A man struggles with his sanity as he attempts to come to terms with his addictions.
|A Waking Dream
Between the conception
And the Creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls a Shadow.
- T.S Eliot, The Hollow Men.
Some of the best stories that I can remember begin with the narrative gambit "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", but would it not be just as apt, and in some cases more appropriate, to say "a short time ago in a consciousness far, far away" and be done with all the pomp? That is, after all, the nature of storytelling, to in some way or another remove ourselves from the drudgery of daily life and escape to a more satisfying and fulfilling existence. Or at least that is the purpose of a story that begins with the narrative gambit "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."
So if I began this story with "a short time ago in a consciousness far, far away", and described a self-righteous drunk vomiting and cursing at a meandering cockroach, would that be as satisfying of a narrative as, say, "Episode V: A New Hope. It is a period of civil war..."?
Well either way, satisfying or not, it was a consciousness far, far away, and there was a self-righteous drunk vomiting and cursing and being especially unsatisfied with his existence when it dawned upon him, then and there - perhaps at the bequest of the meandering cockroach or perhaps not - that there was something seriously wrong, something dubiously out of sorts with the universe. It was a world shattering epiphany only appropriate for debaucherous men of his ilk. It was beautiful and frightening at once, and it was.....
....that he was out of whiskey. He was a drunk man and he was out of whiskey. There wasn't even a drop left. Not a single drop. He starred at the bottle like a marooned sailor stares at a mirage.
I am the hollow man.
I am the drunk man.
He lived in an urban metropolis. It could have been New York, Shanghai or London. It really didn't matter. What did matter was that he was a stranger amongst strangers; wherever he went, or whatever he did, he was an anonymous cog: just another spare part. He wasn't even needed because if he did drink himself to death, which he was surely attempting, the machine would merely adjust for his absence, calculate the best possible means of replacement and recalibrate. Life would move on and he wouldn't.
Complete stasis: dead or alive.
He considered passing out, but then realized that wasn't going to happen so he picked himself up, brushed some dried vomit from his lapel and conceded that he had a problem. The problem wasn't that he was a self-righteous and from time to time violent drunk who had let the piss get the best of him. No, the problem was that didn't have any of it left.
He considered his options:
a) call a friend.
b) search the house
c) buy more.
Since he had no friends - a situation imposed upon him by a series of rash and impromptu decisions that drunks tend to make - and that he was certain this same train of thought had occurred about thirty minutes ago when he had searched the house and found a half-drunk bottle of whiskey in the second cupboard to the right of the refrigerator, he decided: c) buy more. His watch looked at him and said "the liquor store should close in about forty-five minutes" - a scene not so strange in the scheme of things - and that, if he made haste, he could make it. Quick like a drunk bullet he erupted from his prone position. He attempted to tie his shoes, then gave up; he tried to put on a suede jacket, but gave up; he looked for his keys and also gave up. He got tired of meandering and left. The door refused to close and because of this he would later return to discover that a suede jacket, his keys, an empty bottle of whiskey and one cockroach were missing. This poor, incompetent, inebriated man truly was in a consciousness far, far away.
After leaving his apartment complex he vomited violently on a lonely hedge just outside the entrance. The hedge absorbed the filth without complaint, but seemed to tell him it was displeased with his ineptitude. Spotting his buxom landlord from the corner of his eye he thought to himself "you can clean it up in the morning, fucking bitch!", a comment, he soon discovered, he had uttered aloud when she promptly responded with, "you can move out in the morning, fucking asshole."
Coming to terms with his gaff, he stumbled onto a dilapidated street corner, stopped, attempted to straighten the suede jacket he wasn't wearing, and fell over. His head hit the pavement like a bowling bowl on ice. He thought there was some blood, but he couldn't be sure. The world spun like a top when out of nowhere there was a voice. The voice eventually became clear to him. It exploded into him, barreling deep like a scorpion's stinger until after about a minute he could finally discern its meaning. The voice was feminine. It was attractive. It stung him but it was divine. It said:
"Need a hand?"
He looked up and made out a figure shrouded in a dim light (did it have wings?). His vision was blurred, a dumbfounding fog inhibiting his sight. He coarsely responded "Of course not. I'm perfectly alright," and coughed twice.
"You look lost," she said.
"I'm not lost. I'm drunk." He picked himself from the pavement and leaned against a half-arched lamp post. The light flickered. Was the whole world falling apart?
"That's what I said. You look lost."
"I just told you. I'm not lost. I'm drunk," he responded, displeased with her encore.
