by Julian Lee
working draft: fiction (short); how, what, where, when, who, why (≈ 3700 words)
is the night
and the day
in the place
where the sun never shines
and the moon hides her face
and the shadows seek light
from the lamps that won’t burn
and children quake under the covers
It is a cold day in hell. That’s so cliché. I know, right? But just then, that was my only thought—my only rational thought. And, it was true.
It’s antarctic frigid. And dark. And dank. And if this ain’t hell, it’s ‘bout as frickin’ close as it gets.
The air smells musty, like mold and damp earth and worms; like deep lung pneumonia. Like an unfinished basement beneath an old house where it rains so much nothing ever really dries out—or, a cave, deep underground.
I hear the chittering of little feet flitting about. Possibly mice or rats or monstrous winged roaches. And somewhere, dripping, maybe a leaky faucet—like water-torture in a late night spy noir.
Plop, plop, plop…
I imagine ghostly shadows stalking the light, if there was any light. But there isn’t enough to see, even if my pupils are fully dilated. Fact, I’d be hard-pressed to say whether my eyes are open or shut.
Despite the humidity, I’m parched. I lick chapped lips, swallow. Throat feels dry, tongue swollen.
A painful numbness has seeped into my muscles, my bones. Can’t seem to budge. Can’t feel my hands, my feet. Need to get up, to move, to escape, to pee. I try to call out, and hear faint echoes but no triggering sound.
What happened to my voice, I wonder?
Not sure, but think I could be lying on my left side. The surface is unforgiving and there’s a sense of micro-fine dust such as accumulates beneath a rug that hasn’t been moved or cleaned in a long time. I try to roll over, to stretch my limbs, to feel anything beyond this pervasive dis-ease.
For a moment I consider the theory that I might be in a coma—the result of a head-on collision or a senseless drive-by shooting or mugging—wired to incessantly beeping machines in a sterile, lonely hospital room, drip I-V’s piercing my arms, oxygen and feeding tubes up my nose, down my throat, catheter conjoining an oozing drainage bag…
Or perhaps this is a dream. If so, then it is one doozy of a nightmare. I try to wake up, but that’s not happenin’.
Or—don’t know—might be an unwitting victim of a cruel kidnapping; bound and gagged and dumped in a dingy cellar on the outskirts of…but, where? And, why?
Or, could I be dead? Is this the big lights out? The last goodnight?
Maybe. But, if this is death, if my body is no more, then what up with all the pain and distress, the wheezing breaths? What’s with the cold? What’s that all about?
Get a grip, dude. If all y’got’s y’mind, can’t be givin’ that up too. Gotta hold on. Think!
If only…go back to the beginning, try to remember how I got here. Or, what I was doing, where I was, before, before…
Friday night. I’d finished work late, but at least I’d finished, for another week anyway. It was already dark out and it had started to rain. The windshield wipers metronome’d back and forth, to-and-fro, tick-tock, tapping an almost hypnotic tattoo.
Par for the course, commuters impatient to get home and start the weekend had underestimated the slickness of the newly wetted roadways. The highway south was closed, both lanes, due to a multi-vehicle accident. So, I headed up the back way. A lot of other drivers had the same idea. Traffic was heavy.
It was closing in on nine p.m. before I arrived at Millers Creek, the small mountain town nearest to the cabin I call home. I decided to grab a late dinner at Di Luccia’s, before the kitchen closed for the night.
The restaurant was busy, as usual. And there was a party in the banquet room: A birthday or engagement or anniversary or maybe a wake or something. But the bar was pretty much open, all to myself—which was a-okay with me. I sat there and scanned through the menu.
Highlights of a previous NFL game played on the wall mounted flatscreen. I really wasn’t that interested—couple of east coast teams gone into overtime—but it was something to do. The antipasto had just arrived and I munched as I watched, sipping a glass of pinot noir. The wine was of the relatively cheap bar ilk, though not inexpensive, and actually not too bad. I think the label might have featured chubby dancing lesbians, or maybe stylized running horses.
It wasn’t long before a woman emerged from the banquet party to fetch a round of refreshments. Even though the bar was largely deserted, she stopped right next to me to place her order. I was pretty sure I had never seen her before, and yet she seemed vaguely familiar. One of those things you can’t quite put your finger on. She was pretty (or rather, pleasingly charming), however, and I did not mind. We struck up a conversation, and that too felt familiar, as though we already knew each other. Without asking, she helped herself to my appetizers. Presumptuous, perhaps. Well, if we had met before, it would come to me.
