunked into the water and drank from, reinstilling in them the pleasure of power. Elation washed over their faces as they were reminded of the heavenly feelings brought about by authority.
As the generals led them out of the cavern and emerged into the flaming underworld, the darkness weighing down on them like a heavy sheet, the generals’ words rang in their ears. “It is their fault. They are the cause. It is our job to eliminate them.” In the moment of looking back before the grotto was completely out of sight, the soldiers could see the reaper from before drink from the pool, and morph into a radiating, feathered angel.
From the moment the sky had become visible, the Black Tower had been in their sights, and they marched along the bank of the crimson river toward it. Their steel attire conducted the fiery heat, making them even hotter here than beneath the sun itself. The Eyes looking down on them seemed to smile, as well as eyes can smile. The black jewels which dotted the knights’ golden armor gleamed more brightly down here than they did anywhere in Heaven.
Finally, they passed over their last hill and could glimpse the ravine surrounding the Tower. An uncountable and impenetrable mass of shades surrounded the cliff and the bridge, and were so tightly packed that some were falling off. Opposing them were the Grim, wielding fields of dark energy, ghastly chains, and the powers to both bring about and amplify the agony of death.
The one who seemed to lead the souls rallied them with great war cries, and swung a golden blade; their newly arriving adversaries swung many golden blades. The Grim saw the knights and silently expressed their gratitude. The angels shouted similar war cries, and at their command, the army of Heaven charged down the hill intending to suppress the rioters.
I watched over the battlefield from the heights of the unholy mountain that was visible from my house. Black and gold were colliding on the empty fields, blades crashing together, light seeming to overtake and push back the dark. Screams of fury could be heard erupting from the forces of Hell.
Flying in for a closer look, I could see the contrast in the faces of both sides. The golden forces tended to scowl and fight with silent aggression, though there were some outliers. Many members of the dark forces had sadistic smiles and swung their blades with great energy. At least, until they received their first hits.
I floated above the armies searching for one particular soldier. When I found him, the Policeman was wearing a black cloak, charging with joy, looking wildly for victims to feed his prejudice. His first slice bounced off metal armor, then he enjoyed the bleeding anguish of his arm being splintered apart. The fires of hell invaded his skin and incinerated every tingling nerve. He cried out in misery.
I slowed time for a moment so that every fighter was inching through the air. The Policeman was now lying on his back, savoring the pain for as long as possible. It didn’t die down; there was no relief. It continued burning eternally.
When he had arrived in the afterlife, and I had announced that he would become a Hell Warrior, his eyes had lit up. He could continue to slaughter and take lives, even after he had lost his own. It sounded like Heaven to him. I leaned down so that my face was right next to his, and placed my skeletal hands on his shoulders.
“This is hell…” I whispered to him. “Nobody likes hell. This is what pain... what Death feels like. How it feels to have a bullet penetrate your skin. This is how Elijah Marcus felt in the moments before his heart stopped pumping.”
I returned to my place in the sky and stabilized time, and heard the Policeman wail like tortured souls always wail. He whimpered on the ground, and soldiers from both sides trampled over him. When he finally managed to stand up, he was wobbling, until he faced two familiar enemies: Elijah Marcus and Javier Onai—the man who had carried out the Policeman’s karma. They wore golden armor and stared at him with contempt.
His face filled with horror, confusion, and shock. How the hell’d they become knights of Heaven? he thought. His protests were drowned out by the blade of Elijah Marcus’s apparition; the activist’s real soul was resting in paradise, enjoying the consolations of a life cut too short. The decoy cut through the policeman’s skin like butter and chopped off his arm. He choked on his own blood.
Javier Onai came next, blasting a hole through his eye with a gun for the second time, dissolving the flesh into a hot, decaying mess. He, on the other hand, was being tortured just like the Policeman, forced to fight endlessly, subjected to horrific pain. After several more shots from his firearm with endless ammunition, he charged forward and fired at others, before feeling his first stab.
Black… gold… it doesn’t matter. There’s no difference. There are no Hell Warriors and there are no Heaven Knights. Heaven and Hell aren’t at war. Both legions are just dead souls dressed up in different outfits to create the illusion of opposing sides, so that the violent murderers being punished would be urged to fight.
Elijah’s apparition, placed there solely to torture the Policeman further, stabbed its sword through his neck. He was dead for the second time, though it would not be the last; crushed by the man he killed. He was weak; that’s why he needed to kill to feel strong. In turn, as punishment, he would die, over and over again. He would feel how he made Elijah feel forever.
Sure, it hurt. It always did, but the louder you screamed the more blood they would take. If you let out even one tiny whisper, they would make it worth their while. Some say, if they take all your blood, they would use you as their own unemotional slaves to perfect torture methods and decide the most painful way to kill you. I always thought that was a myth until I watched someone get all their blood drained out.
They looked pale with popping red veins in their eyes, but those veins slowly mutated to white as they lost their sight. Their pupils lost their sight to see color and envision the world as it used to be. That day I knew to hold it inside until they threw me back into the pit I called home.
I know I may look like a bunch of guys pummeled me, but it's just what they do here, what they do to us, to weaken our skin.
The first time I arrived there I didn't know where I was. The only thing I knew was that before I got there I was walking on the street. I had just left the grocery store and had a bag on me. I bought a loaf of bread, some cheese, eggs, water, and a piece of chocolate for a snack.
I remembered that I was heading home and it was around nine-thirty at night. I lived about thirty minutes away and I didn't want to walk that far in the dark. There was a short-cut to get to my house faster than taking the normal way but it was through a long alleyway. It always smelt like garbage and alcohol.
Sometimes people were in the alleyways too. They were mostly doing drugs and playing with guns but they always came at different times of the day. It was a risk to go through the short-cut but it was a risk I was willing to take. The short-cut cut my walking time by more than a half, at least 10 minutes. I didn't have to walk all around the block and risk being run over because most of the people that drove here were drunks.
I went down the alleyway and the people who normally took drugs and played with guns were there. I decided to have my head looking at the ground and to not make eye contact with them. I did see three people there with a dumpster fire lit and I just wanted to get out of there alive. They were near the middle of the alley way and I was almost up to them. I wanted to walk fast but then I thought that would draw way too much attention to me.
I wanted to look up and see what they looked like. I didn't know if that would've drawn attention to me either but my curiosity got the best of me. I looked up and over at them: they wore raggidy clothing and had old shoes on their feet and they wore a beanie on their heads, their hair was grey and dark, two had a beard and one didn't. I kept looking at them while I was walking up to them but I think I stared too long.
"Hey! What are you looking at?" one guy bellowed.
"Nothing, nothing. I'm sorry." I said as I picked up my pace. I started to go past them but one got in my way and I stopped.
"Where do you think you're going young man?" another guy asked me. He held his arm out and placed his hand on my chest.
"Home." I said. I tried to stay as calm as I could but his hand turned from a palm into a grasp. He held my shirt tightly so I couldn't get away.
"What's in the bag?" the third guy said.
"Just, just some food and water." I said. The third guy ripped the bag out of my hand and I couldn't go and get more food, I used up all my money for that.
"Let's see what we should take." one said.
The third guy opened the bag and saw everything that was in there.
"We're just gonna take it all." the third guy said.
The guy who was grabbing my shirt pushed me down to the ground. He turned me on my stomach and stepped on my back, almost breaking it.
"Get off of me!" I yelled, hoping someone would hear.
"Shut up. No one's gonna hear you." one demanded.
The weight he put on my back hurt so badly that it was hard to move, all I could do was wince in pain.
"Come on, be quiet. It'll be easier for both of us." the same guy ordered.
I didn't want to just stay quiet, I wanted to get up and run home but I couldn't. It felt like I was paralyzed.
"Let's put him in the dumpster, he won't be able to leave." the same guy said.
The three of them picked me up and threw me into the garbage. They shut the lid and then I heard a thud. I bet they sat on it so I couldn't get away. I went in face first and I hit my head on a garbage bag. It smelt atrocious but I needed to get out.
I tried to push the lid open but it was no use, all I got in return was laughs.
"Let me out! Please!" I yelled.
The three men laughed, but then opened the lid.
"We'll let you go if you play Russian roulette with us." one guy said.
"What? No." I screamed.
“Then you ain’t leaving.” the same guy said as he began to closet the dumpster lid again.
“Wait wait wait. Fine," I said. “I just wanna go home.”
"Alright. Get out of the dumpster." the same guy demanded.
I got out, but then I hesitated. I wanted to run but I didn't want to get shot in the back if I tried. I tried to run but one guy grabbed my arm.
"Oh, where do you think you're going?" the guy said, pulling me over to him. His hand clenched onto my arm like a claw machine does to a toy in the arcade.
"You're going first and I'm pulling the trigger for you." one guy said.
"Please. Don't." I pleaded, crying.
"Be a real man! Get ready." the guy said, pointing the gun at my head.
I focused on his hand, not trembling like how my entire body was. I could see his finger getting ready to pull the trigger and in a flash he did.
My life flashed before my eyes and when I opened them, light shot through my cranium like I was being shot to death. Did I die? If I did, why am I in a hospital, still breathing?
I asked someone for the name of the hospital and they gave it to me. They gave it to me as I looked up. I was alive.
I thought it was a normal hospital and I would've left the same day, but I couldn't have been any more wrong. One step inside and something felt off. I should've guessed it from the stained blood on all the "doctors" and weird tubes coming out of the ceiling with a button right underneath it. From the beginning, it was a mistake to have gone alone, let alone kept going inside, but I signed myself in and took a seat.
Twenty minutes passed and I got called down, but what I didn't realize was the masks on the 'doctors' faces, even the receptionists had them on. I shrugged it off and followed the doctor down the hall. The entrance was tucked in the farthest corner of the waiting room.
As we continued, multiple screams emerged from all around me. Was this hospital always in constant pain? I had to check behind me, and unfortunately I did, for as I turned and saw too much. Off-white gas flew into the halls and waiting area from the giant pipes in the ceiling. I tried to cover my mouth so I didn't inhale the fumes, but the doctor pulled my hands down and pushed me into a room.
He forced me to the ground, and I tried to get up but he stared at me. It made me uncomfortable and even more terrified than I already was. Before he put on his gas mask, I could see what he looked like, so I examined him: his face was flushed with color, pupils were missing from his eyes and they’re bloodshot, veins pure as white were shown on his neck and wrists, bones popping out of his arms; and that was all I could see before I had to breathe in the gas and he covered his face with a gas mask.
The gas seeped under the door and I tried my best not to breathe it in but I soon had to, I couldn't survive holding my breath forever or what seemed like forever. I had to breathe in the gas eventually, and it smelt like chemicals. Not like the ones in a normal doctor's office; they smelt like something was being burned or like acid was added to the mix.
I would've rather been suffocated than be drugged but my vision went blurry and my head felt weary. It was only a few seconds after I started to breathe in the gas. I soon felt my head land on the cold floor of the room and I suddenly lost consciousness.
It only felt like a couple of seconds when I gained consciousness again, and I heard an uneasy voice begin to speak.
“Well, it looks like you’ve finally decided to wake up.” After he said that sentence I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It sounded like gibberish to me and I kept looking at his hands. He made motions with them as if he was angry with me. I looked at his face next, only able to see his eyes because his gas mask was still on. His eyes stared straight through me like I was a ghost in this world.
