By Skotti Kawasan
Nothing but dark.
Then the glimmer of a spark of awake. Of a mind returning; slowly booting up. A beginning of light. Her eyes open gradually. But it’s still dark.
Allowing her vision time to adjust, she breathes.
She is on a cold, hard floor; concrete smooth. The shapes of walls, either side of her, resolve.
She is in a corridor. Lying down with the lights out.
How; she doesn’t know.
She stands up woozily.
She remembers going to bed, she thinks.
How the fuck did I get here?
And where is here?
Looking down, she’s sees that, at least, she’s wearing clothes. They appear to be normal, and not disheveled; she’s not in her pajamas.
She doesn’t feel hungover.
What the fuck?
How did I get here?
And she begins to look around, with a memory forming.
This place seems familiar. It looks like a hospital.
It couldn’t be. Could it?
It all seems so long ago now.
Why would she wake up here?
She’s only been here once before; on that worst night of her life. But she remembers it with starker feelings, than imagery. The feelings are raw.
A phone call. They’d found him, could she come? Her brain ceased to consciously register what was being said after that.
Some numb, autopilot, had entered the address in Uber. She’d absently picked up a toy; an action figure, that Enoch had left behind, some distant past visit, to her apartment. As though, it was something that could help him.
They’d gone through the motions with her, only a slight variation from what she’d seen on TV. Scarcely accepting, that any of it was real. That this was a thing, actually happening to her.
Right here, lying on a gurney, right in front of her. She could have touched him.
What her mind could not accept, was consigned to the surreal.
Then the sheet was pulled back, the magician’s reveal. The shock of seeing what a shotgun does, when pointed at someone’s eye.
And fired. And half a face gone. Just gone.
Just like that. A mess of bone and gristle.
Her kid brother.
It broke her. And she’d tried every day, to forget it.
Why is she back here now?
Then a compulsion she can’t argue, sees her walk along the passageway, to a turn-off left, then right. And she knows only now, that she is dreaming.
But so strongly.
She reaches the room, and enters. The room of gurneys, and unspeakable horror. A thing she can’t stop from happening. No volition, but crystal clear headed.
A gurney to the right is occupied. A man lying there sits up. His bare body is bloated, blistered with red. He has no eyes, only char marks; as though combusted from within.
“I’m here because I was so sad,” he says pleasantly. “I threw a toaster in the bathtub.” He shrugs, what can you do?
At the next gurney, lies a young woman, her pooled, blonde hair straightening, as she lifts her head and shoulders, and sits up. She appears perfectly healthy.
“I’m here, because my boyfriend deliberately overdosed me.” She says with disbelief. “It was meant to be an experiment. A little play with drugs. I never even suspected he was a junkie. Now he’s running. Got my cash, and using my bank account. How long does he think that can last? Goddammit. I was murdered by a moron.”
She slumps back down.
At the last occupied gurney, at the end of the room; sits a boy, in profile. Waiting.
Even just the barest glimpse of his hair, the slump of his posture; she would know these things anywhere.
I don’t want to do this.
He looks sidelong at her approach. He is fourteen years old. The age he went missing; and was found in an East Village park.
“Can you guess why I’m here?” He smiles, turning.
He has only half a head; the other is vanished, sealed with skin. As though he were simply half a boy. Like a rare condition.
It is a merciful change, to what she actually saw, that night.
“Can you, huh?” He half-grins, breaking into belly laugh. “Can you?”
“Why Enoch?” she says simply.
“So you did work it out.” He seems pleased.
“I had no idea; for the longest time, you know?” Jay sits opposite, on a steel trayed trolley. It feels like the last night on earth, and her best friend come to visit.
“There was no murder weapon; no evidence left behind. No witnesses. Everyone was baffled.”
“The ‘murder weapon’ was picked up, exactly twenty three minutes later.” Enoch explains. “By a homeless woman. She swapped it for fifty bucks worth of heroin. Fifty bucks! I paid two hundred for that saw’d off piece of shit!
“Her dealer then passed it on to one of his dudes. It hasn’t been fired since. Just as well, really. Wouldn’t want someone else to get the blame. The two detectives had their suspicions, but didn’t want to call it.”
“It broke everyone.” she tries to remain calm; neutral. “Mom and dad; they’re just kinda like robots now. Just going through the routines. They don’t talk anymore. They won’t ever know what happened to you, Enoch. You killed them.”
“Ah, so you’re angry.” He nods, understandingly.
