Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Darkness Beyond the Wall

BY:BR




I




It didn't take long, in my convalescence, to find the café on the Rue Recherché. It was situated between two bars and across the street from the moviehouse where, once I could not intake any more of the madam's coffee or my damaged muscles began to sing, I would venture in one combination or other to exhaust what was left of the day. Peter Conway found me there, resting the week-old bulletwound off the edge of the same wooden seat I occupied each morning. 

"The million-dollar wound," he said by way of greeting. 

Peter was from New Jersey and I could see the East Orange in his swagger. 

I didn't stand to greet him but I shook his hand when he offered it. 

"How ya, private?"

"Bored. And sore."

He sat and laid his garrison cap on the table and scooted himself into the table with his usual clumsiness. He had a razorthin, lopsided grin cut across his face that I imagined some woman somewhere had once told him was very charming. 

"They got booze in this place?"

He padded out his uniform and leaned back with one elbow on the back of the chair and said, "I could use a drink."

"No," I said, and, "they don't."

He forgot his grin, then recut it. 

"Awe, your still sore with me, aintcha."

"Sore."

"I said I was sorry, Saff. Hell, I came to visitcha, didn I? Anybody else been around?"

It was true, he had been the only one, but I hadn't wanted visitors in the first place. He had conveniently forgotten that I had told him that the first time he had come to the hospital.

"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "I really am. Its not like I done it on purpose. I was scared. That shit was too much in that house. What the hell was it anyway? I mean, you saw it. You were scared too. We both hightailed it out of there."

The fear rekindling in him made his voice raise up and we, the two already-conspicuous Americans, became even more so. He noticed the eyes turning toward him and leaned in and whispered. 

"I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm sorry."

"I know," I said, looking down at his folded body, my eyes sliding down the bulb of my pink nose. 

"I never seen anything like that."

"I know. My neither."

"They eyes. And that fire. All those people up on the walls."

"I know," I said, getting frustrated with him. His voice raising again.

"The way it took out Selby and Wilson, I --"

"Conway," I said with a halting hand almost against his face. I looked around the café to accentuate my point. "I was there. I know what you are saying."

He straightened himself in his chair. He lost the grin. He de-wrinkled his uniform again.

"Why you got to be so pissed at me then."

"Because you sold me under the bus with that report of yours."

"What the hell was I supposed to say? I tell them all that, their gonna want an explanation. Their gonna think I am crazy. I get a court martial, I get booted out, they send me back home in a fucking straightjacket. What is that going home? What is my family gonna think then?"

"I would have corroborated your story."

"Hell, Saff, I didn't think you were gonna tell them all the... the..."

"The truth?"

He reclined and replaced his elbow over the back of the chair. He sat silent, looking at me like there was a disappointment that was obvious and if he only waited a second, I would realize it too.

He motioned to the young boy servicing the tables and ordered a coffee for the both of us.

"You know as well as I do those knuckleheads at command would never have believed the truth no matter how it got told. Situation like that, you just cover your ass."

I could only look away because I didn't like that Peter Conway was right.

"Speaking of ass," he said through his regained smirk, "how you healin' up? You're up and around quick."

"They got me shacked up with some obnoxious Brit in a boardinghouse down the way. I don't stay there any more than I got to."

The boy brought us our coffee and said something in French we both just nodded to. He stood for a second and then walked away.

"You understand anything these frogs say?"

"Not really," I said. "Just enough, I reckon."

"So when you coming back to the unit?"

"I've got three more weeks, then a review."

He looked around for sugar and cream and then threw up his hands and took a sip of the pitchblack coffee, then said, "Jeez. Three weeks in this place. I'd go crazy."

"I'm not in any hurry to get a rifle back in my hands."

"Krauts ain't gonna last long anyway," he said. "Pappy says we already have boys in Belgium. Thinks we'll have France by winter."

And that is when I saw her for the first time. Second time. She wasn't dressed in the same brown smock she had been in sitting on the stairs when we got the the house that day. Now she was wearing a red sweater with thin black stripes. And her hair wasn't all knotted up, but I was certain it was her. Conway must have seen the look in my eye when I spotted her passing by the window, but I didn't tell him what I saw. He even denied her in his report. I pushed away from the table, a stab of pain shooting deep into the meat of my leg and back when I stood too fast, but I limped out to the road anyway. 

"What is it?" he asked. 

I ignored him.

In the crowd of people passing along the Rue Recherché, I watched the red sweater bob along. She was not in any hurry. She seemed to just wander, stopping along the way to peer through windows, and just as she went out of sight it seemed she had stopped a man in a suit and held out her hands for change.







II



For some reason, the war, the things I had seen there, did not effect me like it did many of the soldiers I fought with. A lot of boys never got right from it. I reckon I never did either, but it wasn't necessarily the war that had done it to me. It was her. It was the house on Hadditch Hill - what we saw inside it - which was a war all its own. A war of another kind. In Bastogne, while we were held in our foxhole, imprisoned by the winter and the German's relentless bombing, Father Carlson said to me that the war was not only one of bullets and bombs, but a war of the soul. The war did not effect me that way. I did not think of bullets and bombs being a counter to the morality of what we were doing. I saw it that we were all just trying to stay alive. But after that day in the house, after what we saw, I understood a war of the soul, and that was the war I fought the rest of my life. Its just as bloody and devastating as the bullets and as the bombs. 

What we saw, there was no way to measure it. There was nothing you could see in your life to make sense of it. War was easy to make sense of. It was insanity, but a human insanity. It was land and lives and who controlled it. For me, I was just so impressed that I made it through it alive, I didn't see any reason to carry it with me afterwards. It held nothing for me once the bombs had stopped and I got rid of that damned rifle. But in that house, out in the middle of nowhere country France, it wasn't war. It was something altogether worse. A whole other universe entirely. 

And then I saw her again. After Conway had visited, after we got our drunk, and after the sickness of it passed. Because she was sitting there on the the side of the street just like we had seen her sitting on the stairs in front of the house, I thought it was another one of the memories. It was common (for me) to see, as I wandered the streets of Rienne, the things I had seen in the house on Hadditch Hill. It wasn't like I was hallucinating. They were memories. Flashes like I was being shown a picture. Just a flash of memory as the thoughts tumbled recklessly through me tired, achy brain. When I saw her, she looked the same. Face streaked in the black ash of the fire, and splotched in blood, and the dark halos of her eyes that saw too much. But as I walked along, my slow, tired mind catching up to my eyes; I realized that it wasn't a flash of memory. I had really just seen her. She wasn't sitting on the stairs in front of the house, but on the curb in front of the bakery. She was wearing the red sweater with thin black lines and not the dingy brown smock crusty with drying, oily blood. The cuts on her cheeks were healed with not even scars left behind. I had traveled at least three blocks before I had let the truth of what I had seen be the truth that I could think, and I began to backtrack. By the time I got back to the bakery's storefront, the curb was empty and there was no red sweater with thin black stripes up or down the Rue Recherché.

What I would do when I found her had never crossed my mind. There was only to seek her out. Perhaps it was true, for I certainly relieved my doubt with the thought, that I needed her to prove what had happened to me that day in Hadditch Hill was true. She was the only other person left alive that could corroborate my story. The idea carried me along for the next week, that I was prying out from the world a truth I had been denied. The fact of the matter is that it would have done no good. I could march that girl in front of any member of command I wanted and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. One thing I had learned in my overwrought tenure in the army was that the truth is of no consequence. No matter what, they were going to put a rifle back in my hand and point me at a target. The bombs were still going to fall. Bastogne would still be a place I would find myself no matter who believed the events on Hadditch Hill. I still watched for her. In the milling crowd passing by the windows of the cafe, in the darklight of the movie theatre, in the dreamy, amber candlelight of the bar, I watched. If there was something I needed to say to her, to ask her, I still hadn't figured it out by the time I saw her again, about a week later, passing by in that same red sweater. 

I jumped out of my chair, a bolt of pain driving deep into my back side, up my back and down my leg. I nearly collapsed right there in the cafe, but I adopted a long, stiff-legged, swinging limp that kept me upright and I galloped out into the street without paying for my coffee.

I almost overtook her. I was on autopilot, swinging my leg out long in front of me and coming over it like a polevaulter, lungeing myself down the street. I watched the red sweater bobbing back and forth trying desperately to keep it in sight. Once I was upon her, almost within arms reach of her, I realized I had no idea what I would do once I had her attention. My thoughts battered the questions I could have for her; my breath sucked them all up. All I could see was that house. How small and plain it was on top of the hill. I could see those red eyes and the fire all around it. The thick, sludgy smoke that conspired to bring us there. The thoughts stopped me mid-gait. I withdrew on instinct as if I had caught myself falling toward the fire itself. I stood in the middle of the street, the red sweater wandering away from me, my frightened breath and impotent mind singeing from the close call.

I let her get away. I was too frightened to follow her any longer. But it didn't take long to see her again. From then on, I saw her every day, and always the red sweater. 

I didn't attempt to talk to her. I was sure to keep my distance. I only followed. I watched. For what reason, I am not really sure. There were many, but none that made sense. None that were not devoured in the memories of that house. I reckon I expected a good reason to appear as I followed her, as if something she did would validate my need. My sense of urgency. 