He shook his head, "No you don't understand. I'm not...... never mind. What do you want? I'm very busy. I'm on a mission, you see, and if I don't hurry I'm afraid that [hiccup] I won't make it."
"Where are you going?"
He considered this. Where was he going? He considered and considered and did so much considering that he began to consider what it was he was exactly considering. He had forgotten. Tabula rasa. Nothing remained. Was it the fall he had taken? How hard had he hit his head? He palmed his throbbing skull and inspected the pavement for cracks. Things. Falling. Apart. He said to her, rather sheepishly it seemed, "Maybe I am lost...."
"Yes. That's what I said."
"Maybe I can help you."
"Oh yeah? How do you suppose you can help me? A person like me? You really think you can help a person like me?" Defeated, he searched his pockets for a snifter.
"What kind of person are you?"
"I.....I.....I.......don't know....... wow I really am lost."
"Yep. Come with me." She grabbed his hand. It wasn't a tight grip. He could have wrenched his hand from hers at any time, but it wasn't soft either. It was forceful but not physically forceful. He felt compelled somehow and, once his hand was in hers, followed her. He forgot that a minute prior he had been unable to stand, let alone walk.
Alcohol, bills, work, people, family, friends, enemies, money, time, age, love, hate: all absconded and faded, replaced instead by something lost.
"Where are we going?" he mumbled.
"Exactly where you want to go."
"But I told you. I'm lost. I can't remember where I want to go."
"Just think of some place, any place, and we will go there."
"Any place? Really?" It sounded ridiculous, but he believed her. He didn't know why he believed this dimly glowing figure, this woman who he only knew existed because of the sound of her voice, but he did. This woman who minutes before had been but a spook, who now still was but a flippant apparition, who fervently grasped his cold hand, this angel, this divine phantom: he believed her. He thought long and he thought hard. And then, there they were.
"Fuck, I don't want to be here," he said, glancing around his apartment.
"Then why did you think of here?"
"I don't know.... I think I forgot something."
"Yes. You did."
"What do you suppose it is?"
"How should I know?"
"Listen lady, I don't even know how we got here. I mean, I told you I'm drunk but that was some fucked up shit."
"Yes, well, really, under the circumstances I suppose anything is possible, but yes, teleportation is fucked up." The throbbing in his head worsened. The crescendo hit him like bag of old, rusted pipes. He doubled over, shook it off and attempted to steady himself.
"We didn't teleport here, and I'm not a lady. I found you down on the street corner, lying in vomit and blood and you told me you wanted to go home and that you lived in building 2, apartment 4A, so I brought you here."
Something was different. He looked down and noticed that he was still holding a hand, but also noticed that the same reason he felt compelled before wasn't present. He looked up and she wasn't there. Nope. She was gone. He was there though, and he was hideous. The drunk let out a guffaw.
"Who the fuck are you!"
"I told you. I'm Chuck. Man you don't look so well. You should probably get some rest. Listen, I'm out of here man. Good luck with....... life."
Chuck let go of his hand and gave him a sympathetic look. The look told him that he had made a huge mistake. Chuck left. Chuck was wearing a suede jacket and a light jingling emanated from his right pocket as he hastened his step toward the stairwell. The drunk man didn't notice and closed the door. He slowly wandered to his bedroom and, his untied shoes still on, threw himself onto the bed. He passed out quicker than a line of cocaine.
He slept for two hours and then...
....he suddenly awoke, still drunk with an empty bottle of whiskey in his limp hand.
"Hello," she said.
"What...huh...um....who....what?" Reality evaded him. He jabbed and threw an uppercut or two but he couldn't connect. What was happening? Where was he and who was speaking to him?
"I know. It's difficult. Here, drink this." She handed him a glass.
He took a sip and hemorrhaged. "Ugh, that's disgusting. What is it?"
"It's a strawberry and banana smoothie. It's good for you."
"Yes, good. You do know what that is, right?" He thought he could make out a slight smirk, but everything was still a bit blurry.
"Listen, do me a favor, would you? Would you do that? What I need from you, and I don't mean to disrespect this wonderful gesture but," and here he paused and again palmed his pounding skull, "what would make this perfect, and I mean this is seriously great and everything, but what would make this perfect would be just a nip, and I mean just a small, little, tiny, itsy-bitsy nip, of whiskey."
There was no hesitation in her voice:
She uttered not a sympathetic note.
"Well then........ um..... wait.... what?"
"Drink it please. We need to go."
