“Oh, MY god… I KNOW! Couldn’t believe IT!” You could almost hear the gum cracking. The couture lipstick smacking tacky fresh on her lips. No real need to get a complete visual. Probably wearing some business casual professional suit dress. If I wanted to truly set up the mocking image, I would have imagined it pink. But I never bothered to look up through the grates. She had stepped by and was gone. This was a rotten place to sleep.
Foot traffic from countless others stormed by above me. I shook off the blankets and stood, still a good eight feet or so from the street. Rudy was already awake and perched on his crate once more. Come to think of it, I wondered if he ever went to sleep. I hated him. After one conversation and sleeping in his company, I managed to despise this man. It wasn’t his appearance that did it either, he looked like most bums did; rags, grime, nappy hair, maybe a few stray teeth. Though two aspects of his look did stand out. The first was bizarre even by vagabond standards… Rudy had grown his hair long and had somehow delicately braided a piece in the front. It entwined down across his forehead. From there, it was then braided into his eyebrow, then on down into being fixed into his own beard — which was a rat’s nest aside from the braid. It kept tension at his face just-so that when he spoke it jerked his face in odd directions.
His braid aside, Rudy also had a perfect head of hair. Combed immaculately to both sides of his head, his gleaming mane contrasted too sharply with the rest of his appearance. This one physical characteristic lead to my loathing of him, but was not the core of it. It was his hair, the style — that forged attempt at being civilized despite his otherwise degenerate appearance— seemed to entitle Rudy. Our conversation consisted of him belittling me, claiming I was not the one they should have called for. Despite my innate desire to harm him, I was instructed not to. He yammered on about superiority, about gratefulness. Evidently, he was “the one they had denied,” I said. He then went as far as to promise me I would fail.
My only response was to say they had obviously picked me for a reason. They had not picked him, I reminded.
It was following that remark he began to sing. Or laugh or chant… there was no real means to pin down what cadence or verse he began to spout. But he did and at length.
“The sea rushes, flooding flow. In depths reach, from vantage leap and low. Beneath the bark, it lusts to seek. Callow. Marrow. Callow. Marrow. Break me a mirror!” On he went. It was my lullaby. Part of me understood why they had not picked him, though I could say little else about their decision with me.
In order to understand who they were, there is a small amount needed to know about who I am.
If you stretch back even a couple years, my situation looks much different. I had a job and a reasonable car my friend had loaned me indefinitely. I had a small apartment on the edge of a city where the neighborhood actually felt like one. No family anymore, but I always ran on my own anyway.
Which probably relates to my involvement in the military — and why not? Be apart of something. Make for a change, or work with a force moving towards it. I was never a complex person and the simple idea sat right with me. I enlisted. I was good at what I did, I got the job, so to say.
On one particular mission, we crossed paths with another unit; a unit that had allegedly been wiped out months prior. Someone told someone else the wrong order, that person instructed us… and the team found ourselves in a place we were never supposed to be. We stepped into an exchange happening off the books and both interrupted sides were, shall we say, pissed. The lucky half of my group was killed instantly in the skirmish. The remainder of us were detained.
It took days of torture before the powers that be understood that we truly were uninformed and unfortunate to show when we did. Regardless of coincidence, we knew enough at that point that we weren’t worth killing but certainly worth shutting up. “Honorable Discharge” graced a few files and suddenly we were back home. Our return did not come without a final “debriefing”. Most guys had families and were assured that should any of this be spoken of in any way, the repercussion would extend to them as well, guaranteed. For me, I was all that was left. No parents, no siblings, nothing. I had little equity. The order came that I would be released into the city and kept under surveillance. “Keep your shit straight” I was told.
So I did — and why not? I found a shanty of a place along with a job as mediocre. I worked. I said nothing. In time I figured, I would make way out of the city or at least make the situation better. I even met a girl. She was nice. One time over drinks at the same restaurant I worked at, I made mention of my time served. The discharge. She asked why. I was drunk, and I must have explained in more detail than I realized. She went to the bathroom and never came back. I walked home to my place and found her there pacing. She was stripped naked and babbling. She claimed I did it to her. I saw fresh welts on her arms and cheek. I tried to console her, but she carried on, screaming louder. Cops arrived. There wasn’t much I could do. I didn’t protest.
