Contagion in the Streets

June 29, 2012

He runs across the empty pavement to enter the townhouse nestled in the corner of the L-shaped building. The door is ajar. Most of the other suites have windows broken or missing. I follow, watching behind us and the perspiring on the warm suburban heated asphalt. Michael crashes through the doorway and I follow him into the living room.

He dropped his vomit-stained shirt in the streets as we ran scared, fearing the contagion. The man had seemed dead already, but lurched towards us in a silent jerking stumble to spill his wretched insides all over Michael.

He immediately strips down to his underwear, tossing his filth-covered pants and shoes onto the corner of the couch. We hurriedly search through the house and I find some clothing in the bedroom. I catch myself in the mirror, and I look like a dead man, the colour leached from my flesh. I hear him cursing and I return to the bathroom. He is standing outside the shower, holding the curtains open. There is a sickly-looking, naked girl huddled inside.

At first she just huddles there but then she turns her pale, clammy face up towards us to look at us. She tries to say something but it only comes out on a crackled gurgle. I grab Michael by the shoulders and I push the fresh clothes into his arms. He nods and sits back on the toilet to get dressed. I hold my hands up at the girl and her eyes focus on mine. Her eyes are empty.

Her body lurches upright, her grey, translucent skin peeling with a painful tearing sound off of the porcelain and she sways in an upright position. She gurgles something again and steps a wobbling foot out of the tub and onto the tile floor. I motion and yell at Michael and he gets up, still pulling on his shirt. He follows me at a stumbling run as we crash out of there and out the front door. We pile outside and pause, our hearts pounding, watching through the open door as her dark figure is silhouetted by the bathroom light, stumbling towards the door and outside.

We turn and run down the street, to get out of sight around the corner of the building and she begins to wail. Her voice lifts from a rough gurgling to erupt into a pure keening metallic scream. We put our hands over our ears and stumble away eagerly.

We see two people walking in the opposite direction as we rush past, both wearing hoodies. The man has his hoody up, and I cannot see his face, but the woman has hers down and their eyes follow us. As we pass them by, the woman turns away from us and gestures at the writing on the back of her hoody. It reads, in a bloody scrawl, “Come, Michael”.

I glance over at him, and his eyes widen with fear and confusion when he sees the words. He looks back at me and we keep running, skirting the edge of the building and then powering into a huge open parking lot, the dark mall looming ahead of us like a plinth in the middle of a graveyard. My heart is pounding, skipping in my heart and I feel as though I’m going to explode from the sensation. The fear consumes me and my legs keep pounding into the pavement, their energy sapped but fed on pure adrenaline and animal instinct. Each footstep explodes into my senses like a hot needle in the brain.

I glance back at Michael and he is spitting up blood onto the hot pavement. He looks at me, and doesn’t recognise me right away, then lurches painfully towards me. I grab his arm and we are about to sprint the last several hundred meters to the shadowed mall entrance when a figure detaches from one of the nearby parked cars.

He raises an arm in what I think is a hail, but then I notice the hatchet in his hand, the red-painted metal glinting in the dull sun as he walks calmly towards us. We freeze for a moment, the light blinding us until the man moves closer. His mouth is hanging open, and his eyes are a dull milky white and he says gutterally, “Come with me, Michael.”

Michael takes a step towards the man and I let go of him. I take a step back away and when the man raises the hatchet to bury it in Michael’s skull I give a violent start. I break into a steady run towards the mall doors and I stare back as Michael reaches up to tug the heavy weapon from his face, dropping it to the pavement with a clank. The two of them fix their gazes on my fleeing form and then turn away when I reach the doors, slamming them shut behind me. Watching them through the tinted glass, wandering away in the faded sunlight.

I sink to the floor and gasp, my body in flames, my heart racing, wanting to burst from my chest, and my mind just reels from the bombardment of emotions. Fear assaults me and then the feeling of complete alienation. Everyone is changed. Everyone is gone. I slump onto the floor, holding my twinging sides as my body is wracked with waves of pain, and my final thought is of envy and surrender.

I’ve been sick the last few days, horribly sick. My body is in excruciating pain. It wakes me up hourly, and I don’t know how to fix it. I hope that, like all things, this too shall pass.