I refrained from looking at his face any longer, it made me uncomfortable. I thought this was supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the state, I mean that’s what it said on the website. I guess you shouldn’t always trust what you see on the internet.
I never would’ve guessed this is what they do here, knock their patients out with gas and, well I don’t know the rest yet. I’ll find out soon since I’m one of their victims.
I decided in my best interest to look back up towards the man, but before I could he grabbed my arms on either side. I took a gulp when he made contact with me, I couldn’t move at all. My arms felt as stiff as rocks and my eyes were frozen by fear.
He looked at me like I was a fool, his bloodshot eyes stared right into mine. Chills ran down my spine and my mouth went numb. I couldn’t understand anything that was going on or where I was. It felt like I'd lost all memory up until after I got knocked out, except for knowing this was a hospital and what happened moments before I woke up here. Was it something in the gas that made me lose my memory or was it something they did to my brain while I was knocked out? I wish I could’ve seen myself in a mirror to see if there were any noticeable scars on my forehead or somewhere on my head but there weren’t any present and even if there were I probably wouldn’t be able to look at myself. I don’t even remember what I look like or sound like because of being knocked out.
I tried to gather my thoughts but they were all over the place. I couldn’t put the pieces together, everything looked blurry. All I could understand was that I was inside a hospital with an older guy dressed in a doctor’s outfit, but more gory. I didn’t understand what was going on and why he was holding me like this.
Before I could notice or have more time to think and try to piece the puzzle together, the doctor blindfolded me with an old rag, duct taped my mouth closed, and tied my wrists and ankles together with some sort of stained rope. It looked like the stain was a red color, maybe blood? If it was, I thought I knew what would happen to me.
A second later I felt his hands wrap around my wrists and his hands were freezing. They felt like dry ice was touching my skin and my wrists started hurting. Was he clenching onto my wrists like he was trying to break them or just irritate them? As he clenched onto my wrists I started moving, not in a normal way though. It felt as if I was being dragged across the floor and my body slammed into the walls and other objects in the rooms and hallways. I still had the blindfold on so I couldn’t see where I was going, who or what I was passing, but I did know this wasn’t going to end well. I heard screams and felt something wet land on my skin in multiple areas. Just from it landing on my skin some felt sticky, some felt liquefied, and some felt like they were solid but disappeared soon after. I didn’t know what it was but I had an idea of what it could be.
I could smell all sorts of things: from different gases, to blood and bodily smells. I wanted to throw up but I couldn’t make myself do it. I didn’t want the throw up to land back on myself and make me more gross than I already was. I definitely didn’t want to add any more smells to the mix so I swallowed my throw up and it was disgusting but worth it.
After the screams everything went quiet and my body went numb. I felt a sharp pain go into my right arm near my wrists and I couldn’t feel my body slamming into walls and various objects anymore. I couldn't feel myself sliding across the floor either. It felt like I was hovering above the floor and the air moved me around but I knew that wasn’t true. My arms and legs were no longer my own anymore, my body was theirs.
They hoisted me up to god knows where but maybe it was heaven, but it was most likely hell. If this was heaven why would I feel scared? Wouldn’t I feel safe rising up to God’s welcoming arms?
All I could imagine was seeing the Devil’s face, smiling after seeing corpses line up at his doorstep. His eyes were hungry for more people to torture, and his fingernails were sharpened to slice clean through skin, muscle, and bone. His smile said a thousand words, but the words were screams coming from inside his soul. It felt like I could hear the screams, and they sounded like they were coming from children. I thought they were screaming for help and I couldn’t go and help them, I felt useless. I was trapped alongside them and I didn’t know a way to escape but the only thing I could remember was his smile.
His smile was impeccable though. No wonder why so many turned to him, he flashed his smile all throughout heaven, hell, and the place where I live, earth. It seemed to be a smile of good, mischievous times, but it also whispered regret. His smile made me feel like I was getting stabbed with a thousand knives coming from all around me, acid pouring over my head, revealing nothing but my skull. Damn, I wished I was being lifted up to heaven to see the eyes of God and not the eyes of Satan.
This may not even be Satan at all, he might just be a soul trapped by Satan. He might’ve been given temptations and opportunities to sin and fell into Satan's trap but I don’t know. He could be Satan though, but I wished that I hadn’t shown up here. I had to deal with my own satanic doctor, maybe Satan himself. I didn’t want him to have control over my body but he lifted me up to heaven. I knew he wouldn’t keep me there for long and he’d soon drag me down into hell. I could feel his breath landing on my bare skin and I could hear the words he engraved into my skull. I didn’t know what to do but what I do know is that I wished I’d never shown up here. Having to deal with my own satanic doctor, maybe Satan himself.
He lifted me up to heaven, but I knew he would drag me down into hell. I could feel his arms wrap around my waist and my head. I felt one hand touch my pants and the other touch my neck. I felt like he was grabbing my thighs and squeezing them to the point where it hurts. I felt his fingernails penetrate my skin but I didn’t know if it was that or a knife he carried on himself. I felt him grasp around my throat, holding tightly but where I could still breathe. It felt like I was drowning or being choked. He used my neck and my thighs to lift my body up and I felt uncomfortable. Why was he doing this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this?
What felt like a second later, I felt my back being slammed into what feels like an operating chair, but more rough. When he slammed my body down onto it, it felt like some sort of concrete with fabric over it. It felt like the depths of hell clenching onto my back, ripping it apart with its claws. I could feel my spine shock and I heard a crack but I didn’t know where it came from. All I could feel was the concrete touching my body and hearing cracks emerge from it. Lucily, it barely touched my neck and head. After my body suffered from all the pain I could tell that my head was slightly lifted up then the rest of my body.
Before I could count to three, I got blinded by the light. The doctor laid the old rag on my forehead and untied my wrists and ankles but I couldn’t move a muscle to get up and escape. Maybe the sharp pain I felt was a needle with some sort of drug that made my body stiff to make sure I wouldn’t try to escape this hellhole. It felt like I was stuck in an ongoing nightmare and I couldn’t leave and go back to being normal. I felt like I’ve lost my mind, torturing my own body with images I’ve heard and seen before but could never remember.
Before I could let out a tiny whisper, he clasped my wrists, waist, and ankles tightly with a belt. He clasped my neck to the point where I needed to gasp for air. He didn't give me any mercy and pushed the belt down as far as he could so I could still breathe but be tortured at the same time, and then someone else walked in.
I heard a metal door open and immediately knew that someone walked in but my neck was being pushed down so much that I couldn't lift my head to see who it was. I was able to hear their footsteps so I knew it was only one person who walked in, I didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing but after their footsteps emerged I heard the metal door slam shut. I didn’t know if they slammed it shut or if the weight of the door slammed it. Either way, I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t know what was going on. Was this person going to torture me at the same time this guy was? Was this new person going to torture me worse then the other guy already did?
As the footsteps got closer I heard the other person start to talk. I still couldn't see their face, I could only see a little bit of their hair because I couldn't turn my head to the side to see what they looked like. I did hear the footsteps walk all around me but that was it.
The only other thing I heard from them was,
“This is Patient eight hundred and twenty-seven right?”
“Yes, he hasn’t put up a fight yet, so I think he’s a good candidate.”
“Alright. To get this straight, patient eight hundred and twenty-seven is male, five feet and eleven inches, one hundred and fifty pounds, has green eyes, platinum blonde hair, is tan, has one prosthetic leg on the right side, and is sixteen years old. He has one mother and no father. Does that all sound correct?”
“Yes, I think that’s all the information we have of him.”
“Perfect, right now he should start feeling some pain shock through his body from the drug you gave him. You did give it to him right?”
“Oh, I didn’t know I had to give it to him yet. I’ll get right on it.”
“This better be done by the time I get back.”
That was all I heard before their footsteps quickly faded and the slam of a metal door followed. From what I heard, the other person who entered sounded like a man but he was annoyed. He sounded like something went wrong or the guy who was first in the room with me messed up. I know the guy who was in here with me before was supposed to give me some sort of medication, I didn't know what it was though or what it does. I also heard the other man describe what I looked like, he said that I was sixteen years old but if that was true, why would I come to this hospital alone? I didn't think that I would've come here alone, did my mom drop me off here or was she still in the waiting area? Did she become a victim like me? And why didn't I have a father? Did something go wrong in my parents marriage or did he die? I wanted to know what happened with my father but I knew I couldn’t worry about that right now. I needed to figure out what happened to my mom and see if I could find her.
I knew that I had to say something and ask questions that I should get answers to but I tried my best to talk. The belt holding my neck down was too tight to where if I tried to talk it felt like I was being strangled and I couldn't breathe while talking either. I had to choose to either talk and suffer, or breathe and try to stay alive. I knew my best bet was to not talk but to glance around the room with my eyes to try to see if I can get some answers. My whereabouts were limited though because I could only move my eyes around to see what was going on. I couldn't see the floor up to my face and it felt like the chair I was on was higher than it actually was. I looked to my left and I saw some bookcases filled with syringes, glass bottles, and glass jars filled with different substances. I looked to my right and saw the doctor who was filling up a syringe with a weird liquid. Was that the drug he was supposed to give me? Why did it look that color? It was disgusting, it looked like he just filled that syringe with throw up. I started to freak out more than I already was. Am I even going to survive this torture?
“Don’t worry this won’t hurt a bit,” the doctor said with a crooked smile.
I could tell that he was lying, why would he want to keep me out of harm's way and not hurt me? He most likely already gave me bruises from when he slammed my body into the cement chair and dragged me through what seemed like hallways and slammed my body into the objects that consumed the space they were in. I knew I most likely wouldn’t survive this place but from what I've seen so far, they knock their patients out, tie them up and drag them through hallways making sure their victims get bruised and hurt, and they give them some sort of drug or poison. I hoped that this was the worst of it but it probably was going to get worse from here on out. My thoughts were getting interrupted by the doctor rusting through what seemed like a metal drawer filled with various objects of only God knows what.
I looked right, again, with my eyes to see him at his desk, but he turned around slowly and I tried to look straight into his hands. It was hard for me to focus on his hands but I tried my best. I saw two syringes filled with that weird liquid. He walked closer and closer towards me and I tried to kick myself free but every move I made put my whole body in pain. I wanted to escape, I wanted to get out of this hellhole but I knew that no matter how hard I tried I would still be stuck here getting tortured for the rest of my life. I kept trying to kick myself free but it was wearing my body out quicker than normal. I even tried to block out all the noises and tried to concentrate on escaping but it was no use. The doctor's voice penetrated my focus and I was now focused on his voice.
“Stop moving right now or this dose doubles!”
I didn’t know what to do, I knew that if I got the double dose, it was most likely going to be lethal or very close to it. I knew that I wouldn’t be here to see life again if I made it close to escaping this hellhole. I didn’t know if it was better to sit still and take the dose or keep trying to break free from these chains.
I tried to calm my body down as much as I could but it was no use. The doctor filled up two more syringes and came over to me as fast as possible. I tried to hold my breath and calm down but my legs stopped shaking, arms stopped trying to get free. My heartbeat raced faster per second and all I could hear was pumping in my own chest and the footsteps of that doctor.
I looked at his hands with the four syringes, two were filled with that weird liquid and the others looked white. Was he giving me two different drugs at one time? I stopped looking at him and then in one second he was standing above me with the syringes.
My heartbeat raced more than it already was. With another crooked smile the doctor said, “Bloods filling up my glasses, and I think I need a refill!”
