|Eye of the Needle
Its time again, he knows. He flicks the wheel of his lighter until a flame springs to life. In the darkness of the room, the golden yellow light flickers about, fragmenting shadows of him and his chair across the walls of the room. He lifts the blackened bowl of the spoon over the flame and watches the powder melt into liquid, and then the liquid begins push out little bubbles. He watches without watching, and somewhere behind his eyes he flips a switch. While his body goes through the same routine like an automaton, all of the man that is Otto Lieberman is walking away, walking down the endless corridors of the mind.
The soles of Otto’s loafers click rhythmically on the marble tiled floor as he pushes the cart of books towards her room. He listens to the echo expand within library’s high arch, and a thought forms, sounds lonely, and the thought begins to echo too, until it rings out like an accusation. Sounds lonely sounds lonely sounds…
He tries to push the thought away by focusing on the brass plaques of the passing shelves, but the sound crushes his concentration in waves. It haunts his footsteps, holding tight to that corner of his mind he has no control over. He begins to stare at fibers of the emerald green carpet that covers the floor on both sides of the marble walkway, and imagines that the echo is shrinking again, accumulating and gaining mass until it is the shape of a medieval court jester. Tiny and featureless like a shadow, it cartwheels and giggles on a bed of emerald grass, prodding with sharp and formless words those places within himself that he would prefer to be left unknown and unexplored.
He prays silently that the little creature of his imagination will venture close, so that he might crush it, but the jester wisely dances just out of reach. Its heckling only stops when he stops at the opened cellar doors. The sickening feeling that had been rising in Otto's gut expires with the echo. He swings the cart sideways on its little pivoting wheels, placing it at the edge of Calypse’s room. As always, he peers down into the inky pit of the cellar and wonders what Calypse does when he isn’t around. The darkness pools like a tangible thing, swallowing the stairs. Two silver eyes catch the light, blinking into existence. They stare at him with a mixture of hunger and affection; the gaze inducing in Otto a delectable shiver and shame.
Calypse emerges from the darkness, her stride resembling the mesmerizing sway of a cobra. Her steel wire hair enters the light first, pulled tightly behind her, showing her broad forehead, her skin the color of pale silver. Her large eyes and a oval face follow, then her slender neck, down until the curvature of her breasts disappears into a mess of thin plastic. Her clothes are fashioned from an assortment of plastic grocery bags, tied and knotted seemingly at random. They crinkle lightly with her every swaying step. Otto reminds himself to keep his eyes on her face, but her movement guides his gaze downwards to the spots in her makeshift garb where the plastic is too thin and betrays a flash of her silver skin. Even as he hates himself for his weakness, he can’t help but feel the electric charge of desire she inspires in him. In another world she could have been a goddess.
She tilts her head with a half-smile, and Otto wonders – not for the first time – if she really is as innocent as she seems.
“I brought dinner,” he says, holding up a dusty book. Calypse draws back the curtains of her lips into a grin. Otto takes a reflexive step back. The teeth! How do I always forget about the teeth?
Where Calypse’s teeth should be, there are instead a multitude of glistening sharp needles, bristling out from black gums like the spines of a sea urchin. As she grins, each dark barb seems to move with a life of its own, independent of the rest. She presses her lips together in a pout and the needles disappear.
“Don’t be that way,” says Otto, “You know I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just surprised, is all. Please come here, I’ve got a good one for you.” He takes a step towards her, extending the book. She only hesitates a moment. Sharp black nails snatch it from his hand, digging into the leather of the cover as if it was still the flesh of an animal. She sets upon the pages with her usual ferocity, ripping them into tattered shreds with her mouth of razor appendages.
Otto’s body begins to feel pleasantly numb, but he can’t watch the spectacle; it seems too sordid, too indecent. Instead he sits back and closes his eyes. Images begin to flit through his mind, vibrating at the same frequency as the warm feeling that is rapidly engulfing his body like a giant cotton ball.
“You see the trick of it son, is to hook her just right. You gotta commit to her then, reel her in till she’s bagged. You let that fish take too much line, and she has you, and it’ll be sundown ‘afore we get her out if we get her at all.” Otto is five and listens with an intensity and gravity unique to children. In this little red canoe, on this lake in Michigan, on this early morning in July, nothing is more sacred than the words his father utters between puffs on a long cigar. They fish for hours in the sun, and the silence says more between them than a lifetime of words. It is a warm day of silence, and Otto knows that all the magic of the world lies on the unbroken surface of the lake.