My constant interruption from sleep has highlighted a recurring dream I’ve had for the past several weeks, although I did not realize it until now, attempting to recollect the details. Dreams consistently slip through my fingers even as I grasp at them. This time, however, the pain pushes me.

I am with my father at the house where I grew up in. We stroll together across the gravel driveway and cross the street to our neighbours yard. On it are several low shelves full of books, records, papers, toys, and other paraphernalia. They are covered in dry leaves and dust, having sat out in the elements for many years. I crouch down and begin to go through them, looking at the old LPs, everything from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, checking to see if there is anything nice there. My father does the same, but merely looks at them wistfully.

I ask him, “Why are these out here?”

He replies, “He died a long time ago.” Meaning the old man who used to live here. The memory of this man fades into my days of pre-cognition, but I remember him as being a gardener and very old.

I stop rummaging and just look at everything laid out on the shelves before standing up and rubbing my hands on my jeans.

“Come on,” he says, and gets on his rickety old bike.

I get on mine and follow. We ride down a block and through an opening between two houses to find a road I had never known of before. We stop in front of a run-down house, overshadowed by huge trees, the blinds drawn in the daytime. We bring our bikes around to the back of the house and enter through the back door.

I step inside, and smell the mustiness, the age. There are boxes stacked up in corners, labelled with marker in my father’s spidery writing. The place is mostly a mess, but some rooms have been worked on. There is a deep shag rug around a wooden table in the living-room. Kneeling in it is reminiscent to kneeling in piles of leaves every autumn. He shows me the foyer, and a shelf set that he is especially proud of having repaired. It looks good.

My father had bought this house without my mother’s knowledge and has been spending his spare time fixing it up, and I ask him why.

“Well, for when we sell our house, this will help with the mortgage.”

It’s a vague answer but I nod slowly without asking more.

I go back outside and ride my bike around the block, and smile at the neighbour with her child. I quickly go back inside because I have the feeling they are curious about the house and the new neighbours, but they never see anyone actually living there. I step back into the foyer and there he is, working on another project. He is intent on his task and doesn’t look up. I wonder to myself how my mother doesn’t know about this other home. I wonder why my father needs this place of solitude. I wonder, I wonder.

It’s four in the morning and I am picking up my parents to bring them to the airport.

I love driving at night when no one is around. I feel free when I see streets devoid of people. It is as though I am no longer being seen. Evaluated. I worry about what people think about me. I want to appear as though I don’t care what people think about me. How ordinary.

My parents tell me fragments of dreams they both had. My mother tells me of a dream where her boyfriend is a black singer. She says she felt like she didn’t fit in with his friends. That she heard the women around him talking about her, wondering who she was, and where she came from. My father tells me his dream of holding a tiny baby, a newborn. The baby is red and wrinkled and hairless and my father thinks that it looks like a penis. He and everyone around him are amazed when the baby starts babbling things at such a young age. The baby, suddenly aware of this new attention, becomes more vocal and grandiose.

I don’t know what to make of the dreams so I do not comment. We drive in silence, my stereo crooning quietly. I manipulate uncomfortable thoughts of phallic signifiers in my father’s dream and my mother’s dream of a new lover, an emotive man. Ordinary World comes up on my iPod and I wonder if my father can make out the faint voice of Simon LeBon.

Papers in the roadside
Tell of suffering and greed
Here today, forgot tomorrow
Ooh, here besides the news
Of holy war and holy need
Ours is just a little sorrowed talk

And I don’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

I drop them off at the airport and help them load up all their huge cases on a trolley in the bitterly cold wind. I hug them both and tell them I love them.

On the sedate drive back, a memory flashes in my head, one that has been lingering at the edge of my thoughts for a few days now. It is an old memory, I would guess from when I was around 10 years old. This was a time when I was probably a bit of a bad little kid. Not following rules, staying out past my curfew, not eating my veggies, and so on. I remember this in strange detail. My mother told me about something she read in the newspaper.

“I read about a man on death row. Before he was to go into the chair, he asked to see his mother. And when he saw his mother, he asked if he could suckle at her breast as his last dying wish. When she allowed him to do so, he then savagely bit off her nipple and spit it on the floor.”