What does that even mean? ‘Bloods filling up my glasses and I think I need a refill,’ was that a metaphor for something? I was so confused, what was he talking about? I looked at his face and his smile was more crooked than it was before, showing his bloodied teeth and withering gums. His breath was atrocious. Reeking of smoke, alcohol, and a little bit of blood. It was like he didn’t know what dental hygiene was. I don’t know what else his breath could smell like. All I knew was that I couldn’t breathe it in because it would’ve made me throw up and have even more pain in my neck from the belt pushing down my throat. I wanted to ask questions and get the answers that I deserved, but there was nothing that I could do. I couldn’t move or speak. I was trapped until they knocked me out again or the rare possibility that I found a way to escape.
I closed my eyes to try to block this place out, but it was no use. Even in complete darkness this place decided to haunt me. It felt like the intense darkness was suffocating me with shapeless hands that belonged to a murderer, who showed their victims no mercy. It was worse than I could even imagine though, I was being silenced out, but I had so many words I wanted to say. I just couldn’t form the sentences. I wanted to run away from this place and tell everyone what I went through, what I felt, and what I've heard but I couldn’t. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide from this place. It was already imprinted in my brain. I couldn’t speak and tell the world how I felt. I couldn’t cry and let myself become even more vulnerable than I already was.
I couldn’t let off any emotion that would make me weak. I wanted to shed a tear but I knew if I did, he would do something that I couldn’t explain. I didn't know what he would do to me but what I did know was that it wouldn’t be good. I had to make sure to not let out any emotion. I have to make sure to not let out a whimper of pain or let a tear run down my face. I didn't think I could even hide from him. I wanted to run off and find a place where he couldn’t find me but I knew that was impossible. I felt like I was hiding from the devil for a little while but I knew he could still see me. I knew he was staring right at me, right through me. I didn't know what I could do, what I could do. I felt like I couldn't breathe, I couldn't run away anymore because I knew I wasn’t set free and I was never going to be set free.
I was bound to this chair like how a puppet was bound to its strings, forced to listen to its masters. Like a ragdoll they threw on the street to get run over, ripped apart, and sewn back together to do the same thing and worse things over and over again. Being forced to take drugs I didn't want to take and being forced to say things I didn't want to say or I had to stay silent even though I had a whole speech I wanted to say. Being forced to stay still like a statue even though I wanted to run away from this place but I couldn’t. Being forced to be someone that I wasn’t. All I could do was wait for them, wait for them to do whatever they wanted with me. I wasn’t able to do anything except wait. I was useless and couldn't do anything for myself. I was being treated as their own little puppet and there was nothing I could do except open and close my eyes. I thought that nothing would happen if I kept them shut for as long as possible, and at the same time, I wanted to control my own thoughts before I opened them. To keep my eyes open would allow more scars, physical and emotional, and they had done enough to me so far.
Wait, it wasn’t just me who had to go through this. It was everybody I could and could not see. To be honest, I could imagine many people falling from the sky. I’m guessing that everyone somehow ends up here in the end. What can we do to escape it, to escape this new reality actually? I kept asking myself if this was the worst of it? I wanted to keep telling myself that it was, but it probably wasn’t. Why wouldn’t they want to make my life a living hell? They were probaly going to put me in more torture and do things to me that I couldn’t even imagine.
I wanted to open my eyes before I got even more freaked out then I already was, and it didn't feel like I had them closed for a long time. But before I could make a decision for myself, my stomach caved in and crushed my organs. It felt like I was winded after running a track race but at the end someone decided to throw a brick at me. My lungs weren't there anymore, as if they disappeared without leaving a trace. It had sent a nerve into my eyes to open them up immediately, and when I did open my eyes everything was blurry. I couldn't see straight, and it was hard to keep them open. The only thing I could see was a silhouette of a man standing in front of me.
All the noises were blocked out from God knows what but it came back slowly but also in a flash. I was first able to hear white noise, then it went to the noise of the heater on the other side of the room. I was able to hear water droplets from the sink next to me, then it went to some mumbling, but before I could regain my thoughts it turned into words. Words that a calm person wouldn't use, words that an angry person would use. Words that would break someone's innocence. I could tell immediately that those words came from the doctor who was 'treating' me.
He said, "Why did you pass out! You fucking little brat thinking you could be unconscious for a while and think you could escape? An iv's in you! Why did you pass out on me?"
He kept rambling on and on, and then silence happened. Why was he angry with me? I didn't pass out on purpose, but now a thought conjured up. How did I pass out? Was it from the drug he gave to me before or was it something completely different? Was it dehydration? Heat? Severe pain or a sudden drop in my blood pressure? Was it a seizure or from trauma? I didn't know what else it could be but I wanted to keep thinking of what made me pass out. But I couldn’t, I overheard the doctor yelling at me again.
He said, "Listen when I'm talking to you! I had to wait hours for you to decide to wake up again, but then I got bored and just did it myself. I already gave you your first dose but now you're getting the second one as well. Say hello to hell for me, oh wait you don't have to. We're already here!"
What did he mean by "Say hello to hell for me, oh wait you don’t have to. We're already here." That put my mind in a maze unable to escape. Was this some sort of mind trick or was it something that's incoherent to me? I looked at him to see how much time I would have left before he gave me the second dose, but I guess I was too late.
He said, "Say hello to your parents for me, why don't ya."
My parents? Why did he want me to say hi to them? And plural? My dad, as far as I know, was dead, gone forever, and my mom was trapped here somewhere. I was never going to be able to see her again, or in that case anyone again. I was never going to be able to hear their voices again, or let alone get a hug from them again. I wanted to ask him if I could see my mom one last time before I take this second dose, but he probably wouldn't let me. The pain from knowing that I would never see them again got to me. I let out a single tear but then a spark hit and a stream ran down my face. As the droplets fell off my face it landed on the floor little by little, soon going to create a pond full of tears and memories.
Memories of when I was younger and carefree, not having a single care in the world. Not having to worry about anything that would happen that day or in the future. All of those memories were flooding into my brain making me dizzy, I couldn't think straight.
I kept remembering my childhood, and I wanted to try to get up and scream for help but that would make me even more vulnerable than I already was. But how could someone who is strapped to a chair, unable to move, be any more vulnerable? Oh I know, I would probably get drugged again, get tortured even more and have to feel it for hours and hours every single day. I most likely wouldn't know what they would do to me because I would probably be blindfolded and have a rope in my mouth to keep it open and to not break my teeth. I didn’t want to feel anymore pain then I was already in but I knew that wasn’t going to happen as long as I was here. I didn't think that any part of me would be able to handle any of that. I didn't even know how long I've been trapped here. Have I been here for a week? A few days? I didn't know. I was probably not even going to be able to know it any time soon and with that all the memories start to flood my mind again.
CHAPTER 1: A DATE WITH DEATH
An apparition of doom is what the room depicted. The operating table was enough evidence that the previous encounter was a bloody one. The thought of the scalpel penetrating his skin gave him goose bumps. This was a serial killer’s den and today he would add to his tally. The dust coat on the small study table was an indication enough that this guy was up to no jokes.
Breathing heavily, he looked around the room for anything that could help him out of this situation. The straps on his arms and limbs had been fastened so tight that his fingers and toes numbed. The smell in the room alone surpassed the stink of a skunk, the smell of death. The whole spectrum of odor was emphasized in the room, from fresh blood to rotten flesh. On the right side of the operating table were shelves all stacked with souvenirs in large glass jars, from severed arms, genitalia and several internal organs. The place was creepy and Ousolyf knew that it was just a few minutes and he would be statistics.
The killer had left an hour glass running for the victim to be aware that even time couldn’t change his fate, it was just a few grains and Ousolyf’s fate would be sealed. He felt helpless, a feeling that he had always loathed, something he had tried to conquer. He was bullied in school up until his final year. At the age of sixteen, he was raped by an unknown assailant making him unable to control his defecation for almost a year. Today he had been put in the same position, no place to run to, his life was dependent on the killer’s mercy. He felt bad, he could not feel his fingers and toes. His throat was very dry from dehydration. The thought of death gave him shivers, a strength that he couldn’t imagine crept into his thin muscles like water during a high tide. He pulled with all his strength but the straps did not budge, they were pure leather, well-tanned and fastened by an expert. After several minutes of struggling without avail he decided that his doom had arrived. He closed his eyes and awaited his demise.
The heat from his body evaporated alongside the sweat. A super cold chill ran down his entire body. The stench of death filled his nostrils. The horrible thought of decapitation caressed his mind with such a diabolical sequence. He was now shivering, his pupils dilated courtesy of the fear that now held his whole-body captive.
‘the thought of death is the real horror’ came the husky voice of the killer.
‘Death itself is such a beautiful thing’
Ousolyf thoughts came to an abrupt halt at the voice of the assailant. His presence changed the atmosphere of the room. The cologne that he wore had a strong smell, the kind that you never forget. He was adorning a long sleeved stripped blue shirt, neatly pressed and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. His trousers were a dark shade of beige. He was a big man, about six feet tall with an athletic frame. He wore glasses with a thick lens and a surgical mask covered his mouth and nose. Just above his glasses there was a pair of eyebrows, thick and naturally contoured.
‘We are going to have some good time’
Good time? Ousolyf thought. This lunatic was going to eviscerate him in this God forsaken place and he dared say that.
‘Could you just use a gun’ Ousolyf asked,
‘Where is the fun in that’ he said with a chuckle
‘I cannot miss the intrigue at the sight of your spilled guts and cranial content’
He said this as he spread his tools of trade on a small table adjacent to the operating table. Ousolyf was now shaken to the point of death. He thought to beg for mercy but that was too late. A conversation with the person who was fashioning his destiny wouldn’t hurt, he thought.
‘You can at least use a sedative’ Ousolyf managed to initiate a conversation
’Then it won’t be artistic, an artist needs an audience for the performance. I mean, think of it like a ballad, would you waste all that pomp and color for a blind and mute audience?
It worked; the psychopath fell right in to it. This shone some light of hope in Ousolyf. He knew that if he managed to prick the man’s ego things could escalate and lead to his quick death or he could get a chance to live.
‘Then you could use some anesthesia’ Ousolyf continued with his questions.
‘The intrigue is preceded by the pain. Without suffering there is no impression left by the performer’
‘Okay, why am I the bound to this table? Are you afraid that the prey might become the predator?’
A moment of silence passed before he responded. There was a change in his voice, a tinge of frustration as he spoke.
‘If I were the one performing, I would just paralyze you, but that isn’t the case.’
That isn’t the case? This was bad news for Ousolyf. The killer had an accomplice. The light at the end of the tunnel blinked in to a deep darkness and the horrors came back. He had no play remaining. After the brief announcement of an accomplice he left.
A moment later, Ousolyf’s devil resurfaced, this time in the company of his demon. The other person was a bit shorter and smaller in stature. From the walking Ousolyf could tell that it was a woman. She approached the table stared at Ousolyf for a moment then proceeded. She took a marker pen from the table and came closer to the operating table. The lab safety suit that she was wearing covered almost every inch of her body. The safety goggles exposed a set of eyes, young and familiar, it was a girl. It was worse than he thought, he was going to be killed by an amateur. His death was going to be brutal and at the hands of a ‘toddler’, his fear grew even more. She leaned forward and started making marks on his chest and the lower part of his torso. The tip of the marker pen was cold, this just made his fear grow so extreme that he felt the butterflies in his stomach go on a wild dance. His heart was pumping hard against his chest. His sweating was becoming profuse and tension was growing by the second.