She never seemed to go anywhere. I quickly decided she was living on the streets. She wandered, taking her time in leisured, slow steps like the mink-wrapped ladies who spent their afternoons window-shopping along the Rue Bénéfice. Occasionally she stopped one of the suited business men and held out her hand and they would drop in a couple of coins, which she used to buy what seemed like the only thing she ever ate. Soup and bread from the bakery. And always in her eyes, in the way she wandered in no direction, there seemed the look like she was being followed. I wondered if it was a sixth sense of my ogling figure winding purposefully in faux-nonchalance among the crowd. Or perhaps it was that razorsharp piece of the past that followed her just like it followed me.

And that was when the visions came. They always came eventually as my mind delved into the mystery of this girl. The eyes. The fire. The bodies on the wall. The blood and that smell. It pulled me into some realm that wasn't here and it wasn't there, but some non-location in between. A place as much deep as it was other. As much inward as out. It had a dizzying effect on me. The thoughts like a spell. As if that time and place had come back to somehow co-exist in my mind, to grow hands and pick me up and spin me around... and then she was gone. It happened every time. The intoxication of that past horror like the black instant of a good drunk, and then there I was left out in the street among the crowd and she was gone and I had to gather up my frayed sanity. I always had to ask myself, "What the hell are you doing?"

I made my way back around to the Rue Recherché, to the package store for a bottle of the British scotch I had fallen in love with since being trapped in Europe. I refilled my flask in the alleyway. Some days I would sit in the movie house and drink and watch His Girl Friday, which was the only movie it ever showed that wasn't propaganda. Some days I would mill through the bookstore run by a nice gentleman named Gabriel, who had set up an English section once the Allies made it out of Normandy. You would have thought we were Joan of Arc herself the way he lit up whenever one of us servicemen walked through the door. 

But these were only steps. They were mindless actions while waiting for the sun to go down, for the scotch to put me to sleep, for the morning to come when I saw her again and I could regain my cautious pursuit. 

This war. Visions of exploded and decimated bodies strewn across the battlefield. The heat and the roar of artillery. The sound of bullets flying by so close you could reach out for them. It had effectively destroyed my curiosity. It kept my head down when I wasn't on the lookout for the next thing trying to kill me. It kept me in the foxhole until there was no other choice. I did not search out an enemy. I did not rage into battle. I survived. But somehow this mystery, this horror on Hadditch Hill, this girl, it rekindled my since of curiosity, though it looked a bit more like obsession. Desperation. Indeed this curiosity was born of desperation, but my desperation to live was much stronger. So much so that the night I followed the girl out to the wall, and we were nearly alone in the dark, and I could have reached out to her and said anything, asked for anything, perhaps it was my will to live that held me back. 

Perhaps it was the drinking. I had been doing plenty of that. I was in the cafe pouring coffee with scotch splashes down my throat trying to burn away the sludge of the night before when I saw her. I lunged from the cafe in a sweaty wobble as if hangover could be left behind. As if she were my ticket out of the repercussion. 

The sun was twice as bright and explicitly hotter than usual. I had trouble keeping the sweat out of my eyes. The smell rolling off of me was very nearly suffocating and there was a trembling in the muscles of my body and a chill in them that threatened to let the whole thing fall slack. Everything inside of me wanted to come out. But I was used to the entropy of the mornings after, and I persevered. If anything, the affect of my hangover trampled doubt. Through it, there was only the following, the movement, and that red sweater in my eyes. 

We made the usual circuitous route of the city, and though I had long before lost track of the exact time, the dim light of dusk took me by surprise. The number of people on the street thinned out to only a few retreating into homes and alleyways, and I had to be careful to keep distance between us. By the time she reached the wall, the outer marker of the town proper, we were alone with an old man carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder. 

The wall was built of the crumbling remains of something much older. It was no more than a shoulder-high pile of rocks now, interrupted by a footworn path leading out into the country side that lay just beyond the crest of a small rise. I rested myself there. I was tired and my body ached, for I had taken from it much more than I had given. The girl continued on out into the open grassland beyond the wall. The old man walked behind her on the opposite side of the path and at a respectable distance. 

There was no way I could have followed and not been conspicuous. She wandered just as slow and aimless as she had in town. Her feet barely rose from the ground, the tips of her ratty shoes pulling up fleeting clouds of dust from the path as if the gravity of the earth were a bit too much for her. Her hands flopped lazily at her sides. Her eyes kept to the ground, her head rolling up here and there as if she had heard a noise. I supposed she had nowhere to go. I pictured her wandering until she was too tired for another step and then finding some hayloft to bed down in. 

Beyond the stone where I leaned was a wall of darkness, the night faintly aglow in moonlight, no more than a silvery mottle over the ground. Where the path rose up the slight hill, a field of black and stars with only the most necessary of ground to tread upon. 

And then she disappeared. 

It was as if she were a pillar of ash and a stiff wind had come upon her. She dispersed into the dark - not consumed or trampled, but accepted in her own will to discorporate. At first I thought it was only a trick of my eyes. My weariness or my drunkenness, but then there was the old man who had been walking behind her. He reached the same point where the girl had disappeared, and beyond it, and he could still be seen. He was vague in the scant moon, but there nonetheless. He crested the rise and dipped beyond it, his hulking bundle visible until the horizon eclipsed it. 







III


The next day, as I followed her, I tried to remember what she looked like that day on the hill. All I could remember was brown as if she were covered in dirt. As if she had just risen from the ground. My mind kept trying to place that sweater on her in my memory, but I refused it. I remember the smoke and I remember Sergeant Jones demanding we investigate, though none of us wanted to. We circled the house to find an entrance and there she was, sitting on the stairs cloaked in that earthen drab. Comford tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't speak. She only wore that sadness, that heart given to loss that kept her in my mind despite the fear and the horror that made itself available to overtake it. It was that sadness that urged us to go on, to enter the house despite our own instinct to leave the place to its own fate. It urged us past the dank, rotted smell that encountered us as soon as we crossed the threshold. It urged us past the trail of blood down the hallway - even as it slid up the wall and onto the ceiling, dripping in slow time between our thunderous heartbeat. It even urged us past the grueling, inhuman sound rolling from the back of the house like an agonizing fog of misery. Conway was the first to see the arm on the floor, sticking out from the door from which the smoke billowed, but we all saw it slide back in, out of sight, and we all heard the wet gnashing and saw the slick of blood that replaced it. It was then that, only by orders of the sergeant, did we continue. And it was by fear alone and that desperation for living that two of us escaped. 

With the horror and the pain and the sorrow brought fresh to mind, I wanted to grab her. I wanted to berate her. "Why didn't you stop us? Why didn't you warn us? I almost bled to death! Four more people were killed!" I even took a few steps to do just that, but then I noticed something. Her hands. As they were held out for change from one of the suited men, I saw the dirt that encrusted her. But it was thin, almost like it painted her skin the way red clay back home can stain your hands for days. It was the brown. It coated her hands and ran up the sleeves of her sweater. From the neck it ran up just an inch or two, but then the flesh turned a slight, unnatural pink as if the earth stain had been painted over. 

And then she looked at me. Our eyes locked and I heard somewhere in the distance, in the depth of my own mind, that low, grueling rumble that we heard in the house, and I flinched as if I were being swung at. I could feel a most definite invasion of the space around me. As the girl's eyes were on me, mine were on hers, for that felt like the only defense I had. That was when I noticed the stain retreat, or the tender pink overtake it. As the man in the suit dropped two coins into her hands, the pink bled out into them like a slow liquid just beneath the surface. 

The word run had been dangling in the back of my mind, and once she took the first step toward me, I was in full retreat. I took refuge back in the cafe. I ordered a coffee and slugged down the first half and fortified it from my flask and waited for her, but she never came. Once I summoned the courage to step out of the supposed protection of the cafe's crowd, I did not seek her out but left cautiously for the boardinghouse and remained there for days. 

It was mostly out of boredom and frustration with my housemates that I went into town again. I'm afraid my mind is much too simple, perhaps feeble, to really understand what had happened to me - to come up with any reason other than foolishness to pursue the matter of the girl in the red sweater any further. It seemed that whatever she was, was beyond my realm. The reckoning of it was beyond my ability. The look in her eyes, the way her flesh changed - I saw there only doom. A doom that far outweighed my lingering curiosities. 

As my flask grew light and my ability to withstand the frog-tongued banality of my hosts evaporated, I decided to confine myself to the cafe and perhaps a movie after a trip to the package store. 

She passed, pink-skinned, by the cafe. I only caught her out of the corner of my eye, over the rim of a coffee cup, but it did not seem that she noticed me. Her step was brisk, but not rushed. Her head did not loll around, but kept forward, eyes targeted as of on the ignorances of prey. Refusing the impulse was easy. I kept my seat, but felt too exposed. She had travelled in the direction of the liquor store, so I ducked into the movie house across the street. I would put off my purchase of scotch until after my fill of Ingmar Bergman. 

I had seen the movie a half dozen times, but it did not matter. The place was dark, the bright lights ahead, and there was always a blonde about to keep you distracted from the ridiculousness of the story. There in that manmade darkness, bound in its walls and its false light, the world without disappears. The memories of it and the horrors, it fades into the false light and the only world left is the one man has created and has let be created for him without the lasting effects of his ignorance. In the movie house there is only the joy and the fleeting safety of human left to human. Of course there is a price. Of course it is over too soon. 