The memory fades like the sun at dusk, except Otto knows that it will never rise again. The sun, the lake, the canoe, his father and the silence are all gone, used up, and now only vague recollections, shadows and fragments of memory, remain.
Something tugs on his pants’ hem. He looks down. Calypse’s is staring up at him with her large eyes. It is the look of a child placed on a woman fully grown into her sexuality. The combination is absurd and disconcerting for Otto, and for a moment his conflicting emotions clash like a whirlwind in his head. He taps his wedding ring on one front tooth.
“Do you need any more?” Otto asks her, and she nods.
He stands and looks down at the books in his cart, at their faded titles, stories he remembers from his childhood, romances, fantasies, records; a wealth of knowledge. Some part of him regrets that they will soon be lost. But what’s the use of knowledge when all the world is dead?
Otto selects three books and tosses them to her. She dazzles him with another one of her spiny grins before she feasts. She seems hungrier every day, more demanding. Otto absently wonders how long it will be before there are no books left. What will she eat then?
As the cottony sensation grows again, his worries turn to liquid and slip away. The memory comes faster this time, the images sharper and newer.
“It’s disgusting Otto! This filth! A rat Otto, I saw a rat come out of that cereal box.” Otto realizes he is twenty-five, in New York during his wayward writer phase. The woman talking is an old girlfriend. Her name is Virginia. Or is it Vanessa? He doesn’t care much, she is nothing compared to the girl downstairs. To the woman who lives on the floor below him. He saw her the day before, confidently walking, reading Miss Dalloway as she walked. She saw him too, dressed in grungy black clothing rejecting society as all writers in the big city were required to do. She had smiled at him even then, over the cover of her book, and time stilled in that forever moment he had searched for as a writer in vain. But he doesn’t want to write about her. He refuses to diminish the moment by sharing it. Vanessa or Virginia or whatever is beginning to get irritated. Her face turns the same color as her lock of red hair. “Are you listening to me Otto? Clean your fucking apartment or I’m gone.” He slowly takes off his circular black glasses, knowing he will never put them on again. “Then go,” he says quietly, and she stares at him, unable to comprehend. He no longer sees her, he sees the woman who lives in the apartment beneath him. He waits until after his ex-girlfriend leaves before he begins cleaning. He throws away his New York writer cloths and pours rat poison in a neat powdered heap on a saucer of milk. Time shifts and he is staring down at the rat belly up in the milk, bloated and pale. But the head of the rat is not right. Where the head should be there is a face. It is the face of the girl from downstairs.
It’s too bright, it hurts, but Otto knows it will end soon and it does. It fades like all the others, and Calypse is satisfied. He feels more than hears her contented hum, and his mind lingers in the calm sea of nothingness that sweeps over him, that place where no thoughts of Her or thoughts of any kind can penetrate. Sweet release.
Otto awakens when the line of light from the space in the blinds reaches his face. He sits up and rubs his red stained eyes. Another day, another hell. He rocks back and forth until the momentum pushes him out of his chair. He doesn’t remember ever being so weak. His bones feel brittle like glass and his joints ache deep in their sockets. He considers getting dressed, but decides against it. He considers not going out at all, but his empty stomach protests. It had been days since he had seen sunlight other than the shard that worked its way through his blinds, and he was long since out of food.
Still in his stained robe, Otto stumbles across the dark green carpet of the room and exits into the bulb flash of a too bright summer day. As he walks down the hall, his loafers make a clipity cliop clipity clop sound on the concrete floor. He absently counts the room numbers as he passes them: 9B, 9A, 8B, 8A, 7B… Children splash loudly in the pool on the level below him. They stop and watch him pass; only resuming their play when he is gone from sight.
He steps onto the sidewalk and enters the flowing mass of human bodies. The convenience store is not far away, just at the end of the block, and for the most part people give him a wide berth. Is it the smell? Is it the scruff and the stained robe? Or is it his eyes, bloodshot and wandering over everything and seeing almost nothing at all? He doesn’t care. Let them stare or look away, they are just shadows and dust, hardly lines of text. He makes it to the end of the block and enters the store, grabs a twelve pack of ramen noodle cups, pays, and at no point is he required to say a word. He exits through the sliding double doors with the plastic sack in hand, and takes a right.