His assailant then unwrapped a big leather fold and exposed an assortment of surgical instruments. From the number of tools, one could tell that this was not the first time they were doing this. She caressed the tools for the best choice. Funny enough she arrived to the very obvious one, a long scalpel that indicated prior experience. She toyed around with it moving around Ousolyf as if to decide the part to begin with. For Ousolyf the horror was becoming real he could feel a sudden urge to piss.
After a moment of consultation with her evil self she arrived to whatever conclusion she was looking for. She moved closer to the operating table and adjusted the lights moving them closer to illuminate the chest area. By now Ousolyf had no bargaining chip, his fate was sealed and depended on the conscience of this young lady. He decided to throw one last word at the decapitator, kicks of a dying horse.
‘You really find pleasure in this right?’ he managed a sentence
‘I mean, its not worth it, you don’t have to do this’
It was not working, the assailant continued with his business unperturbed. Maybe a compliment to her beauty would work some magic. Nobody hates a compliment, he thought.
‘With all this grandeur you would defile yourself with this?’
There was silence yet again but this time she hesitated and for a second stopped wiping the scalpel with a gauze dipped in alcohol. Ousolyf was good at mind manipulation and on seeing that, he immediately knew that he had a chance. All serial killers had a reason as to why they started killing. Usually lame but a reason nevertheless.
All odds were against him, he felt blood pressure in his veins rise intensely. His heartbeat escalated, it thumped loudly against the silence in the room. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face dropping on the cold operating table. He looked around one last time before he resigned his fate to the killer. The room was dimly lit by an oil lamp that rested on a stand just above his head. The large lights above his head had been put on. The idea that came to his mind was crazy and dangerous. He had decided to try and free himself no matter the consequences. He could hear from outside that there was a storm brewing the thunder was getting more frequent and it had started raining.
There was the flickering of the huge lights then the darkest shade of black filled the room. Everything seemed to disappear, dissolving in to oblivion. This was a chance to escape though the straps were still tight. There was a weird silence for a moment then a loud thunder which was preceded by a bright lightening strike. It was a few seconds yet it seemed like a lifetime. Events that followed would seal the deal for his destiny. The lightening had started a fire on the wooden shelves that held the killer’s trophies. The fire had started growing and soon enough the whole room would be in flames. The room was beginning to be lit again.
A rise in temperature and the accumulating smoke was beginning to take a toll on him. On a closer look Ousolyf realized that a tree branch was hanging inside the room close to the entrance, that is where the water was getting in from.
To be continued…
CHAPTER 2: BOWEL EXEUNT
He walked with haste towards the twinkling light in the distance. The shadows of the tall buildings in the moon lit night seemed to be staring threateningly at him. The poorly lit streets of downtown Nairobi were always creepy at such times, something he had always dreaded. He trudged down the alley, his dim shadow trailing behind him like a creepy predator pursuing potential prey. Ghastly images kept creeping in his mind as he traversed the now silent alley. The loneliness in the alley gave him the creeps, he could feel the blood pressure in his veins rise intensely, his heartbeat escalated. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face as he increased his pace, he had this feeling that he was being followed.
Looking back to ascertain that he wasn’t being paranoid he bumped into a figure right at the intersection of the alley and another street. It was dark, he couldn’t make out his apparent assailant. He was petrified, his muscles went stiff, he was not paranoid, someone had been following him all along. Before he could do anything, the huge figure swept him off his feet and in a few moments his hands and feet were bound together. He struggled to free himself from the ropes to no avail. He then resorted to screaming but the assailant had proper muting plans for him, he was gagged with a cloth that smelt like spirit. The assailant ripped down his pants, he was feeling dizzy. The assailant had a strong perfume, his eyes were hazy and he could only see blurred images. He felt a sharp pain in his behind.
Ousolyf was awaken by the smell of rotting vegetables and the buzz of flies. It was dawning and he could avouch that he was not in his bedroom. The little noises coming from the little crowd that had soon gathered reminded him that he was not in the comfort of his home. He couldn’t recall anything, his head felt drowsy and there was a sharp ache
An elderly man was looking down at him
‘What happened here son?’
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Can I call your parents?’
All these questions kept ricocheting in Ousolyf’s head increasing the headache. The pain in his lower back was so intense he fell back into the filth when he tried to stand. His feet were cold, his leather shoes were cutting in his ankles. There were all kinds of feelings in his body, exhaustion and back pain being felt more. Everything was slowly coming to shape. He was lying in a dumpster his pants torn. People were milling about him and there was a strange smell he kept recounting, a strong perfume, he could smell it even in the garbage.
An ambulance arrived moments later and he was wheeled inside, he passed out again
The flickering lights in the ceiling caught his attention, there was the smell of alcohol and drugs
‘He has come to’ he heard an unfamiliar voice
‘Hey Ouso, son am here’
That was his mother, he could never mistake that voice. He had been hearing this voice since he was born.
‘Am I in the hospital?’ he managed to croak a sentence
‘Yes son, relax you will be okay’
‘What happened?’ he managed a hiss.
‘You were found on the street wounded’ Eva paused for a response.
‘Do you remember anything?’ Ousolyf was quiet just staring at his mother
All he could remember was bumping into a huge man and the smell of spirit and… and a strong perfume. Everything else was a patchwork of short videos resonating in his mind.
‘I do not remember anything mum’ he said trying to raise his head.
‘Just keep still son, your back is injured.’
The pain from his back travelled in his entire body like fireworks. His head was heavy and he could feel a slight headache. Things were slowly taking shape in his mind. The taste of iron in his mouth was because of blood from a bitten lip. He could remember being gagged and bound with a sisal rope. He looked at his wrists, they were bruised, they appeared tango and there was a little itch…
To be continued
CHAPTER 3: LOVE BITE
The comics store was a place Ousolyf had learnt to cherish, it gave him serenity, it was a place he felt calm. Almost all the latest collections were stacked in his bedroom, he had a whole library of them. On Saturdays, classes ended before noon and the rest of the afternoon was spent at the store. When he was not rehearsing at the KNT he would be at the store. He loved this particular store not only because they were always up to date but also because of the cashier, Clara, such a beauty. She always made Ousolyf nervous and eager to see her at the same time, so confusing. Her voice was music to Ousolyf’s ears, her presence always knocked out some of his brain cells. He would never think any time she was in close proximity to her.
The young lady, Clara was something to behold. To Ouso she was like the moon, shining all in her glory with such grandeur, this made everything about his person oblivious. She was quite of the stature, medium height not big rounded body and of light complexion. Her large eyes glowed with a certain luminescence that anyone looking at her felt an impulsive urge to stare. When she smiled her ever scarlet painted lips gaped to expose two magnificent rows of teeth white like the inside of a coconut. She was a true definition of beauty, a sight Ousolyf always looked forward to.
This particular Saturday afternoon, Ousolyf passed by the store like he routinely did. One of the doors to the store was closed and this was an indication that it could soon be closed. He however urged on and went forth to the store. As he went through the door he almost collided with Clara. Startled she dropped the padlock she was carrying and she froze.
‘You scared me, that is creepy. And… we are closed.’
‘You could spare a minute for a regular I suppose?’
‘Yeah sure, but don’t be long.’
Ousolyf didn’t know what else to say. He had been at the store less than two days ago and was sure there wasn’t anything new. Some untold force was pushing him to be here. He knew that if he did not tell Clara what he felt he would succumb to anxiety. She was right in front of him but had no clue on how to say it. Clara was a third-year student at a local university and Ousolyf was still in his first year at medical school, that made it even more difficult.
‘Hey Ouso, you need something?’
This brought his delusion to an abrupt halt. He had been standing there staring at Clara in stupor for a whole minute saying nothing. His mind had drifted to a mystical world and of which manifestation could only be seen in his stupid smile. This woman swept him off his feet every time he saw her. It was the very thing he dreaded, love. To Ousolyf the precepts of love, conventionally, was all but a façade the real depth of which was so hidden that humans had decided to make love such a beauty. His intrigue was seeing suffering in other people, especially when he was the cause. To him, the universe had conspired to put him to shame, a belief that had grown after his encounter with a serial killer and a rapist earlier on in his life. He had a craving to be in control. The thought of his emotions being controlled by another person brought paradoxical feelings so confusing to his young inexperienced mind. Clara brought him an untold gush of joy at the same time gulps of ineffable hatred for this girl eviscerated the very core of his brain
All these feelings had taken a hold of him that he felt overwhelmed every time he was around Clara. She always reminded him of someone awful in his past ….
CHAPTER4: THE KILL
The plan had materialized in his mind the moment the smell of the perfume hit his nostrils. This was a scent that could not escape his olfactory glands. It reminded him of the horrors of his life, the worst memories of his life. Phantom pain kicked I as he strode down memory lane. He had always looked forward to getting back at the person who ruined his life. He came close to committing suicide were it not for his pride. Every time he remembered that moment it was a despicable mental mutilation. He had thought of ways he could punish this person if he came across him
This very day an opportunity had availed itself at the, most fantastic moment. His mother had travelled up country for a distant relative’s funeral. He had been left at home all alone. The vacant servant quarter was the best spot for the soon to be heretic decapitation. The problem he faced was how to get his victim to the house…
A tale of idiocy and unexplainable duplicity is what had become of him. He had tried to keep his life straight but circumstances always brought out the worst in him. Likelihood beckoning imagination, he had already created the whole thing in his mind. Forgetting that his was much of a rudimentary plot, he forged ahead.
The way he was going to do it was not clear yet but the insatiable urge was unquenchable. There was a darkness that sprawled inside of him like wild mushrooms whenever he thought about his life. What happened to him changed everything about his personality. He hated himself and he blamed it on everyone in his life. The idea of getting his first kill was exhilarating.
He imagined the moment a man’s life was dependent on his mercy. An incredible surge of adrenaline traversed his entire body at the thought of this. Today was that day, he was not going to lose that chance…
His collection of tools was scarce but he had all the basic ones. All the ones needed he had acquired from the anatomy lab at school. He had arranged the servant quarter to imitate a lab. The old long dining table was placed near the window, three study lamps positioned strategically all directing their light at the upper part of the tilted table. The table was in a tilted position with the help of two planks of wood beneath its two legs and a rope tied on the window grill.
Ousolyf had modified the table to the best of his knowledge. Two holes on either side of the table had been made and a pair of leather belts fastened through. On the lower edge a piece of wood had been added across for feet rest. A few inches above the feet rest there were two slits with another pair of leather belts. On the right side of the ‘operating table ‘was a small coffee table where the ‘tools of trade’ were spread. An hour glass and a small digital camera sat next to the surgical equipment. An assortment of glass jars was set on the single bed at the left corner ready for the souvenirs. The stage was set and ready for the coming performance. The camera tripod stood right next to the tools’ table ready for service.
Part I - 13 August 2224:
I awoke in stages, a luxury I wasn’t afforded before our escape to what we’d thought a safe haven. The Dark Matter I alone had detected in unmistakable detail shattered all semblance of normalcy, affecting immediate displacement. Not only had I seen its valid name-imprint, Dark Matter, on the scatterscreen at my workplace, I’d witnessed its awful power in person! I’d known instantly and resolutely that Jake and I were compelled to go within the hour.