Coming out into the light of the street, I was blinded by the brightness of the day. I felt immediately vulnerable. I tried to keep my eyes open, but what vision the sun did not rob from me, a stream of tears did. I moved in the direction of the liquor store as memory had taught it to me, for the only thing that felt more vulnerable than the near-blindness was standing, fidgeting with my eyes. I bumped into backs and shoulders all the way down the Rue Recherché. I mumbled my apologies. I tried to make myself as small as possible, but then one body would not move. I wiped away the fresh stream of tears from my tortured eyes, and through the cleaved, aqueous curtain came a blob of red and a meek, mousy voice asking something in the french I did not understand. 

She stood before me in a fresh coat of pink flesh, her eyes, large and a deep violet, turned up to me so that their color was nearly all I could see of them. Her hands were held up to me as if she aimed to catch the tears I could not keep from clouding my eyes. I didn't say a thing. My voice was stolen. She gave no indication that she recognized me. I expected to be utterly devoured, taken over, invaded in some way, but we only stood - me wiping at my eyes and silent like some dullard and she asking in mystic French without even opening her mouth. 

Once my eyes cleared, the blast of the sun settling into its usual aureate calm, I stared into hers. The words came from me, without any effort, though the answer I did not want to hear.

"Who are you?" I asked. 

Her response was to raise her head, to shed the meek, childish upward demure and give me the full force of those violet eyes, blazing gems set into the veinless white like a medallion set into marble, the inhuman color of them billowing like a flame. The flame. The same spectral fire that consumed the house. There was an entire history in those eyes. One that stopped at that house on the hill. One that mirrored my own life right up to that point, but then there was a gulf lost into a particular darkness that was not just in her eyes, that endless dim sea of ruddy fire, but all about her culminating in the space between us. She lay her hands away, letting her fingers fall over my wrists. They felt like raindrops. 

"Come with me," she said, mouthless, sweet like a whisper "I can show you."

I wasn't helpless to go with her, but there wasn't much resistance in me. It seemed like we moved without walking. She did not turn away from me. Her eyes still locked into mine. The purple fire. The space between us. None of it disbanded in our movement. The world went on around us, but somehow oblivious to such a strange sight. 

"I will show you who I am," she said.

Whether we were moving slow or the world spinning faster, I could not say. In what seemed like only a few minutes the day faded into dusk.

"I can explain. I can show you."

Night descended and there was no moon. Still, the aura of her eyes lit up the only world I was allowed. My flesh where her fingers lay now seemed to burn, but not from heat. More like a solvent left on the skin too long. Like I was burning away beneath her touch. 

"I can show you why they had to die."

We arrived at the wall at the edge of town where the footpath led through a break and into the dark country. In the break, she stood on one side of the wall and I on the other. She raised her fingers from my wrist and the burning stopped. From it rose the smell of whiskey, but the sweetness of it was so much more intense and wonderfully false. And there was the smell of rain, of the ground pushing out its prizes - of flowers in bloom and the powdery flesh of a woman. 

"Come with me," she said, and again, "Come with me."

The euphoric slack of giving up overtook me. The light at the end of the black hall of mystery filled up my mind. It was a rosy light. In it the burgeoning form of realization - the lost faces and the bodies that held them.

"Come with me," she said.

But there was something else. There was the world I knew was behind me. There was the real memory. There was the shadow of horror, the blood spilled and the moaning pain. There was every drink I ever took. There was every man and woman that was no longer in my life. And more than this chimeric glimmering, back there behind me was the long stream of just how I had gotten to this point. The only thing I knew for sure. Though it was coated in blood, soaked in tears, consumed by that strange fire, I was not ready to leave it behind. Despite the wordless promise of relief and truth ahead, I could not so willingly step into that dark country. I pulled back from her - from the eyes and from the light. The darkness began to dissolve. 

"Come with me." Her voice ever more sweet. An understanding of what she offered flooding over me. 

But I took another step back.

The light grew.

A soft sledgehammer to the inside of my skull. That strange universe out in the darkness came at me like a gunshot. Every pleasure washed over me. Every body I had touched or imagined to touch. Every welcome drink. Every silence. Every swift word that had crossed my ears and my eyes. Mysteries unveiled and fears shattered. The war was over. Every sorrowful death exterminated. A welling in my chest - a feeling too powerful to explain, but I could imagine being the whole purpose of life, should there be one. 

"Come," she said.

And then it was gone. 

It was midday. I stood at the wall, looking out onto the horizon sparsely populated with people. I looked down at my hands and there were small lines like old bruises where her fingers had lay, but she was nowhere in sight. I stood there in shock until an old man pushing a packed wheelbarrow asked for my pardon in passing through the wall.








Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sleepwalkers



It happened that after seven years my marriage was over and I needed a place to live. I spent weeks hiding in cheap motels trying to figure out just how I would face the world. Whether that understanding came to me or not, and I am not sure it ever did, I had very little money and motels are expensive. Even the cheap ones. I had only the cash in my pocket and one paycheck. Everything else was in the bank account that was not my bank account any more.

After a fairly fruitless search, the only offer I had for a roommate was a friend of a friend with the unlikely name of Harry Seasons who, I was promised, had a regular job and paid his bills and was clean and quiet. At that point such was about all I could hope for. I would have accepted less.

Two days after it had been suggested we should live together, Harry and I met at a place downtown to get a feel for each other. I arrived early and sat at the bar so that I could see the front door. I was sure to have myself within sight of the television so that I could see the person coming in, but then be able to quickly turn to the screen so that it did not look like I was watching every person who came in the door.

He didn't look like anyone someone I knew would know. He wore a crisp buttondown shirt tucked into a pair of painfully blue jeans. His hair was cut and styled and still wet from a shower or hair products. When he came through the door he took off his sunglasses and squinted fiercely and craned out his chin and surveyed the room as he switched them out for his clear glasses which he kept in a leather case in his front pocket. After seven seconds I turned back to the television set having decided that this was not the man I was waiting for.

"Are you Jacob?" he asked.

His voice was slow and unwilling, melodic and stuffed up in that high, unoffending register like he expected to be back handed for speaking. I turned and looked at him, and though age had put some dents and creases in him, life chiseling him out a bit, I was struck by the thought of how he must have looked as a child. Like a cute Kermit the Frog.

"I am." I nodded.

"Good to meet you," he said and stuck out his hand so I shook it.

He sat in the stool next to me and edged himself closer to the bellybar with a few short hops and crossed his hands across the deeply eurothaned wood and ordered a beer from the bartender.

"So what do you do?" and the normal sequence of events unfolded over four beers and another handshake.

He wrote magazine articles about comicbooks and made a living from it. It was the only job he had. I, on the other hand, worked six days a week in a pizza shop and wrote stories on the side and had not published a thing, much less made any kind of living from it. He was a jew and I was atheist. He liked Elvis Costello and I didn't, but we both agreed on the Beatles over the Rolling Stones and also that that was a very ridiculous comparison to begin with. I was divorced and he never married. We both liked redheads and had never had any luck with them.

It wouldn't have mattered what he had been like. Barring him being a complete asshole, I would have moved in with him no matter what. I was desperate. I am also flexible. When we moved into our house a week and a half later, I had one box and a duffle full of clothes. He had a moving truck stuffed full.

I do not think it was right away, but it was not long before I started hearing the noises at night. Not knowing him very well, and as they were very vulnerable, unbridled offerings, I was embarrassed to say anything about it. The next morning he looked fine, not under any particular sort of stress, so I let it slide.

I was never awake when it started. It always cut through my sleep, pulling me up and out of a quickly deteriorating dream. I was then left in the night silence with no idea why I was awake at such an unreasonable hour. Then it would come agian. A thin moan that, as it was pushed through the vents and the walls of the house, seem to come from all around, but very faint as if there was a great distance between me and the mouthsource. It had the same stuffed up timbre that I knew was Harry's voice, but the first time it happened I wondered if he were not outside, maybe out in the street making this racket. I had the thought that I would have to spend my nights dealing with a sleepwalker who would eventually get himself killed wandering out in the streets or into some nervous neighbor's house. But then the sound changed — stole my attention back. It was a change so sudden and profound, it didn't seem like it could have come from the same person. It sounded as if whoever was moaning had been smacked with a club. There was a gut-wrenching release of air and sound like vomitous misery, abrupt and incongruous, and all of a sudden right in the next room and come up from the abyss to pull terror from me. And it was not done. There arose from my roommate, from the darkness of his room, the imperceptibility of his sleep, a rumbling growl so deep that it made my own chestcavity ache and feel as if it would shake apart. The sound rose up out of its otherworldly container and seemed to crack apart into two, three, four different voices (if voices are even an accurate descriptor of such sounds) all at once, hovering in the air somewhere and calling back down from where it came. A sound collage of a scream's gravel, but not with any real effort behind it. There was no real language. None that I could understand, but still it sounded like a communication of some sort if based only on its disjointed, syllabic nature. Like a language trying to push through the shear volume of terror.