The area behind the convenience store is not quite an alley, but neither is it a parking lot. It is a space just the wrong size for either. There is a blue waste bin with green graffiti on it. The cloying stench of sun ripened food from the neighboring Burger King makes Otto want to vomit, but he keeps on going, passing the waste bin and circumnavigating that colorful puddle of who knows what. A man in a grey track suit is leaning against the chipping plaster wall. He looks sharply at Otto, the white stripes on the sides of his track suit snaking as he straightens himself out.
"Was wonderin' if you'd show, old man," the man in the track suit says, though his grey eyes seem deadened and devoid of the capacity to wonder. Otto hands him two crisp twenty dollar bills, and the man palms Otto a small plastic packet of white powder. Otto puts the packet into the pocket of his robe.
"See you in a week, old man," says the man in the track suit, and he leans back against the wall.
Otto leaves, circumnavigates the puddle, and exits into the brightness. He begins readying himself to enter once more into the flowing river of people.
“Professor? Is that you?” A form detaches itself from the sidewalk crowd. Otto turns towards it.
“Hey yeah, Professor Lieberman, it is you,” it said. How did it know his name?
“You probably don’t remember me, class of ’04, Antoine. I was in your Classical Greek Lit. Seminar. Remember?” Otto looks at it, or him rather, a young man with a beakish nose in a red shirt, khakis and a tan leather jacket. The jacket is one of those old things from a thrift store that no one has worn since the seventies. The stitched ripples on its shoulder remind Otto of his chair. His chair, in his room. Calypse waiting. He has to get back. He has to feed her, and himself. He turns to go.
“Hey wait, Professor, where you going? You O.K? You look like you just woke up in an alley. You do remember right? Antoine? Antoine Herman?"
Otto starts to walk away.
“Now, hold up,” Antoine grabs Otto’s arm, “you have to remember me. I came to your office all the time. Hey, where’s the other Professor Lieberman anyways?”
“GONE!” Otto’s shrieks, causing everyone to turn. Antoine lets go of his arm, but Otto crowds him, pushing his face into Antoine's face. "I fed her everything," he says spitting the words out, "I fed her you and Her and everything and everybody and there is nothing! Nothing but shadow left. Can't you see? You are torn pages and shadow." Otto exhales in exasperation and wonders how this man could have been one of his students. This stupid man who looks at him like he's crazy. But the man isn’t alone. Everyone is looking, every one of the faces that have now materialized out of the crowd looks at him and they all have the same look. Silence stretches out; the cold kind. Otto sees a woman quietly pressing digits on her cell phone.
He then laughs long and hard and wet and they continue to stare at him.
“You see, there’s just the rat in the milk left, really. But his face is gone,” Otto says, trying to explain, but by then Antoine is backing further, with is hands up in a pacifying gesture. Otto realizes that Antoine can’t understand. Of course he can’t; he’s only lines on a page. Otto had forgotten that this was the end of the world. He had forgotten that he was alone.
Otto balls up the bag of ramen noodles in one hand and takes off in a sprint down the street, his robe opening and billowing behind him like sails in a storm. People leap out of the way to avoid him and he runs until his thin legs are burning, all the way back to the apartment complex, through the gate, up the stairs. He doesn’t count the doors or notice the children in the pool, he just looks for 10A and when he finds it he jams his keys at the doorknob and misses the key hole. He has to get in. It is too bright out here. He has to get back to Calypse. She needs him.
The key finally slots in, he turns it, enters, slams the door shut, and only when the darkness creeps back around him does he crouch by the door, tuck his face into his knees, and begin to cry.
The tears are still on his face when he enters the library, but they have devolved into moist rivulets of salt. The charge of them has fled to some remote other part of Otto Lieberman’s brain. He can still feel it somewhere, just outside of his periphery, but for now, it cannot hurt him. This is his asylum, this library. Neat and ordered, he is himself and no other in this fortress of knowledge.
He grabs the cart from its spot behind the polished reception desk and begins his slow walk towards Calypse’s room. The jester comes back, somersaulting the floor by Otto’s shoe. Otto watches as stands up and begins to mime him, solemnly pushing its own imaginary cart of books. It looks up, and Otto watches one of the bells of its cap jangle soundlessly. The jester isn’t such bad company, he decides, and they walk together, pushing their carts down the marble tiled path.
As they walk, Otto scans the brass plaques of the shelves. When they get to row P, they stop. The jester looks up at him again and shrugs before evaporating in a puff of wispy shadow, and Otto begins remember how the world had ended.
