Ophidian

I was working at the computer when I saw the snake glide across the floor. It was about the width of a pencil, maybe a little thicker, about two feet long, and a slick, glossy black. I rolled my chair back in surprise, and saw the tail of another glide under my desk, just inches from my feet.

I jumped back and cautiously looked around, but I couldn’t see them anymore. I grabbed the edge of the desk and pulled it toward me slowly, the casters sliding across the hardwood floor. Behind it, under the rat’s nest of cabling and drifts of cat hair, was a small hole in the floor where there was some termite damage a few years ago. As I bent closer I saw a flicker of movement, and two snakes came out. I watched them slither toward the wall, and then one crawled up the wall and on the window sill.

I decided I had better find out what kind of snake could crawl up walls, so I grabbed the one off the sill. It coiled around to face me, its tiny tongue flickering out and red bead eyes staring. It didn’t bite me, though, it just slipped effortlessly out of my grasp and wrapped around my forearm. It felt cool against my skin. I kind of liked it, actually, but then I saw the others writhing around my feet, and I knew it was bad.

There was a sharp sting in my left hand, the skin between my thumb and forefinger, and I let go of the snake. It fell into the mass on the floor. I squeezed my hand, forcing little drops of blood out of the punctures. When I did I felt something pop in my elbow, and when I looked I saw movement under my skin. My veins were pulsing, and then began to wriggle; they were black.

I felt calm, and was unsurprised when my skin split from elbow to wrist, bloodlessly. The tiny snakes uncoiled and began to wave wetly in the air, like Medusa’s hair. The limp and useless flesh fell away, and I felt pressure start to build in my right wrist. I didn’t look down, I knew what I would see. The plaster on the walls crumbled, revealing tens of thousands of obsidian cables, sliding against one another in constant motion. The air filled with sibilance, and my vision faded.

[November, 2002]

Black and white

I stumbled from bed into the darkness outside, confused by the heat of the night air. It was more than darkness; I couldn’t see anything around me, but I wasn’t really blind. Strangely, the clay tiles of the porch were warm under my feet, and then I felt sunlight on my skin. Tilting my head and looking up into the darkness, I began to see the outline of the sun’s flickering corona, thin white lines, a tracing, an illustration, white scratches on a black board. As my eyes adjusted, the world came into focus, but everything looked the same, like some monstrous etching. My surroundings were two-dimensional, like some kind of animation.

As I continued to focus, greater and greater detail appeared. The railing, my plants, leaves, blades of grass, everything remained black, but surrounded by an infinitely thin stark white nimbus. Soon the definition of individual objects was failing, and my field of sight degenerated into meaningless scratches and chaotic motion.

[September, 2002]

Wires

I am in my living room, listening to something electronic on the stereo. I am walking around straightening things up, shelving books, stacking magazines, when I notice that wires seem to have come out of my ceiling. Along the corners of the room are the speaker wires I’ve run, but they are now slack, hanging loosely from corner to corner.

I get a chair so I can put them back when I remember that I didn’t run them along the walls, I ran them through the ceiling, so this shouldn’t have happened. I look closer and see that there are other wires visible, too—electrical conduits, some phone wires, CAT5 network cabling. Where did all this come from?

In my office it is even worse. The walls have taken on a translucency, and are webbed with wires. I don’t remember installing all of this; where did it come from? What are these glowing things? And then I know that the glowing wire is actually a scent trail left behind by a colony of ants.

I’m looking at a bookcase, and I see cobwebs covering it. As I approach to clear them away, I see they are tiny filaments, almost invisible, connecting the books to other books, and then reaching across the space to me. A book which was a gift from a lover has an additional thread, golden, which stretches through the wall and outside the house.

I glance down at my chest, and I am surrounded by a nimbus of silver wires, some so thin as to barely exist, some thick as cords, all radiating away from me, connecting me to the objects in my home, or to points beyond my vision. I reach down and gingerly touch one of the thickest, which radiates a silvery light. As I do I hear, as if from a distance, a woman’s voice. It is a woman I love, and love deeply. A sense of contentment washes through me, and I let go.

I can barely see the world now, all I can see are the wires.

[August, 2002]

Indigo fire

I was at the airport waiting for my lover to come through the gate when I burst into flames. Pale indigo fire enveloped me, but I was not consumed. This was my soul pouring out of me, my corporeal form no longer able to contain it.

The black woman with whom I had been chatting screamed and stumbled backing away from me. Before I could act tongues of flame leapt from my outstretched arms onto her, burning her horribly. As she fell the fire spread to others standing near her, starting a hideous chain reaction. Soon the concourse was filled with shrieking people fleeing from me, blue-white sparks filling the air. I was running clumsily toward the street exits when I saw the security guards raising their rifles.