“Of course I’m angry!” she lets a little out. “For the longest time. I thought some low life motherfucker’d murdered you. I wanted to find them and hurt them so bad.
“Our parents are stuck, grieving. Completely lost. And I wondered, who had done this. Who has caused so much pain to me and mine; and who has taken away my favourite person in the whole wide world.” She breaks now, tears and sobs.
“Why?? Why the fuck?! Huh Enoch? Why’d you do that to us?”
“I was sad.” He says, simply. “And scared. And I didn’t want to do it, anymore. I had no friends at school. A bunch of douchebag jocks were constantly picking on me. Nobody liked me. Not like Elementary School. It all sounds so prosaic, I know.”
“Did some girl break your heart too?” she sneers, and hates herself at once.
“No.” He smiles. “I like boys. It’s kinda the point. And I’m intellectual; a nerdy, weedy, gay, Jew boy.”
He shrugs. “After I stole the money from dad’s cash envelope; to get the gun from that kid, I knew I could never go back home again.”
“But I had no idea.” She makes a frantic shrug. “You never told me anything. I used to tell you everything. You were the only person I could talk to. Christ, Enoch, I’m a fucking therapist.”
“And now we get to the real reason you’re here.” He chuckles. “Anger, I can understand. You’ve gotta let go of it, mind. And don’t be angry that I didn’t share.
“But guilt? That shit is thoroughly self indulgent, man. My death wasn’t about you, sis. It’s not fair of you to use it as a weapon against yourself. That’s called highjacking.”
“But what? ‘Why wasn’t I good enough to talk to? I should have seen it. I should have stopped it. I should have saved him.’
“I didn’t want to be saved. Don’t you understand? I didn’t want that life. I didn’t think I could talk to anyone about that. And it was nothing to do with you.
“And before you say ‘But life is precious’ or some other platitude; I owe nobody anything. I’m sad that mom and dad are grieving. I am.
“But when you’re in so much pain, and you feel so alone… cos let’s face it; dad’s life is about his work, and mom’s life is about taking care of dad; you don’t owe it to other people to stay alive, not when you’re not equipped for it.”
“Shit, Enoch. Shit.” she throws her hands up. “Look, I’m sorry it was like that for you. But…”
“That’s ok. It’s over now. It’s all over now. But, right now, you got other shit, you gotta take care of. Remember? Places to go? You’re lost as well.”
“What do you mean?” She sniffs, drying her cheeks.
“Well, where are you right now?”
And then she remembers everything.
Taking a seat at the bar, she doesn’t talk to anyone; rather, sits, taking it all in. There’s a lot.
The space is huge; noisy with talk, and other less human sounds; the air is smoke filled. It’s packed with avatars; both colourful and bizarre.
A floating shark swims by, circling. It is chatting with a swarm of bees, which appears to be just one person, speaking back.
The shark darts back, quickly.
“Hmmm. Noob?” He says. “What’s your name?”
“An…,” she clears her throat. “MandelBot. It’s MandelBot.”
“OK. Cool name; but seriously, no one’s ever gonna talk to you with that avatar.” He indicates around him, with a pectoral fin.
In the immediate vicinity, she can already count on one hand; the street leather, topped with a fan of hair.
“It’s OK. Just buy the app. Meantime you can rent something.” He points to a door marked, Xtreem Makeovers.
“Thanks, man.” she responds, as he swims away. “Hey! How’d you know I was the noob, if we all look the same?”
He rushes at her, with all the ferocity of a great shark; a terrible white mountain, all teeth. Stopping inches from her face.
“Where do you imagine you are right now? A place where Reason is king? Bahahaha.”
And he swims, curving, away.
Opting to take advantage of the time she spends here; she wonders what kind of makeover, would help her connect with the most people, fastest. She’s not certain that she ever wants to return.
And how much’s this motherfucker gonna cost?
She emerges a short while later; as a man, in a tweed suit, Ulster coat, and woollen deerstalker cap. In her right hand, she smokes from a curved, briar pipe; while her left holds a magnifying glass.
She feels like an idiot.
Slumping at a nearby table; she begins to question her life choices, when a long, thick anaconda slidles itself along, up to her. Stopping, it tilts its head, looking her up and down.
“The fuck?” It hisses, shaking its head now, and slithering away.
She sinks lower.
“Sherlock Holmes, huh?” says a husky voice.
She looks up at an enormous flamingo, the bright pink feathers lost in a cloud of cigar smoke.