It had happened fast. The symptoms that the doctors mistook for the flu, the panic when they realized it wasn’t. At first they tried to quarantine the infected areas, eventually turning to chemical weapons, then radioactive ones, but it had spread too far by then.
At some point during that dark time, he had found the library. The tall brick structure looming out from the dull and dying. He reached for the doors, those heavy wood doors, and entered into the reception hall. It was grand, like the library in which he had spent so many hours at the University. He began to explore every inch of it, row by row, for weeks, until he came upon row P. There, he found small maroon book midway down the row. Folding back its worn cover, he watched a raven haired woman materialize on the first page, her picture captioned by one word: Penelope.
He had felt her breath on his neck then, still salty from their midnight dip into the Mediterranean Sea. Was that today? Even back then he’d known better. That had been on their honeymoon, years and years ago.
“Stay with me,” Penelope said, her whispered tones flooding through his mind like silk.
Then the air in the room shifted. The smell of the sea was replaced with one of decay. Out of the corner of his eye, Otto saw the pale green polka dots of her hospital gown.
“Stay with me,” she croaked, and he felt like screaming, weeping, and vomiting all at the same time.
Otto had then thrown the book as far as he could and the apparition vanished. The book made an oddly hollow thunk when it landed on the ground. If that had been it, he probably wouldn’t have investigated further, but soon after, he began to hear another sound, a hollow thumping at the pace of his beating heart.
He traced the sound back to the book, and the large circular carpet it had fallen on. Under the carpet, there were two heavy oak doors. On the doors, there was inscribed a quote.
“Hateful to me as are the gates of hell, Is he who, hiding one thing in his heart, Utters another.”
Beneath the doors, there was Calypse.
After conquering his initial fear of her, he had named her. It was a morbid joke on his part. Since she was the first - and likely the last - person he would meet in the post-apocalypse, it seemed appropriate that she’d be named Calypse. He soon discovered her appetite for books, and the maroon covered ones in row P had been the first of her meals.
Otto is jarred back to the present by a whine coming from the direction of Calypse’s room. “Hold on, hold on,” he says under his breath, and he begins walking towards her again, but this time, for whatever reason, the jester fails to appear.
She is waiting for him at the edge of her pit, every part of her outside of the cellar except for her foot, which remains one step in the darkness. Once she sees him, her features slacken with visible relief and she retreats further down the stairs.
“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you,” he says. She smiles and steps back into shadow until only her needle teeth and jaw remain, as if in parody of the Cheshire Cat. He grabs a couple books from his cart with each hand and tosses them into the pit. She emits a girlish squeal, and begins to devour them.
It doesn’t begin like usual. Otto doesn’t feel the engulfing presence of warmth. Instead it is more like a small smoldering fire settled in the pit of his stomach. He waits, nothing changes, and eventually even the coal in his stomach flickers out. This had never happened before. Otto forcibly stalls his panic. “It’s okay, I can just give her some more. Just a bit more.” He throws another handful of books down the cellar. Calypse begins eating faster, swallowing dozens of pages at a time.
The warm feeling comes again, still weak. Otto closes his eyes and tries to find it within himself. He tries to will it to flame, but after a while the ember dies again, and as it goes out he begins to feel cold inside. Otto frowns and tries to keep his hands from shaking. Why won’t it work? He looks down at Calypse. She is finishing the last of her books, tearing its cover into bits and gently slotting the pieces into her mouth like wafers.
“Is everything all right?” Otto asks her. She looks up and swallows the last bit of the book. She raises her palms towards him. He can see her veins shining a dark blue under her pale silver skin, working their way up her arm, almost impossibly strait, as if displayed in measured increments. She must need more books, he decides, she’s just hungrier today, that’s all.
“Just this once, I’m going to give you a special treat,” Otto says, trying to keep the strain out of his voice. She smiles a knowing smile, and again Otto is reminded of a cobra.
“Just this once, I’m going to be extra nice for you, because you need me right? You need me to take care of you.”
The cold feeling from his stomach has spread to his arms and legs. Something is very wrong. Why is this happening? What is happening? Driven by a sense of urgency he doesn’t fully understand, Otto braces himself, slides a hand under the cart and lifts. The cart topples with a loud metal on wood sound and the books cascade into Calypse’s pit. Her grin goes impossibly wide for a moment, and then she is scrambling to squat over her feast, ripping, shredding, and shoveling handfuls into her mouth at a desperate rate.
