When Conner arrived at the gas station, he exited the car with a speed that surprised even him. He took a few quick steps, almost at a run, before turning back towards the car. Under the garish sodium lights of the service station, the little blue sedan was a sickly greenish gray. It looked squat and malign in its stillness. The throbbing headache at the base of his skull seemed to diminish with every step and he began to catch his breath.
He took the phone from his pocket and raised it high into the night sky, waving it from side to side like a semaphore flag. Nothing. The signal meter defied him by remaining empty. Not even a flashing roaming message. Conner scowled at the phone and thrust it back into his pocket.
He glanced around the station, two solitary pumps and a closed convenience market. An isolated island of pale yellow light in the dark of the North Carolina forest. The silhouettes of trees bit into the starry night sky, surrounding him like a ring of teeth. The grating hum of electricity mingled with the crackling of insects from the woods beyond, drifting in the warm summer night air.
Jutting from the side of the shuttered market was a scraped and listing pay phone, its metal stalk visibly bent from some long ago impact. Conner approached it, digging a pair of quarters from his pocket, and gripped the scarred plastic handset. For a moment, nothing happened. The sense of isolation deepened, like the ground being pulled out from under him, and the panic returned. A series of quick clicks bit into his ear and the dial tone chimed. His fingers felt numb as he dialed.
Even at a few hours past midnight, Reynolds answered on the first ring.
In the night, with only dim starlight holding back the true dark, I am alone. The day’s business is done, the traps checked and reset, water collected from the evaporation pits, the perimeter alarms set. My body uncoils, the thick ropes of aching muscles unspooling as I lay in the filthy sleeping bag. The once springy down filling is clotted with a foul smelling dampness, bunching into greasy clumps and knots. By winter I will need to strip the filling, and find something to replace it, but it will not pack down as light. By winter, I might be able to venture back into a city, and find a sporting good store. By winter, this might be all over, or I may be dead.
I drift away, the pinpricked night differing very little from the haze of sleep. When I awake and shake the gossamer film from my consciousness, I become aware of the passage of time. The spine of silken light behind the stars, the heart of the galaxy that I have become re-accustomed with in the past month, has twisted across a quarter of the sky. Small coiling tendrils of fog are coursing up the sides of the mountain. And behind the wet and living thrum of the brush, behind the shudder and shiver of the breeze, I hear the clank of glass and tin cans.
I cannot pick out the direction at first, so I spring from the sleeping bag already gripping the revolver, finger coiling around the trigger. I hold utterly still in a runners crouch, the pistol already slick with sweat against the walnut grip, despite the ragged cold of the night. My lungs burn with panic, but I wrestle control from my hindbrain and still the shuddering in my chest until my body is calm, still. My mind will follow.
In the stillness, the alarm rings again, a clumsy tremor of inorganic sounds against the night’s tapestry, just ahead of me now. I thrust the pistol forward, without thinking, and fire two shots, level with the horizon.
The night before I lost her, my wife and I fought about something I cannot remember. I remember the yelling, the sweat on her brow as she spat sharp words, I remember the welling frustration inside as I tried to remain calm, until I snapped, and began to fight back, only resisting for the sake of resisting. I remember the uneasy stubborn silence as we prepared for bed, opening all the upstairs windows, pulling all but the last sheet from the bed. I remember the heat of the night, cruelly unfaltering even into the small hours. I remember wanting so badly to touch her in the dark, to begin that small reconciliation, and I remember Linda pushing me away, gently. The argument was forgotten, I have to believe, and it was only the heat that kept us apart, that pushed me away.
She was gone when I awoke, the sun already hanging, bloated in the white and opalescent sky. She had taken the car, gone to work, leaving me a small pot of oatmeal simmering on the electric stove. Next to it, on the marble countertop was a glass of orange juice and a little yellow post-it, cheery and bright, with a quick pencil sketched heart, and a single word: ‘Sorry.’ Like that, the unrest was gone, and I remembered how in love we were.
I spent the day avoiding my contracts and my studio entirely, and instead began to clean and dust the house, running a series of damp cloths over every flat surface. My allergies were already flaring as the early summer heat coaxed a thousand weeds and flowers to disgorge a miasma of pollen into the air, drifting in through every loose fitting window pane. No matter how hard the anemic air conditioner chugged, the heat never dissipated, and my sinuses flared in the thick dusty air.
This piece underwent a greater edit than most, and I’m really happy with the results. You can compare both versions, but the newer edit is tighter and more thematically focussed.
When I emerged from a decade beneath the waves of my private sea, my parents were dead and gone. With a clarity I had not experienced since my youth, I drifted like an airborne seed through the City. I fell in love, not with my fellow man, but with the places men gather. With a small fortune, the life insurance and inheritance that churned the modest guilt inside me, I put down gossamer roots into a dozen places across San Francisco, staying only long enough to satisfy my curious new desire for belonging, before again taking to the breeze.