My mother then went on to tell me how she didn’t want to be that mother when I grew up. That she didn’t want to be the one who gets punished and violated by a vile son filled with hate.

I’ll never remember why she told me this story. But I’ll always remember it now. And I know that I remember it clearly, for a reason. But why?

Scenic View Ahead

March 17, 2012

Nighttime is the time for work; daytime is the time for rest.

We pull the van around in a circle at the vista and exit to stretch our legs as the sun creeps heatedly behind the opposing peaks. The battered rails that stand drunkenly at the edge of the precipice bear the marks of our muddy boots from evenings just like this one. His face is lit momentarily as he draws on his cigarette, the bud blossoming into a bright orange before simmering back to a gentle glow. He throws the still-smoking butt into the weeds at the edge of the gravel where it sputters then falls inert, indistinguishable from the rest. His eyes meet mine and I nod. The last wavering layers of sun fall behind the haze of heat and cloud to drop the valley into twilight.

Our boots crunch to the van and I run my hand over the imaging rig we checked and rechecked earlier. I run my fingers over bolts and screws out of habit. I step up into the driver’s seat and shut the door as he scrambles in from the other side. He takes the flashlight from the dash and flicks it on, shining it rapidly over the wires that lie coiled on the floor before he moves awkwardly into the back. His dark eyes meet mine as he goes by and I start the engine. The gravel crackles under the weight of our tires as we roll out to the road. I turn down the brightness of the dashboard, and make sure the safety headlights are off by flipping them on and off once. I idle for a moment, listening to the familiar whir of the laptop booting up and his preparatory rustling  and muttering. When I hear him settle down in the mess of electronics I pull slowly out into the narrow road and turn downhill.

I hear his fingers flying over the keyboard in the back. The sky darkens by the second, deep yellows and reds already fading into a dark navy, edging into blackness, limned with colours that don’t seem real in that spectrum. The trees fly by as I pick up speed, black silhouettes and shadows against the backdrop of pale pinks stretching out into the deepening of black. At this moment, my control of the van begins to fade away, the momentum of our downward vector beginning to take over. I grip the wheel and drag it back into my control for as long as possible. Stray branches and leaves slap against the metal sides of our vehicle as we hammer down the strip of road and the sound of whipping leaves flying by fill my ears when I hear the first click-beep-whine of the imaging rig going off.

I hear him clicking away excitedly in back as the whine pitches up into the supersonic range, the sensation seared into my ear-drums to remain there for the rest of the evening as a phantom voice. I risk a glance in back to see the side of his face, his grim concentration lit from beneath by the laptop screens. I return my attention to the road and we are in total free-fall now, my feet off the gas, and holding steady over the brakes. We barrel down the road, the trees raising up to create a dark canopy overhead, the emerging stars flickering like a zoetrope through the racing leaves. My boot eases down on the brake, trying to bridle our tumble down the mountain, my arms working savagely at the wheel which tries to wrench out of my grasp at each curve in the road. We judder and crash over a bump in the road and my body shudders through a jarring landing. Click-beep-whine.

My foot pumps at the brake but now it isn’t enough. We fall and fall, tumbling into the valley and I hope we don’t end up a mangled wreck in the trees. He is muttering excitedly in back but I can’t make out the words over the scream of air and creaking of physical stress tearing at the van. I feel the wheels leave the road and we seem to hover indefinitely in the air, in silence, before slamming back to earth. I lean my head back in my seat and when we reach the base of the valley I press down on the brakes slowly, taking us down to a manageable speed before turning to cross the bridge to the other side.

I flip on the headlights as we approach the perimeter of the town, lighting up the lonely stop sign. We roll through the deserted main street. He clambers back into the front seat next to me and gives me a thumbs-up and we drive up to the observatory to park. I get out and stretch again in the parking lot, sighing wearily. I ask him if he got some good pictures and he nods. I wonder if the others are doing their parts right now. I go inside and fall onto one of the couches for tourists. I fall asleep listening to the faint droning of the informative film looping on the giant screen that never gets turned off.