Everything in me told me I should get up and investigate this thing, to save my roommate who I would have called my friend by then from this awful fright. Nonetheless I was glued to my bedmattress. There was fear in me, but I would not say that it was fear that made me unavailable. I never had the sense that I could not get up out of the bed at any time. It was something else completely. Something in the nature of the sound itself. There, in the hellish growl, that sorrowful moan, there was something so personal, so bare and raw, that it felt completely intrusive to do a thing about it. Whatever was going on in that room down the hall, it was Harry Seasons that was doing it. It was his voice, as impossible as its feats seemed, calling out and back in and pleading in that foreign, inhuman growl. And this was a thing I had never encountered before. A deeply personal effort for which I had no defintition. I had no frame of reference or ability to explain that could spell out a reason to do anything but listen. So thats what I did. I listened and I found myself hurting in the fear. Fear for the act and what it could possibly be doing to my friend. But, as I said before, the next morning there was no sign that anything had happened at all. Harry ate his eggs and read his comicbooks and we chatted as I struggled to rid myself of the fog of sleeplessness. Then he went off to his studio where he wrote about that otherworld of ink and drama and superpowers.

But I could not remain completely quiet about it. I had gotten to know Harry over the first few weeks as roommates and I liked the guy. Granted he mostly just talked about his books — things I had never really gotten into — superpowers and whatnot — but to hear him talk about it, I admired his passion. I found that I too cared about these strange universes, but not in the way that I wanted to go out and read them, but I wanted Harry to tell me about them. I wanted to experience that place through him. See it through his eyes and feel it through his heart. He had a whole lifetime folded up in those pages — something I could never have — and I found myself in anticipation of the next time we had a night at the house where he could relate a bit of it to me. We drank beers and we talked. We were friends. Sometimes at night our house was filled with a horror I could not ignore.

After one particularly brutal night of wailing, our morning could no longer be filled with our breakfast small talk. I said something passive and obvious like, "Had a rough night last night?"

"How's that?" he answered.

"Last night. You were making some pretty wild noises. You ok?"

"Really?" he said with absolutely no equivocation.

"Yeah. It was pretty intense," I said.

"Wow," he said. "I must have been asleep."

"Must have been a hell of a nightmare."

"I don't even remember it."

And that was where our first effort was left. After that, for a few weeks, he would ask whether he had made the strange noises at night, and I would be honest about it. He apologized profusely for the disturbance. I tried to reassure him that I was not all that bothered by it. I helped him with research about nightmares and terrors and everything told us that they would eventually go away. We tried to allow that, and perhaps it could have been successful had that winterevening not occurred when he actually got up and left his bedroom.

I had trouble sleeping that night as it was the first night we had the heat on and the air was acrid and dry with the smell of the dust burning out of the ductwork. I hovered somewhere in sleep's purgatory, fading with one hand still gripping the last threads of consciousness.

When the moaning began it slipped into the narrative of my halfsleep dreaming. I remember seeing Harry, his face writhing in inexplicable terror. In this abridged state, it was only his face out of a darkness, the flesh of it pulling on the skull, and the lips clinging tightly together as if it dare not let escape the thing they contain. And there was a light, slightly flickering or wavering, orange but almost white like firelight below him that, because of the pointed fear beaming from his eyes, was the obvious crux of his dread. And just as the eyes seemed they could see no more, as the flesh could not find its refuge and those pressed bloodless lips could no longer hold their secret, their was the screeching horror just outside my door and I was torn from this halfsleep and up and standing in the middle of my room as if pulled solely by the strength of my fright. It was a sound I would be hardpressed to believe capable of any human throat. The sheer cavernous roll of it seemed to make the ether itself shutter. Its terrible call seemed incapable of embodiment, to have no sane grip inhibiting at all. It was a cry absent of all mortal ambition.

I tried to gather myself in the darkness half-expecting the world entire to cave in on me. I threw open the door with the idea to gather up my friend so we could escape whatever awful beast was descending upon our house, but as I turned down the hall to his bedroom, there he was on his hands and knees, one hand reaching out to me through the darkness, his head thrown back, mouth agape, the deafening shriek rolling out of him as if he were merely a conduit to some deeper, unseen hell. I reached out for him thinking that maybe there was something after him, something I could not see through the darkness and disorientation. I gripped his wrist and pulled him down the hall to the living room. I shoved the sofa across the hallway portal to block this supposed beast from the rest of the house.

Harry lay curled in the middle of the room, sobbing now, in obvious pain. I tried to shake him out of it, to try and examine him for some sort of injury, but he was disconsolate. In trying to get ahold of his attention I kept one eye on the barrier I had created and the blackness beyond it for whatever it was that had attacked him. He was naked and covered in a thick sweat. His flesh was cold to the touch, but underneath it there was a feverish heat. I could not get him to rise up off the floor or stop his sobbing. There was such a sadness in him I found myself wanting to cry with him. He shook from his fear, his body periodically convulsing. All I could do was gather him up and hold him, trying to calm him, one eye on the dark from which we had emerged.

I thought I would stay awake until he was able to talk, to articulate something of what had just happened to him. His sobbing lulled but he would not stop whimpering and shaking lightly in the fold of my grip. Eventually the darkness on which I awaited to abate got ahold of me, and the whimpering of this man in my arms... they conspired against my watch and before too long, I was asleep.

The morninglight brought me to a different world. A deceptive world. One that was bright and golden and pleasant to the eyes, but a world in which the events of the night before existed and the eyes and the soul spoiled to the terror of things that could not be explained and would not go unresolved.

I woke up alone on the couch which had been moved more or less to where it had been before I used it as a bulwark against the dark. My skin and sleepclothes were still wet from his sweat; the thick, musty smell of our frightened bodies still hung in the air. There was a blanket over me which I threw to the ground as I made a frantic search of the house for my roommate.

The smell of his eggs was in the kitchen. The sickeningly sweet stench of toothpaste and cologne were still in the bathroom. It was even humid from a shower. I knocked on his bedroom door and did not get an answer. I called out his name and there was nothing in return.

It was the first time I had seen his room where he spent the majority of his time at home. I could say that it looked exactly how I thought it would, or, at least, how I thought it would any other morning. I expected that morning for it to be ramshackle. I expected the violence and horror of the night to show here where it had started. It was not. The meticulousness I had seen in him in such things as cleaning and yardwork were present also in his room. The bed was made, his blue comforter hanging equidistant on all sides from a floor swept clear except for the vertiginous mounds of comicbooks and graphic novels around his reading chair. The furniture shined in the lazy beams of noonday light coming through the window, their contents arranged smartly. There was even the tasteful hint of sandalwood in the air. Had the events of the night before not transpired, the scene would have been slightly endearing.

I did another check of the house and even looked outside. His car was gone. He was gone. I called into work and made some coffee and tried to make sense of it all.

The emptiness and mechanical quiet of the house was agonizing. The air was thick, impregnated with the deceiving, joyous light of a clear day. It cut through the curtains in angular white blades, fiery lines of pale blood spilled across the floor. I felt as if time would not move and I would be victim to this loneliness and confusion for an eternity with no chance for relief.

I resolved to shower, to renew myself with hot water and soap and deep lungfuls of steam. Once I was naked in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, I noticed my skin. My chest and belly and upper thighs, the insides of my arms, were a raw pink color. The skin was raised just slightly and tender to the touch. I could not say why I had not noticed it before. Only that I had been so intent on finding my friend, of figuring out just what was going on that I had not taken the time to notice the nagging itch and sensitivity of my own flesh. On closer examination I realized that rather than the skin being pink all over, it was actually ruddy splotches of irritation around my pours and hair follicles, each of the openings swollen enough to be seen. I had to keep the water in the shower lukewarm unless my skin really start to burn. Delicately I washed down with soap, assured that it would clear up whatever it was that was irritating it. By the time Harry returned home later that afternoon, it had only gotten slightly worse.

I was in the kitchen when he got home. He came in and pulled a soda from the refrigerator and leaned against the edge of the sink and drank it and did not say a word.

"We need to talk about last night," I said.

"We sure do."

"So you remember?"

"Well, see, thats the problem," he said with no shortage of resentment and ire. "Thing is, I don't remember a thing."

"None of it?"

"I remember us drinking last night. I remember actually having a really good time, and then I wake up this morning on the floor naked and you wrapped around me and my throat hurts."

I could only stare. He really didn't remember any of it. "Thats all?" I asked.

"Yes, thats all! What did you do to me last night?"

It only took a few seconds to see things from his side and I could not help but laugh. He was not amused.

"No, no, no," I managed, "it was not anything like that."

He had not even cracked a smile. He set the soda can on the counter and crossed his arms and stared.

"You really do not remember at all?"

"No, I really don't. How about you enlighten me."

"Seas," I said, as that is what I had taken to calling my friend as we got to know each other. "Seas, it was nothing like that, but it was fucking horrible last night. So horrible I am having trouble believing you do not remember a bit of it."

"What happened?"

"It was after we went to bed last night. I do not know what time it was, but I was not completely asleep."

"Another nightmare?"

I related every detail. The look in his eyes was not the look of someone hiding what they knew but someone trying to take in these things they could not believe. I showed him the skin reaction I was having, which had now evolved into red islands in a sea of pink splotching. His skin was clear. Not a mark on him.