Where I lived, it’s a mandatory six months for battery.
Guys in jail don’t like guys who beat women. They also hate soldiers. I technically was both. The first months were difficult. I adjusted and tried not to make new enemies. Why not. Towards the end of my sentence, I started having dreams where people came into my cell. Whenever I had them, I always seemed to sleep much longer. I may have been drugged. In the last two weeks there I began to develop a serious addiction, though I could not say what for. Outside of beer, I had never taken anything else voluntarily. All I knew was that I wanted something; something to smoke or shoot or put up my nose. Anything. But I fought it. The withdrawal was horrible, but I knew better than to succumb to what my system pleaded for.
Upon release, I quickly found myself on the streets. No one wants to hire an ex-con who is visibly fighting his last tweak. I kept to alleys and overpasses, sleeping off what shook through my body. The dreams came and went again. Only this time I wasn’t being injected. There was only the presence of another standing aside me. Most bums kept to themselves at night, unless of course one owed the other a favor. I never said much but they all knew to keep clear of me.
On the day when I felt my cleanest, I was approached by a familiar face. A Colonel from my section. It took me several minutes to realize precisely who he was. The last time I had seen him, my hands had been cuffed above my head and too much blood ran beneath my eyes. He was dressed in formal attire. He stood there smiling and asked if I was going to attack him. I said no. Smiling still, he offered me a white card. “You’ve done well,” he said. “Little chance to redeem yourself.” The card had only an address and a letter “B” deeply pressed into it. I said nothing. There was no reason for me to do anything. “Go here and do exactly as you’re told. Once you make it to the door, listen well, and then we will see if we can’t reform you.” I remained quiet. He walked away. As he left, he said once again “, do nothing but go to the address and respond. Do not give in to conflict. Be as you’ve been.” That was it, he was gone.
I spent the better part of the morning on a park bench. I knew the address, or at least knew where it was. The opposite end of town. Without fare for the subway, I would have to walk it. I couldn’t decide what to do. This was likely something awful. Whoever these people were had sought out to make my life a complete nightmare. And for what? Being some asshole in the wrong place at the wrong time? They knew that beforehand and still… all this.
In the few years since that time I had gone from being relatively no one… to relatively no one. Not much had changed except the events in-between. The only thing I had managed to do in the middle was endure.
By the time the street vendors toted out their wares for lunch, I was on the move.
Winter had grabbed the city in a fierce grip in months earlier, but had recently eased it’s tension. So much so that with all my draping, I had started to mildly sweat by the time I reached the address. Tall and nondescript, the building was quite old with a refurbished veneer of brick and concrete. Despite the windows of it’s facade, once I crossed the threshold, I found only a narrow white hallway, dimly lit from above. As I walked, the room seemed to bend and double back, almost as if the hall was a type of maze. Even the ceilings appeared to become gradually higher. I could hear very little. My steps were the only sound at first but then I detected the faintest of other voices. Moans. Regardless of how closely the floor plan paralleled itself, distinctive if not faint moans of ecstasy emanated from behind the walls. Yet each time I rounded another corner — nothing, just another hallway.
After what seemed like an hour, the audibility of the women was no closer or further, I rounded a corner to see a red curtain. The mere contrast of color against all the white startled me. I approached it slowly but could hear nothing. Even the sounds from behind the walls had dimmed. Prying back the cloth, I peered out into an expanse of what looked to be a grand opera theater. Rows upon rows of seats, tiers and balconies and mezzanines. It yawned regally. Something about it gave me a welcoming feel, almost magnetic. A part of me felt embarrassed for how I looked in the presence of all the grandeur. It almost made me laugh. I went to step in.
“You were to wait instruction. Pity.” The lights went out. I never heard the person behind me, nor did I see whatever it was they chose to render me unconscious. In the fleeting seconds before I went completely under I heard a voice in space say “not your entrance, laddy.”
