Shattered amber

I walk between rows of stainless steel counters strewn with dark monitors and abandoned notebooks, lit by the flickering fluorescent light coming from the glass-fronted berths lining the walls. I walk to the one I need and lift open the door, helping out the young woman sleeping inside.

Thin and long-limbed, her skin is the color of birch bark, with coal tar hair falling to her shoulders. She allows me to take her hand, her amber eyes bright with curiosity as she peers at my face. I lead her to a locker, and in the dim blue-white light she puts on jeans, a grey cotton shirt, leather work boots. I watch her dress, and think of the times I’d watched her during her long, long sleep — her, and the others, too, most of their lights now extinguished.

The pack I’ve assembled for her sits askew on a desk near the door. She slips it over her shoulders easily, and after putting on my heavy mask, I open the hatch.

We walk up broken concrete steps to the street. Little has changed since my last visit outside: the asphalt is still buckled and torn, burnt trunks all that remain of the decorative trees. The flow of time has remained constant, I think, with some surprise.

She walks ahead of me, silhouetted against the cracked, jaundiced sky. No breeze stirs her jet hair as she takes in the new surroundings.

I walk to her, stumbling a bit as I clamber over the same rubble shes navigated with grace. She turns to me, and her eyes have already changed. Their light is dimming — so soon? — and their rich amber hue is fading to mirror the diseased and broken sky.

Late party

The party was in an unfamiliar suburban neighborhood in the Midwest, probably Kentucky or Illinois. The tree-lined street was well-shadowed, and the streetlights lit circles of ground littered with the browns and oranges of fallen leaves. Clearly I wasn’t in Miami.

I walked up the steps to the front door of the old wooden house. A grinning jack o-lantern stood watch on the porch, and the front door was open, with just a screen door to keep the bugs out. Jazz was playing, and further in I could see costumed revelers mingling, drinks in hand. I opened the door and entered.

Everyone was masked: witches, mummies, vampires, werewolves, skeletons, salted with the occasional spaceman or hobo. The host had gone to truly remarkable lengths to make this an authentic 1950s Hallowe’en party, black and orange crepe paper and all.

A man in a leering devil mask shoved a glass in my hand. “Have a drink, boy, it’ll loosen you up!” He leaned back and laughed, a hearty guffaw that sounded strangely familiar. “You need a little loosening up, son, you sure do! We all do!”

He stumbled a bit as he turned, his red plastic pitchfork nearly tearing the wing off a nearby fairy. It was becoming more crowded by the minute, , and I started looking for a side room where I could breath for a minute, before my claustrophobia kicked in. I found a closed door decorated with a dancing paper skeleton, brass rivets for its joints. I knocked, and when there was no reply, opened and entered.

The dark room was small, a child’s bedroom. A candle shaped like a black cat burned on the windowsill, its back arched and yellow eyes wide and staring. Under the window was a small bed, and on the bed a grey cat lay curled, sleeping. “Hello, Lady Gray,” I whispered, and then paused. How did I know this cat’s name? Wait, how could this be the same cat? She disappeared a couple of years ago, in Miami. Still, she slowly lifted her head, yawned broadly, and looked directly into my eyes. It was her.

There was a scratching at the door behind me. As I turned it swung open, yellow light spilling in. Silhouetted by the lights of the party sat a stocky orange cat. The candlelight flickered in his eyes as he stared at me, then turn and walked into the forest of legs. I followed.

The party was in full swing. I heard children laughing in another room, and splashing water, while be-bop bubbled from a hi-fi on a table. I followed Colonel Hoppy — it had to be him! — through a maze of rooms lit by lamps or candles or jack o’lanterns, past ghosts in old sheets and Frankenstein’s monster in a floppy rubber mask. Eventually — just how many rooms were there? — he walked down a dark hallway, and stopped in front a closed door. The music was distant now, the incandescent yellow glow from beneath the door the only light. Hoppy turned and look at me, patiently waiting for me to turn the knob.

Old white enamel appliances ringed the room,  and the smell of baking pie was overwhelming. Pumpkin pie, of course. I wrinkled my nose; I don’t like pumpkin pie.

But wait, I love pumpkin pie, I have for years. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, sure, but… Wait.