I wake up to him shaking my shoulders. The building opens to the public soon because old people and tourists love the morning. I wipe my hand over the greasy mark my hair left on the black leather couch, smelling my fingers afterwards, smelling the bitter treated, leather amidst my own strong scent. I head outside onto the balcony, moving through empty tables with inverted seats perched atop. The morning wind blows coldly through the valley ruffling my hair and I see him leaning out over the side next to a big metal pay-binocular. He looks down into the valley with his own pair of binoculars, at the ledge of rock on the other side that we had passed in our nighttime drive. He is nodding to himself and he passes me the binoculars, saying, “Both. Good.”

He seats himself on the concrete rail and amuses himself by repeatedly swivelling the coin-op. I put his binoculars to my eyes and adjust the focus. The yellow blur of the early morning sun on rock drifts into clarity. Across the valley, on the rusted metal springs of a decayed bed-frame, are two men. Naked and bloodied, their bodies glint wetly in the sun, dark red and splotchy with bruises and damage. Some of their limbs have been severed or torn off. Their arms and legs are caught and wound into the coils of stiff metal wire. One of them is moving, his mouth open, screaming, probably. His raw, flayed flesh drags against sharp tetanus metal and he flinches, mouth open like a black gash. The other does not react. My breathing quickens and my skin goes hot as I observe them.

I dial the focus a bit further and beyond them I can see the one from two nights ago. He has managed to disentangle his arms from the metal trap, and he lies half in the dirt and shattered glass, possibly dead. His skin is seared and burnt from the day in the sun, his wounds puffed up, raw, and seeping. If he is not yet dead, he will not make it through another day in the sun.

I sit up and pass his binoculars back. I look at him. He looks back, his black eyes expressionless. He shrugs and dangles them over his neck then walks away.

A Story About Nothing

February 13, 2012

I didn’t bring any books or entertainment with me to the hospital, but as the hours drag on, I am starting to regret that. It is as though I sought to encapsulate the whole experience in a bubble of unpleasantness and “hospital-ness”. Segregation, isolation, boredom, pain, numbness, all wrapped up in a tight little package. Excise the experience from the rest of my existence. A comfortable anecdote and parable to tell the kids back home.

I sit, staring at the clock on the wall, watching the second hand circle around the clock-face. My mind clutches at vague geometrical irregularities in the hands. The hour hand is a bit behind. The time is right, but it is mechanically inaccurate. The glass covering of the clock is missing, and the backing is cardboard, curling up on one side almost imperceptibly. I watch the seconds ticking by. My eyes lose focus and my mind follows suit. I don’t seem to have any thoughts at all. Just a blank floating in mindlessness. I return to myself and hours have passed. I am grateful; it means hours I don’t have to spend in this place. Pure escapism.

I am thinking now. My mind races as though it needs to make up for my recent lapses. I fear for my life tonight. I don’t trust my nurse. She is depressing and frumpy. She has a whiny voice. I manage to equate the way she is dressed with how well she can do her job. She’s not as well put-together as my previous nurses, who have all been painfully immaculate (although she is wearing those floral prints). I don’t think this is even an unreasonable thought to have. She has problems setting up the huge dialysis machine hooked up to my shoulder and blames it on the machine. “These things never work.” That sort of thinking throws up a million red flags in my head. She’s going to hook that up to me? It never works? Why? I think that it’s her fault they never work. Maybe she should stop blaming everything else and learn how to use the damn machines. Meanwhile, I’m going to be hooked up to this thing overnight, and what happens if she fucks up? Am I going to die? My heart is racing as I pursue all my doomsday scenarios. I don’t say a word. I fear she’ll take it the wrong way. What if? What if? What if she is angered by my criticism and maliciously hooks me up incorrectly? What if I die in my sleep? I can’t say anything. The morning nurse will walk in on my cold corpse.

“What did you do?” She interrupts my morbid reverie.

“I didn’t do anything.” I respond carefully. I my heart-rate has skyrocketed on the monitors from my musings.

She peers at me closely, accusingly, then walks out of the room. I breathe a sigh of relief. Then I feel a burst of indignation. What did I do? She’s the incompetent one. I know I can never verbalize these thoughts. I bite my tongue. Always be friendly with the nurses. With the doctors. With the guy cleaning your room. With the woman bringing you your meals. Always say thank you. Always smile. Be liked. It is a matter of life and death.