In every place I settled, I drew a map, dreamed a new metaphor. When I lived in the shadows of the medical college, haunting bars filled with sleep-deprived and wild-eyed doctors-to-be, my map of the City was like the organs and cells in a body. A vascular system of roads, a nervous system of wires, and the pale and textureless connective tissue between.
When I left the drafty Cole Valley flat for a studio loft in the Mission, I mapped the City as a battleground: isolated camps of combatants brought together by common ideals, surrounded by the rotting demilitarized zones of cultural vacancy.
From a top floor apartment on Market Street, I saw the City as a vast and productive farm, where I surveyed each field, growing signature and heirloom crops to be counted, stored, and sold. Like any farm, there were fallow places between the fields, cracked and rotting fences, and rusting abandoned machinery.
In every place I settled, these nameless in-between places, the featureless empty zones between the landmarks and neighborhoods filled me with shivering unease. Like minds without souls, the interstitial boroughs seemed on the verge of rotting away beneath my feet. It was many months before I could admit why.
They were the very places I had once sought out, grey places filled with grey faces, where I once found quiet oblivion without judgement. The empty hollows of civilization that I let suck so much of my life away. With the veil now lifted, I did everything I could to avoid them, and their whispering temptations.
Inside the vibrant neighborhoods where I now made my homes, I would travel only by foot or bike, for fear that I would wall myself away from the beauty. But when crossing the borderlands, I needed the barriers of taxi cabs and train cars. The empty places reeked of my disease and threatened to make me ill. I passed through them only when need dictated, and my resolve was strongest.
When my map of the City and her identities grew dense, I had still not found a place I felt I belonged, a place I would want to truly live in. I imagined, like the newborn that I was, that all the City’s secrets were known to me and my love for her turned sour. I flirted with the idea of starting again, picking another of the world’s great cities and emerging, naked and fresh into a yet another new life.
In a fugue of self pity, I forgot why I feared the hinterlands between the hearts, and wandered into their blankness, again and again. I found outposts inside these places, where people gathered together for heat, for light, for company, defiant against the bleakness that surrounded them.
Although I could no more relate to them than I could the denizens of the more desirable neighbors, I found comfort in those places. Not the comfort I craved, but the comfort I remembered. It was there that I could crouch on the precipice, and peer back down into my old oubliette.
An old familiar voice whispered back from the darkness, and I began to think echoes of old thoughts. Perhaps I had ignored these places, and much of the City, so much of what truly made it, under false pretenses. I had allowed the weakness of my own character to cloak these misunderstood places in a miasma of fear. A fear that stemmed only from my own failings.
With renewed desire, I threw myself back into my exploration, to again be a cartographer. To map the crooked places that had once held me in a different kind of thrall. I could return to the shadowlands, and see them for what they really were, and I could pass through them unharmed and clear of mind, and continue my search.
This is what I told myself. I even believed it, some of the time.
It was on this last leg of my quest, that I came upon the tower.
It stood alone, in a district that should have curled cold tendrils of unease around my spine. The streets were empty and clean, in a way that suggested not constant attention, but disuse, and its only neighbors were warehouses and the pale shadows of failing restaurants and cafes.
I had seen its skeleton from a dozen of my nests, for it had been growing all the while, like the twisting branches of a great stone and glass tree, for the last half of the decade. It should have filled me with loathing. Artless and empty, a featureless glass monolith designed to house the young and wealthy, and those who were drawn to the in-between places for all the wrong reasons.
But when I encountered it then, during that final phase of my exploration, something inside it tugged at me, hooked me like a fish and never let go. Something high above the city streets called out to me, singing to me alone. It was an old song, sung with a new voice. The sensation was so familiar that I was scarcely aware of the pull. It felt like coming home.
Nothing about the tower was beautiful. I see that now. But I had written a check, a deposit for one of the sterile condos above me, before I realized that I had walked inside.
In that familiar fog of desire, I knew one thing: I needed to be on the upper stories, for the song came from high above me. I convinced the corpulent building manager of my need and he cracked his wide grin, baring twin rows of perfectly straight teeth, and assigned me a unit on the top floor.
I rode the elevator in breathless anticipation, and went straight to my first room.
My belongings and possessions were brought to me later, for once I entered the tower, I only exited it once more, for good, nearly five months after. When I left, I was free of the fog, free of my crooked need to find the soul of the soulless places, free of my love of cities and the places of men. I was scoured clean, left raw and naked, every sensation amplified and painful. I left with only my terror and my life, although how much of that I retained is in question.
The first apartment’s spacious and empty rooms still smelled of construction, dust, and antiseptic cleansers. One glass wall in each room offered a sprawling view of the bay and the crumbling docks, the last few vestiges of proper industry inside the City’s borders.