We bantered good-naturedly. After a while, a platter of drinks showed up at the end of the counter. The woman smiled as she went back to the party, tray in hand. I had neglected to ask her name. Oh, well.
Fifteen-twenty minutes later the woman was back for another round. The same cute little blonde with the nice body and familiar face. The conversation continued where it had left off, as though without a break. This time she pulled up a stool, sat next to me and began eating from my entree with her fingers. I asked for another place setting and shared my dinner with her.
She said her name was Chantal and that she lived in town, nearby. I told her my name was Ramey and that I lived a few miles further out, in the woods. We talked and touched on a good many subjects, but kept things fairly light. Maybe I was starved for companionship. Maybe, along with the food, we had shared some kind of energy, a spark, a connection. I don’t know. But, I found the exchange delightful.
Later, she took the current serving of spirits back to the party. Perhaps, she had felt the same magnetic pull, the same heart-hookup. Before she left, she said something about there being much better alternatives than some of the barfly women in the area. Well, on that score, at any rate, she was correct: There were those about town I wouldn’t get near wearing a hazmat suit. I finished my late dinner and went home.
And did not see Chantal again for a few months.
When next we met, it was again at Di Luccia’s, and by then she had completely slipped my mind, including her name.
It was a Saturday morning, about eleven in the a.m. I was there negotiating, with a local contractor, for some work to be done around my property. We were sitting at the back of the public room, where we might enjoy a little privacy. There were five or six women of varying ages gathered around a table near the fireplace. They were drinking and nattering and giggling: What I considered—not to put too chauvinistic a spin on it—typical female tittle-tattle worthy of my ignorance. So, I was ignoring them.
At a certain juncture, the bartender walked up and placed a wineglass of red in front of me. I asked what it was for and pointed out that I had not ordered anything. Robert, the barkeep, turned, gesturing across the space and with a flourish said, “with compliments from the lady over yonder.”
I looked. The woman from the previous meeting months earlier, from the banquet room party, leaned forward so she could be seen, shot me a huge smile and wave. I nodded and returned the smile. Curious. I did not want the wine, however, so offered it to the prospective contractor.
A short while later, the business agreement concluded, I was ready to leave. I motioned Robert over to settle the tab. At the same time, returning the favor, I purchased one of whatever the woman over yonder was having. Then I got up and headed out.
Before reaching the door, however, I heard an excited squeal from behind, and running footsteps. Guessing the delivery had occurred before I could effect my escape, I turned in time to catch a hurtling bundle of somewhat inebriated affection as she leapt up, wrapping her arms around my neck, thanking me profusely—and a little over the top—for acknowledging her with the cocktail. Surprised, I told her she was most welcome as I disentangled myself. Then went out to my car and drove home. Though I found this woman interesting, I had other more pressing issues to attend that day.
Again, I did not see Chantal for several weeks.
The third meeting was just as unexpected. It was that perfect season smack in the middle between spring and summer—when everything is so beautiful and absolutely nothing can go wrong. And, once more, it was at Di Luccia’s.
I was reclining, back to the countertop, enjoying an iced tea on a warm, lazy afternoon, gazing out the window at nothing in particular. A flutter of Dark-eyed Junco’s gamboled just outside, dancing an amazing arial celebration.
Suddenly the door burst open and Chantal waltzed in, purposely making her way directly to my position without any hesitation whatsoever. She plopped herself on the stool next to mine and began speaking—or, rather, continued our previous conversation as though there had been no intervening months between then and now.
The following half-hour or so was pleasant, and there came again that uncommon feeling of familiarity. And also, though at least partially subliminal, the certainty that I had been expecting her, that I was actually waiting for her, that we were meant to be together. It was the strangest sensation. With no foundation. Yet, it was not altogether untrue, nor undesirable. Still, I held these thoughts close to the chest.
The next morning Chantal rang me on my home phone. This was a surprise, as I did not recall having shared my unlisted number. Tricky woman. I made a note to ask how she got it. But, found nonetheless that I was happy to hear her voice. She invited me to pick her up at her house and accompany her to the local arts and wine festival in the park north of town; to mingle and browse and listen to some live music and get better acquainted. She gave me directions. After short consideration, I accepted.