Here now, due to dark material that had existed heretofore solely in space, but then manifested itself to me on earth. Upon rising and making my way down two flights to the kitchen, I’d glimpsed hundreds of roaches around the sink, but they scattered and disappeared. Horrified that so many could’ve made their way in here, I returned to the sleep-room but found my soulpartner Jake still sleeping. It was better this way, prolonging his knowledge of yet another misery.
Re-exiting the sleep-chamber, nausea and weakness struck fast and hard. I fell panting to the floor, swallowing convulsively, holding back bitter bile. Each time I’d beheld Dark Matter up close, I’d envisioned Thor’s thunderbolt revealing monumental effects this matter form had wielded on our planet.
Directly, in full detail, I witnessed the incalculable, all-powerful efficiency Dark Matter had employed as it formed the caldera now encompassing Yellowstone. Though more than 70,000 years past, this transpired here, NOW, before my very eyes as I watched, strapped to the floor by the Matter’s interacting particles. “It’s not Dark Energy, 68% of the universe, Lolla,” I soothed myself. “It’s the 27% of matter, Dark Matter!” Other earthlings could see only baryonic, “visible” matter, comprising less than 5%. A small consolation, “only” 27% had I dredged up!
I emitted a long, involuntary whimper as the singular vision cleared, leaving a distinct, acrid odor of sulfur. The sensation of norepinephrine galore pulsing through my veins held me hostage, rendered helpless. After some indistinct interval, the response subsided.
Who’d have guessed two weeks ago I would've chanced to come this far, to Here-Now? Since my neo-illusionment, my life changed in totality. From having held a job as a significant contributor to a society I disbelieved in, I’d been driven into this current position. A silent sufferer existing on the fringe, the banal now consumed my life.
The lottery likely would’ve caught up with Jake and me eventually had we not gotten out. A mandatory lottery determined who would live another day in a world where people might live on indefinitely. More to the point, it determined who would be sought out to die the next day! Very few made it past the odds to where they’d lived out their 500 years, after which point they were sanctioned to live incessantly without disruption.
Dark Matter enabled this practice, I now knew. Specifics eluded me though, despite my best attempts to unearth them. The lottery magnates had been protected by the influence of Dark Matter without the slightest whiff that this was so. Ironically these moguls would not have grasped the scienceknowledge nor its buffering effect that empowered them had all the physicists on earth explained it with the patience of Job.
Like Ancient Egyptians who thought the world would end overnight were it not for intercession of humans to gods, human life hung in the balance daily. And to keep it fair for all, people had but a day to put their affairs in order when their exitnumber came up.
It was one thing for Jake and me, who’d left our home due to fears of reprisal from our employ-opp, that corrupt government institution. We’d hoped to still cling to life in hiding. To receive a one-day death notice was quite another matter. It was not long enough to mentally prepare, to make peace. It was insufficient! To keep it fair, right! There was so much bribery
afoot, the whole society stank with it. Average workers like we were, earning but a decent wage, couldn't afford to buy anyone off. And we were doing our part for what? For this ‘just’ society?
Wandering the huge ghost of a mansion we’d come to inhabit, I noted the carpet was in ruin, composed of fibrous strands all but coming apart. Through these I spied more huge bugs attempting to hide but barely evident in the decaying fabric. Why, they’re just like we, I feared. No sooner had I thought this than I banished the very thought from my mind. No, we were safe now! Wasn’t that why we’d paid the sum total we’d put away over our lifetime to the Folcums? No one knows we’re here but Archibald and Esme, and they’ve been sworn to secrecy.
I made my way through a maze of rooms, down one staircase after another. Entering the north-facing room farthest from our sleep-chamber, I encountered two women of childbearing age like myself. They appeared to have led much harder lives than I by the look of them. Not wanting to attract attention to my situation, I let on as if their presence were commonplace.
“Can you believe she’s been killed, even now?” the shorter of the women asked me. I took in her oversized, bedraggled gunny, so flimsy and squalid.
“It came as quite a shock to me, I must admit,” I answered, unable to fathom to whom the speaker referred. An existence of necessary, habitual lying to unscrupulous, authoritarian overseers created the ability to easily conceal one’s true thoughts. My present fear of being remanded if targeted was palpable only to me, I hoped. I expected this woman would make it clear to whom she was referring, the someone who’d only just died.
The speaker continued in her tinny, nasal whine, “’Tis a pity she couldn’t have rested here indefinitely, and we could have stayed on with her. She was nearly verging on the 500-year milestone, the point of no returning. And now what’s to become of us? You’ve no doubt seen the crappy dogfood spilled on the floor of the kitchen? How it’s filled with maggots and flies? We’ve been reduced to eating that and what’s more, the remains of the dog in the oven. But that won’t last long what with the power being off and all.”
This news yet untested was unsettling, with still no telling who this person spoke of. It would not have surprised me much, though. People reaching the 500-year mark were all too often victimized for the sole purpose of stealing their identities, enabling others to live off their allotments. These women were hapless bystanders, but not family. I felt sure a tie would’ve been pointed out had they been related. I mulled this over and stated irritably, “It’s typical and I concur, a pity, that one 500 after another meets this fate. Still, it’s only this particular case affecting you.”
“Right you are,” agreed the wild-eyed one who’d not spoken until now. In the singsong of the paranoid schizophrenic, she wheedled, “Are you here to see we’re turned out? We know we were to be gone by now but haven’t got a place to go, you see!” Her voice, now raspy and deep, now climbing and dipping, reminded me of an actor I’d heard speaking on a 22nd century histoplay. This one, tall and slim, was the better appointed of the two. Her clothes did not hang awkwardly and were not nearly as filthy as the others’. Her unkempt hair, nails, and teeth belied a state of actual status, however.
I sensed I was nearing the end of my tether. While these women had no right to be here, neither did I; and the courts would view the highcrime of dissolution, mine, far harder than mere squatting. The going rate for reporting dissoluters would carry these poor souls a long way, by their meager standards.
My mind raced with lightning speed. The question that kept repeating itself was whether I risked making my way back to Jake to apprise him of this newfound, potential danger. As much as the roaches evoked abhorrence, the threat brought by these women was equally repulsive but far more menacing. Their presence, knowing I was here; these perils left so much at stake.
Were their motives innocent? I summarily reached my verdict. There was no way to trust them. The moment of truth arrived. “I see you’re hungry, and I’ve government cheese in my mealchest. It’s too much for me. You’re welcome to shares,” I intoned now in what I hoped was a passable rendering of a government humanoid.
A look of ecstasy immediately giving way to intense pain flitted across the face of the dowdier of the women, relief followed by greed too strong to bear. As she rose to her feet, my trembling hand groped for the metal pipe I’d noted leaning on a leg of the sidetable. I brought this pipe down hard on her nape. I’d saved the stungun for the one I took to be the more formidable of the pair. In short order these women, castoffs from a world grown callous to the needy, lay in puddles of their own drool as I raced back. Through sprawling padded hallways, up carpeted staircases with newly ramshackle banisters I flew to where my soulpartner lay, to rouse him, enlist his help, place on him the decision I was unable or unwilling to make myself. What in hell were we to do with these two now?
“Hurry, Jake, lest they come round to betray us!” I screamed as I rounded the door to our sleep-room. But it was empty. The only trace, a lingering scent of his sweetish sweat permeating the air. What’s more, his kit was cleaned out! Jake’s duolog flashed steadily, disproving the power outage rumor.
Entered in Jake’s own signet-font, a disconcerting missive visibly shattered any hope I entertained for salvation. “Lolla, make no mistake! I’ll go now, through with whoress like you!” it read on the disposal-feed, utterly simple with his clear intent. Now what’s next for me? I asked myself, sinking to my knees head in hands in dark despair. I scanned the rest of the narrative, the damning threat repeated and then the rest written in poemform.
I’ll go now, through with whoress like you!
The sucking without care.
But no, it’s meet, a bland scene,
devoid of diabolic scheme.
When heedless, wholly unintended,
virus fully had amended
back when laid and since repealed;
bastard microbe now revealed.
I list, as I’m
quite apathetic to all this.
It’s just, I’ve seen this play before.
Forgive me, ere I close the door.
How uncanny this was for multiple reasons. He’d never written poetry; and since I’d met Jake, he’d been as much a perfectionist as I. There’d been a spelling slip-up here and there, unlike his twin who could maintain no recollection of how to spell properly. So Jake would’ve had to notice his error in the spelling of ‘whores’ given that he’d misspelled it twice! How uncharacteristic! Another boggling deviation I found, logging back. A second entry showed on Jake’s disposal-feed. This, a nonsensical fragment of digits or code: 1248163264. Why would these be on this junk file? He would never not empty it! He kept nothing! Not only that, why enter gibberish at all?
Falling back to retrace my steps, I now saw one of his trademarks, for all the world the source of merciless teasing he’d endured for his love of the past. A piece of paper. Just like had been last used in the 22nd century. In his haste, he must’ve dropped it. A look at this cemented what I’d unconsciously suspected since before the Dark Matter had descended on me. Two
names appeared with a hand-drawn swashtyminder-mark vignetted between them, Fritz Zwicky and Archibald Folcum. So it was true!
Examining how Jake had acted of late now made perfect sense. His reluctance to leave, to come here now, to bring me along, his uncommon sleeping stretches. He had succumbed! On the take, complicit! And I? Now he’d laid it bare. I was but a pawn in this cruel game of the Dark Matter.
Zwicky had been sold out. He’d come to Caltech from his native Switzerland. Upon discovering unseen mass pointed out by anomalies in gravitational fields, he’d dubbed it dunkle Materie, Dark Matter, in 1933. His revelation hadn’t been hailed seriously, as it should have been by rights. A scant time later he wrote that evidence of this great of a discrepancy merited ‘a further analysis of the problem’. Archibald Folcum’s ancestors were moneyed even then, in the 20th century. I knew this full well, as I’d spent the entirety of my lifework-research daily investigating Dark Matter.
Though Zwicky raised the question of an error of gigantic proportion, it would be 50 years before the idea of dark matter was accepted by scientists. It was found that of the composition of 1000+ galaxies in Coma Cluster that Zwicky examined, fully 90% was dark matter. But the Folcums overreach of influence kept this burgeoning field of science on the back burner by channeling funds to other interests. The less attention drawn to Dark Matter, the better, in their view. By cherry picking and commissioning pet projects, they’d managed to capitalize on other up-and-comers. How else would Archibald and Esme have inherited this estate, as well as their dozen other formerly abundantly luxurious abodes?
“It is just as you’ve suspected, Lolla.” I told myself plaintively. Jake had sworn fealty to Folcum! Barely jutting my head through the slightly parted windowcovers, I took in the curve where the two-track lane disappeared into the wood leading to the ledge. I confirmed my worst
fear as Archibald’s convertpad plodded away down the course. Jacob’s darkly curled head of hair, an arresting sight, stood out beside Archibald on the frontseat. This selfsame conveyance had transported us up those barren cliffs below only two weeks ago.
Striking out of the chamber, I mounted the ancient pulldown ladder to the widow’s walk with the duolog, my scatterscreen, and enough clothing for a week in my rucksack. Unbeknownst to Jake, I’d stashed provisions and apparatus up above to supply us for a month. The visions I’d seen, the Dark Matter, acted as harbingers of what may be. I’d been numb and dense in past years from working 80-hour weeks. But the respite I’d gained in recent weeks brought newfound attunement to omnipresent necessity.