"Go?" He took another sip and this time it tasted much better. Something had changed, a change he couldn't pinpoint. Something strange was happening.
"Yes, go, and for god sakes tie your shoes."
"Who are you?"
"Doesn't matter. Just concentrate. Where do you want to go?"
The drunk finally got a good look at her. She was dressed in white, but it was a shade more pure than he had ever seen. It wasn't like the shade of white you paint your house with, that shade that, however pure, eventually becomes stained, or that shade of white that freshly washed clothes have, dirtied ever so slightly by lint and small particles. No, it was a pure white, a white that only existed in thought. It was the thought of white that he saw now, and not the actual color white he had seen in life. She wore pants, a t-shirt, a trim and obviously tailored jacket and shoes. Her hair was tied back but wasn't long. She was blond and had blue eyes.
"Are you an Angel?" he asked her. His voice sounded like a secret.
"Irrelevant. We must go."
They were standing at the edge of an adjacent door. All he had to do was take a step through, but he couldn't. Something was stopping him. It paralyzed him: an exotic poison that, at first, he thought must have been placed in his smoothie. He looked down at his shoes. Tied. Who had done that? He couldn't remember tying his shoes, or could he? Maybe he had tied one, but the other? He was confused.
"Go? Jesus. Well, I could use some whiskey..."
She slapped him across the right cheek. The pain, for a moment, mitigated his shattered consciousness.
"Ouch! What did you do that for?"
"Concentrate. Think. Where do you want to go?"
"Listen to me. I can't remember anything [hiccup] and I really can't decide if this is happening or not."
"Not important. Decide."
He considered and considered until he considered that considering wouldn't lead to the consideration of any place specific at all.
"Oh, I don't know. The moon!"
And to think that if he had read this in a book, or saw it on television, the view couldn't have been more terrifying. He lunged at her; he slowly, methodically lunged at her and, gripping her arm with fear, vomited into a vacuum. His lungs were void. He wanted to hold his breath but couldn't if he tried. There was nothing to hold onto. He looked at her, pleaded with her, begged her and prayed to her. The moon orbited the earth as the earth orbited the sun as the sun exploded thousands upon thousands of sun-rays that violently shook the foundations of reality itself as he helplessly looked at her, waiting for her help, waiting for anything but this void, this confused, empty space.
"Concentrate. Think. Decide. Be." she said.
This time his mind was much clearer when he decided.
He awoke. He was in a bed, a bed with church white sheets. There was a woman with a clipboard also in a bleached white tunic and pants standing next to him. His head still throbbed and his vision was still blurred. He was surrounded by curtains, isolated from the outside world. The sheets parted and a man entered. He heard him exchange words with the woman in white, and she soon left. The man approached him and said something to him, something that wasn't quite clear. It was a puzzle: a Rubik's cube of semi-logical cacophony.
"What?" he said, or rather half shouted.
"Dude, Daniel. It's me, Chuck."
"Daniel? That's not my name...... wait..... is it?" The drunk's mind was a whirlwind. Some external pressure forced upon him discountenance. He shook his head but it made things worse. It was like his mind was a house, a shelter from the raging storm that a torrnado had swept up and disseminated throughout a perpetual cyclone.
"Of course it is! Wow, did we have a good time tonight And wow, that stripper was all over you, pal! I can't believe she let you take her in the back door, and by back door I mean 'in' 'the' 'back door'," he cackled at his double entendre. Too clever for his own good, it seemed.
"Chuck? Wait, I remember you....I think."
"Of course you do man. Wow, what a night. Listen, it's still not too late. I know you fell and hit your head, but how do you feel?" He glanced at his watch. "Listen, if you feel up for it we could still hit the clubs. I know this great strip club off 4th and 9th. It's right downtown and I'm a VIP. What do you say?"
Chuck was dressed in a grey and black pin-striped Armani suit. He wore a crimson red tie and polished, black shoes. He was sharp, handsome, suave and possessed. His hair part wasn't in the center of his brow but was a little off kilter. There was something not quite right about his demeanor, but the drunk couldn't place it. His vision continued to oscillate between unclear and unclearer. His moral compass spun like a record.
"No, I mean in my apartment. We were.... but wait.... and then she......"
"That's right buddy, she approached you like a sly cat, and man could she move - really just like a cat, I mean wow what a body - and she said to you: "Need a hand" and boy oh boy. At first you were hesitant but I gave you a push and there you went, right through the back door, if you know what I mean!" and he gave him a little nudge like an oldboy, like someone he knew, like someone who he knew really well.