I already understood that it was not the view that my sudden, hot desire for elevation demanded. It was something else. Within moments, I also understood this: the top floor was too high. Whatever I was drawn to was now beneath me.
I left the room and began to descend the stairwell, the metal steps still covered in powdered drywall. I felt the invisible draw in my lungs, in the beating of my heart, and in the crooked trail of scars on my arms. It took a few dozen floors before the locus of my attraction was level with me and I entered a hallway that looked identical to the one above.
My fingers drifted up to the eastern wall, without thought, as so many of my actions had once been, and would become again. I paced the hallway, and I felt a pull down the length of my arm. Like a dowsing rod, I dragged my fingertips across the rough texture. The hissing friction of fingers on plaster and my soft footsteps on the carpet were the only sounds. The air was redolent of paint and carpet glue, but beneath it all, dancing in the air like a cracking whip, was a thin thread of something sickly-sweet. A night blooming flower. A corpse on the border of rot. It was intoxicating.
I reached a door, halfway down the hall, and my legs froze as if rooted to the spot. On the other side of the heavy wooden door, just past my raw fingertips, lay the source of the call. I felt an intense, delicious anticipation, a nearly fulfilled desire, the calm that comes just before the pinprick.
No logic could explain nor language could describe what my mind yearned for, for although the sensations were familiar, the source of the song behind the door was fundamentally alien, and a thousand times stronger. The sweet ache took root in the very structure of my flesh, and throbbed with my heart. I raised both hands, fingers splayed wide in a lover’s caress, and held my body to the cool wood of the door.
I had to enter the room. I needed to be inside. This could only be the home that I had been searching for.
I looked up to the numbers, 2319, picked out in delicate and filagreed gold numerals, and committed it to memory, repeating them breathlessly. I knew, with a sharp pang, that I would need to leave the doorway before I could return to be fulfilled. I would offer any price and pay any cost, but I would cross the threshold. I would go inside, and I would be made happy and whole.
I might have stayed fixed to that spot, almost but not yet touching my prize, forever. But after a long moment, through the warped glass bead of the peephole, light flared, shaking me from my trance.
It took me a fractured moment to understand. While I pressed my body to the door, sighing with private intimacy, the occupant of 2319, the interloper, had been on the other side, staring out.
What kindled in me then was not the polite embarrassment that good breeding and decency demanded, but something more akin to sexual jealousy. But there was more, a violence I felt boiling in my forearms and clenched fists. Something bestial, cruel.
Reason returned, and I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that I had the means and now the clarity to take what I needed in the proper way, with no need for bloodshed. I grinned into the looking glass, my eyes slitted with cold assurance.
I was not a man accustomed to being disappointed.
The manager, that perfect creature of the dead zones, merely furrowed his brows when I returned holding out my checkbook. The room was indeed taken, it was the first chosen, by the very first occupant. He made clumsy jokes at first, not seeing the clarity of my need.
Desire made me needle-sharp. I offered to buy out the occupant. I offered to buy the whole building. In the end, the best I could do was place my name first on a waiting list. In the meantime, I moved my deposit to a new room, 2219, where I could wait just below, and bide my time until the occupant could be persuaded.
I never unpacked, even though I had the contents of my previous beachside flat shipped to me at great expense. I lived out of boxes, on minimal furniture, and subsisted entirely on delivered food. 2219 was close enough to the wet and living beacon above me to act as a temporary salve, and for a while, I thought it might be enough. Simply being there filled me with a kind of contentedness that I had only dreamt of.
My previous life, the wandering cartography of the invisible borders was over, for I’d found what I had been searching for.
I would lie on the floor, eyes drifting between the floor-to-ceiling windows, and then to the neutral texture of the roof above, trying to see through. The City beyond held no meaning for me any longer. If I wished, I could still see the neighborhoods and districts I had loved. I could see the grey stripes of nothingness that bound them to each other, the no man’s lands that I had tried to avoid. But I no longer saw.
I had misunderstood the City, and now I saw its true meaning. Every part of it, unknown and known, existed across centuries for one purpose: to birth the tower. To create the room above me to safely house the thing, whatever it was, that sang out in promise to me.
I could smell it in my waiting chamber. The strong floral scent permeated the walls, and stuck to my skin, cloying and thick. I heard harmonic vibrations, echoing through the walls, and down the wires, and into my veins. My whole life had led to this place and this time, and I hovered on the precipice, terrified to go any closer, for fear of losing it all.
But soon, proximity was not enough. I found myself standing on a wooden chair, sometimes for hours on end, trying only to be closer to It. I would stretch my arms high, and press my palms to the ceiling, feeling the siren song running down through carpals and radius and ulna and humerus and spreading into my lungs and heart, like a warm and familiar wave.