That evening I could tell my friend's mind was heavy. My descriptions of the night before had put him in a deep sadness and I felt sorry for the helplessness he must have been feeling. But I also had my own worries. The rash had developed into welts and tiny blisters by bedtime. I worried about how severe these night-terrors would become. What would happen to me? And there was also a sickness, a nausea in me, deep in my gut, like some sort of churning miasma. Thing is, I felt very alone in this - that it was up to me to resolve, though I know it weighed on Harry as well. We tried to have our beers and some sort of normalcy but it ended up that in a dreary silence we both retired to our rooms.

For a week, nothing happened. The rash devolved into a normal skintone leaving behind a rough, scaly length of flesh like chemical burn scars. The nausea inside me intensified until I gave up eating all together. I drank only a life-sustaining amount of water. The result was that I had no energy and a bad color. The languid air of the house, its bereft and poisonous feel, took over. It seemed to emanate from our dissolute spirit and eat up our world. We tried to comfort each other. We tried to continue like there was still hope left in us, but really we were poor shadows in a prolonged dusk waiting for the inevitable setting of the sun.

As I was the only witness to what was happening to us, Harry would ask the questions that had been ravaging his mind until he was sure he had no answer, but I had no answers either. I had divulged all I knew from the beginning and had had no further insight. The sickness in me consumed my time, my efforts. As Harry struggled to figure out what was in him, so did I, and there was not much left for either of us to give each other.

And then on a night in late October, stealing me away from one of my few moments of sleep, there was a knock on my door. I was too weak and groggy to get out of bed so I called out for him to come in. Harry opened the door slowly and announced himself in a whisper and slipped inside as if there were someone else in the house he may disturb.

He asked if he could stay in the room with me.

The boy part of me had to stifle a laugh. Surely it was a joke, which I thought was ill-timed and I wanted no part of it. But there was the sound of his voice that was veritably strangled with fear and loneliness. The young boy inside the man before me was stranded out on the edges and needed shelter. I wondered for a minute why he had come to me, but who else did he have?

I expected him to settle down on the floor, or maybe in the recliner in the corner where I spent sleepless nights scrawling out stories or reading, but the poor thing shuffled childishly toward my bed and curled himself under the blankets with me. I tried to give him room, but he wormed himself against me and settled fast into sleep.

I did not know what to think at first, but I could not deny the comfort of this man's body against mine. He did not snore but seemed to vibrate internally, and the motion of it eased the pain in my belly. The warmth of him fought away the cold of the coming winter.

I slept well and had a dream; a dream of myself outside of myself in observation. I could still feel everything inside me, but I was also another body entirely, both with one pair of eyes floating around the room with only a vague awareness of a body they served. That body was inside my own so that the flesh that I was used to, that I knew historically as my own, laid over it, a new flesh created but not unlike myself. What these strange, floating eyes were looking for was a way in. It was not this full, doubled (tripled?) version of myself to which it was seeking portage, but only the entity under the skin, the doppelgänger hiding just beneath this surfaceflesh. My spectral self did not resist any of this, for there was the sense that this was all me, simple fragments of the one, but there was also the sense that I should not help it along. If this third thing trying to find entrance should succeed, all would be lost. So the dream consisted of the slow, intimate perusal of my body and the rotating feelings of caution and acceptance, intrusion and curiosity.

Then I was one body again. I was in my bed and my friend asleep beside me, his back to me, sidled up against me. I realized that all those places where my skin had become irritated and then left scaly and scarred were attached to him by a thin glaze so that we were singular through this membrane. There was something transferring between us, from him to me. My body seemed to be fighting it, as it was indeed a foreign thing to my physiology, but there was an acceptance on a much more epicurean level that dulled the fight to mere worry, and inside me something grew that would soon be other than me and far beyond my control.

We did not spend another night together, but neither of us expressed any regret in the matter. Though we avoided sharing a bed, we did spend the majority of our nights in the living room talking or watching movies. My sickness lingered, got worse, slackened again, and then just became the norm. My friend took to being a caregiver, though nonchalant in nature. He would fix me dinner or fetch a drink for me or give me a hand to bed. I found myself growing very attached to him and I tried to show my appreciation as much as I could.

By the time the first snow fell, there were six different incidences of which I recorded on a handheld, voice-activated tape player. As per usual, Harry could not recall any nightmare. And still, there were no side effects of these growling horrors. Had I or the tapes not been there to testify to the events, he would have no clue as to them happening at all. It made me wonder just how long this sort of thing had been going on, but he said that no one else had ever mentioned anything like it. He was quite visibly shaken whenever we played the tapes the next morning. He would rewind and play them over and over trying to glean some sort of clue as to what was going on, but to no avail.

As the winter prolonged through December, my sickness found a stasis in only slight misery, but my dreams began to take on a sinister tone. In doing so, my mood soured. My sleep, strained with frustration, felt like no sleep at all; in my sickened state my tolerance for exhaustion was virtually nonexistent.

It became obvious that my dreams were one single dream trying to find fruition in my fitful sleep. My varying depths of consciousness afforded me only a piece of the puzzle here and there. The feeling of the mystery of my dreamworld, which I kept wholly from my friend, carried over into my waking. A general unsettledness took over me. Then even the dream itself started to leak into reality. There were nights I would come awake standing in the middle of my room, heading for the door with an obvious purpose, though once I was slipped back into consciousness, the purpose was lost. It would get to the point that I would find myself with my hand on the doorknob, midturn, and this was actually in my dream, then next thing I know I am awake right where I had been, but the reason for being there faded as dreams do fade.

I also kept from Harry the changes my sickness were having on my body. The grey, pallid color of my flesh I could not hide, and he was kindly concerned about it. What he could not see were my hands, which had grown raw and tender and sprouted long, hideous nails. They grew faster than they normally would and they grew thicker, tinged a jaundiced yellow with deep ridges like a raw wood grain. The joints of my hands became stiff and knotty, bulging and hardening. Whenever I was around my roommate, I kept them tucked in my robe's pockets. I kept my feet in over-sized house slippers, as the same was happening there. My robe I kept wrapped tight around my body, for there was a sore forming where my navel was. It was minor at first, like a blemish was forming, but then the irritation spread not unlike another rash, but deep and seeping as if it were growing as much inward as it was around. It grew further up and down than it did wide with thin, colloidal welts forming like a ridge along each side. In the center of it, a scaly, pus-oozing cluster of scabs formed and flaked away to expose a murky epithelium beneath.

As it was my own body and I am not short on egotistical preservation, I found it nearly impossible to deal with these changes both in my psyche and physical appearance. I held out the idea that all would work out on its own, that I had a strong constitution and my body would fight off this invading force as it had been so successful in doing in the past. Perhaps had all these things been a sudden occurrence instead of generating over a course of months, I would have been more apt to seek help. Maybe had Harry been able to see these things, and had he not the distraction of his own mysterious woes, perhaps he would have forced me to seek help. Maybe, given enough time, he still would have, but then there was the fateful night in question. The whole reason I am relaying these events to you in the first place. The night of December 23rd.

That night Seas had made a simple pasta meal for himself and a light broth for me, as he customarily had over the past few weeks. I customarily pushed it around the bowl until it became to cold to eat and he disposed of it for me. We talked delicately about the bills that were not getting paid and I made my promises to get work as soon as I felt better, and he agreed sweetly to continue to cover me until such time as I could. I was feeling particularly ill at ease so I skipped drinks afterward and the movie he had brought home from the library and made my way to bed.

I lay for hours watching the monotonous kaleidoscope of shadows played on the wall by the moonlight through leafbare trees outside my window. There was very little noise of Harry in the house. He was a very conscientious roommate. And in so, the world closed in on my own senses with little distraction: the very crib of a good night's sleep.

My passage into the dreamworld that night was unlike any I have ever experienced. Perhaps the mere fact that I am conscious of it and can relate its detail is proof of its unnatural essence. Where one might lose hold of consciousness, to enter a blackness and then find themselves in the particulars of their dream, for me that night there was no black. There was a physical change in the way I was perceiving the things around me which I would not mind describing as feeling like a dreamstate, but it was also not disconnected from the waking at all. I was still laying in bed and the winter shadows still frolicked across the room, but I was an other. An other that was the propriety of the diminished, insidious state of my dreams as of late. And though I knew myself, could recognize it as the being behind the eyes, the experiencer, there was another force within it. Within me. Connected to me. It propelled me from the bed, from the room, and down the hall toward Seas' bedroom. It was there, in the hallway, that I disrobed.

I could feel the thing in my belly begin to pulsate, to throb like an infection had set in. Anticipation? I let the elongated fingernails play against the brass doorknob which had the deep relief of an itch being scratched. I slid out of my houseshoes and the long arch of untamed toenails ticked mischievously against the worn wood of the floors. I collected myself, as the exultation of the moment threatened to send me into a delirium I may not have come out of. There was a peculiar wave pushing up from me, from in my gut where this hideous sickness had dwelt for so long. It washed out, over my body, adding something to my doubting flesh. It was a fear, but a fear that had all the fiery aspects of pleasure. Not the fear, but all fear. The whole history of it up and over me. Right then and there I had the sneaking suspicion that this engorging aspect to the thing we all hide from had always been there, and only the selfish trickery of biology had kept such a thing a secret. But it was a secret no more. It was freedom and I did absolutely nothing to inhibit its bloody fruition. Perhaps its that simple wrinkle in my cunning psychology that makes me a murderer, far all the rest was instinct, and what creature could be faulted for that?