Jake had not seemed right, not himself at all, of late. When our former ardent lovemaking had cooled, I’d taken that in stride. This however was different, a seeming block of any feeling toward me whatsoever. Why had I neglected to call him on the carpet? A misplaced sense of duty likely bound me to him, for all the good it had done. Not hesitating a whit, I airgunned the attic door shut below my feet.
Having neglected to nourish or attend my body, I ate sufficiently, hydro-cleaned my teeth, and relieved myself on the remote-a-pot. My physical needs satisfied, I turned my attention to investigation. Upon scrutinizing Jake’s duolog, I discovered nothing in the feed I hadn’t already seen. But a hidden panel underneath opened as my finger unknowingly tripped a trigger and many papers flitted onto the platform. At first glance, they appeared blank. On further inspection I saw what looked surprisingly like tiny code inscribed on each leaf, 1248163264.
It was then that a realization hit me. I reflected on details that didn’t jibe. Searching my thought processes of the past hour, a stark inconsistency leapt out at me. “It is just as you’ve suspected, Lolla.” Why had I told myself I’d suspected Jake to be in league with Folcum, let alone act co-conspiratorially?
A conversation between the three of us then on-rushed me headon. We were preteens in the same grade in school at the time. We had become privy to the fact of Zwicky’s discrediting. I’d insisted we go to the Science Advisory Board, TVA, even the National Academy of Sciences with this news! While Jake had heartily agreed at first, after a long hard look exchanged between him and Archibald that spoke volumes of … I knew not what, he’d switched gears radically. He’d told me off in no uncertain terms, saying ‘scientists wouldn’t listen to anyone as young as we’ in such a withering tone it blistered! Had I remembered the abhorrent vitriol he’d spewed at me, we’d never have gotten together!
Who’d caused this memory to have been erased from my consciousness? Whose finger was it that’d been on the disremember trigger? Jittery now, a question presented itself to me. Had I spent decades with one who’d wiped my brain of that exchange? As unsettling as this was, I now noted another inconsistency of unimaginable proportion. TVA? NAS? They’d been operational at the time of that three-way conversation. Yet I knew these authorities had been dismantled no later than the mid-21st century when the first techno-famine was visited upon earth-citizens by the TechnoAutocrat. I, no, not just I; we three had been timeswapped as well, also unbeknownst to me!
Water under the dam, I reassured myself, is all this is. To sidetrack from my immediate focus would be foolhardy at this point. I must needs concentrate! Though daunting, I had to determine the method this Dark Matter employed without a moment’s delay. For eight hours, I pored over everything pertinent to Dark Matter I could assemble on my scatterscreen. My attempt to see a connection between Dark Matter and encroaching 500s being poached was thwarted. If there was a relationship, it was too well shrouded. Yet I held determined desperation. If damning fodder was there to be fed into an equation, I’d find it. I had to!
As light shined down a dark tunnel could make it through where nothing impedes it, any
matter blocking it cast a penumbra. I’d seen this as a child when I beamed a flashlight through a runoff drain. I knew the wild critter I’d seen enter the pipe was crouching halfway in, for its body shut off my ray.
Scientists tried at CERN in Geneva hundreds of years ago to gather enough dark matter to unlock its secret. They hadn’t seen the key, for they couldn’t. It was not part of the visible, nor could it produce, absorb, or reflect light.
As near as I could come to a tie-in between inside awareness of Dark Matter activity and details that had fallen into my hands of ubiquitous tax evasion, money laundering, and public corruption was a vague shell corporation. Its identity was profoundly encrypted like I’d never witnessed. Another dead end. Someone either had knowledge of how to unleash this awesome power or perhaps knew just enough to convincingly bluff that they did.
When I took a break to eat, I realized I was drawing to a close of my eighth hour enmeshed in researching. Nevertheless, I was frustratingly powerless to see my way clear to finding whose hand was at work here.
A wave of brilliant color swept over me. The Dark Matter returned with a vengeance! A roaring started in the left of my brain, louder than any MacroTrain blare. It continued, unrelenting, making its way incrementally through my head toward my midbrain. My amygdala heightened its fear sensors and I shook like a leaf in a hurricane. My eyesight grew splotched. I could see the world in a blur only, with a colored prism of light a circular corpuscle at my nerve terminal. This sphere was of huge proportion, unlike anything seen before. The sound deafened me, for I shouted aloud as vociferously as I could, yet could hear nothing of my own voice. Gradually, FAR too gradually, it moved on toward my right lobe and after what seemed hours, it passed out of my consciousness.
I was spent, sweatdrenched and drymouthed. I blacked out, fully dressed, for the night. A gracious gift from the universe was allowing me to relax thus completely. My drifting to sleep synced with newsfeed adding the following display: Dissoluter sought FOR TREASON - Dead or Alive - ^40,000.000 Reward for Lolla Myrkry of Aereonaut. The ante had been upped!
Part III - 14 August 2224
The raucous sound of birdcall came to me where I lay on the widow’s walk as the new day dawned. I broke my fast before noticing there was a bounty on my head. To say I was vexed at this turn of events put it mildly. I secured dark-matter ropes around me, stepped over the parapet and rappelled nimbly down the several stories to the lawn to scout around. These ropes I’d devised mimicked invisibility.
I had noticed a window ajar in the anteroom adjacent the kitchen. As I climbed through to enter the house, the unmistakable stench of decaying flesh confirmed what the women related about the dog. Donning gloves, I hauled the corpse out past the lawn, and lofted it over the bluff wondering, “they’d have eaten dogmeat?”
Back in the antechamber, against the wall, an ancient clockwork’s long, slender arm ticked off seconds. The antiquity clicked steadily as hands rounded its face. This centuries-old throwback brought nostalgia as often happened whenever I viewed long-forgotten artifacts. Suddenly a sense of foreboding overtook me with such dread my muscles tensed to run. But where? Raising the hackles on my neck, the Matter shortly arose out of nowhere! Cloying sea-smell arising, sweat drenching me in a thrice, my heart pounding in my throat, a towering tsunami ripped through the outer wall and excruciatingly flattened me in its wake, crashing waves crescendoing all round.
As quickly as it had come, it was gone. I found my recovery time better. Perhaps I was acclimating to the terrors. Not only was I adjusting, though. My perception fixated on another source of the lessened sense of fearfulness. I’d noted a bizarre flaw. When the tremor overtook me, I was looking pensively at the tall, old clockpiece. I’d sensed the Dark Matter a full second
prior to its showing itself!
Searching my memory for more, I replayed the event as in slow motion. Yes, there it was again! Around the edges of the effervescent corona I’d barely realized parts of actual surroundings. Perhaps if this event had lasted a shorter time than most, I was a trace less terrified. Again, after the tsunami’s departure, I’d felt its presence abate a full second before the normal look of the room returned, as evinced by the ticking of the artifact’s hand. I’d found a matched pair of rifts in the comings and goings of the monstrosity, although these arrivals and withdrawals had passed as seamless when Dark Matter had appeared before!
Now that I’d sensed a fracture in what had seemed impenetrable, the Dark Matter’s movements, I knit my brow over coincidences I’d noted. I knew sometimes they were just that, coincidence. Yet ofttimes, there’s more than meets the eye. Those misspellings had not been lost on me, and the Fibonacci chain cropped up recurrently. I located my dark-matter ropes with rope-sensor, reattached, and scaled the walls to my makeshift hideaway the way I’d come down, though more laboriously than my descent. Throwing a leg over the top rail and hoisting myself over, I mentally thrust around for a key to solve the mysterious repetition of this number chain.
Looking at the poemform Jake left unintentionally, I set eyes to the 10-digit start of the pattern. Examining the lot, I puzzled out words 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. This read as, “I’ll go through you meet back door”. Knowing Jacob, I took this to mean, “I’ll go through. You meet [me at the] back door.” While crudely coded, this must’ve intimated the ‘back door’ I’d noticed as spacetime staying open a time before closing. I’d seen-felt the undeniable opportunity this gap afforded when the Dark Matter receded in the anteroom to the kitchen. Jake had meant for that message to be found by me!
This knowledge armed me and, yes, buoyed me. If what I’d theorized would hold water,
given time, I could finally resolve and even master the riddle of the Dark Matter. To get to the very heart of this matter, I knew undeniably it was now or never! But I was aware I’d need help by way of extra hands to operate the clumsy manual panels at my disposal here. To my great disdain, realization dawned that I would eat a healthy serving of crow this day. I clenched my jaw in resolve as I reasoned out the only recourse left me.
I hand-wrote instructions on precious paper found secreted inside Jake’s duolog for precisely the way I needed the mini-colliders to be held open. These collider panels would secure access to the wormhole into the Dark Matter’s etherworld. I also scrawled proximate coordinates required for the star cluster vicinity I’d roughly deduced. Alongside these directions, I loaded pliers and food enough for an army in my knapsack and made the return trip down the side of the huge house to reenter unobserved.
In the antechamber, I grasped the copper arms of the clockwork and, with loud metallic snaps, wrested them from the antique with my pliers. Zinc-coated galvanized washers, vinegar, salt, copper ... I created a short circuit so that the flow of current would amplify as time passed.
The women were there in the same room, all right, just as I’d found them before. My disremember-beamer at the ready, I charged jauntily into their presence with the abundance of foods laden in my arms. As I’d predicted, in their present state of near starvation, all their focus went immediately to the rations. As they tucked in, it was a cinch to unbeam all memory of having met me from their minds.
“I am she”, I told them once they were sated. On a hunch, I acted the part I’d determined to play for them. “I had known my whole life I’d be rewarded, and it’s true at last. I resurrected. Had I not told you I would return?”
A part of me felt ashamed at this crass misrepresentation. Still, I reassured myself, it’d been necessary. I needed help to carry out my plan, pure and simple. For the first time in
weeks, I’d caught myself with an actual smile on my lips at the deep bows these women humbly and unabashedly made, to honor me. “Won’t you recite the name I took when you last saw my earthly form?” I asked breathlessly, with enthralling intensity to arouse their ardor.
“Esme, Esme,” they chanted dutifully in unison. This time a smile didn’t reach my lips, but I mentally shook my head at the nerve of this so-called friend of mine who’d clearly deceived these sheep with her posing as a 500. So she and Archibald acted harmoniously, after all.
“Tomorrow night,” I stage-whispered. “Be attentive to my need. I trust you with the wideness of the universes, as you doubtless will be faithful. 19:00 hour.” I backed out slowly. Once out of sight, I felt a rush of confidence at having secured allies. I turned, began to run, and slipped on damnable slickness of greasy excrement. My twisted ankle bruised and would purple before long, but I managed to top the rail of my hideaway nonetheless. To wash and prop the ankle up as I ate was my full intent, but fortune intervened.
Esme herself sat astride the white fence of the widow walk and shot bullets at me with her look. No pretense of a smile did she feign. “I need to eat,” I stated by way of greeting. I saw no need to sugarcoat the fact.
“You may eat when you’ve told me what you’ve done. That Jake of yours has gone and turned himself off again after indicating he’d cooperate! What do you know of this?” she demanded.
“He’s his own man. I’ve had no contact. He seems not to care whether I live or die.”