But even that could not sate me, so I coiled my desire and need into a sharpened point, and brought it to bear against the occupant, the silent intruder above me.
I began with noise. I unpacked my stereo and pointed the speakers upward, blasting random and sharp intervals of atonal nonsense. The tower was still sparsely populated, in truth nearly empty. I knew that I had the floor to myself, and but a single neighbor above. Yet another sign I disregarded utterly, one in an endless parade that should have driven me far from the place, had I still retained my sanity.
But instead I squatted in that abominable and heartless husk of a home, in a place that should have set my teeth on edge. A wild-eyed and unrepentant fool, a quisling to all that I had claimed to love about the places of men.
When the occupant made no complaints, I raised the frequency, the volume, until finally I could no longer stand my own tortures. I turned to pounding on the roof with a broom, slamming the ceiling until chips of paint and plaster fell down into my eyes. More than once I thought of simply tunneling upwards, and emerging from the hole to choke the life from the occupant and claim my prize.
I got a response, at last. He would tap his heels, lightly, in echo and reply to my thundering, a retort I found mocking and intolerable.
I tried horrid smells, boiling foul and mouldering scraps of food, and pouring them on the threshold of 2319 in the small hours of the morning. I made complaints against him, claiming he was responsible for the noises and the smells, but the manager believed none of it and threatened to expel me.
I began to slide notes beneath his door, angry volatile screeds, threats, grotesque descriptions of the violence I would visit upon him if he did not vacate the place. They became pleading, mewling cries, offers of wealth, lies and thin tales designed to stoke his sympathy for my needs. I had made a life, once, of manipulating people to achieve my desires, and now I used every tool at my disposal.
In the end, he would thrust the notes back out as soon as I slid them in. He was always in, always home, and I understood this. He, like myself and so few others, knew, felt the pull of the place and of whatever was inside. In my most magnanimous and clear-headed days, I knew that he and I were kindred, and he had merely had the luck of being first.
I grew thin, physically and mentally and I became brittle and dry. I was on the verge of giving up, not my desire for the special place above me, but of the very act of living in a final, childish tantrum. Although I was closer than I dared dream, the distance felt magnified, and I knew if I left, it would haunt me, a bullet lodged in my flesh, working its way toward my heart for the rest of my days.
At last, after a week of petulant fasting, it came to me that there were only a few paths left to lead me to what I needed. I pulled my ragged body, barefoot and reeking, from the sodden chair where I had sat for more than a day. From the kitchen, I retrieved the snub-nosed pistol that I had hoped never to need, and left my ersatz apartment. I shuffled on tingling legs towards the stairway, and began to climb.
I smelled the sweet-death smell on the air-conditioned breeze when I entered his hallway, and I pushed my shaking body toward the door. At the precipice, I hesitated, and considered moving straight to violence. I could blast the lock from the door, enter with or without permission, and still have enough bullets to clear the occupant from the equation. But I believed we both deserved one final, peaceful chance, and so I knocked.
And knocked again, and again. After a while, I heard him moving behind the door, a slithering sound like a snake, squatting in the place that should have belonged solely to me. But he would not answer, so I knocked as hard as my condition would allow. I pounded until my knuckles bled. I shrieked, and although the sound from my dry and cracked throat lacked the proper authority, I continued to scream as I hammered the door.
At last, I heard the sound of whispers, and the thought of the occupant speaking to It made me nauseous with jealousy. But then I heard him slide towards the door, and turn the handle. I wrapped my fingers around the cool assurance of the gun, a totem of my authority, should I need it.
The door opened, a fraction of an inch, and the occupant’s gleaming eyes met mine. He opened it further, to the full extent the brass chain on the door would allow. I might have kicked against the door, forcing my way inside, but I held fast to some notion that I could still get what I wanted without the undue risk that violence would bring.
He was born to be citizen of the borderlands, like I had become. Plain and well groomed, he dressed in expensive clothes, worn comfortably like a second skin. Some may have called him handsome, but it was a flavorless sort of pleasantry, symmetrical, synthetic. The imprints of our shared passion clung to him, marking him as brother and nemesis.
He smiled at my wasting body, and the stained clothes that clung to my bony frame. But after every glance, I saw his black eyes snap backwards. Towards the locus of our need.
“I understand,” he said at last, his eyes still fixed behind him. “I really do.”
Despite my resolve, I began to cry. Small, exhausted sobs shook my body. If he noticed my shame, he pretended not to, whether in grace or embarrassment, I do not know.
“Soon,” he said. The word hung in the air and coated me like a healing salve, pregnant with promise. “I’m afraid I’m done with It, or It with me. You’ll understand.”