The world disintegrated around me as I stopped in front of the thick glass doors. There was no longer any reason to run; there was nothing I could do. I turned as the machine guns fired, and watched as bullets ripped through my chest, geysers of fiery energy spouting forth from each wound, then flickering out.

[August, 2002]

Ziggurat

I was downtown near my office on a Saturday. There was a large park across the street, and I saw a few of our plainclothes security guys moving into it quickly. On a whim I decided to follow them, and saw them rapidly scaling a grass-covered stone ziggurat.

I began to climb it, assuming that since they ran up it without effort, I could do the same. I was wrong; I had to use my hands to pull myself up the nearly vertical surface, grasping as best I could the spongy grass covering the granite blocks. There were no steps; it was a monolith, not a pyramid at all. How had the others scaled it so easily?

I reached the top, where a few people were lounging about in the cool air. The top of the structure was enormous, perhaps a city block in size, dotted with trees and even stone paths. Looking out I saw I was at least a hundred feet above the ground, yet no-one seemed to take any notice. Some of the paths even led directly off the edge, continuing down the sides, sides which I could now see were nearly perpendicular to the ground.

After resting for a bit, and talking with some strangers, I knew I needed to head back down to the world below. The thought of climbing back down was daunting, but I had to convince myself that if I made it up here, I could go back down, and that I could return whenever I wanted.

[August, 2002]

Value

I can see a toy mouse across the room, barely visible under one of the heavy bookcases lining my small apartment. I must have missed it when I was packing up the cat things, after the last of my old friends climbed to the moon a few months back. Still, I can’t quite muster the energy to get out of my chair, walk over, and pick it up. I’m not even certain I could bend over that far any longer.

To my right I can see the door to my bedroom. It’s been weeks since I slept there. I have a blanket by my chair, and the chair reclines, and I can turn off the reading light without getting up. Still, I have to drag myself to my slipper-clad feet from time to time, to attend to my body’s declining needs. This is one of those times, so I fumble for the cane beside me. It was my grandfather’s walking stick in his day, one he made himself from a gnarled and twisted bit of wood from the farm, sanded and oiled and polished to a deep shine. Undoubtedly it would make more sense to get an aluminum walker, but that would feel too much like giving up. Besides, it isn’t as though I ever have far to walk. I never go out.

After washing my hands in the pink porcelain sink I glance at the mirror. I don’t look so terribly different from my youth, or so I tell myself, but we seldom notice the gradual erosion of our features. While my beard and moustache have faded from brown to gray to white, and my skin hangs a little more loosely on my skull, my eyes are still the same blue behind my glasses. I dry my hands, push my glasses up on my nose, and go to make some tea.

In the cramped kitchenette I put on a kettle, and then take a packet of peanut butter crackers out of the cupboard. Most of the shelves are taken up with amber plastic pill bottles, and with stacks of books. On the top shelf is an old teapot, cracked and patched, but no longer safe to use. I imagine I should throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to do it. As with most of the possessions I brought with me to this final apartment, its value is more sentimental than practical. The same could be said of me.

The shrill whistle interrupts my reverie, and I pour the boiling water into a cheap white teapot. My liver-spotted hand shakes, and for a moment I worry that I’ll drop the kettle again, but I keep control. Lifting the steaming cup to my face, I breathe in the spicy aroma, then turn and shuffle to the kitchen table, sitting carefully.

In the middle of the formica topped table, next to the paper napkins and the plastic radio, is an old paperback, a book club copy of A Wrinkle in Time. As I sip my tea I flip through it, reading more than the story, reading my history, as well. When my cup is empty I pull myself up, slipping the blue book into the pocket of my loose denim jacket, and returning to the living room and the comfort of my chair. I pull the quilt over my lap, and resume my reading. Soon I fall into a dreamless sleep.

I wake with a blinding pain behind my left eye, and scrabble in the dark for the light cord. When it snaps on, the bookshelves and paintings and mirrors and photos and other curiosities are all haloed by dim rainbows. I close one eye, then the other, but the sensation does not fade. With a sinking heart I open the book on my lap, and realize that I can no longer make sense of the words. My head falls back against the chair cushion, and I sigh deeply, and finally.

Slipping from my body proves to be effortless, and something of a relief. I look down at my withered husk, mouth agape, sightless blue eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, and shake my noncorporeal head. Looking toward the window, I glide across intending to go outside, but I am stopped at the wall. I am still bound to something here — everything, actually. My spirit is tied to these books, the curios and oddments lining the walls of my tiny apartment. I can feel the invisible cords holding me here, among my possessions, the belongings that gave my life meaning these last years.