“Is that so? I’m vexed you would say this, Lolla. Come with me down from here. You can and must entreat him. Or do you not know there’s a reward on your head, you dis-so-lu-ter?” Esme intentionally over-enunciated the highcrime term with relish. I wondered how we’d been on-again, off-again friends through the decades and saw it must’ve been the nature of seeing one another so seldom, due to workload. “There’s a spare convertpad in the outbuilding I’m accustomed to maneuvering.” Though delivered with vibrato, I noted with an inner smirk that
misgiving about the eyes belied this gutsy claim.
“I will come down tomorrow. I truly must repose myself tonight.” Exposing my already swollen and still swelling extremity to play it up, I gambled for sympathy.
“All right, my dear. I’ll fetch you on the morn.” With that, Esme lifted up in her shuttlecraft-pack and alighted over the widow walk, hovering a long moment. She dropped a pantrypaquette before me and whisked off, over the house and on, up above the treeline with a quiet sputtering noise redolent of clicking beetles. The pantrypaquette proved nutritive in a way my tinned fare wouldn’t have, so I was glad of it. With a mental groan, I knew I would not sleep this night. To regroup and fashion a new plan was inevitable, now that the tide had doubtless turned against me in regard to not one, but both of the Fulcoms. I furiously ratcheted open the scatterscreen to see what solace I could find in much sought after, little known fact.
On the need to accelerate my findings with time still on my side, I dug into the realm of outer space, probing for a clue hinting at where the Dark Matter hid. An hour in, a swashtyminder became faintly noticeable, again between two names. The image began to pulse and glow at intervals on my screen. These were names of fantastical clusters of galaxies, Coma and Virgo, that I’d first made acquaintance with in my teens. I recalled that Zwicky had pored over 8 galaxies in Coma Cluster and most inner-ones were elliptically shaped. I read again what I’d always loved about this cluster, how two supergiant ellipticals overshadowed the central area. A portal map on pullout panels of the scatterscreen displayed the clusters with their respective galaxies as they’d been when satellites from earth captured their graceful inundations played out eons before.
Having cut my eyeteeth on teleportation theory, nothing new was here … except the damned swashty. Now the quasi-equation shifted of its own volition! I blinked my eyes repeatedly to make sure, but yes, it was still there! This time the shashty remained … but the
cluster names were gone. Instead, the mark was now betwixt two numeric phrases, 636/5.007874 and 636/5. Then I declare if the entire image didn’t start flashing and glimmering unbidden! What was it telling me precisely? Oddly, the screen color of the galax-font enumerating only the expression 636/5.007874 shot vivid red and stopped, appearing steady. The other components kept flashing.
I took a break then. When I returned, there was my answer! Flashing where the swashty had been, a 10-digit readout code displayed a pattern not lost on my mind’s eye. 1248163264. A quick calculation confirmed what I’d begun to suspect. Adding the 10 digits, I arrived at 127. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, it was simple enough to multiply it by 5 and more importantly by the ‘red’ numeral, 5.007874, to get an even 636. The portal map on the pullout panels of the scatterscreen now displayed the galaxy cluster Antlia, whose other designation is Abell SO636. The most habitable extrasolar planet choice for the likes of me in Antlia? Melquíades, aka HD 93083 b, orbiting K-type subgiant HD 93083. “Exoplanet Melquíades, it’s nice to see you there. How I’d love to meet in person,” I breathed.
What was it they’d said of Erdős, my first and all-time inspiration? He’d ‘said it better’, elegantly, perfectly! Of course! He’d viewed his love, mathematics, ineffable due to ideas that can’t or shouldn’t be expressed with language because the ideas are ofttimes impenetrable in their format.
I meant to double-check my calculations, run a stat-relay, failsafe the whole lot. I wanted, needed to work through. But try as I might to hold my eyes open, they closed against my will.
Part IV - 15 August 2224
It was 2:00 a.m. when I was awakened by überloud rushing, a convertpad engine revving
violently and climbing in hypergear. The clanking of metal against the cliffside of the promontory unmistakable, I frantically rose in a panic and fairly flew over the edge of my platform. I barely had time to grab my knapsack, gear, and the new coordinates I’d hastily run before nodding off. This info intact, I rappelled down fast, favoring the ankle shooting needles when it bore weight.
Once down and inside the house, I flatout ran, ignoring the pain and the chance of falling again, eyes already adjusted to semidarkness from my night beneath the stars. Rounding the hallway to the women’s quarters, I bellowed like a banshee, “Time is of the essence!” I broke in on their slumber like a bat out of hell and clicked the lights on, full beam. “New time of departure is NOW! Gather, get the trays out! Program!” I fairly barked, unpacking two mini-colliders as they struggled to their feet and collected them.
“Come on, Dark Matter, you son of a bitch!” I taunted reproachfully, ranting and looking for all the world like a crazed witch of old. “Show yourself!” I sought to spark it to make an appearance. The time I’d pre-calculated to summon it would not be until the following night. When it didn’t reveal itself I hung my head, discouragement washing over me.
“You need us!” cried the slender one, alarmedly. “I am Eppleson. Come!” she encouraged, leading me quickly, in anguish, with the other trailing a step behind. We moved not far up the hall where she motioned to turn off into the anteroom where I’d installed the short circuit the day before. Eppleson tapped the wall near the floor. To my surprise and great chagrin, the tsunami triggered in full form as it had two days prior. It was the Matter’s tsunami all over again. Only was it? Had I taken leave of my senses? What was happening?
I looked around, smelled saltair, squished squeaky seaweed bladders beneath my feet. The sound of the giant wave, the mist, the brutal burn as the wall of water smashed into and coursed over me were as they’d been. As the outrushing gushes retreated, I realized this was where I’d seen the anomaly, the rift in spacetime! Whether real or a trick of the senses, I didn’t know nor care.
I dragged the arms of the clock, now charged with built-up current, onto the mini-
colliders, punched in coordinates for Melquíades, 10 44 20.9149, -35° 34’ 37.279” through the back door, and blew out a pent up breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. The women were practiced in holding the heavy panels of the mini-colliders at angles and aimed them aloft just right.
One can jump from earth to keep from being grounded and touch an electrified fence unscathed. I tripped the short circuit with the intensified high resistance, and the old house held its own in the voltage department. Mini-colliders dimmed as they summoned electricity from the entire continental grid. Before the arc flash exploded, we rose as one. We were gone when Archibald and Esme Folcum, the doublecrossers, turned the lock and charged into the room mere seconds later. To their great astonishment, they saw all the gear there and turning around saw Jake’s on the ground outside, as well. We wouldn’t be needing our gear where we were. It didn’t matter.
Daring to Dream
Bella spent the afternoon observing the crews behind her house. They were digging holes and dropping immense wooden poles into the ground. Thinking about it, they looked so much bigger now that one was sitting by the oak tree in the back yard. The wires for the telephone line would run right beside the tree house.
Her brothers were already talking about putting a telephone in for them, but Papa has put his foot down. She could still hear him as he told her older brothers this wasn’t a toy. It was for serious conversations, mostly so he could talk to his office from home. Dad was the Chief of Police. Their town of almost two thousand had agreed to run lines to their home and at the same time, they were putting call boxes on street corners for the policemen.
For the first time in history, a police force could call for help if they had an emergency. No more having to do it all by themselves. Mama said it made her feel better, she could call for help too. Bella wondered how it would all work. The telegraph wires running beside the train tracks looked like gossamer threads of silk when they took their Ford Roadster for a drive after church on Sunday afternoons. But they were first, ahead of New York City only a four hour drive down the road.
She heard her mother giving orders to the housekeeper and cook. Their voices echoed up the chimney where her fireplace lay empty in the summer heat. Why did she have put up with cooking lessons? She knew how to run the household accounts. She’d been to the butcher’s, the grocer’s and even to the furniture maker’s stores. Why did Mama force her to learn the ways of a woman who would never have these luxuries? They had them, and if she succeeded in pulling off her surprise, she wouldn’t need to find a husband to provide for her.
She wondered at the waste of preparing her for the police ball. It was one of the required events for a debutante. Not at all what she wanted to do. Dancing to staid waltzes with disapproving matrons watching every move, wasn’t her idea of fun. The young men there were always the sons of businessmen who searched for lucrative alliances with other prominent families. She felt like she was the roast in a butcher’s display case. Another white ballgown was boring compared to the brilliant colors of beaded flapper dresses.
“Bella stop daydreaming and get ready. We’re going out to get your new dress fitted, and the carriage is ready,” her mama called from the kitchen.
“Can’t we take the automobile?” Bella protested.
“Papa is the only one who drives it. You know he still uses Oracle to ride to work most days.”
“He could teach me to drive,” Bella knew she could do if her parents would agree.
“Bella, it’s dangerous and you’re a girl. We’re trying to get you ready for the police ball. There isn’t much time left to get you fitted in a proper dress.”
She came down the stairs to face her mother. “Why can’t I learn. Papa’s teaching Erik and Normie to drive.”
“You’re a girl. You need to learn how to run the house. Cooking meals and making sure things are clean and neat are more important than learning to drive one of those rattle traps. Your husband will take care of that.”
“So, because I’m a girl, I can’t have any fun, and my husband will. Why do I have to have a new dress?”
Bella knew she was pushing her luck. She really did want to learn to be a good mother, and how to take care of a family. But it seemed so boring, something she would do in the distant future.
“It wouldn’t do to have you in the same gown as the mayor’s ball.” Bella cringed and her mother continued her tirade. “Silly girl, there is no higher calling for a woman than to bring life into the world. To make a home your husband can be proud of and raise obedient well mannered children. Your father couldn’t do the work he does and provide for us as he does, if I didn’t do my part to support his efforts.”
“I understand that Mama, but I wish I could do more. Drive an automobile, fly an airplane, or perhaps run a company.” She knew she was saying it only to shock Mama. Her real dreams were hidden away.
“Child that is unreasonable, if you support your husband properly, he will do those things and you will have the pride as well.” Her mother sighed, shaking her head.
Bella knew she was out of luck, but she wanted something more. Something she did for herself because she wanted it. She picked up a parasol and opened it. Why did she have to be paraded for inspection like a prized heifer? Papa probably had a husband picked out for her already. He said the mayor’s son would be at the ball.
he was only eighteen, and her mother was a high society girl who had married slightly beneath herself. She knew a mama and papa loved each other very much, and maybe she was being unreasonable. But she was going to change her image, even if her mother never spoke to her again. She and her best friend Alicia were going to make a statement at the police ball.
Which reminded her, they needed to sneak out to get their dresses during the week, and of course they would take the chance to have their hair cut in the latest sleek bobs the afternoon of the ball.
No more hair hanging to her waist in board straight strands. She couldn’t wait to cut it off. It was a symbol of her duty to marry well and be a discrete wife. It had to go.
No demure, white gown for her. She had a sparkling clinging flapper dress picked out. Brilliant red sequins adorned it with strands of black onyx beading that swayed every time she took a step. The seamstress had fitted it to her so that every movement was accented.
Alicia’s dress was a shade of turquoise exactly like the stones in the necklace she wanted to wear with it. Her father wanted her to marry one of the young men working in his bank, the one who was showing promise of going up the promotion ladder. Wouldn’t they be surprised when she and Alicia brought the party girl look into the formal gowns of a traditional ball.
Mama’s disgusted voice broke into her thoughts.