“I don’t get it,” says a woman’s voice, chomping around an actual cigar.
The flamingo squats her tall legs down, she is eye to eye, though wearing sunglasses.
“You a cop?”
“No,” says Anna. “No. I’m just an idiot, for thinking this would work.”
“What would work?”
“Finding out about one person, who’d been here once, who’d searched one single conversation, between some other people. And who has now disappeared IRL. Weirdly. A child.
“It’s like looking for a needle, in a field full of haystacks.”
“Wait a minute. A child? Minors aren’t allowed in here. Our Door Egregore vets them. It’s really sophisticated code, here, dude.” she says, removing her sunglasses.
“Yeh. I can see that. But this one got past, somehow.”
“Post it.” she says.
She points to one of four vast screens, set where the walls join the high ceilings. This one seems biggest.
“That one’s mainstream. The other three are different topics that are trending. Or maybe subgroups. Here,” she says. “Let me post it, nobody knows you.”
She lifts one of her splayed feet, and a holoscreen appears. She shifts screens and types deftly with wide, webbed toes. Anna watches the huge screen above, change to black, an FBI crest slowly forming.
“We interrupt your scheduled programming, for an urgent request from law enforcement.”
A clipped and grainy voice from last century.
Cheers and laughter fill the room.
“It is alleged a child once gained access to Madroom. A minor who breached security, and infiltrated the premises. Does anyone recall this incident? The child is now missing IRL. This an actual thing, guys.”
The name, The Iron Flamingo, appears at the bottom of the screen.
Anna looks at her in wonder.
“It’s OK,” The Iron Flamingo chuckles, releasing a cloud of smoke. “In here, I get to be an admin. Whereas, IRL I get to become a God. What a time to be alive.” she breaks into laughter.
A pinging tone, and a comment appears above, onscreen.
“Yeh. That was me. I threw her out.”
The Loch Ness Monster
Other comments appear too. Mostly jokes, or obscene references, to one member or another’s mother.
A message on the holoscreen.
A field of shimmering, teleportation light soon forms, streaming above and below, by the table.
A human figure congeals into a man in kilt and highland tartan.
“I see,” he says, taking one look at Sherlock.
“So this is serious?” his accent is American.
“Yes,” says Anna. “But I’m not a cop. I’m a journalist.”
“Wait a minute. I know who you are.” he says. “You wrote that article. The one that’s ongoing. That’s why you’re here. Well, no names here. Not in the bar. But I’ll tell you what I remember. I’m not likely to forget. It’s the only time a kid ever got in.”
Anna watches as, with a few taps, the Loch Ness Monster’s face appears on bigscreen above and she smiles at The Iron Flamingo, who winks back. She can feel the beginnings of a crush happening here. In VR, She thinks. What would Jay make of that?
“Well I was just chatting about the Mandel guy; with Lucifer’s Butt Baby, and Stephen Hawking. There were a few other people contributing too. Shelagh Na Gig might have been there as well, I can’t remember.
“So then, like, a short while later. This…thing came over to us. Like a cloud of pestilence, I think it was meant to be. Black and filthy whorls of smoke, thick with flies and ashes. It said, “I hear you were discussing a former colleague of mine, just before. Jeffrey Mandel.”
“And by this time, I’d already forgotten, so I wasn’t really thinking. And I said, “oh yeh, he’s a right evil cunt, that one.” And that’s when I heard the giggling, you see.
“I mean, she had her voice digitally altered; deepened, and roughened. But as soon as she giggled, I could tell straight away, it was a kid.”
“And so then what happened?” asks The Iron Flamingo, holding out her cigar, which transforms into a microphone.
“Well, being an admin, Lucifer’s Butt Baby, told her straight away she’d have to leave. I mean, she was nice about it, to the kid; and didn’t just purge her on the spot. Actually told her, she thought she’d been pretty smart, getting past the egregore. Then she warned her, and purged her. That was it. Whole thing lasted, maybe ten minutes.”
“And Mandel?” Anna speaks up.
“What about him?”
“Why can’t I find anything about him online? Apart from two articles, and the declassified CIA documents.”
“Well, there was never much to begin with. I mean this guy was old. He was in his late eighties when he died. He never actually wrote any books. He kinda flew under the radar.
“The only reason anyone knew what he’d been up to, was series of articles written in the late seventies. About his teaching methods, in private practice. But they were never digitised.