For a while I wander through the four rooms, but grow increasingly frustrated with my inability to touch anything. I can’t even turn the page of the open book on my lap, so I’m forced to read the same two pages over and over.

Some time later my cell phone rings, the loud, jazzy tune that undoubtedly annoyed my neighbors. It rings for a while, then goes silent, except for the beep of the voicemail notification. The phone was in my jacket pocket, so I can’t even see who called.

I drift ainmlessly from room to room, watching night turn into day, and then into night again. After a while, the phone rings again, then stops.

Soon I hear a knock, then the sound of a key in the lock, the turning of the handle, and a young, petite blond woman enters. I know her; she is the granddaughter of someone I love. She flips on the overhead light, looks to my chair, and sees what used to be me. She sighs a bit, as though she’d been expecting this for some time. She crosses the room to me, and hesitates for only a moment before closing my eyes. She then sits on the room’s only other chair and makes a few calls, speaking quietly.

Time accelerates. The police and EMTs and my landlord and the funeral home staff all come and go, the last of them wheeling away my body. The blond girl and a friend of hers glance around my apartment, turn off the light, and shut the door behind them. I try to follow, but cannot.

I am no longer aware of the passing of days. Finally, the young woman returns with friends, some of whom I recognize, many I do not. They begin to sort through the bookcases and cabinets, the drawers and closets, boxing some of my belongings, throwing away the items they deem worthless. As each box or trashbag is carried outside, I feel myself becoming thinner, less substantial, and the world slowly becomes translucent before me.

Finally my shabby rooms are bare, save for the people standing in them. They speak among themselves, but I have grown too tenuous to hear them. The young woman reaches into her purse and pulls out an old, old, blue paperback, taken from my hands. She shows it to the others, and speaks, and smiles, holding it to her chest, with something in her eyes that can only be love.

And at last the world lets go of me, and I let go of it.

With a J

It was too warm in her apartment, which only added to my discomfort. She watched me with a puzzled look from the other end of the sofa.

“You’re nineteen. I’m well over twice your age. I mean, I’m flattered, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to you, but it isn’t fair to you. A young, beautiful, creative woman like you should be dating people in her own circle, people without so much baggage. You don’t know what you want to do with your life, and I’ve already lived mine.”

She sighed deeply and closed her eyes. The candles guttered on the table behind her. “But I’m an adult, and I’ve told you a dozen times that none of that matters to me—”

“I know!” I cut her off. “But I have to do what is right, and this is what I have to do.” I started to feel dizzy, only partly from the heat, and closed my own eyes. Suddenly I had trouble remembering her name.

“Well, then,” came her voice, “it sounds like you’ve made up your mind, Mister Sense of Responsibility. I guess I can go ahead and take off my clothes without it changing your mind.”

There was a rustling of fabric and movement on the couch. I started to say something and tried to open my eyes. I felt my arms and legs growing heavy, my breathing became labored, and gravity returned. By the time I got them open, I was staring through dim light at the slow turning of the ceiling fan over my bed. A thick layer of gray dust coated the leading edge of each blade.

“God damn it,” I muttered to the cats. “I can’t even catch a break in my dreams?!”

My melancholy stillness was shattered by the buzzing whine of my alarm clock, growing louder each moment. The covers were tossed aside, scattering cats, and I swung my legs over the edge and stood up. Or rather, tried to stand up. My calves were suddenly gripped in tremendous cramps, a Charley horse in each leg simultaneously. I reflexively straightened them out, throwing off my balance and pitching me headfirst onto the hardwood floor.

“Fuck!” I shouted, loud enough that the neighbors no longer needed to wait for their own alarm clock. “Thwack!” was the floor’s response as I hit. “Tweet!” went the invisible cartoon birds circling my head. “Eeeeeeeeee!” said the aggressively loud clock radio toward which I was now staggering, alternately clutching my temple and my legs. “Click” was the switch as I shut the damned thing off.

I flopped heavily back on the bed and watched the blades whirl as I waited for the pain to subside. “What was her name again? Something with a J, Eastern European, I think. We met at a museum, and went to a cheesy carnival. She had a laugh like church bells in the distance. Something with a J…”

Mood Indigo

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I went for a 3:00am drive. I don’t usually like to drive, probably because there isn’t any joy in Miami’s endless gridlock. But in the middle of the night the residential streets are cool and quiet, almost soothing.