“Look at those shameless girls. Just because the men are home from the war, and we’re getting back to normal, doesn’t mean you can let go of your morals.”
Mama was pointing toward a group of three women dressed for an evening at a speakeasy. They looked so carefree. They were having fun, and even though it was only mid afternoon, they were weaving slightly as they walked toward the most fashionable hotel in town.
“Drunk already at this hour,” mama shook her head.
“Do you think it might be their shoes?” Bella ventured. She was thinking about the ones secreted in her closet behind the row of sensible boots and slippers. Her ankles still hurt from the hour she wore them as she paced around her room.
“If they wore proper shoes and dresses, then they wouldn’t look their entire life was a party. They wouldn’t look like harlots who have already been into alcohol. You know it’s against the law.”
Bella wondered if her mother would ever forgive her for the stunt she and Alicia were about to put into motion. She’d already enlisted the help of her brothers to use the carriage on Friday afternoon. They thought it was a fine idea, neither of them wanted the boring girls from the ball.
She longed to go to the clubs where jazz floated through the doors. Only once had she been out late enough to hear, and it called to her. She found herself repeating the melodies and singing the tunes in her throaty soprano even though she didn’t know the words.
Then came the evening she’d been able to tune the radio in the parlor to the jazz station when mama and papa went out to dinner at the mayor’s mansion. She and her brothers had listened until they’d heard the carriage horses clopping outside the window. Erik confessed he spent a lot of time in the jazz clubs and learned to dance.
Normie sat at the piano, playing along to the tunes, his brilliant fingers as adept at the odd syncopated rhythms as they were playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He was already accepted with the prestigious New York Symphony Orchestra as a soloist. Igor Stravinsky had conducted his performance of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto and declared him a genius for his interpretation.
“Bella, you should be singing in the clubs. Your voice is smoky and strong, exactly right for jazz.” Erik declared as they finished a quick step, dodging furniture as they went.
Bella grinned and said, “Play the Shubert Trout song now, Normie.” They’d turned the radio off, and her brother was sitting at the baby grand in the corner of the big parlor.
“I can do that one from memory now even though it’s German. The carriage is turning into the driveway.”
As Erik re-tuned the radio to the station their father preferred, Normie began playing the introductory strains of the famous piece. Bella thanked her lucky stars her father had talked her mother into singing lessons. She would never understand why Mama argued against them so vehemently.
By the time their parents walked through from the kitchen entrance, they found their children properly entertaining themselves with approved music. Bella winked at her brothers. She knew they’d help her chase her dreams.
Step one was to become a flapper who would fit with the crowds in the clubs and at the theaters where musicals played. An immoral tramp as her mother so often said, is what she truly wanted to be. She didn’t believe the flappers deserved the reputation they were painted with.
If Bella had her way it would be the immortal tramp. She was going to make her dreams come true. Her instructor had introduced her to forms of music her mother would be horrified to hear. Sometimes she wonder if Mama had ever had a single night of pure fun, or if she was born prim and proper. Mama never missed an opportunity to push her duty as a daughter into her face.
Bella stroked her hair once more. Her dead straight brunette was perfect for the sleek bob, and she shook her head, feeling the fringe of bangs across her forehead. Her neck was cold in the breeze from her window, the heavy coiled braid gone. She giggled as she thought of the nice little stash of cash in her jewelry box. Her waist length braid had brought a good price from the wig maker.
The staid Chief of Police and his proper wife had departed in the roadster for the grand dinner before the ball almost an hour ago. Papa had left instructions for Erik to drive the carriage and bring both his siblings with him. They would stop to pick up Alicia along the way. Her father was at the same dinner, his wife dressed in the most exquisite of dignified ball gowns.
Bella slipped into the slinky red dress she’d bought over a month ago. Wiggling her hips, she made the beaded fringes sway and giggled in delight. Her stocking seams were perfectly straight up the back of her legs, and the hem of the skirt lay snug against her thighs. She’d never exposed this much of them, but Alicia said they looked amazing.
The feathered cap and a long knotted necklace of garnet spheres completed the look, and she scooped up her bag in her right hand. Taking a deep breath, she twirled in front of the full length mirror and admired herself. She looked better than most of the women her mother disapproved of, so she opened her bedroom door to go out. The only thing she needed was makeup, but her own clear skin and long lashes stood her in good stead.
Her brother’s whistle of appreciation as she slowly descended to the front entry, brought a flush of pleasure to her cheeks, and she knew she was ready to change her destiny. Normie was guesting with the dance band. Papa had no idea what was planned. Thank God, Mama had never discovered her scheme.
Erik had quickly taught her the moves to the rumba, and the police ball was about to be turned upside down. Time for high society to be introduced to the pleasure of jazz and other modern music. The bands were gaining popularity along with the amazing dance moves that came with them.
Alicia’s blond curls were even shorter than hers. She’d chosen to wear a head band of beaded blue crystals, emphasizing her sky blue eyes. She’d found a tube of bright red lipstick and darkened her normally invisible eyelashes somehow. Her blue dress identical to Bella’s in style and cut, clung to her generous breasts and the curve of her hip.
Sometimes her slender boyish figure was the bane of her existence, but Bella knew her voice would make everything else come second. Once people heard her sing, it would take all else out of consideration. She’d practiced hard on You’d be Surprised, but Down Hearted Blues was her favorite. She had this chance to impress the crowd and change their minds about the trends the country was following.
Three songs, two to sing and the final a dance number. She knew there would be directors from Broadway there. All she needed was one to decide she would become the next great star and she would have her dream. Flying an airplane or driving an automobile ranked second to her love of music. Even acting could be learned if she had the voice to back it up.
So much for her prim and proper parents. For all her father’s preaching of prohibition, and there wasn’t a drop of alcohol to be found in his home, here at the ball, champagne flowed in a glorious fountain. Wine bottles graced every table along the walls of the room, their colorful labels hinting of vineyards all over the world.
The hotel staff manned the bar along the wall beside the grand entry arch, and Bella smelled the tangy scent of multiple open bottles of liquor, including the sweet aroma of rum. There was little chance of a raid, with the Chief of Police enjoying himself at the closest table to the stage.
“Keep your head Bella,” Alicia whispered in her ear. “I won’t drink if you don’t, and you need to stay away from it if you want to impress the Broadway directors.”
“I know, I’ve spotted two of them already, they’re right up front on the right side of the stage.”
They kept their long wraps over their skimpy dresses as they watched Normie walked through the milling crowd to the stage where a swing orchestra sat tuning instruments. He took his place at the piano, hitting the standard A repeatedly as various musicians continued the process.
Erik continued to the left side of the stage, his duties as announcer foremost on his mind. Now that he knew his father had a double standard in his life, with the alcohol flowing freely at this event, he understood there wasn’t much his parents could do to stop his talented little sister from going after her dream. He’d long suspected papa had a hidden income. Mama’s tastes were expensive.
Telling Bella, she needed to learn to cook and clean was a completely unethical way to treat her daughter. Mama had a housekeeper who did the cooking and two housemaids to do the cleaning. What Bella needed to learn was how to hire staff and make astute choices on who she chose to be her closest aides. With her voice, she wasn’t going to be doing the mundane chores of the barely middle class.
He winked at George Abbott; his boss had been primed for his sister’s daring plan. He was always looking for new singing talent. The theaters of Broadway vied to bring new faces to the stage. Bella was beautiful, talented, and smart. He knew he could guide her career and help her through the maze of show business. As a family, the three of them could make their mark. George Gershwin was producing one hit musical after another.
Turning the ball upside down and bringing jazz to the upper class, wasn’t going to be a big surprise. Looking out at the crowd, more of them tipsy than not, he knew their plan would only shock his mother, whose disapproving frown had her sitting alone at the table reserved for civic dignitaries. She was well known for her abolitionist tendencies, and not one in the crowd agreed with her straitlaced rhetoric.
Working in the entertainment sector, had him in the perfect place to launch her as the next new star. His dreams matched hers. He tapped the microphone and took one last look at the audience before beginning the announcement which would change their lives.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our evening’s entertainment brings you a rising star. Previously unknown, Bella Lowell Griswald, has chosen this ball as her debut performance. Mark my words, you will remember this night and speak of it often. A star is born. Norman take it away!”
Bella shrugged out of her wrap handing it to Alicia. Dashing up the stairs to join her brother at the piano, gasps followed her. When she spun to face the crowd, she saw her father step forward to applaud, leading the roar of approval. Her mother, rose and walked out of the ballroom, never once looking back.
The opening notes of You’d be Surprised quieted the audience as her brother coaxed the notes from the ivory keys in front of him. Silence settled across the room like a velvet blanket. Taking a deep breath, as she’d been taught, the first smoky tones soared from her throat.
As she sang, she leaned against the grand piano, caressing the ebony finish. The notes reverberating through her fingertips as she matched her song in perfect harmony with her brother’s incredible accompanying improvisation. Looking at the sea of people she picked out George Abbott, and sang her song to him, wandering down onto the dance floor, to end her first number with her eyes fastened to his.
He clasped her hand in his, raising it to his lips.
“Our next leading lady, the incredible Bella Griswald.” His eyes held promises of fame and fortune.
“Thank you, George,” Bella whispered, over come by the cheers of bravo, and encore.
“It will be hard work; the stage is a harsh mistress.”
“I promise you; you will not be sorry.”
“Go, give them another song, and then let me see if you can dance.”
Erik led her back to center stage, giving her the microphone as the crescendo of applause grew. The sultry notes of Down Hearted Blues brought the spotlight’s focus as she wandered through the musicians, stopping to sing counterpoint with the muted wail of the lead trumpeter. She lost herself in the heartbreaking lyrics. This was her dream, and the music was her muse.
Her mother crept back into the room; her face tearstained. Her angry continence melted with pride. It was an expression Bella had never seen, and like a magnet, it drew her toward her Mama’s matronly figure. She sang her last notes holding her mother’s hands, her voice tender with need.
“My child, you have my voice. The voice I lost to scarlet fever when I was nineteen. I cannot stand in your way. This is a gift to the world which must be heard. You have my blessing.” Her whisper was hoarse with emotion. “I’m so proud of you.”
Bella hugged her mama and the entire room faded away. Mama did love her, and mama had secrets she had never understood. Deafening applause surrounded them unheard as she felt loved as never before.
“We’ll talk later, Mama.” Bella whispered as she broke their embrace. She wouldn’t have to sing again, thank God. “I still have to dance.”
“Go. You can tell me everything later.”
Mama’s smile was brilliant as George Abbott approached. He held out his hand to her and she place hers in it, pushing Bella onto the dance floor with the other.
He raised her hand to his lips, echoing his gesture to Bella. His rich baritone soared over the excited whispers of the crowd.
“To those who didn’t know, this is the incomparable Greta Lowell. She was lost to the world of music and theater before she truly blossomed. Her daughter will be the sensation fate never allowed her.”
Bella saw her Mama take the chair George pulled out for her. As the band began the throbbing first notes of Siboney, Erik swept her into the dance. Papa stood behind Mama with his hands on her shoulders.
With the black onyx beads of her dress sparkling in the spotlight trained on them, Bella concentrated on the rhythm of the rumba. Her hips swayed seductively as her brother showcased her slender form and the ballroom quieted. Tears slipped down her cheeks as she twirled through the complicated steps.
“Don’t cry Bella,” he urged her. “You’re dancing into your dream.”