I don’t sleep all night. I toss and sweat until the morning nurse comes in. I have survived the night. The machine worked fine. She hooked it up correctly. I breathe a sigh of relief and then I finally sleep. I dream and it brands itself inexplicably into my memory.

I dream cinematically of a young man and his brother. I dream of the young man’s love of a woman. I dream of a gift of a single mechanical wing, clutching his shoulder and chest, metal claws digging into his torn flesh and bleeding him. Of a betrayal for the sake of knowledge and perfection, wrought in the artifice of the gift. In dreams, I stare up into the ruins of the shattered cathedral, fey dancers whirling about the courtyard lit by flickering firelight, plumes of black smoke shivering and crawling up into the swamp-green sky, tendrils yearning to touch the rapidly sweeping rain-clouds above. My lanky torso is exposed, blood dripping and drying, flaking off of my skin, oozing thickly into the grooves of my scars. I stare at her and she stares back with such dark eyes. A look filled with pity, and genuinely saddened, but unapologetic. My brother is turned away from me, but glances over his shoulder, gaze meeting mine, predictably expressionless. The dusky sky, the frantically roiling clouds, the denseness of the slow wind, the crumbling stonework, the empty window frames, the pain in my torso, the moment slows and then stops. Snapshot. Oblivion.

 

(Addendum: Already, I seek to diminish the impact of my words by negating the importance of the writing by the title itself. My mind balks at sharing some of these thoughts with others. I will simply say now that it is important and real, although I do not yet know why or how.)

Dead and Dreaming

November 18, 2011

I died in a dream the other day.

I didn’t feel the bullets, but I felt them drive me back into the darkness.

I felt no pain.

Chapel

September 25, 2011

I step into a vast half-finished hotel somewhere on the outskirts of town standing alone amidst desert flats. Inside is cool and dark. Conditioned. The broad carpeted hallway extends away from me and on each side are large panes of glass displaying two chapels being set up for celebration.

I ignore them both and swish down the hallway. I am dressed in a dark-red and black brocade suit with dragging cuffs and thick embroidery of intricate patterns. A velvet-soft hood is pulled up over my head, trimmed in black fur with 3 red panels radiating outwards from my cheek and forehead. I feel large and powerful and arrogant in this outfit.

I step into the massive cafeteria, but it is mostly empty except for a few people eating a few leftovers and simple meals, probably workers. I am looking for guests to the event. I continue to wander until I find an outdoor patio. I feel strange stepping out into the shaded area while still wearing my elegant suit. I see a woman eating urgently at one of the tables, dressed all in baroque black. She seems unaware of what is going on around her until she sees me, and she immediately latches onto my side, following me around, talking rapidly.

We leave the patio and walk back through the air-conditioned halls towards the chapels and her mind is going a mile a minute. She is grabbing me and holding my arm, babbling almost incoherently, jumping from topic to topic as she spots new things.

I want to bring her back to my car which is parked outside, where I know she will climb on me. However, my unease begins to rise as she becomes increasingly hyperactive and wild.

We step into one of the chapels I noticed earlier. It is in the midst of decoration for the holidays, and the decorations are mere swaths of coloured paper of no particular pattern or formation. The room remains mostly empty except for a large plinth sitting at knee-height at the windowed end of the chapel. The two of us wander over to it, and some of the workers say, “Well, it’s not yet the holiday, but I supposed we can start giving them out now.” They lift up the corner of the satin sheet laid over the plinth and beneath it is a vast array of gourmet sweets.

My date immediately begins eating some, and I take one as well, but before we have even started, the room begins filling up with hundreds of guests jostling for a place around the table. The satin sheet is torn off and the hungry crowd begins to dig into the desserts with abandon. The woman I am with begins to go into a frenzy and starts to eat as fast as she can while simultaneously shoveling as much of the sweets somewhere into her black dress. They spill all over and the whole crowd tries to do the same, stuffing the sweets into their mouths and pockets. I feel disgusted and I take the arm of the woman I am with and drag her away from the scene, pastries and treats spilling out of her bodice as I struggle her away from the table.

We step into the relative quietness of the hallway outside, the melee still going on in the room, and I am suddenly aware of the woman again. I am not sure why I had her come along with me other than it felt good to have someone want me so badly. I’m not sure I want her.