Friday, February 22, 2013

Black Box Chapter 7

This is the last chapter I'm going to publish on the blog. If you've enjoyed what you've read so far, there is more to come--I'm publishing Black Box in one form or another. Visit here for any further info.

Chapter Seven
I tried to take Gordy’s initial advice and ignore the dream. I tried to rationalize it as simply a particularly vivid nightmare, albeit one that flashed its surreal scenes in my mind whenever I closed my eyelids. Sometimes dreams stick with you, I told myself, although I knew from experience that they almost always vanished from memory as soon as I awakened. But then the next night the dream happened again, only it was different. I had the same sensation of melting into the earth, but there was no apple and no orchard. The landscape around me was charred and burnt, and the sky was a sickly grey, and thunder reverberated in the distance as ash and carbonized particles wafted through the air. No life was visible in the immediate surroundings or on the horizon. Nothing crawled in my innards, no moles or annelids or roots. There was death above, below, and all around. What I saw contradicted what the voice had said about mankind being unable to destroy the planet. Maybe the voice didn’t know what would happen. Maybe it said things and made promises and sent people on random destructive quests for its own sick amusement. But the wasteland started to change in response to my thoughts. Pink phallic tentacles began to poke through the layers of carbon, jutting up like fungi out of the decay. Something that resembled a cluster of thorns rolled through the dust like a tumbleweed, leaving a black trail in its wake. In the sky a bat-like creature appeared and swooped down after the ball of thorns, its translucent wings full of veins and crawling pests. It hovered before its prey and then shot out a gummy prehensile tongue that webbed itself around the thorn ball that it sucked into its tubular, protruding orifice. Lower toward the ground it sank, weighed down by its meal, the outline of which I could see writhing within its gut. Yet before it could achieve further lift, the tentacles had stretched into the sky and wrapped themselves around the bat-thing, dragging it down into the multitudinous layers of ash.
            I woke up drenched in sweat with my sheets sticking to me. Inside my apartment the atmosphere was tropical, and every unabated breath was laborious and heavy. The AC must have cut out in the night. I threw back the sheets and flipped on a light and walked to my kitchen naked to pour myself a drink.
            Sipping my unplanned nightcap, I examined the air conditioner in the living room and found it beeping stupidly. Something was wrong with it; the filter was clogged or the compressor had burned out, and I lacked the cognizance at the moment to determine what exactly the problem was. I opened a window and found the nighttime air to be sufficiently cool. Crickets were chirping; frogs bellowed from a nearby pond. Life was out there, thriving. An owl hooted from a hidden roost, and I welcomed the noise. YETI would bring about the apocalypse; all the things out there, singing their simple songs, would vanish along with us. They’d perish in the nuclear winter and the subsequent collapse of the botanical system. All because of a computer game. I couldn’t believe it.
            The ice in my glass had melted in less than a minute. I sat in front of the window and drank my watery bourbon. Why was Rodrico not having these dreams? YETI was his project and everyone else in the company knew nothing about it. It was his scheme and the governments’. Did Congressman Stevens sleep poorly? Was his rest interrupted with macabre visions of the future?
            I decided I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night for fear of enduring another nightmare. The clock said three a.m., but I figured Art would be willing to talk to his boss and friend even if I interrupted his sleep.
            When I arrived at his apartment I saw a light on in the window, so I felt better about knocking. I hadn’t even thought about waking Maria. She was the one who answered the door.
            “Louie,” she said softly. She was wearing nothing but a shirt that stretched down to her knees. Obviously not one of Art’s shirts. He was a small man.
            “Hey,” I said, trying to put on my best smile. “I’m sorry about the late hour. Is Art home?”
            “No, he’s not. He’s visiting his brother Dwight in Cincinnati.”
            I tried not to stare at her bare legs and failed. Rather than fetishising a particular body part, I’d always been more of a big picture guy when it came to admiring the female figure, but Maria’s long, smooth, curvy legs made me reconsider.
            “What uh, are you doing right now?” I asked. “Do you want to talk?”
            She looked at me with those emerald eyes. “Someone’s over here right now. But he can go.”