I woke up in a sewer, much more appropriate. The first face I saw was Rudy’s. He was stooped over, poking me from time to time so I would awake. Once I showed signs of life, he immediately set in to leading towards what would prove to be my entrance. In all the ambiguity of these recent events, I neglected the obvious detail of “B”; something Rudy took malicious delight in pointing out to me. Within minutes we reached a large, latched door.
“Now you wait or sleep, your choice, but it won’t matter,” he said, perching himself atop the crate.
The filth we traipsed through seemed to be non-existent in the small alcove of the doorway. Nothing but dry stone and a sewer grate many feet above. I sat down where I could watch him watching me. I dozed and sank deep. I dreamt.
Tree roots, spiraling and ripping the earth. A cacophony of a million wings flapping. Women in lustful tangles, tearing at each other’s skin. Men impaled on one another. Animals in ravenous feasts. A planetoid detonating while an insect hatches on a grass blade. Then I woke. The idiot on her cell phone way above. Rudy. Still sitting with his jaw set. He said nothing now. The door latch had been dropped and propped slightly ajar. I stood up and walked through. As I did, I noticed Rudy didn’t move. Someone had ripped his throat out. From my distance it was initially hard to tell, his beard covering up most of the damage. I left him anyway.
Beyond the door a small walkway curved to the light. A warm light crept from behind the bend, along with a singular droning tone. Within moments I found myself walking out from under the stage into the same theater, now dazzling lit to the fullest and teaming with people. The tone was not from their collective muddled chatter. The entire company of attendance sat silent, eyes fixed on my entrance. I was arrested by the power of the spectacle; the control of it all.
“You’ve made it. Welcome. This way.” My colonel led me up the steps to the stage. Gone were the chairs and brass of several instruments, and in their place was a singular oak table and chair, stained darker than the blackest of cherries. Atop the table were six glass containers, three to a side. In front of each container was a fine white cloth, pristinely folded. On each cloth sat a metal instrument or device, where inlaid into the handle was a delicate illustration depicting it’s directed use. One handle portrayed the illustration of an ear. The other a thumb. Another a tooth; a testicle, and so on. Dividing the table set was a final blade, slightly larger than the tools aside it. No jar sat before it but an illustration was still etched into it’s ivory handle as well — a heart.
I was permitted to sit down and did. The setting before me glinted. Awaiting instruction I looked to my Colonel. “This,” he said cajolingly “, is your way out. Do this and you will be revitalized. You will be rewarded. If bring Him, you will be favored. Celebrated. Heralded, forever.” As if sensing my thought process, he then added “, You have come this far. Either you elect to finish or we must see you through it.” I sat motionless for a moment, then nodded. I could feel him smile once more. He turned to the audience, conveying something of my compliance because they erupted into applause. Then he waved them down again. They hushed instantly.
After another breath I disrobed. “Begin on the left, tithe directly into the glass,” said the Colonel. He stepped off stage. Seven tools. Seven motions and it would be over. Why not. I began.
Predictably, the process started easily enough. I knew how to deflect most paint, but when it was time to remove a thumb, my legs had not stopped shaking from the last infliction. With terrible struggle, I placed the appendage in the glass along side the others. Six total offerings. The heart blade remained. I steadied it against my chest. As I withdrew to drive it in, the crowd rose to applaud once more. Only this time they froze in mid ovation.
From all around me and somehow within me as well, a voice rose. It hissed and clicked and spoke from a cavernous gut.
“This. You have done. Well. Truly. Do not. Listen. To the braying. Of liars. Weak. So weak. They know. Nothing. Of pain. I. I am. Pain. I. Am Power. They. Subjugate. What they. See as. Weak. They. Are. Wrong. You. You have. Come closer. Than they. Will Ever. Know. You. You. Have done. Well. I shall. Return you. Complete. Infinite means. Purge them. Destroy them. Serve me. It. Is yours. You. Belong to. Us. Now. Do. You. Accept?”
I stood there, the handle buried deep into my sternum, the crowd frozen photo-still. Only one answer came to mind.