“He’s mentioned in a few other bits and pieces online; you just gotta know where to look. I saw a copy of the original articles, in a book I read years ago. We were talking about that book.
“Do you remember what they said?”
“Well just that; sure, he’d been teaching kids a few basic principles of magick; using focused imagination, lucid dreams; manipulating perception, and so on.
“But that essentially what he was doing, was nurturing a bunch of psychopaths. He wanted to turn gifted children, into uber-powerful adults who could accomplish anything. Adults made to rule. But; with no empathy, no remorse, and no regard for other people.”
“But Mandel wasn’t the point of our conversation, I remember that. We were talking about how easy it is to condition someone’s consciousness, their very experience, according to the narrative they accept.”
“How, in this case; very intelligent, but otherwise regular children were made to experience things differently. Permanently altered. Without any empathy, and with stunted emotions.
“Many of these kids, literally changed personality, according to the articles.”
“Or perhaps, their personalities became disordered, damaged?” asks The Iron Flamingo, going back and forth with the microphone.
“Sure.” He says “But, incredibly, their inherent, narcissistic qualities, however dormant or trivial; were harnessed as an agent of transmutation. We were talking about about how much easier it is to harness people’s fear, for example.”
“True,” says The Iron Flamingo, owning the mic now, and facing the camera. “Or their desperation. Or loneliness. They can be shaped in any direction.” she says in perfectly clipped BBC tones.
“This no doubt accounts, for all the waves of extreme behaviour, and breakdown; sweeping the world. Everybody split off, in their own separate realities.”
“The collective psyche is fucked man. Broken.” says, The Loch Ness Monster.
“And that’s why it’s all going to shit. That’s why the world is ending. Reality’s falling apart.”
The screen goes to another post; which sees an uproar of laughter, from one corner of the bar.
The Iron Flamingo types, and a bottle of Glenfiddich, and three tumblers appear.
“And so how do we stop it?” Anna asks.
“Stop what? The End of the world?” laughs The Iron Flamingo.
“Why? Would be a much better question.” The Loch Ness Monster smiles. “Quite a lucky break it just happens to be in your lifetime, though, wouldn’t you say?.”
“The chance to Jump Off?” laughs The Iron Flamingo.
“Why don’t you stick around here for a little while. You might find a few answers.”
“Questions you probably didn’t know you had.” says The Iron Flamingo.
“But we’re, all of us, completely mad here, so who knows really what’s true?” says The Loch Ness Monster. “Remind me, what were the correct answers to get in here, again?”
“I don’t know…anything,” says Anna slowly, beginning to understand.
The Road Home
Susurration. Waves rushing, and then slowly hissing back. A hushed and steady, sea washed shore.
The light is a saturated, bleached gray, cloudy bright. His vision resolves, staring into the white fog above. While his eyes are dazzled, his mind returns slowly.
He was somewhere else before this, he recalls. Somewhere dark. A park, with a woman. But then came a bus. A bus, which he thinks he crashed.
Am I dead? He wonders. He’s not really sure how it all works.
Sitting up, he reels at the sight of a skull, and then another; and a dozen more. Among bones, and pieces of bones; and tiny fragments of bones, and cracked skulls all over. It makes up the entire beach; a beach of white bone.
Fuck. he thinks then. Maybe I am.
Behind him, towers a sheer face of chunky, black rock; curving round into the mist. The headland it forms, disappearing there.
The waterline, shimmers away towards it.
But immediately above; looking up, there is a vast and singular mountain. Almost vertical and black; rising up and up, into the cloud, smudging it dark, beyond sight.
His neck aches from looking at it.
“Holy shit,” he says, aloud. “Shit.”
He starts walking toward the cliff, trying to maintain his footing on the treacherous surface; all broken and bleached. He feels it best to be on high ground. Who knows how the tides work here.
Clattering along, for some time; he becomes aware of something, rubbing against his leg. Inside the pocket of his camouflage trousers. Glancing down, he reaches for it.
A framed photograph. A young girl. He must have picked it up..from the…cardiac monitor…
Fragments of memory begin to coalesce, and piece together.
A cold and blustery November Friday. Flurries of stiff rain, blown in with the gusts of wild wind. She was rugged up for the trip.
She’d felt a nagging sense all morning. That something wasn’t right. Something was waiting to happen. The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.
She looked at Maria, the maid. The warmth and familiarity of the woman, so often a beacon in those early, dark years, of her short life; recalls the only tenderness she knew for most of it.
Maria smiled back; with a look full of love, packing her small suitcase.