"Oh, I don't know. I don't really know."
"Ha! Of course you don't. Here, listen, stand up. Here, let me help you." The man in black helped him up, brushed him off a bit and began to pat him down.
"Hey listen, where is it? Where did you put it" he asked him clownishly. He continued patting him down. The drunk felt hot, like he had a fever. His brow dripped like a rusty faucet, but the sweat seemed to evaporate as soon as it made contact with the torrid, insidious heat.
"Where is what? Hey listen ...errr... Chuck, what are you doing?"
"The cocaine man, where is it?"
Chuck reached into the inside pocket of the drunk's suede jacket and pulled out a salt shaker of white powder. He shrieked like a wyvern.
"Ah! Yes! Here it is. Damn happy those spooks didn't find it. Fucking hospital ghosts. They don't know what real medicine is, do they oldboy?"
"Listen, um....... Is it hot in here or is it just me?"
"Here, don't talk, don't think, just do!" and he grabbed his hand and sprinkled a few bumps of cocaine onto it.
"Nothing better than a bump to the head, is there oldboy? Well come on, what are you waiting for?" He repeated the process and they snorted a few together.
"But I don't know....... wait.....what?"
"Well what are we waiting for? Let's party! Let's fuck some girls! Let's get some drinks. Oh man, I could go for a couple of whiskeys, couldn't you? Of course you could! Why am I asking you such a stupid question?"
Chuck grabbed his hand and after about twenty minutes, five flights of stairs, two taxis and a VIP entrance, there they were: the strip club. The entire process seemed instantaneous.
The club was bustling. The strippers were pariahs, contorting their limber bodies in ways that made mens' blood boil. And boil it did; they abated this feeling with the intake of whiskey - on the rocks, of course. The neon lights had a disorienting effect and the red lights in the back promised nirvana, a hundred dollars a pop. The girls worked the room and the men worked the girls. The whiskey flowed, the men craved and the women gave. Chuck became immediately jubilant; even the drunk couldn't control his mood.
They took a seat in the VIP section. Lawyers, judges, policemen and the usual political riff-raff lined the plush, suede sofas. Such deliberate disguises. Chuck beckoned for a server.
"One bottle. Top of the line. Nothing spared for my oldboy here, alright? You got that sweet-pea?" The waitress nodded and gave the drunk a wink and a smile. His blood boiled.
"How you feeling buddy? You feeling better?" asked Chuck. He sat back and crossed his legs, peering at the drunk as if he was looking for something, a key of some sort.
"Actually, I am feeling a bit better and...."
"Yes! That's what I thought! Nothing like whiskey and pussy to get your blood flowing. I swear, if every sick man just went to the brothel instead of the hospital, we could save thousands of lives," he chuckled, snapping his fingers as he saw the waitress approaching.
The waitress arrived with the whiskey. Top notch, as Chuck had prescribed. She leaned over and placed it on the table in front of the drunk, purposefully exposing her cleavage to him. She touched his leg and said, "will that be all?" glaring at the drunk like a predator. He felt uncomfortable and aroused at the same time. The waitress noticed and made to move for his crotch. He nervously twitched and she let up.
"Ha! You certainly have a way with the ladies pal! Yes, that will be all...for now. Come back soon though." He slapped her on the ass and gave her a tip. She left, but not before she glanced over her shoulder and blew the drunk a sultry kiss.
Chuck poured two stiff drinks and handed one to the drunk.
"Cheers, oldboy. To.... well.... what should we cheers to?"
"Um..... to..... well Chuck, I don't really know....."
"Ha! Of course not. How about....to us!"
"Well, that sounds appropriate." Chuck tipped the drunk's glass back with his index finger. He beckoned him to drink, and so they did. The sting of whiskey overtook him. He closed his eyes to take in the rapture. He became mirthful and joyful. A doltish grin soon accompanied his half-glazed eyes.
"Listen oldboy. I have something important to ask you. Now don't get upset. I realize that some of this may be incredulous, maybe even unbelievable to some, but to you, you especially, to you I know you will understand. You are a smart lad; in some ways you're special. You understand me, pal?"
"Well Chuck, not really but I...."
"Exactly. So listen. Here's the thing. I need to know where you are going. And now listen, I know this may seem like a puzzle but really it is a simple question. I don't mean where you are going to take that waitress tonight," and here he pointed to the girl who, at this moment, just happened to lock eyes with him and smile, "and I don't mean where you are going to go tomorrow to buy lunch and no, I don't mean where are you going to go next year for a vacation. No, I don't mean any of that. What I want to know is where are you going?"