I settled my claws, for indeed that is what they were, into the brass of the doorknob and turned it slowly and let the door fall open. The moonlight lay over Harry like a cold, silver curtain. He lay still in a deep sleep. He made no sound. Were it not for the slight, slow rise of his belly, one could have mistaken his pale, hairless body for a corpse.

I stood over him for some time. I could smell his breath. I could even feel the warmth emanating from his body. There was a part of me that looked over him and felt the ease of looking over a friend. In my struggle with my condition, he had indeed been all a friend could be. I looked over him because I could see that unnamable bond true friends can form. The unbreakable seal between two people that have shared so much. But also I looked over him in contemplation of how best to devour him.
BY:BR


In the small hollow of his chest, I rested a single claw, lightly, so that it didn't even depress the skin. Could I effectively part his flesh with it? Was my desire for this blood stronger than what had been an everpresent repulsion by it throughout my life? I pushed into him, and the skin part easily enough. He awoke. I can only assume he had not realized what had been done because he smiled at me and asked me, "Are you ok?"

"I am," I replied, and, "I feel much better."

I tried not to alarm him by looking at the blood running over his chest. The thin rivulet looked black in the moonlight. The smell was intoxicating.

Harry reached up to me and ran his hand over the flesh of my arm and squeezed and said, "You're cold."

"Indeed," I said, and with my other hand I slashed at his outstretched arm peeling back the flesh in four relatively identical lines.

The utter terror and shock that crossed his face as it was splattered with his own blood surprised me. It was a look I had seen before. It was a distraction that enabled him to pull himself out of bed and get past me. As he pushed by me I took a swipe at him and took from him a slippery steak of backflesh. Both pieces of him fell to the floor. As he tried to regain his feet and fiddled with the locked door, I speared the separated flesh with a clawfinger and examined its wet shimmer in the moonlight. It wreaked of rusty blood and the sweet softness of meat and I could not contain myself from having a taste. The feeling of teeth sunk into the freshly separated flesh had the undeniable euphoria of completion. My mouth was engorged with the feeling and the taste of it and it ran down into my body as if it were the first drink of water. My body became enflamed with the pure joy of it.

My excitation distracted me once again and Harry managed to get the door open and disappear down the hall.

The screams of his mortal terror and what the neighbors might hear pulled me to action. He had not made it far. He scrambled, naked and bloody, on his hands and knees. The blood pouring form his back and the piss leaking from between his legs made the wood floor slippery and virtually impassable. He reached out in front of him as if there were something there that might save him. The inhuman roar of his fear shook the very ground he crawled upon. I set on him like a beast. I set hands and feet on the ground, sunk my new claws into the woodgrain, and launched myself forward. In one lunge I was at his feet and I hammered a handful of claws into the bulbous, tight wad of his calf muscle. The flesh slit away and the black blood boiled over the curling rim of his wounds. He yelled out and convulsed wildly side to side and clawed at the floor.

I felt as if I were reaching a plateau, a supreme satisfaction like everything my being had been created for was being attained in this very moment. To be aware of it was a gift. The only gift this life could ever give.

Pulling myself up by the wound I had just administered, I gripped his thin flank and flipped him over on his back and placed myself over him. The look of disbelief pulsing in his face only told me that he had given up, that I had him. That the deed of purpose would soon be completed.

The throbbing of the wound in my belly had turned to an aching burn. It seemed to push me toward him as if the bloodpulse was a hand at my back, a magnet in the flesh searching for its bloody opposite. I pressed my elbows into the hollows of his shoulders and rested my hands over either side of the crown of his skull. I put my face right to his, slid against him, bellies wriggling together in a slick sheen of blood, sweat, and piss. The thing inside me, I could feel it pushing at the thin membrane that had formed over my navel. There was a sharp, slicing pain as it gave to the thing wanting out of me, but the excitement of the moment made it an exquisite pain I relished to my very core.

From the ovoid slice in my belly slid a tentacle-like appendage. I did not control its movements, though its slow squirming felt like my own muscle flexing. With the stuttering inelegance of a newborn creature, this thing wormed its way unsteadily toward Harry's chest. I could not see whether he was dead at this point. He had certainly stopped moving, but I was not the least bit interested in his state. I, at that point, was merely a vessel of the strange and horrible ways of life. The inexorable truth of living and dying and their disastrous means.

And that, sir, is what I have given you. The truth. The inexorable truth of the life and death of Harry Seasons - my friend.

It is unfortunate that when you found me, the changes I had gone through had reverted themselves. It is a shame that all of my friend that was available for you to examine was the unfinished blood all about me. It is a shame because it destroys the truth which you and those that come after you will never be able to accept, and I will regretfully never be able to relate to you. I see you scoff whenever I refer to Harry as my friend, but believe me, he was exactly that. He gave me the horrible, unimaginable grace that will keep me persistent in the cause of my life. His flesh may have become my prey, but the man was indeed my friend.



Wednesday, October 1, 2014

... and other human machineries



Bethany Granger was 32 years old and she came down with the mumps, which meant a month in bed. She got a weekly visit from her brother with groceries she couldn't eat and magazines she wouldn't read, but the rest of her tim was spent laying there, staring up at the ceiling and trying not to hurt. That was when she noticed the vent.

It was actually a godsend. Bethany wasn't the kind of person to have a television set and she couldn't afford a computer and what few books she owner she had already read at least twice. She had never even thought of it in the day to day fuss, but in those days of sickness when she was alone and could not sleep and the intimate, esoteric sounds and smells of the apartment building seeped into her darkened room the vent and the darkness beyond it became a companion, if only to her imagination and certain predilections.

What seeped through the vent was mostly an indecipherable melange of chatter and machinery. Something like the blue hum of twenty televisions at one time. When the cool or warm air was being pumped into the room, it was sightly louder. Some random bits of conversation could be plucked from the prattle.

What really got her was the hunger. Because of her stiff, swollen jaw, she could only slurp chickenbroth through a straw. Five times a day. There was a strawberry yogurt intermediary three times a day, but that didn't cut it. That was when she noticed the diets of her neighbors, for as they cooked, the smells traveled through the duct work and billowed out into her room. Clouds of brewing coffee. Clouds of frying eggs. Clouds of bacon and steaks and simmering greens. From Mrs. Fananda's apothecary a veritable storm system of curries and creams and spiced breads and meats. By the second week her jealousy had reached biblical proportions. She lay in her bed and her mind was filled with the colors of elaborate, mountainous meals. She breathed deep and she was intoxicated by the rich fecundity of her neighbor's kitchens. Her mind roiled with the desire. Her agitation left her cursing these faceless chefs, this faceless, obscure disease; this flat, armless bed.

There was a half-hour of respite at 7:30 when Ms. Preston watched jeopardy. She watched it every night and it was the only thing she watched. Before or after, Beth had no idea what the lady did. Thing was, Ms. Preston was deaf and had to raise the volume of her television to what must have been ear-splitting levels because it came through the vent loud and clear as if the set two floors up and three apartments over were sitting at the foot of her bed. By her estimations, she would have been a horrible contestant.

And then there was the woman whose name and apartment number Beth did not know. This woman lived alone and she lived as any young woman alone would live. And thank god for that. Beth knew she lived alone because hers was the only voice she recognized with any regularity. The others varied in timbre and tone and provocation to excitement. There were usually two or three other voices a week and not until two or three in the morning when the bars were closing and most everything in the apartment building was asleep. Beth called her Damn Girl. That was the only thing she had ever heard the mystery woman addressed as. Beth had said it a couple times herself.

Damn Girl. Thank god for you.




...




If you knew Bethany Granger, you knew she wasn't going to stay in bed for long. She began her recovery by drinking her tea on her front porch again in the mornings as the sun rose up over the courtyard of the apartment building. She began trips to the tea room down the street for the exercise and the fresh air and the chance to see something other than the walls of her home. She walked to the grocery store. She treated herself to a movie downtown and drank a coffee and a muffin, though the muffin she had to cram through the small space her stiff jaw allowed.

But she made sure to be home by 7:30 for Ms. Preston and Jeopardy and soon after she would eat her piddling meal when the billowing atmosphere of Ms. Fananda's kitchen subsumed her senses. It made her broth and crumbled crackers into a Bihari paradise. And late at night, when there was nothing else to do and sleep was illusive... Damn Girl.

The first time the thing happened, it was merely curious. An oddity poking through the mundane and eventless droll that had been weeks in bed and in pain and hungry. It had been something like a whisper, but not of words. Nothing that could be remotely considered words, or even a voice, but the faint sibilate of a machine off kilter. Like there was a loose screw somewhere in the machine and this was the first vibration of its future failing. And it was right up front of all the random sounds coming through the vent. Not louder, and not uncommonly tonal, but right up front of it all. She tried to decipher the sound. Mechanical? A bug skittering around? Then Mr Preston flipped on her TV set and the sound was lost and so was Bethany's attention to it.