He shook his head, a singular violent snap, and his face creased. It was a face unaccustomed to sharp emotions, looking oddly fetal and new, as something strong and sharp gripped him. He shuffled ever so slightly backward, his eyes fluttering behind toward the Thing I could not see. The knowledge that my desire, my prize, waited for me, just beyond his obscuring body clawed at me. My fingers twitched around the weight of the pistol.
“It waited so long for this place to be built,” he said. “Patient. It was here before us, before the city, before anyone. And It will be here long after us.”
Again he shuddered, and I saw the suit was soaked with sweat, far filthier than I had originally thought. Not creased, but wrinkled. I had somehow mistaken his tousled appearance for cleanliness, his chaos for order, but the glamour had faded. Beneath the night perfume of our mutual addiction, there was something else, something acrid and wrong. Panic, hysteria, terror. His calm and still demeanor, gone. A temporary posture, once wielded masterfully, he could no longer hold for more than a minute.
This was not my brother, no equal, I thought, as I steeled myself for what had to come. I knew, if I knew anything at all, the sight of a man on a precipice. And I knew how to push.
“You’re right,” I told him, and locked my eyes to his, stretching the last of my strength into a sharpened point. “Its going to kill you. It doesn’t want you, and It’s bored of you.” He opened his mouth, let it hang open like a fish. His eyes swam behind a veil of welling tears.
“I know…” His voice was dry and papery, trash caught in the wind. “But I can’t… leave. Not yet. What makes you think you’ll satisfy It?”
“It called to me,” I said, stepping closer towards the gap, until I could smell his decay. “It called to me, and It has sung to me every night since I came. Like It no longer sings to you.” I took this shot blind, but I saw in his wincing face that I had struck true.
“You might be right…” he whispered with a joyless smile.
“That I’m here at all should cast out all doubt.” I pressed further, putting one hand on the door to push back, until the chain vibrated and hummed. “Why are you making this so hard on yourself? It’s time to go. It wants me.”
At that moment, as if to harmonize with my argument, the sweet song behind him surged, hot and fragrant. We turned together, my gazes searching for the wondrous Thing that he alone could see.
“It’s good to be talk with you,” he said, after a long silence. “And you’re right. You’re right.” He grinned wide, and I saw the rot in his teeth. “I needed this. To clear my head… I think…”
The words trailed off, and he turned, rocking on his heels. I threw my weight against the door with a feral scream, but his strength outmatched mine, and the door slammed shut with a click that sounded like the end of the world.
But then I heard the shuffle of his feet away from the door, heard him trying to hold his body aloft, before crumpling to the floor. I heard him cry out, a lost wail in the night from the very heart of our desire, and I knew that the gun would not be needed.
I had won, at last.
I returned to my room below with a lightness in my step that I had not felt since the days below the waves. I went to gather my things, and return. The time to submit myself to the Thing had come.
The muffled sounds of his voice, pleading and ragged, drifted down from above, and I grinned, approaching ecstasy. I heard the sound of something being dragged. There was a great surge of motion, announced in vibrations through the walls.
A treble explosion, a splintering symphony of glass.
Outside my window, a sparkling cloud of frozen light and an overstuffed leather chair hung illuminated in the night air. An absurd tableau of shattered glass and furniture, defying gravity. Then it was gone.
I heard, in the following silence, the heavy tread of his feet, and the meaningless babble of his final words. Away from the window, towards the door. Stop. A pacing circle. Stop. A sudden run, a blazing trail towards the window, towards the open night.
I pressed myself against the cool glass, the breath stopped in my lungs, and I saw him go.
One leg out, a runner jumping hurdles. Wild hair whipping in the breeze. Arms wide to the night sky. Free.
And like the glass and the chair before, he was gone. No sound announced his impact. He simply vanished.
The blooming corpse-flower smell surged, hotter and brighter than ever, and if I could have scaled the air itself to ascend to the roof above me, I would have clawed through, ground my fingers to the bone. But it was too much, and I broke. Each joint separating, each muscle going slack, I dropped to the floor, unconscious before I hit the ground.
I woke, how much later I do not know, to the sound of far away sirens trilling in the air. My body tapped into its final reserves, flooding my limbs with carefully hoarded fire, and I surged to my feet.
I didn’t have much time: the police, the manager, they would be to his room any moment. I took the stairs two at a time, and flew down the hallway.
He had unlocked door before his fall, in a final gesture of resignation. I put my hand on the doorknob, and sighed in glorious expectation as I pushed the door open.
The room was a twin of mine. The occupant, my predecessor, had lived like I had, out of boxes, with minimal furniture. Waste and rumpled piles of clothes were strewn across the room. The great hole in the glass window sucked at the air, the sounds of traffic and the world below came to me for the first time in months. The curtains fluttered, whipping like flags of surrender.
The call was stronger than ever before, and I closed the door behind me, my eyes vacant and searching.