"I..... don't quite understand."
"You're a smart lad. Don't think about it, just tell me. It's not difficult. Just tell me where you are going. I really need to know. It's important. Come on pal. Oldboy. Buddy. You can trust me, right?"
"Well, I think I can trust you...."
"You mean you know you can trust me."
"Errr, yes I know I can trust you....."
"....but the thing is, I can't remember where I'm going."
"Can't remember?" Chuck leaned back. He was confused and distressed. This was the first
time the drunk had seen Chuck overwrought. Chuck was deep in thought. He paid no attention to the drunk. It took a few minutes before he came to. He moved closer to the drunk and leaned in. He put his arm around the drunk's back and said to him, "So you don't know where it is?"
"Know where what is?"
"Surely you must know what it is."
"No, I don't think that I do...."
"No bother. You'll remember soon enough. In the mean time, you are with me and that's all that matters." Chuck smiled at him. He poured two more drinks and said, "Now, let's cheers to remembering. To remembering the past!"
That's when they heard the click.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
And that's when he heard the gun shot.
Here we go round the prickly pear.
"Run!" she said.
He glanced back and saw her. She was holding a Jericho 94F 9mm. He looked down at Chuck. He had a hole in the back of his head the size of a walnut, but he still was, curiously enough, holding his glass of whiskey: not a drop spilled. The drunk immediately dropped his and took off running.
He bolted toward the exit, stopped and whirled around. The entire club was a battle scene. She had ducked behind a sofa and was firing shots off like a bar crawl. The strippers, policemen, politicians, lawyers and judges all had weapons, some of them automatic. They focused on her, combing the room as a collective. She was pinned down. She yelled at him:
"Think. You know where you want to go. We need to get our of here. Think!"
"But I don't know! I really don't. Why is this happening!?"
A tremor knocked him to the ground. He flailed about like a prostrate turtle, but rocketed back to his feet. Gunfire momentarily deafened him . He clasped his hands around his aching membrane and shrieked. He wanted to weep, but there were no tears. He wanted to fight, but he didn't know how. He wanted to go, but didn't know where.
"Any place will do. Just think and go! I will meet you there."
He tried to clear his mind, but the gunfire transformed his thoughts into molasses. His entire world was crumbling. Who had set these charges? Had he set them? Did Chuck? Did she? He didn't know. The building shook. Ceiling tiles fell, knocking unsuspecting victims unconscious. Lamp shades were knocked over and bottles of undrunk whiskey smashed. The pitter-patter of unquenched desire exploded all around him.
Between the idea and the reality...is a place.
"I can't do it!" he yelled at her.
"Yes, you can! It is your choice. Not theirs. It is only yours!"
Between the motion and the act...is a choice.
"Alright, alright. I can do this..." He concentrated. He could do this, he thought to himself. He tried to ignore the cocaine and the whiskey. He compartmentalized his consciousness: one part here and one part there. He focused his remaining energy and thought of the place he wanted to be, the safest place he could think of amidst the chaos.
He thought of home.
"Fuck, not again...." he whispered.
He was back. He looked around but it was dark. He stood there, dazed for a moment. He wondered if any of this was actually happening. He tried to remember a time before he had met her, but he couldn't. Everything was indistinct.
He stumbled over to the light switch and pushed it. It flickered on and lit the room.
There she was, standing there and breathing heavily. Her face and hands were covered in blood but her pure white clothes were untouched by the filth.
"We can't stay here for long. It's too dangerous. He knows we're here," she said.
"Who knows? Chuck? I saw you shoot in in the back of the fucking skull. I don't think he'll be knocking at my door anytime soon." He quivered at the thought. It was the first time he had seen someone murdered. The entire scene was etched onto his cornea. If he moved his head too quickly from the right to the left he could see the unmistakable tracer of a bullet. Close his eyes for too long and there was Chuck: his bloodied, collapsed skull festering on the cold floor, a glass whiskey still in his hand. My god! The whiskey, he thought.
"You don't understand. He's coming." She hastened to the window, closed the blinds and peered through them.
"But....who is he? He said he was my friend, but I don't really remember him. In fact, I don't even know who the fuck you are. This is all getting too much." He sat down on his couch and put his face in his palms. "I can't take much more of this."
He looked up see the woman reloading her Jericho 94F 9mm. She looked like a soldier. She had an immutable visage; her hands were unquivering, her stalwart gaze vigilant. She had seen her tour of duty, and this was the aftermath.