“I will miss you, Serce.” she said, in faltering English. “I always miss. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” she said. “Love…”
And heard her name called..
Skipping down the twists and turns, of the heavy stairs; she saw her stepmother, and rushed over for a hug.
“Sweetie, all ready to go?” she said, smoothing her hair.
“Yes, mom.” she said, smiling. Her father was out of the house; she felt it was finally right to actually say it. It had been such a perfect visit.
Her stepmom, however, was silent; tensing slightly. She looked up to see her dark eyes filling.
“I love you so much, my heart. But please don’t ever say that again.” her voice faltered halfway.
Eve was eight, but not like her peers. Looking up at this strongest of women; who’d vowed to take care of her, no matter what it took; even marrying her father.
She loved her only more.
“Sorry,” she smiled. “I won’t ever.” Her look trying to convey just how she felt.
“Your father will be here soon, and we have to be ready.”
Just then, Maria came down the steps, with her suitcase, “All packed.” Her glance at her stepmom, always; filled with so much shared, yet hidden away.
“OK, Sweetie, say goodbye to Maria.” said her stepmom. “I can hear your father pulling up.”
Maria always gave the best of all hugs. She felt a protective, enveloping warmth. A feeling that she could burrow into the woman; drawn in by her scent, and keep on going. She would miss her terribly.
They proceeded slowly outside.
Father would be tired; after their whirlwind visit to Grandmother, for Thanksgiving. He’d only just returned from traveling overseas.
His face, through the rain dashed, windshield, looked old; bearing each and every wrinkle, of his eighty seven years. But his health remained vigorous, and he kept busy. Teaching the children of wealth, all over.
He sat there, glaring, in the driver’s seat. Waiting, for them to load their luggage; sighing impatiently, and drumming his fingers.
She knew what to expect, on the long drive home. Father was heartless, but entirely predictable.
She hated him. And she’d had enough.
He keeps going. He feels he is close. He knows he can find her; at the top of this mountain. More than a simple, poetic logic tells him.
A set of rude steps are hacked away; here and there, curving up the cliff. He is climbing them quickly; the stone rough, and easy to grip with his boots.
It is only as he nears the top of the cliff; that he can discern a further dark shape. Overhead, and above the cloud. It stretches out, far across the sky; dividing, and dividing.
He realises then, what’s towering over everything isn’t a mountain.
It is a tree.
He has just climbed one of its roots.
Pausing for breath. He continues on, only ever heading upward now. The enormous bark is just like rock. The cracks and breaks in it, make climbing quite easy, though dizzying.
The altitude robs him of focus.
He can feel a warmth in the surface of the bark, through his hands, transmitting to him something of vitality. It invigorates his climb, but creates a secure calm, each time he hugs the rock, to steady himself. It draws him in, like a magnet.
The warmth increases, as he ascends, so too; a feeling that he is best off simply holding to the tree now, and embracing it, becoming one. He finds it hard to concentrate on moving at all.
He simply wants to rest.
It has become so cold all around, the drop in temperature sudden. But here, there is warmth at last. He is home.
The immediate aftermath of the day was lost in a blur. A snatch of flashing lights, sirens; and complete pandemonium, which carried on, and into the hospital. A circus of people rushing around and above her, desperately frantic.
She was bustled, and then ignored. Examined, and questioned; and then forgotten.
There was a still moment, when she sat in a curved waiting room. Staring emptily; at a magazine splashed, coffee table. Somebody had left a doll there. A toy in combats, and boots. She picked it up and kept it. She had never been allowed to have toys.
A doctor and social worker entered; the latter, taking a knee to her eye level. Something about her parents, and that they were “gone away now.”
She felt like she was nowhere herself, at all. Lost.
Everything was gone. She was in free fall.
And there was nowhere she wanted to be.
She lay at her grandmother’s, her eyes fixed at the ceiling; her whole self, a singular expression of clenched, and festering pain.
It was all too much, though she was a strong child. And her eyelids closed gradually, over time, until she saw nothing anymore.
It’s only now her eyes; having witnessed so much of wonder, are finally coming back. Becoming one again. Her mind stirred by the return of an old friend, albeit only imaginary; he is the first thing it registers, waking.
Elsewhere in the world, which carried on, unknowing; other things were waking, festering, and fracturing. And the dark, and the chaos kept on spreading.
And here and there, scattered about; children, who looked at the world through very different eyes.
One of them, through thick glasses.