It was here. The siren, the flower, the lure. At first, I could see nothing, but as I walked on uncertain, atrophied feet, I began, at last, to perceive It.
As I stepped sideways, it resolved from nothingness, like a sheet of paper seen first from the edge.
It was a seam in the world. A tear, a hot and colorless rend across space. Impossibly thin, yet gaping wide, It flared, achingly bright, in recognition of my awareness. The cloying smell flooded my nostrils, and twined around my ribs. The call was a fire in my pierced forearms, in my veins, and my ecstasy was complete.
It seemed to curl and whip, but It never moved. Alien colors and smells flooded from the maw. Somewhere, deep in the core of my body, I felt It reach inside and touch me. The wordless beckon of the past months resolved, like a picture snapping into focus, and It spoke to me.
I walked towards It, my hands outstretched. Weeping with joy, the heat of the thing seemed to reignite every nerve ending in my body. It made me whole, healed me, comforted me, washed over me like the old wave, and I knew I would never want for anything, never fear. I would be loved for all time.
It asked precious little in return.
I might have stepped into Its oceanic arms forever, might have been lost to Its promises, if something had not awoken in me then.
Perhaps my true self emerged, sober at last, lost to the vile chasm’s draw so long ago. Perhaps it was only the unthinking panicked animal we all hold chained in our psyche. The runner, the fighter. Perhaps it was the echo of the occupant, his last act of defiance still rustling in the breeze with the shredded curtains.
I do not know. Whatever emerged, it took control at that moment.
I saw Its lies. I saw It, imprisoned in the sky, calling out. Filthy, reeking promises to those below, those attuned to the foul wavelength of the desire for oblivion. I saw delicate filaments of influence, coils of burning plasma, reaching down to the City below, infecting and cancerous. I saw them wrapping around the lights and hearts of men, choking, crushing. Hateful.
It was the borderlands. It was the name to my nameless fear of the dark places, in the city, and inside me.
It was, and It will always be. It would use me, bend me, break me. It already had. When I was done, no more use to It, I would be cast aside, and It would call, again.
I tugged for control of my body, a flesh and bone traitor that still approached this fragment of profane divinity. I pulled harder, and when my vessel cracked free of Its grip, I slid back into my skin, and allowed the animal instincts to guide my escape.
I stopped only long enough to kick, twice, at the dials of the expensive gas stove with one bare foot. The rotten-egg odor of gas began to twirl with the corpse-flower smell.
An hour later, I would marvel at the blood pooling in my shoe with every footstep as I fled the tower, and raced to the edge of the City, but not now. Now I felt nothing.
I do not remember descending the stairs. I entered my flat, and grabbed a single still-packed duffel bag and my long abandoned shoes.
It called to me from above, furious and reproachful, promising and threatening all at once, and painfully familiar. I could not shut It out, but I held tight to the image of the occupant, soaring gracefully through the air. Arms forever failing at the task of being wings, hanging in the night sky.
I would leave the tower in my own way, I thought, and this simple promise kept my body my own.
I lit my own gas stove before I went, and from a curling a strip of a discarded pizza box, I made a small torch which I held to the ragged ceiling. One of the tiny frayed holes, the legacy of my vandal idiocy, began to smolder.
I do not remember choosing to do this. I simply did, because it was, unlike everything else in the tower, unlike everything else I had done for a half of a year, right, in some profound way.
When I left, It no longer was promising anything but everlasting suffering and pain and submission. Yet I still wanted to go to It, still felt that elemental undertow. At the staircase, I very nearly went up, feeling some awful analog of gravity tugging me skyward.
It would have been so easy to go to It, to surrender myself to Its magnificent tides, but I hung frozen in the air with my predecessor, saw his final relief and escape, and made my body descend.
Out on the sidewalk, a pair of policeman interviewed the manager, jotting notes as the fat man wrung his perfectly groomed hands. He saw me coming, saw me wild-eyed and unkempt, and his piggish eyes narrowed into slits.
He thought I’d come, now, to claim my spot on the waiting list, to take ownership of the room. He thought me a grotesque monster, a murderer.
He opened his mouth to speak, and from above there came a great and terrible roar, a cacophony of cracking glass. A tongue of fire licked the night sky from the gaping hole in the tower’s side. Glass began to rain, burning scraps of paper and clothing danced in the night sky. While all eyes were upturned, voices raised in confusion and distress, I turned and slipped away into the night.
They want me back, in the City, to answer questions. I know that any day they will come with a warrant, and drag me from my new home, to answer for what happened in the tower.
I know, of course, that I failed to kill It. I could never have even truly harmed It. At best, I kept others from It, for a short time. Perhaps I kept a single mad and passionate fool from falling into Its slick and sweet honey trap. This, and my own temporary safety are enough.