She looked at him, "This is war."
"War? But you seemed so nice....well you did hit me. I didn't appreciate that."
"Trust me, you deserved it," she told him.
"I just wanted a drink..." he pleaded.
"Exactly. I'm here to help you. Don't you understand that?" Her voice was soft. She asked him to believe her. She wouldn't choose for him, but merely ask for his trust. There was no presumption, no expectation. She would not force him to do anything, nor presume that he was anyone other than who he was. It was a long time since anyone had actually looked at him. It was a long time since anyone had starred past the shadow.
"Ok. I believe you. So what do we do next? I don't think I much liked that Chuck guy. I think he stole something from me." He looked around his house and tried to remember what he possessed. He couldn't. None of this stuff looked like his. It was his, but it didn't look like his. There was something a bit off, like a doppelganger. Where was he?
"Oh, he's stolen a lot from you, and not just your suede jacket."
"That's right! That asshole. I remember now. I think I'm starting to sober up..."
She came over and inspected him. She seemed distressed but quickly caught her tongue before uttered anything portentous. "You'll be hung over soon. We have to hurry." She threw him a gun. He fumbled with it and quickly placed it on the coffee table before taking a few steps back.
"What the fuck? I don't know how to use a weapon!"
"Of course you do. Just believe that you can and you will. Trust me. You'll need it."
"For what? What is this war about? What are we fighting over?
"You don't know?" she said. She stopped and looked at him. Her eyes were full of sympathy.
"Of course not. I've been stumbling around half cut and high on blow for the past.... oh who knows how long it's been doing this. I've been with you, teleporting to the moon and back, and I've been with Chuck in that god-awful strip club. I don't even know what's happening or why it's happening, and now you tell me there is a war? Last I saw on the news, there was no fucking war. What is this all about? What are you two fighting over?"
"Why silly, we're fighting over you."
"We've been over this," she said, opening the door for him. "We've been fighting this war for a long time."
He walked leisurely through the doorway and began to descend the stairs. "So you're telling me that right now, even as we walk down these stairs and even in that strip club and...shit, even on the goddam moon - I've been drunk the whole time?" The thought was a shock to his system. He attempted to dissect his experiences moment by moment, recalling intense and surreal instances punctuated by banal and underwhelming decision making.
"Yes, that's right," she responded as she loaded her pistol.
"So I've met you before? And Chuck? I really am his 'oldboy'?" The thought frightened him.
"So to speak."
"And he always wins?" he asked, shocked.
"Have you stopped drinking for even two days straight and done something productive in the past two years of your life? Have you written anything or created anything or gone traveling or done something of any worth? What do you think?" She seemed genuinely displeased by her failure.
"No, no I don't suppose I have", he responded, dismayed by his inability to confound
Chuck. "Why does he always win?" he continued.
"Because however many bullets I may have, I can't shoot desire with a gun."
"Huh...So you're not an angel then?"
"No, I'm not an angel" she said, half-laughing at his innocence.
"Well then....what are you?"
"Well, I'm you.
"But you're a woman. You can't be me because I'm a man. That's a fact."
"If you say so..."
They exited the building together. It was still night. It seemed to him that it was the same time of day as when he had originally left, although his memory of that event was fuzzy at best. His landlady was still standing outside, seemingly lost and unable to decide what to do, and the lonely hedge that he had vomited on held its breath, waiting for a fresh morning breeze.
They walked to a dilapidated street corner and halted. There were two choices: go left or go right. He braced himself.
"Well?" she said.
"I know, I know. I have to choose, right?" he sighed. It was difficult to choose. He was so used to choosing between different brands of whiskey, and what was most comforting in that was he would always be choosing whiskey. It was like asking someone if they would like to go straight or go straight a little faster: there wasn't much of a choice in the original line of questioning. Never a detour or an exit: just the same straight, monotonous line.
Each direction looked the same: dark, unknown and surely dangerous, but what he did know was that one of them was the place he was supposed to go and the other was not.
This made the decision all the more frustrating.
"How am I supposed to know which way we should go?"
"Don't ask me. I'm just the help. Think. You do know. You just have to believe in yourself."
"Ok, let's go left!" he exclaimed.
"Are you sure?" she questioned.
"Yes. Wait, no. Let's go right," he said.
"Fuck this. This is bullshit." He dropped to the curb with a thud. He looked left and he looked right and then finally he looked straight on.
"Wait a moment...."