I knew this room. This was Grandma Hall’s kitchen. There’s the door to the back yard, a couple of steps down and then there would be a steel glider and two shell-shaped motel chairs. A square, Formica-topped table filled the center of the room. A very, very old woman in a tidy checkered dress sat primly in one of the vinyl covered metal chairs, deep in conversation with a woman in a broad witch’s hat, a high black wig spilling from under it, and green makeup smeared over her face.

My mother, talking with my great-grandmother.

My mother looked up at me, one eyelid drooping just a bit from the Bell’s palsy she’d suffered when we first moved to Florida. She shook her head at me.

“You don’t need to be here. I know you mean well, but there’s no reason for you to be here talking to the old women. There’s no point to it. Go be with your friends. I’ll take care of things here.”

But of course, my mother is dead, just like everyone else at the party. Even the cats, most likely. Why was I there?

I opened the door to the back yard and stepped down: one, two, then soft grass yielded under my shoe. It was dark, but there were clusters of fireflies dancing through the night sky.

There was a polite cough behind me, where the glider should be, and then a deep, even voice.

“Sit down and rest a while. We’re about done here.”

The fireflies moved closer, as I fell away.

Cinema

I caught one of a group of kidnappers in the act, and when he tried to get a gun out of his pocket I stabbed him in the throat with a plastic fast-food knife. I was holding his body on the floor of a doughnut shop and asked the big-haired woman behind the counter to call 911 before the rest of the gang showed up. Shortly after that my perspective shifted outside of my body, and the epilogue played out. The guy I stabbed appeared in front of a black screen, a few years older, saying how after all this time he still didn’t know why I attacked him. The “screen” went black, and white text scrolled by explaining how I had been shot to death by Miami cops, who still were not sure of my connection to the kidnappers.

[May, 2002]

Tides

They were coming at me in waves. Hundreds of people, a crowd scene, a stampede, people I didn’t know, all kinds of people, teenagers and crones, bums and CEOs. They were all shouting and screaming and staring at me with a mixture of fear and love and revulsion.

I was moving against the tide, trying to get somewhere important, somewhere I knew I was supposed to go, someplace important, but I couldn’t remember. They were slowing me down, and I simply could not be late. So I started running, swinging my arms wildly in front of me, slamming into the tide of humanity full force.

They exploded. Each person I touched flew apart, torn into bloody hunks of meat and viscera and bone. I was quickly covered in gore, but I kept running, cutting a swath through the hordes. It sickened me, because I didn’t want to get to my destination, but I knew it wasn’t my choice: it was Fate. I knew they would forgive me.

[March, 2003]

Rainwater

I’m walking down a city street late at night. It may be New York, but if it is, it’s the cinematic archetype of New York’s dark side. The street isn’t empty, but sparsely populated. It’s been raining, and the stone and brick walls glisten, reflecting the street lights. I’m on my way home from somewhere, some entertainment, and I’m feeling pretty good, almost lighthearted. I have a phone call to make when I get home, to someone important to me, and the anticipation of that call makes me happy.

As I pass an alleyway, I hear a sound from the darkness, a near-cry, high-pitched. I’ve passed the entrance, but I pause and listen. The street is quiet, so I hear some wet cardboard boxes fall over, and a thump. I turn around and enter the alley, asking if anyone’s there.

In a blur, someone grabs my shirt front and yanks me into the darkness. I stumble, nearly falling, but am quickly slammed backwards against the wall. The streetlight illuminates my half of the alley, but all I see of my attacker is a maroon windbreaker, and the hand retreating into the darkness ten feet from me. Strangely, I am aware of the rips in my shirt where the bricks have torn it, and the stinging scrapes on my back.

I’m not frightened, though. I am breathing heavily, staring into the shadows, seeing nothing, when I am punched hard in the chest. I’m confused for a moment, and then I realize I’ve been shot, and I can’t breathe. Four more times I feel the impact, but all I hear is the rainwater dripping off a fire escape, and the distant sounds of traffic.

My legs start to fold, and I slide slowly down the wall, painfully grating my skin all the way. When I’m sitting, unnaturally contorted, I look at the silver light of the lamp, haloed by mist. I’m not in pain, but I know I am dying, and all I can think of is this: I have no paper to write on, no voice to speak, no audience. I’ll die without any last words.