It was a fabulous afternoon. The music was decent and not too loud—sort of a Grateful Dead-ish vibe. After which we enjoyed a leisurely early supper. This time at the local Country Club. Much as during the first encounter, it felt as though we’d known each other forever. I’d heard of soulmates; but, y'know, I’m skeptical.
Later that evening, we strolled hand-in-hand from one end of town to the other and back again; peeking into shop windows; chatting about this and that and nothing specific. It was very comfortable, and a bit intoxicating. We were like two teenagers. I guess you could call it a date. Our first official date.
We picked up a rental movie and some Chunky Monkey ice cream and retired to her place to relax and enjoy. When the video ended, I thanked her for a wonderful day, kissed her goodnight and drove home, alone.
That’s how it all began…
Depths of despair:
The almost unbearable and constant physical pain would seem to indicate that I am still alive. That apparent fact leads me to believe that…well…nothing, actually. There is no comprehension at all. Nothing I can wrap my head around. Nothing definitive. Really?
I mean, is this what it’s like to be roofied, as portrayed in those ubiquitous Lifetime dramas or the Hangover movies that everyone insists are so funny? Waking up not remembering what may have happened, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, but with a tickle annoying a back corner of your mind that says: Whatever it was, baby, it prob’bly ain’t gonna be good.
I envisioned strolling into work Monday morning with a big, ugly inkblot indelibly inscribed across my face. And wouldn’t that be a hoot? All those stuffy executive types. Wannabe politicos. What would they say about that?
I thought, I really better concentrate on the here and now. And, think I’m gonna be sick.
Then it occurred to me that I really had better stop maundering and take stock. The situation wasn’t improving. If I couldn’t recall how I got here, maybe I could figure out where here is…
Still earlier, but sometime later:
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Another of those platitudes that’s so spot-on it’s almost unbelievable. The signs are always there. Yet, we rarely pay close attention—close enough, anyway. Yeah, I know: Hindsight is 20/20. I get that. But, I digress.
Things with Chantal were interesting and fun. At first, at least. Like the way she would call late when out of town on a business trip and claim she couldn’t wait to get back and jump my bones. Like her smile; her laughter; her sense of humor. Like the naïve bounce in her step and the cute way she’d wiggle her hips when walking away; or that suggestive, pouty-lipped, runway-model pose. Like the wow and flutter of my wildly racing heart whenever we were near. And the way she invaded and took over my dreams, and my life. It was as though I were under a spell. Magical, but in a good way.
Yet, I began to notice a definite Ms. Chantal and Mrs. Hyde thing going on from time to time. And, there was this core women’s club that was never too far away. And the periodic, clannish, no-men-allowed meetings—the subjects of which were always jokingly referred to in terms of top-secret, eyes-only, don’t ask me ‘bout my business. I began to think of them—these other women, this inner circle—as her coven. ‘Course, I was careful to keep that bit of possibly misogynistic nitty-gritty to myself, just in case the profile didn’t fall too far from the witching-tree—even if it wasn’t taken seriously.
Then again, disappointing or insulting Chantal, or doing anything to cause her any harm or discomfort, was the farthest thing from my mind. Anathema. I had real feelings for her. Feelings deep inside that had lain dormant for a good long while. Feelings that, for some reason, I did not want to discuss, even with myself.
But, once more, I digress.
So, we had been seeing each other, together now, for a time, Chantal and I. The relationship was progressing nicely, steadily, pleasantly, passionately. I guess some might call us an item, a couple, a thing. And, I guess, that wouldn’t be inappropriate. We were close, not fused at the hip exactly, not inseparable, more like a comfortable hand-in-glove sort of affair. And it was no secret around town.
Chantal had decided to winter her little summer roadster in my garage. And, to my amazement, without argument, I had promptly rearranged the area to accommodate her wishes.
Well, to be honest, I was planning to do some cleanup anyway. It was overdue.
And we were spending more and more time in each others company: She sleeping at my place; I at hers. Lunches, dinners, day and weekend trips. There was discussion afoot about combining residences, moving in together. Or, rather, she selling her house and moving into my home.
You know? It’s funny: I had always, in the past, enjoyed my personal space. Always thought I wanted it to stay that way—my space. Always, heretofore, had relished and preferred it that way. And always had, before. You know, kept things that way. My man cave. Never anticipated a time when that might change.
But, then again, if you think about it, a single mortgage payment, consolidated insurance, utilities, maintenance expenses, carpooling to work, sharing food and et cetera, that would certainly provide increased cashflow. It could really add up. Give us more money to play with. Playing is good. It made sense.