"Why can't we go straight? Why are there only two choices?"
"I mean, I know there are only two streets here. There seems to be only two choices, but why can't we go straight on and cut through that field there? There's bound to be something on the other side, and who knows, maybe it's the place I'm supposed to go. I'm so goddam sick and tired of sticking to the road. Let's try something different." He got up, straightened the suede jacket that he was wearing, and took off.
She had to run to catch up.
At the edge of the clearing was an old abandoned hospital. It was built before the last war but was shuttered and closed a few years back. The building was a pale shade of white and was separated into two wings. It was four stories tall but the top section had collapsed long ago. They approached the hospital in a crouch, surveying the scene.
They rendezvoused near a derelict shack which in the past was used to store excess medical supplies and gardening tools. She glanced at her watch and looked at him. He was breathing heavily; he had bags under his eyes and looked sickly.
"How do you feel?" she asked him cautiously.
"Terrible. Why? Is something wrong?"
"More like something is coming. You're waking up. Do you have a headache?"
"Yes, a splitting one."
"We don't have much time. Are you sure this is where you want to go?"
"Yes, I remember now. This isn't just a hospital," he observed, his gaze fixed on the building.
"I know. It's a prison."
"You knew? Why didn't you just bring me here in the first place? We could have avoided this entire debacle."
She sighed. "It doesn't work that way."
"Well, why don't you tell me. How does it fucking work?" he asked angrily.
"You had to find it yourself," she whispered, aware of his germinating irritation.
"Ok fine. I'm sorry. I'm feeling a little off right now...."
"It's ok. It usually happens like this."
"You mean, we've made it this far before?"
"Well, no. Usually it ends in the bar."
He nodded. "Let's go. I need to see what's inside."
"Don't be so sure...."
They left the shack and made their way to the hospital entrance. The doors looked as if they had burst open. They were disfigured and fragmented. They tugged at the splintered debris to unfasten it from its hinges and entered. The interior looked as if it had been subject to years of looting. Assorted wreckage and unwanted junk littered the ground and rafters. Flyers from twenty years prior were scattered about. They read:
Danger! Looters are not uncommon. Enter at your own risk.
He picked up a flyer and scanned it. He had never been in danger before. He had witnessed many bar fights and from time to time enjoyed a good boxing match on television, but had never been in fight himself. He looked down at his pistol and remembered that he had never even fired one before, let alone fired one at someone. He was gripped by fear and clenched the gun handle tightly. He chest pounded, his head pounded, his fingers stiffened and then bang!
He fired a bullet into the floor.
"What are you doing?!" she yelled. "We have to get out of here, and quickly. Come on" She grabbed his hand and made for the nearest doorway.
He followed, panting like a maligned mut. She quickly opened the door and ushered him through, closing it behind her as quietly as possible. There were in a dark corridor dimly lit by overhead emergency lights.
"Come on," she said, "this way!"
He followed her down the hallway, but wasn't exactly sure why anymore. His desire was fleeting. His hands began to sweat and swear at him and his chest heaved with every beat of his diseased heart. He began to shake uncontrollably and noticed that his right eye was twitching. He stopped.
"What's...happening....to....me...." he said, leaning against the stone wall.
"Withdrawal. Your body is reacting to over stimulation. The euphoria is lifting. The dream state is on a cusp. It wants to shatter. You're the only thing holding it together. You have to hold it together. Just hold it together a little longer!" She put her right hand on his shoulder and peered into his eyes. His hands stopped shaking and the pain in his chest abaited.
"I thought you said I was drunk," he asked.
"You are; you're just passed out drunk."
"Ha! That sounds like me," he said, laughing a little.
"Not for long, I hope."
"Yeah....Ok let's ok. I can make it," he said, straightening his posture and limbering his joints.
They made haste down the corridor. The kept running and running. They ran down stairs and through hallways, turning left and turning right. It was beginning to feel like a maze and they were just about at their wits end when they came upon a giant, seemingly endless expanse. They stopped. First he he heard their twisted, wretched voices. First he heard their screams and their ceaseless, unmerciful refrain. He heard them shriek...
This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
...over and over. The were housed in identical holding cells but without beds, toilets or even washing stations. There were hundreds of cells lining the walls as far as the eye could see. The expanse could have covered a couple of football field. Each cell was about two meters in diameter and the room was lit by large emergency lights stationed every ten meters. The room was dank and it was difficult to breath. In the center of the room on the ceiling was a trap door made of wood and some sort of loading apparatus. He could hear the thumping bass of club music above. This place was familiar and distant at once. He had been here before, but in another life, another dream.