[June, 2003]

Demon

It’s a bad start for your day when you wake up with a 45 pound invisible demon squatting on your chest trying to suffocate you. I stayed up a bit late, and went to sleep with my mind agitated, spinning wildly around topics too heavy for a bedtime story. No surprise then that I woke with a start at 4am, feeling like the world was careening out of control. But I recovered quickly, and sensing that sleep was still a few blocks away, I hit the net and caught up on some reading. By five I was tired again, and went back to sleep for a short while. At a few minutes before six I was startled awake, nearly panicking when I realized I was paralyzed, unable to move at all. My limbs were insensate, I felt a tremendous pressure on my chest, and I couldn’t get air into my lungs. My vision was fine, and even in the dim light I could see my cat sitting across the bedroom from me, staring at me with the hair up on his back. I tried to cry out, but I couldn’t make a sound. My mind was racing, trying to imagine a way to get to the phone, to do anything to keep myself from asphyxiating, when I noticed something odd. Even though I couldn’t breathe, I could see my chest rising and falling steadily. I was breathing, so what was I feeling? I couldn’t be suffocating. At that moment, just as suddenly, I snapped back to normal. My arms and legs were fine, I wasn’t dizzy or lightheaded, just… extremely tired, like I’d been fighting or something. After a moment, I stood unsteadily and headed for the shower. In retrospect I imagine that it was a dream, a perverse asynchronous wakening which brought my conscious mind up before the subconscious had been fully tucked away. Whatever the cause, I won’t forget the feeling of helplessness in the face of an unseen force anytime soon.

[June, 2002]

Walking north

It’s hot out, but there’s some breeze, so it isn’t too bad. I’m wearing my backpack with my belongings in it, including some blank books. The batteries for everything else ran out long ago. The country is flat, and I’m trudging up the empty highway toward— I’m not sure. But going there isn’t a question, it’s instinctive. The skies are a brilliant blue, with occasional white clouds drifting along, the kind of view beloved of tourism directors. The trees and scrub by the roadside are richly green, but silent. I can hear water, though, somewhere in the trees.

I walk for days, it seems, but night never comes, and I meet no one. The silence settles into my heart.

Somewhere north of Vero Beach I arrive at the— what? Castle, villa, fortress, library? An enormous structure, five, ten stories tall, broad as city blocks, carved from huge slabs of coral rock. It stands alone and imposing, time worn and algae-stained stones rising into the sky, surrounded by an expanse of soft, thick grass, a park? Other people are there, travelers, standing in small groups talking. Young people mainly, but some as old as me, some older, but few. I find a spot in the shade of the stones and sit, resting. Three young men are standing near me, speaking in a language I don’t understand, that I can’t even identify.

I climb the carven stairs in the side of the stones and reach the courtyard, a tremendous plaza thirty feet in the air, formed of the same blackened stones fitted together with precision. On opposite sides of this plaza are buildings, cathedral-like structures extending the width of the courtyard, with dark oaken doors the height of five men, doors which are banded with iron and closed. From high up the faces water streams, keeping the stones wet, and collecting in pools where stones have been removed from the courtyard. There are dark windows, too, glassless but forbidding. I know there are people inside, but no-one enters of their own will; you must be chosen.

The travelers live here, on this coral rock plateau high above the lawns. Bright flashes of color mark our presence, at a distance distinguishing us from the gray and black stone. In the shadows of the towers it is cool, almost cold. We drink from the clear waters spilled from the stone walls, sleep in small crevices, or the occasional stone stairway which leads down into darkness, ending at a locked wooden door. Sometimes outside these doors we find offerings of bread or fruit, which we share with those near us. I listen at one door for a day, and hear nothing, as if there was only blank stone beyond.

The world has changed, and few have survived. Of those who survive, fewer still feel the calling, and make the trek to the stones. I don’t know why I was chosen for the calling, but I know that I dare not squander this opportunity. I talk with those around me, telling my stories of the time before, and wonder if one day I will be among the elect, chosen to pass through the secret doors into the world inside.

[March 31, 2002]

Yellow

I was sitting in Burger King staring out of the window and thinking about the errands I still needed to run when I saw the thin black man in the empty parking lot. He wasn’t ragged and wild-eyed, like the homeless people I see downtown — his clothes were clean and looked neat, a pair of work pants and a light blue shirt — but he was swinging his arms wildly around his head and face, batting at something invisible. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, so I just thought it a little sad that this poor crazy guy was wandering around.