I also know, that even if they never find this cabin, never track down the twisting trail of money that allowed me to flee the City, even if I live to see a natural death, that I can never be free.
It has marked me. Forever. That salivating, sweet smell is ever in my nostrils. It never stops speaking, and I will see It in every crumbling barn, in every rusting skeleton of every abandoned car.
I saw Its writhing tendrils, growing and thickening across the City as I fled, saw them twine across the land, in every highway border town. I see them in every dying community I’ve passed through.
It is not quite here, yet, in the dark woods, in my isolation, my final home. But It will come.
It is a corrupting and spreading growth. It isolates, It squeezes, It chokes, It infects. If a lone cell should escape, then the refugee can only carry the contagion with him.
It is inside me. Someday, It will have me back.
I can only hope, in the end, that I will fight. That I will not go willingly. But I know that when It calls me home, at last, I will go without question. I will return to a City that has become one immense dead place, one massive, heartless hinterland.
I will answer for my small and meaningless act of rebellion.
But not today.
Today, at the very least, I remain free.
Today is enough.
When I was young, I drifted on the wind of my whims, allowing them to take me, rootless, like an airborne seed. I was in love, not with any of my fellow man, but with being a citizen of the places men gather. Fueled by this love, and an inexhaustible supply of money, the legacy of my parent’s deaths, I put down temporary and gossamer roots into a dozen places across the City, staying only long enough to satisfy my curious lusts before again taking to the breeze.
The City is a collection of villages, bound together like organs and cells in a body, possessed and afflicted with all the abilities and fragility of a living being. The vascular and nervous system of roads and wires brings us, each a little nerve impulse and blood cell, from organ to organ, and through the pale and textureless connective tissue between. Together the City is a whole, a single life dependent on its constituents. When I lived in the shadows of the medical college, drinking quietly and alone in bars filled with sleep deprived and wild eyed doctors-to-be, I saw the city this way, and it could have been no other.
When I set myself free from the drafty Cole Valley flat and drifted into a studio loft in the Mission, I saw that the City was a battleground: isolated camps of combatants brought together by common ideals, surrounded by the blasted, rotting demilitarized zones of cultural vacancy. Under the blazing bonfires at the heart of each district flutter the flags of identity, declaring the allegiances of its inhabitants. The enemy is raised in effigy nightly, crackling and writhing in the flames. You know who you are in those places, by your uniform and badges, by your declarations of war; and the traveller learns who he is not.
Underneath the old stone bridge, in the summer heat, I first met my friend. I’d come to this spot beneath the bridge for as long as I could remember, following the small creek in our backyard down through the farmers’ fields, and behind the roaring freeway. Beneath the bridge, the dirt was still cool, even in the hottest noonday sun. I’d come to the bridge to think, to play, to cry, and to press my pale chubby fingers into the blessed cool soil, digging deep depressions in the damp earth.
The creek trickled by, but my father had told me never to go in the water; it had a thin scum on the top that reflected the light in an odd, shimmering way, like the shell of a beetle. I’d disobeyed him once when I was younger and the rash that boiled up on my legs had scabbed and bled for a week. Now, I was content to sit among the pale and drying reeds, to hold tight to that primal cold in the place where the sun couldn’t reach.
On the day he was first there, the cottonwood trees were shedding their seeds, bright white silken clouds that drifted in the air like snow defying the sun. The air was thick with heat and exhaust from the freeway, buzzing over the rise like an angry hive. He lay stretched out on the other side of the creek, his body half covered by the shadow of the old stone bridge. At first I saw only a pile of ragged clothes, capped with a wide-brimmed and frayed hat, but then I saw the long, bony fingers steepled across his chest, and his calloused and blackened feet.
Unteroffizier Erich Lang awakes long after the dawn to the distant sound of artillery. The gunmetal sky ripples with threatening black clouds, and the dusty smell of rain hangs in the chill air. He is slumped back against the earthen wall, his left arm crooked and folded behind him. It comes awake in a flare of pinpricks and fire, and he winces as he works it free and shakes. His slender frame is wrapped in his thick woolen coat, sodden and heavy with mud, and he feels cold water seeping in through his threadbare trousers. Besides the upturned helmet lying in the mud a few yards away, he is alone in narrow trench.
He pulls his long legs toward his body and stands, feeling the cold air glide through the shifting folds of his clothes. The coat tugs at him as he stands, weighted down with filth. There is water in his boots, running down his legs as he stands to soak through the layered socks that protected the last bit warmth and dryness. He scowls at the mud and the sky, and they are unmoved.
He winces against the sudden pain in his head and chest as he tries to sort out the jumble of memories and awakening thoughts. He wonders idly what day it is, but he cannot recall the chaplain’s last sermon, the only landmark he has to mark the progress of the days. He tries to remember the night before, or at least some small hint of how he’d ended here, soaking up rainwater in the trench. The preceding days are a monotone fog, a jumble of images and impressions of mud soaked boredom and terror.