Otto is not prepared for the pulse of heat that swarms over him. It is more intense, more rough than it had ever been before, as if pressed by a plunger into his brain. He becomes disoriented under its onslaught and collapses on the ground. The images come too quickly, playing out like a home video tape stuck on fast forward.
“I’m so sorry, Otto. So, so sorry.” The face of Michelle comes into focus. She places her small hand on his shoulder. Sorry? Why should she be sorry? She looks like she is about to collapse, and she is sorry. She goes still like a photograph and he analyzes her for a moment. Michelle. She never liked him in the beginning, but they had formed a mutual respect one another other over time, for Her. The picture crumples, burns, and spills out of the frame. “Mother?” Otto asks, as his mother walks into the room that has somehow sprung around him like weeds growing in a garden. Her necklace’s unevenly shaped beads of turquoise click loudly together as she walks towards him. “Oh, my poor Otto,” she says, reaching out for him. She walks foreword, as if to wrap him in an embrace, but she steps through him and fades into the floor. She leaves behind a human shaped scorch mark. It widens and swallows him and he closes his eyes. When he opens them, bleach white light is spilling over him and the world smells like Lysol. The doctor is standing there, clip board in hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lieberman,” he says and his face begins to get longer and his nose starts to turn pointy and pink at the end. “At this point, there is just nothing left to do,” and whiskers start to sprout from his cheeks and his eyes go big, his pupils dilating until they fill up the entire eye. Soon, the doctor’s head is the head of a rat. The rat headed doctor looks up, whiskers twitching furiously, and Otto looks up, and above them is a giant twenty-five year old Otto, his round glasses looming large like eclipsed suns. Little Otto screams silently as giant Otto begins to pour the powdered pale green poison over them. Through his toxic tears and coughs, Otto watches the rat doctor shrivel up into a fetal position and die. As Otto’s throat begins to swell shut, he hears his father’s voice from somewhere, rumbling out in between puffs on a long cigar. “Boy, sometimes the line is gonna break on you, and that one’s on God. When that happens, it’s sometimes best to just let her go.”
Otto is screaming when he comes out of his trance. Calypse doesn’t seem to notice. She’s licking her fingers with feline satisfaction. He dry heaves a couple times and then pounds his head with his palm, willing the images to leak out of him. Eventually they do, leaving only a hollow throb behind.
“Damn,” he says, it was painful but it’s over now. He knows that the empty feeling will come soon, that sweet nothingness, and he will be given his reward.
It doesn’t come.
Why? His panic is so great that he doesn’t hear Calypse’s whining for several seconds. When he hears her, he manages to roll over and look into the pit. There is no trace left of the books besides the ink stains that cover her hands like black blood.
She reaches up towards him with her darkened hands.
“Haven’t you had enough?” Otto says, practically screaming. She whines again and points at the cart.
“You already ate all of them. There aren’t any more there.” She keeps pointing.
Still lying down, Otto slides the cart sideways until it faces him. At first he thinks it is empty, but a flash of red at the very bottom catches his eye. Wedged slightly into a corner, there is a small, maroon covered book. His heart pounds in his temples as he reaches for it and pries it from the corner. Even before he opens it, he knows exactly what it is. It is the last reminder of Her. Somehow it had escaped. Otto notices Calypse staring at it intensely. She begins crawling slowly up the stairs.
Otto manages to stand up.
“No,” he says, as she gets near. “You can’t have this one.” She whines. “No,” he repeats, but she steps forward, still pouting, reaching for the book.
“NO!” he yells and he gives Calypse a sharp push. She opens her mouth wide and hisses, the sharp exhale of breath sending her needle teeth dancing with wild fervor. An instinctual fear tells Otto to run, but it is too late. She rushes, a blur of silver, and sinks her mouth full of needles into the crux of his arm, pulping his flesh like paper.
Otto screams and blindly shoves her. She loses balance and falls hard back into the cellar. Before she can right herself, Otto slams the doors shut and sits on them. He looks at his arm, pulsing out more blood than he had ever seen, but he does nothing to stop the flow. No need to bother. He hears a shriek as the doors beneath him shake. Then another, and another.
With his good hand, Otto awkwardly fumbles the cover of the maroon colored book open and looks at the picture inside. Penelope is with him again, and he smells the soft vanilla scent of her hair whipping out over his face. “Stay with me,” she says, and her voice floods his mind like silk.