Then I noticed a flash of color, and I began to reconsider my assessment. There was something flying around his head. Several somethings, actually, and I remembered the time in my youth when my brother and I were attacked by a swarm of bumblebees in a field, hundreds of them sting our scalps and faces over and over. This man was a good twenty yards away, though, I shouldn’t be able to see bees.

They weren’t bees, though. They were butterflies. Pale yellow sulfur butterflies, dozens of them, and more coming in from above. Soon there were hundreds of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs, all converging on this poor man. I sat stunned, my mind incongruously trying to remember exactly what chemical it is that attracts these insects to gardens.

The man fell cowering to the ground, tucking his knees under his torso and covering his head with his arms. In a moment he was invisible beneath a delicately fluttering yellow blanket. Then, just as abruptly, a pale yellow cloud rose and dispersed, gliding into the afternoon. “Predictable,” I mused, noting that the man was now gone.

“What did you say?” my lunch companion asked. Over her shoulder I saw the last few golden flecks disappear from view. Suddenly I realized what was different about this vision. This time I wasn’t asleep.

[March 5, 2007]

Scarabs

I am standing in front of a whitewashed wood frame house in New England. The house is completely surrounded by cobblestones, and there are several similar structures inside the high stone wall. There are other people with me; I am part of a tour.

There is one house that I know is not normally visited in the tour, but the guide senses my curiosity about it. He opens a large grey steel switchbox on the side of the house and pulls down a knife switch, causing a small cascade of sparks. He tells us we must to wait a minute or two before entering. From the same steel box he removes a large, thick aerosol can, and inserts the nozzle into a brass fitting in the wall. From the muffled hiss I can tell he is releasing its contents into the house.

After a few minutes we are allowed through the peeling white door. The house is a typical late 1800s house, but most rooms have been filled with bookcases. As I walk through I notice that in some rooms there are small, pale, iridescence scarab beetles on the floor, dome on their backs, legs waving feebly. The guide warns us not to disturb these bugs—some girls slide paper under them to pick them up, and them put them in their coat pockets. The guide sees this, and warns them against it. I ask him why they are there—their numbers increase. He tells me they are in the house to protect the books. He doesn’t mention what they are guarding against.

I see a parade of coruscating scarabs crawling across the ancient leather-bound spines. I smile at the sight; it feels right.

[May, 2003]

Gluttony

Last night I was sitting on my sofa in my living room, looking over some old books of mine, things from my childhood like Gus Was a Friendly Ghost, and Homer Price. I was lost in a bit of reverie, smiling and content while shuffling through these boxes of books

Suddenly, I was taken with a strange compulsion. I picked up one of the books, a paperback copy of A Wrinkle In Time, and tore out the first page, stared at it for a moment, then popped it into my mouth and started chewing it. It was surprisingly flavorful, tasting like Sno-Cones, with a faint scent of summer grass. I only hesitated for a moment before tearing out another page, and another.

Before long I had consumed the entire book, and was hungrily rooting through the box for another snack, then another. Soon enough the box was empty, and I started in on my bookcases, marveling at the different tastes. My gut was bulging uncomfortably, but I didn’t let that slow me down, as I annihilated all the books and magazines in my house.

One the words were gone, I lumbered over to my entertainment center, and started in on the CDs. I threw the cases on the floor like peanut shells, and snapped the discs in my jaws, crushing them to fragments, savoring the sensation of music sliding over my tongue. The films were obviously next, with DVDs providing sharp, intense bursts of flavor that quickly faded, while I sucked down the long strips of videotape like spaghetti. Soon, though, it was all gone.

Once the house was empty, my now-gargantuan bulk sprawled across the groaning hardwood floor. I rested there a while, feeling the sharp bits of plastic and metal grinding in my stomach. It didn’t take long, though, for the hunger to return. I wondered what else I could eat, when I saw the phone line dangling from the wall jack, and thought about DSL. I crawled over to the wire, clamped it between my molars, and began to suck.

As the data coursed through my bloated, twitching form, I felt an exhilaration like no other. My soul soared in information-fueled ecstasy. Only one concern darkened my mood: what would I do when the data ran out?

[March, 2003]