“Thought you might be dead, ” comes a voice from his left. He turns to see a figure, leaning on the wooden post at the crook in the trench. His face is obscured by a gloved hand gripping a smoldering cigarette. Erich blinks and strains to focus on the man, but his blood is now surging in anticipation of tobacco.
I awake, as always, to the click and whir of a thousand hidden cameras, and the rising glow of the ambient lights. Over the next 30 minutes, the curtains on my bedroom will slowly part, gliding on mechanized tracks, and the yellow sunlight of dawn will stream into the wide circular room. Like all mornings, I entertain for the briefest moments the thought of hurling myself at the windows and plunging the half mile to the ground. I hold on to the little fantasy of wind and sky and falling for as long as it will remain, dreaming of those magnificent moments of freedom and choice.
Even if I were not a coward, there are a thousand unseen barriers and safe guards. I can not see them, but several parents are doubtlessly just outside the door, and would be between me and the window before I could leave the bed. I allow the dream of freedom to evaporate for another morning.
The woman next to me, I can not recall her name, shifts and rolls to embrace me. I wrap my arms around her and return the affection, but there is no love in it. She is young and soft, skin still stretched taut over her athletic and perfect frame. I know that in my youth I would have been buzzing with anticipation and lust simply seeing her, but now I can only take solace in the momentary ghost of affection and emotion. Her skin is warm, and her fine and downy body hair is smoother than the silk of the sheets. I draw an abstract of pleasure from this closeness, feeling something akin to happiness when our bellies synchronize in breathing, pressed close as they rise and fall in an alternating rhythm. Her breath is hot and damp on my chin and neck. It only takes me a few moments to tire of her, and I swing my legs to the edge of the bed.
Sometime during the third consecutive night spent huddled over the toilet, insides heaving and shuddering as I vomit forth seemingly everything I’d ever eaten, I realize what’s happening: He’s trying to poison me. It’s all so elegant, so perfect, and so clear, that I almost laugh, but another barrage of retching forces me into silence.
The next morning I throw everything in the kitchen away, wrapping it three times in black plastic and burying it deep in the apartment’s communal trash cans, to prevent an unfortunate transient from crossfire of His wrath. I am out the door of the complex and halfway to the corner store when I realize: He knows, must know, where I would shop.
I pick a direction and walk, enjoying the chill winter air that soothes the ragged shreds of my inside. I turn at random intervals, following an improbable path out of my familiar neighborhood, until I find a small shop with an unfamiliar name. Once inside, I hurriedly fill a small plastic basket; brands that I never have eaten, strange tins of ethnic ingredients I can’t recognize, foods that I’d never thought of buying. Soy milk. Tofu. I can feel my stomach reborn in anticipation of an untainted meal.
I prepare the meal in a fog of nervous anticipation, trying to focus on savoring the aromas and the grease spitting sounds of the frying pan. It tastes clean, but then, so has every other meal before this. I try to tell myself that the mounting pain inside me is simple fear and anxiety, but before the stroke of midnight, I am again crouched in the dingy bathroom, surrendering the days work into the porcelain mouth of the sewer.
Nadja doesn’t make it. I turn at the steps of the bunker and watch as the artillery shell lands on the shattered street between us. I hold our daughter and watch my wife smolder in the crater, deaf to the thudding concussions around us. Someone grabs Inna from my arms, thrusts cold gloved fingers in the neck of my jacket, and pulls me back into the black throat of the small shelter. I see my last glimpse of Leningrad’s cracked and wounded skyline, and then it goes black. The door slams shut, screeching steel and spinning locks clattering in rhythm with gun fire. I finally find the voice to scream Nadja’s name.
Inna is crying in the dark, cradled by the last of Svetlana’s daughters in the small entry way. I suddenly find I have no knees and I am on the floor with a hot choking hand around my throat. Boris and Grigory slide away from me in the darkness, I can hear them averting their gaze, necks scratching against thick coats as they twist away from me. I thrust my tears into my gullet and gag, retching and heaving up the thin watery remains of my last meal. Inna needs me, and I need strength.
The rosy cheeked boy that led our last charge, all ill fitting uniform and tilting helmet, doesn’t have the grace to leave me be, and puts one soft hand on my back. I shrug him off, and stumble to my feet. In the slowly seeping light of his oil lantern, I see his face and his fear, and I look away. He backs away from us, turning down the long dark featureless tunnel ahead. Turning back, he surveys the dozen survivors before him, shivering and broken. The short run from the grand ballroom has taken its toll on our weakened bodies. The last of the ratty birds in the hotel’s eaves had been caught a week ago; a chorus of hollow sunken eyes now stare back at the trembling child clutching a rifle.