I passed house after house, in neighborhoods foreign to me. The lights were off, save the occasional yellow bulb on a porch, or a dim static-y glow from a TV set. I cruised aimlessly, mindful of the cats prowling, looking disdainfully at me from their sidewalk kingdoms. I thought of all the lives in those homes, progressing toward goals even they couldn’t fully comprehend. I wondered how many of them were troubled by the thoughts clouding my own mind, who among them were perpetually ill at ease with their place in the world, who might be struggling with my own disquieting dreams.

I stopped at the end of a street in North Miami and looked at one house in particular. Something indefinable attracted me to it: It was modest, better-kept than its neighbors, with a small porch, an abandoned bicycle in the yard. I rolled down my windows, put the car in park, and shut off the engine.

I sat in the car for a few minutes, eyes closed, listening to the wind and the distant sound of the train, wondering what my life would be like if I lived in that house. Probably married, with a couple of kids, a mortgage too high and salary too low. Still, I indulged my reverie a while in the darkness.

When I opened my eyes to leave, I saw them. Four flickering lights appeared in a window, the palest of shimmering blue candleflames. They danced lightly across the dark glass, reflections of something, strange waking will o’wisps. They moved with a strange symmetry, and I looked over my shoulder for an approaching car, but there was nothing behind me but a row of silent houses and shadowy palms.

I turned my attention back to the lights and they began to move apart. One floated off the porch, crossing the chain-link fence on the side of the house, heading into the back yard. Another drifted across the porch and passed through the front door. A third floated toward me, unnerving me a bit, but settling on the handlebars of the fallen bike, then falling into the closely-cropped grass.

The last hovered near a young palm in the yard. Unlike the others, it didn’t fade away like some sensory trick, a phosphene brought on by too little sleep and too much stress. It grew brighter as I watched, intensifying into an indigo halogen, lighting the yard and the interior of my car with a cool blue light. I started my car with the intention of leaving immediately, but then the light flared to a brilliant white, and then was gone, leaving me rubbing my eyes. I sat for a moment, motor running, staring where the light had been. Nothing remained but the shadows.

I drove home, contemplating what I’d seen. All the way back I could see flickering lights in the corners of my eyes, in yards, in empty cars, drifting above sidewalks. My own house, sadly, was dark.

Liquidity

I dreamed of water, last night, or something like it. I was walking down a brightly lit tree-lined country road, I’m not certain where. When I looked overhead, though, the sun had been replaced by the moon. It was still daylight, but the golden light was now pale gray. Slowly the ground under me started to soften, gaining a silvery hue in the process. I glanced around, and the trees and sky were also transforming, melting into softly shimmering metallic surfaces. Soon I was swallowed into a liquid world.

While I was alone at first, drifting through a grey-white void, I eventually saw some other people in the distance. One I recognized, and I reached out to her. When I did, I saw that I had become liquid, myself. Luminous particles of my being drifted away from me toward this woman, and I feared that I was dissolving. I realized, though, that this was part of the fluid world, and that those particles would always remain intrinsically me. The world was made up of the swirling motes of others, and we could pass through them or merge with them as we desired.

Two nights

The night before last I noticed four guys in exterminator uniforms carrying large shopping bags through my store. I casually followed them down the hallway to the bathroom, and noticed that their bags were filled with guns. I feigned interest in the guns, as if I was a collector or something, and they warmed up to me. They started telling me all the details, firing rates, calibers, all that jazz, and ended up with giving me a large, sleek black handgun of some kind to look over. We started walking through the store then, them with their bags full of guns and me with my gun at my side. I managed to make eye contact with Diana in a crowd, and she guessed something was up and called security. I detoured off and speak with the chief detective, who told me that they had noticed me on the cameras and had been following us, waiting for us to get away from the customers so they could make their move. When we left the detective’s office the exterminators were approached by security, but one of the guys wheeled around, saw me and fired. I saw the flash of the gun, and as time slowed to a crawl I realized I was about to be shot in the face. And I was, and I died, and I woke up shortly after than.

Last night I was killed by an intruder in my home. He looked eerily like an Asian version of BOB from Twin Peaks, and was hiding in my home office. I knew someone was in there, and even saw his moonlit silhouette on the floor, but was compelled to enter anyway. He used a thin chrome-bladed knife on me; it wasn’t pretty. At the end I remember wondering why the home alarm hadn’t gone off, but my last thought before I died was the hope that HobGoblin would have enough sense to stay hidden until after the guy left the house. Once I was dead and beyond thought, the prowler spent a while going through my books, reading them, looking for something. I never found out what it was.

[June, 2002]