I thought about new toys and vacations. And sex whenever I wanted. No more need to hunt. No more late night strikeouts, or compromises.
I found I was more than leaning towards the decision to cohabitate. Strange, everything I believed I knew about myself was flying clean out the window. Though we had not discussed it, I was considering adding Chantal to the official paperwork, making her sole beneficiary. Maybe, even, popping the big question.
But, there. I said it. Sometimes it felt like I had completely lost my mind. More often, though, it just felt so right. Almost like there was no other choice. All I wanted was for Chantal to be happy. More than anything else. And I’d already purchased a ring…
Close, but no cigar:
…I remember. I remember…what? I don’t know. But, I remember, something. Wait! I remember…Sally. No, Sheila. Sha…it’s right there…Shawna, Sean, Chantal. Okay. Yeah. That’s it. I was with, Chantal. Now we’re gettin’ somewhere.
We were together, someplace. Chantal and I. Me and Chantal. Doing what? Celebrating? Right? We were celebrating…something. A very special occasion, I think. But, what? Where?
It’s all a jumble. A blur. I’m so confused. Like I’ve been drugged. Or sustained a serious concussion. Amnesia. Alzheimer’s.
I recall a time I found a neighbor. He was an older guy. And he drank like crazy. And ate nothing but junk-food. And never exercised. And had the worst attitude. This day, just before I was to leave for a weekend trip, I checked in to see that he was going to be okay while I was away.
But he wasn’t. He was lying on the floor of his bedroom, having fallen out of bed sometime in the night. He was there on the floor, in the most awkward position imaginable. The companion dog cowering on the bedcovers, scared out of his wits, uncertain what to do.
The old guy wanted me to help him to his feet. But, the way his body was arranged, that just wasn’t possible. I told him he would need to move his legs before he could get any purchase, before he could stand. He insisted that he was moving his legs, that he had moved them, that he simply needed a hand to get up. Apparently, he was telling his body to move, or thought he was. But, his brain refused to send the directions; or his muscles would not obey; or some circuits had broken connections, shorted out. ‘Cause, what had happened, he’d suffered a stroke. I dialed 9-1-1.
Is that what’s goin’ on? Did I have a stroke or an embolism or aneurysm or whatever the hell?
Or, had Chantal done something to me? But…why?
Is someone coming to my aid, get me outa this…mess? Who’s got my six here? Wherever here is. Waiting in this dark place. Waiting, ‘til nothin’ matters anymore.
Please, God. If you’re really there. If you’re listening. 9-1-1, I need your help…
The big ado:
Well, I asked her. And she said…wait for it...: Yes! So, damn, baby. Just like that, I’m off the market.
No way. Never, in a million years, would I have believed it. If someone had told me where this was headed, what I was about to do, even a month ago, I would have laughed in their face. Yet, here I am.
Part of me wants to run away, fast as I can. Part of me knows I cannot and never will. Part of me can’t wait for what is coming. No clue which part is the strongest. Pretty sure I know which will win out.
Am I ready?
Does it matter?
Chantal wants a small ceremony. Okay, we both do, actually. For me, it’s easy. There isn’t anyone I care to invite. Not really. Chantal, of course, insists that her closest friends attend.
Maybe, after this, I can be part of their “coven” too?
She has everything planned: We will tie the knot at daybreak, in a park to the southeast, gathered within something called a fairy ring (a group of redwood trees growing in a circle, ‘round the stump of an old-growth mother that died many moons ago). The sacrament to be officiated by one of her cadre, a Wicca priestess.
I had learned that her inner circle actually are practicing Wiccans. Are Wiccans the same as Witches?
After, we will move the party northward, to a local restaurant for the reception—Di Luccia’s, the place where we first met. Sweet.
Later, we will retire to a secluded campsite in another park, further to the northwest, far from prying eyes, where we will all spend the weekend—dancing and singing ‘round a bonfire, communing with goddess and making wild naked love ‘neath the starry zodiac.
No, I get it. But, I don’t know. If it were up to me, I would probably just fly to Vegas: Justice of the peace; buffet, some drinks, a little gambling, more drinks; then off to a honeymoon suite for the consummation. Well, you know what they always say: When in Rome…
Wonder if the coven, all the inner circle girlfriends, intend to have a group sex thing? Maybe with me as communion…
continued to part 2...
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