He approached one of the cells. At first he could hear them, but now he could see them. The figure was in tattered clothes; it huddled in the corner - its arms draped over its dirty, unkempt skull - whispering to itself the refrain. He panted heavily and tapped on the bars. One. Two. Three. The figure lunged at him and he was forced to double back. It hissed and clawed. It screamed at him in tongues. That is when he saw that this demon, this doppelganger, this angel of destruction and pain, was him.
"What the fuck!!" he screamed. He got to his feet and began to run. He peered into every cell he could. They were all him. They were all some form of him, some demented, tortured self that he had put down here one wasted day at a time.
He stopped, vomited and doubled over clutching his stomach.
"What is this?!" he yelled at her. "Who the fuck are they? Are they me too? Is everyone and everything in here me?"
She slowly approached him and firmly planted herself three feet behind his huddled frame.
"Yes. They are all you, or at least they are a part of you from another dream. They feed your desire. They are the part of you that has kept you shackled to indecision for the past two years. They are the part of you that refused to pick up a book or a guitar, the part of you that refused to write a letter or cook a good meal. They are the part of you that refused to do anything but hole yourself in that shithole you call a home and drink yourself half to death every night of the week. They are you alright; they are the worst part of you, and he keeps them here. He collects them as trophies and uses them as bait. You always end up here, one way or another. They were your potential."
He didn't know what to do. He didn't want to be believe her, but as his mined reeled he slowly came to terms with his predicament.
"We have to kill them. We have to kill all of them..." he said, coughing twice and cluching his chest.
"Yes, we do," she responded, her voice punctuated by sadness, "but...."
"We don't have enough time. We don't need to kill all of them. They will die eventually without...."
"....me," said Chuck.
They whirled about to see him standing there.
"Hello," he said.
Chuck's voice gave him a chill. He suddenly felt very cold. His head continued to pound. He stood there, seemingly untouched with five compatriots. They were all dressed in the same pin-striped Armani suits and polished black shoes, but each of them wore a different color tie.
"Last time you shot me from a little farther away. Always one for surprises, aren't you?" he asked, looking directly at her. "But hey, at least you never disappoint."
"Last time the waitress had bigger tits." she responded. Her voice was dry and void of emotion.
"And next time she will. In fact, next time we will skip the drinks and get on with the fucking. I find it works better to fuck and then drink. In more than one contexts, I suppose." He paused and removed some cigarettes from his jacket pocket. He tapped the package lightly, opened it, removed one and lit it.
"Hey there oldboy. Where are you going? We were having such a good time tonight, weren't we? You know what I could use? I'm sure you do. I could really use a...."
"...whiskey," he interrupted.
"Now you're catching on. Wow baby," he said, looking at her, "are you doing my job for me now?" The five men cackled at his joke. They laughed and they laughed until he cut them off with a wave of his arm. He glanced at his watch.
"Well, it's been swell but I'm afraid our little party is about to come to an end."
"You have to do it. You saw: I shot him but I can't kill him. You have to shoot him," she said to him.
"I'm.......so..........weak......" he said, trying to stand while fumbling for his weapon.
"You can do it! You just have to trust yourself! You're better than this. You're better than him," she screamed, piercing him with her angelic, holy eyes.
"He can't do it. Well, he could, but that fact remains that he won't. We have too much fun together, don't we oldboy? The fact is, I am more him than he is me. Look at him. He can barely stand. He's pathetic," said Chuck, spitting on the ground for effect. He straightened his tie. And snapped his fingers. The five men pulled out automatic weapons and surrounded them. They pointed them at her.
"Shoot her. She's obsolete." They opened fire. The bullets were like malevolent knives. They cut her down until she was nothing. She was now just a memory, a shallow unfulfilled memory.
They had cut a hole in his soul. He clutched his heart as she fell to the ground.
"No!" he shouted.
She was dead. They had murdered his messiah.
"Yes," Chuck shouted, mocking him. "Well this is getting tiresome. I look forward to tomorrow night. The club is so much more inviting than this....dungeon," he said, motioning to their surroundings. "Wake the fuck up already!"
"You what? Come on, spit it out."
Using all of his strength he rocketed to his feet and fired a shot at Chuck. Time stopped. The last thing he remembered was the bullet hanging in mid air, frozen. Chuck let out a sarcastic snort.
"You can't beat me," Chuck yelled.
And then he woke up.