And then there was the time she awoke at some dark, nameless hour from a dream immediately forgot that left behind a flash of red in her eyes and a fearful tightness in her chest and a ringing in her ears and a ringing without. She sat up and rubbed her chest and tried, for some delirious, masochistic reason, to remember the dream, but there was no doing. She flopped back on the bed and tried to catch her breath, to slow her pounding heart. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, slow in and out. She tried to let the dream flow back into her, but she was left with nothing but the ringing. The strange stereo effect of it faded in as sleep wafted away from her, like an idea that dawned slowly. The ring outside her head was dislocated. Not in her, but nowhere her senses could locate either. She crammed her little finger in her ear and wiggled to no avail. She covered one ear and then the other, but could discern no direction. When she got up to pee, she used a Q-tip and thought it had worked, but it was only because she had left the room. When she laid back down, the ringing was back. When sleep began to wash back over her and she slipped gently back into the netherworld, her last thought was, its coming from the vent.




...




After 33 days of convalescence, her doctor cleared her to work. The swelling in her jaw had subsided to a not-so-hideous level. The fevers were gone. Her ability to eat had returned, the stiffness subsiding to a dull, nagging ache.

She called her superintendent to let him know she would be returning to work, but his mind was made up. She hung up the phone and through it across the living room and the cord popped tight and pulled the entire jack out of the wall. She gave it a kick on her way to the kitchen for good measure.

By the end of the week she was completely healed, though it passed without much notice. She had spent most of it drunk. If you were out of work in the town where she was from, you would understand.

She had taken to shouting the answers to Ms. Preston's game show as if she were on the show herself. She only ordered in food and paid with a credit card she had stuffed in her underwear drawer for emergencies. She went to the adult store and bought the ugliest, most destructive tool she could find. She constructed an elaborate, pornographic fantasy around the early morning tirades sounding from Damn Girl's bedroom. In none of the fantasies was she the hero. In none did she get what she deserved.

If you knew Bethany Granger, you would know that this was not typical of her behavior. She was a drinker, but not to regular excess. She was a hard worker, a steady worker, and held a respect for herself above all else. To the outside world her disappearance and the months preceding it were mostly a mystery. All that could be said was that she had been out of work. When the landlord came to clean out the apartment, it would be said that she had taken to drinking. All of this was true, but it was not all of the truth. There was also the voice. And there was the music.

It took her by surprise. Even in the solitude of her bedroom, the headiness of her inebriation, it embarrassed her. It happened during a particularly close game of Jeopardy on a thursday night. She heard it during the commercial break before the final round. A voice. Its tone somehow seemed directed specifically toward her. The words were unclear, but she answered anyway.

"Oh, shut the hell up," she hissed upward toward the vent.

It had not seemed her rantings could be heard before. No one had ever said anything. Still, there was something about it. She did not question that the voice was directed at her, and so she retorted, then thought about it, and she became embarrassed. After that she became scared to speak at all. She felt exposed to the world in a place that had been a refuge from her misfortunes for months. Her bedroom had been a shelter, her anonymity, where she could belt out her woes safely and undisturbed.

That night she slept on the couch. She curled into her drunkenness beneath a flowered quilt that had been a present from her mother before her death and whispered her contempt for the person that invaded her solitude until sleep overtook her.

She awoke the next morning, or maybe a morning off into the future, for the days and weeks had blended into a vague rotation of night and day. It was dark outside. Too dark to read the clock on the wall. What she felt was a loneliness that was immediately too hard to bare. The kind of loneliness that is not just a matter of space and quiet, but a lack of warmth in places where warmth can be its only recourse. A place where warmth is quite easy to attain if it wasn't for the damned loneliness. It pulled her up off the couch and across the room and down the hall. It pulled her into her bedroom where she left the light off and went to the dresser drawer where she kept her socks and she pulled out the warted behemoth she had become accustomed to as of late. She sat on the edge of the bed and held the thing limply in her hands. It wasn't cold, but its tepid, rubber flesh felt like a corpse in her hand. A core sample of her insides. She looked down at it like it was a mangy puppy, but one whose sweetness she could see through the scabs. She looked up at the vent, her attuned ears able to pick out the faint muffle of life on the other side. She could hear a sort of music. Soft, delicate, simple tones that were no song she recognized. No song she could whole-heartedly say was music at all. She stood and she laid the thing beside her pillow and cocked her head toward the vent and the sound. It wasn't music. There was too much space in it. It wobbled in the air as if it were coming together by accident from other things and it was only a trick in the ear that made it seem of its own body.

But it was soothing none-the-less.

It laid her back into the bed. It slid her clothes off and her underthings. The cool, mechanical air brought a smile to her face. The sound settled slowly into the room, gently on top of her, within her, and from it the voice. The sweetest of words, a whisper, right up close to her, pouring over her. It pulled from her the will to move, but that music, there was no need to move. No need to think. It unloaded from the thither of the building, from its small, rusty mouth above her, down into her and swirling the purest vibration and rhythm. All over her, the warmth of flesh full of blood and breath and the need to be right against her. A closeness that was not close enough.

The next day, had she been told that it would be almost a week before she heard the voice again, she would have said that it was impossible. Such a thing could not be as fleeting as that. She waited for it, but there was only the mundane world flittering about like an ant colony siphoned into her bedroom through that gaping, wanton portal.

After two days, she was desperate. She couldn't be sure anymore that what she had experienced had not been a dream. She was subdued by the Damn Girl above her. She had a three night stent with the same person and Bethany did too. The behemoth never left the nest of her bed. Three nights and days of delirious carnality. The blithe spirit shunning food and light and words and any real consciousness. But all the while and in between, still she longed for the voice, its sweet accompaniment, to fall upon her.




...




"We are here," is all it said.

She was asleep, and she could not tell where it had came from, within or from without, but she knew the voice and she snapped awake. The furious instinct of her desire pulled the words out of her mouth. "We are here," and then again, "Here."

There was no reply. She waited. She mouthed the words to herself with no voice behind them. She slid herself to the edge of the bed, her head turned up into the dark recess of the vent until the system turned on and an acrid plume of warm air settled over her. With it, the jumbled chatter of a party - scattered voice and bass-heavy music and sinister laughter. Tears welled up in her eyes and she fell back onto the bed. The behemoth rolled against her shoulder with a prodigious, rubbery smack as if it were some lecherous hand coming with wet, unwanted offerings. She pushed it aside, its tawdry girth thudding to the floor.




...




The cold weather had grown mild, the light golden throughout the day, filtered through the bursting green leaves swinging heavy on the trees. She had not left her bed in days and her body ached because of it, every muscle resettled in the wrong place. An entire body out of form. She slid out of her feted sheets and on the weak will of gravity alone she left the room. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water from the tap. The cool liquid leeched the drought of the raw flesh of her throat. It slid into her stomach, the roiling pouch churning it round and round in search of nourishment. All it got was the metallic tinge of the pipes. Fluoride and something not unlike bleach. She vomited into the sink. Bile merely tinted the clear swill. She could not remember the last time she ate.

She could see herself in how she felt. The itch of her scalp and how her fingers couldn't move and inch through her hair. She could see the oily tangles there. She could see it sticking out all over, the dark roots being just about the only color to it. She could see the thick, irritated sheen of her skin. The pale, splotchy patches the way her acne-prone skin had always behaved were it not exfoliated often and regularly. She could smell the stains in her clothes. The greasy rings in the creases of her neck. Standing in the middle of her kitchen trying to keep down the second glass of water, she couldn't stand the sight of herself.

Bethany Granger decided right then and there that this was enough. She was not going to go crazy. She would not pass the point of no return. She took it as a moment of grace. A moment of clarity. She stripped herself bare and walked down the hall. She pulled her bedroom door shut but that wasn't enough so she opened it again and slammed it as hard as she could. She put her naked body into the shower and soaped herself down and then just stood there beneath the scalding water. It hurt, her begrimed flesh, tender and saturated with sloth and whiskey sweat. Her scalp felt like it had been laid open by the furious swiped of a hundred razorblades. She stared down into the water pooling at her feet in bubbling brown strands.

With her foot she slid the drain plug in place and she rotated the shower knob so that the water ran from the lower spout. She sat with her back to she wall in the tub and let herself be swallowed by the scalding water.

She tried to imagine what had happened to her as if she were a stranger to herself and the past months had been a story told to her, but she could come up with no worthwhile answers. She could barely even remember a thing that had happened to her. Only the voice and the music and the throbbing pain inside her. Then all was lost to the tears and the hard, gaping breath of her sobbing.

She sat on the porch and let the warm, wet air and gilded sunlight drench her scoured flesh. She drank pots of tea and cried and pounded her fists on the table and tried to rid herself of her embarrassment, but shame is a close beast with its own voice, and its heart is cold and unwavering. The only fight she had was to demand that she was not going back to what she was. She had to find a way back into her old life. She had to get back to work. Any work she could find. She had to demand that she had no choice.

The next problem was the alcohol. By early afternoon, in the middle of the produce section, the strain on her body had become too much. She was cold and getting colder. The sweat dropped from her like water from a faucet. She tried to ignore it, to power through it, but when an act as simple as pulling a tomato out of the bin was rendered impossible because of how furiously her hand was shaking, there was nothing left to do.

In the liquor store at the other end of the complex from the grocery, she tried to buy a bottle, but the shaking and the pain in her gut would not even allow her to fish her wallet out of her purse. She put the bag on the counter and asked the clerk to get it for her, but he would not. He told her she had a problem and then crossed himself and kissed his genuflecting fist. He asked her to leave the store. Politely. He used please and ma'am. The torrent of curses and anger that flooded from the small woman in front of him put a genuine fear in him. When Beth grabbed the bottle from the counter and tore out the door without paying, he did not follow.

Sitting alone at the bus stop, she took a long pull from the bottle and almost immediately felt better. Another pull and she was able to get the bus fare out of her purse.

She sat in the back of the bus. She could smell the pain and fear on her. She closed her eyes and leaned back and let the pilfered whiskey work its magic.

At home she mixed the drink with water and ice and doled it out to herself like medicine. That was, of course, until she was drunk again and then she just drank.

She laid in bed and listened to Jeopardy with Ms. Preston. Damn Girl did not bring anyone home.

The next morning she had two drinks before taking the #9 across town to the Jobs Center.

She lasted a month at the hotel before she started bringing the bottle to work with her, sneaking sips from her thermos in between pulling loads of wet sheets from the washers and heaving them into the dryers.

At night, after the game show, she lay in the quiet picking through the slight ominous chatter coming form the vent until it came to her, the music; long, lazy tones descending like stardust from the wreckage of the day. Anointed in the celestial orchestra. Then the voice, late into the night after the bottle was empty and all the neighbors had gone to sleep.

"We are here."

and

"We wait for you."

And Bethany, over her silent lips, naked in her bed and delicately writhing, let the wordless words slip, "I am here," and, "I am waiting for you."

All through the night into the faint purple stretch of dawn, this gentle call and response between the lost and the heavens above.

And it was such as this for a time forgot that the romance lasted. Long nights in the dark imploring that small portal into the blackened guts of her home. The singsong of their intimate suspiration, swirling to and fro in an arcane transubstantiation of time and place.

Eventually there was no amount of booze that could make the drudgery of the laundry room tolerable. No amount of money they could pay, and it was a pittance they offered. The intolerability wore on her face, in the slouch in her back, in her silence and her solitude. When her boss confronted her about it she had no response. Not even the practiced groveling we all learn at some point in the donkey-work of wage slavery. She was fired and she gave no protest.

She gave no protest when her bank account ran dry. She made other arrangements with the lady at the liquor store.

She gave no protest when her pantry was bare. Eating had become of little concern long ago.

And she gave little protest the day her landlord came to collect rent and back rent. She tried to make an arrangement with him, but he was a happily married man and wanted only money from her. In the end, despite being offended and disgusted by his tenant, he gave her thirty days.

The panic was hard and fast. The panic was a dagger right into her heart and a poison in her belly. Her spine felt like it may snap in two, wrenched by the invisible hands of this unacceptable fate.

She took two drinks and caught the bus into town to beg for her job back. Her boss told her it wasn't worth it, but still she made her promises and offers and in the end she had to be removed from the building.

She had to walk the four miles home because she didn't have money for the bus ride back. On the way she slipped into The Blue Eagle and fixed herself up in the bathroom and sat at the bar and ordered a water. Within an hour, she had three drinks bought for her. The third gentleman stayed and bought her three more. Once there was no more time for fooling around, she was suddenly too drunk to walk and the young man called her a cab and gave her the money to pay for it. She wouldn't let him come home with her, but he settled for her phone number.

In her home she was just drunk enough not to collapse in the shear fright that had been sizzling in her chest since the landlord's visit. She felt afloat somewhere in the light, and in time... a calm netherworld just before the fall. She felt her toes edging the precipice.

She stood in the middle of the room and dropped her purse to the floor and her keys. She closed her eyes and held her face upward and listened to the birds outside, the washed noise of traffic and other human machineries. Beth Granger, despite the length of her life, the pains and the joys and the abundance forgot, could feel the earth moving without her. Despite her. Her body and her life built on no consequence. In that moment, nearly crumples to the floor like a corpse who forgot she was dead, Beth Granger was as close to not existing as she felt she ever could be without not existing at all.

What came next, then, was only instinct. At least it appeared that way. She disrobed and she let down her hair and she washed away her makeup in the kitchen sink. She took limpid steps into her bedroom and fell to her knees beneath the vent and let the communion of cold mechanical air wash over her. The only thought in her mind was, "Please please please please..." and all that sadness she had not felt in her little hinterworld in the living room pushed up out of her gut into her heart and so that it would not burst and rob her of the ability to hear the voice just one last time, she let the grievous brew bubble over. The tears streamed form her eyes leaving cold, dry tracks across her face. Her breath came out strained and painful, bereft of any real timbre but the agony-drenched wail audible only to the gods. Her body trembled so fiercely it sat still, slumped against its bones.

Over and over, her silent plea: Please please please. There was no response. No voice and no music to sooth her. Please please please, and, I'm sorry, please, but only the airy, wafting could of conditioned air.

She ran the bath to a punishing degree. She lay the razor on the empty soap dish as if it were the Host. She lit no candles. She wrote no goodbyes. She only lowered herself into the steaming tub and lifted the razor and let it sit lightly between her fingers.

Her mind was void of any last moments. She assumed there would be something there. Some sort of unmasking. Some sort of revelation of the pain and of the mystery, but there was nothing. Then, in an attempt to tease out an epic final moment, she pressed the thin edge of the razor to the pale flesh of her wrist.

"Please," she whispered. "I'm sorry," and again, "Please," and then she sank the metal into her body.

The feeling was not pain, but heat. The flesh did not give as if it were simply a bag os guts and bones, but it seemed to rip and resist and lay open to reveal a greasy white underbelly with only small rosy dapples of blood. She closed her eyes and grit her teeth and pulled the razor back and this time it was a searing burst of pain. She screamed out her fright and her surprise and opened her eyes and dropped the razor into the tub. The cut was a short gash, the white underflesh gorged red and the red overflowing into the water, spreading in smokey rivulets.

"We are here."

The fear of it pulsed through her neck, up out of her chest in rhythm with the slow gush of blood from her arm.

"We are here."

Her face felt cold, but her eyes felt like they would melt out of their sockets for fear of seeing. Her ears for fear of hearing.

"We are here."

She felt like she would vomit, but vomit ice, all the warmth drained from her - pulling from her the sense that she occupied a space in the world. Pulling from her the very idea of herself. She was only the mouth of an abyss from which flowed the unnamable, spectral heat of a universe that had been caged for a time out of mind.

"We are here."

"I am here."

and again, silent over her lips, "Here."

The music was only a hum, a single tone that wavered in a slight, perfect flutter against her ear. A secret code that need not be decoded.

The tears stopped and her mouth slackened into a smile.

She pulled herself from the incongruous mire of blood and water out onto the floor. Her limbs were too weak to hold her so she pulled herself slow and with much effort across the slick tile. Over a silken gloss of blood, she eased herself down the hall.

"Were are here."

"I am here."

"Here."

In the bedroom she turned herself over and pushed herself along the carpet so that her eyes could be on the portal above her.

"Were are here."

"I am here."

"Here."

And the music rose, the voice almost like singing, like a praise for her strength. It ran into her and chased out the cold. It calmed the gushing thump in her chest. And under it, under the relief of fright and the resuming warmth of body and spirit, there was the ecstasy returned to enflame her. She closed her eyes to a darkness devoid of time. There was only the voice and the song and then a golden, flickering light that brought her up from it.




...




The dried, rusty blood coated her like an old flesh. Inside her was a slow energy begging nothing but her own will... and the voice, as delicate and gracious as it had ever been, flowing gently over the soft tones of music, whispered to her, "We are here. Come to us and never leave. We are here."

She felt as if she were being lifted. A thousand hands all over her, gently raising her, the voice and the music getting closer. Louder. "And never leave."

She stood on the bed, naked, reaching for the portal. The voice was right there on the edge of the vent, inches from her fingers. "We are here," she whispered. "We never leave."

She piled up books, towels, clothes, everything she could find until she had her hand on the vent. She prodded and clawed at its edges until the drywall began to give way. It peeled and crumbled, a white, rocky dust falling over her, sticking in the coagulated blood the coated her. Her fingers dug a jagged trench around the rusty rectangle until they could curl in around the lip of the thing. She yanked and pulled until it gave way from the ceiling and fell heavy to the floor.

She stood balancing herself on the pile on the bed, silent, staring up into the darkness, waiting for the voice to come tumbling down to her.

"We are here," it said. "Come and never leave."

It was farther away now. Not far, but deeper than it had been before. The music pushed over her, in her, into the dark void above her. The dark seemed limitless, pregnant with the sound that was now all she could feel of her own body. Bethany lifted her hand and reached into the darkness. The cool air blew over her arm, now elbow-deep into the hole she had made. She reached around, all over, but could feel nothing. The vent shaft, the various innards of the building, it just simply was not there. She puled her hand out of the void, and then, "We are here."

With both hands she grabbed the lip of the portal and, using the wall to climb, pulled herself up into the ceiling, plaster falling all around. What should have been a tight squeeze of wood and wire, aluminum ductwork and insulation, was only the darkness neither warm nor cold nor made of any space. Below her too was darkness. The passage through which she came was gone with no trace of it having ever been there. Below her feet there was not solid ground, but she was not exactly floating. There was some sort of cushion of air that gave without tumbling her over. She took a step and it was only walking, the motion of it, without any sign that she was actually moving.



The music was all around her, the voice what seemed like straight ahead. She moved her body, which became lighter and lighter, full of the rapture of her dulcet wooer. Farther and farther until she was only movement, only a gesture toward her lover, and then nothing at all.

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