            He? I wondered. A big guy with a shaved head and a goatee emerged behind her. He was shirtless and his bare torso was covered in tribal tattoos. I recognized him as a patron of the Angry Bear. One of the two-time dealers who dealt in the back alley. She’s been fucking a local?
            “Bryce, put a shirt on and leave,” she said in a flat, dry tone. Bryce gave me an empty look and turned. On his back were long, deep cuts as though a tiger had clawed him. Those aren’t love scratches, I thought. What was going on here?
            Bryce, now clad in a flannel shirt (Maria kept on his undershirt), pushed his way past us and paused at the door. He started to bend down to kiss Maria, but her hand shot out and grabbed his chin and then he was against the wall with a loud thud.
            “Get out and don’t come back here again,” she told him. I watched as he stumbled down the stairs drunkenly.
            “All right. Come in.”
            Inside I noticed a familiar musky smell. My nostrils quivered with its strength, but I didn’t find it repulsive. Pheromones were in the air, messing with my insides. I felt a tingling in my pants that I ignored. Long had I lusted after this woman, but the strangeness of this environment coupled with the knowledge of her previous visitor made me wary.
            “So who was that?” I said as casually as I could.
            “It’s none of your business. It’s not what you think, anyway.” I was sitting on a chair and she was across from me on the sofa, her naked legs curled up beneath her. Between us was a coffee table and on it I noticed a single drop of blood.
            “You’re right. It’s none of my business, and I don’t really know what to think. I just need somebody to talk to.”
            “About what?”
            “I can’t sleep anymore. I have a reoccurring nightmare. But it’s more than that. It’s…do you have anything to drink?” My words weren’t forthcoming.
            “You can get us some wine in the kitchen,” she said. “Pour me a small glass of Shiraz.”
            On the white linoleum of the kitchen I saw traces of a scuffle. Rubber marks and a broken dish and a knife emerging from beneath a table. I picked it up and examined it. A little bit of blood on its tip. Had she cut him with it? No, those wounds were wide and jagged, the product of curved talons, not a utensil made for slicing. I glanced into the darkened hallway that pulsed with unknown menace. The bedroom was back there, where horrors lurked. I washed two glass cups in the sink and poured the wine.
            Warily, I placed Maria’s glass on the coffee table and returned to my chair. She took it and sniffed the rim and then drained it quickly. I sipped my own glass slowly, my peripheral vision searching for clues as to what exactly had taken place.
            “Privacy is a vanishing luxury, Louie,” said Maria after a long silence. “I don’t think we realize how fast it’s disappearing. In the past if you couldn’t get a hold of somebody, you accepted it. You didn’t drive to their house or call their phone or email them on the Internet. People let relationships die instead of prolonging them indefinitely. We desperately want to be constantly connected to people; we want to know what they’re doing and what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. But we don’t want to get too close. We don’t have to keep up physical conversations. We don’t know how to converse without checking our mobile devices every goddamn minute. We’ve lost the ability to have liaisons. There are cameras in the walls. The TV is watching me instead of the other way around. I won’t touch the computer or your games.”
“There’s an exchange made when you live in society. A social contract. Hobbesian law.”
“It’s not Big Brother who’s doing it, Louie, although you’d know more about that than I would. It’s us. The common folk. The poor, the living, the moderately well-to-do. We're the distracted ones. I await the return of older forms of existence.”
I took a bigger sip of my wine. “I guess this is sort of related to what I wanted to talk to Art about. I keep dreaming of a wasteland full of monsters that seem impossible. Animals with thorns for skin and prehensile tongues.”
            “So…the first time I had this dream, I spoke to God.”
            “And he gave me quest to find a piece of him on Earth.”
            “A ‘piece’ of him?”
            “I suppose that means a person. The human manifestation of God.”
            “Why do you need to find a piece of God?”
            “I’m supposed to make a case for humanity so that the world won’t end prematurely.”
            “I’m glad you were picked rather than Art. He’s become misanthropic of late.” She got up and walked over to a closet. She opened its door and gestured like Vanna White. Inside were shelves filled with canned food and liquor. Cases of bottled water were stacked in the corner with ammo boxes resting on top of them. A shotgun was propped up against wall.
            I got up and joined Maria for a closer inspection. There were cans of soup, spaghetti, ravioli, beans, peaches, corn. A few jars of peppers, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. A cardboard cylinder containing various types of seeds to start a garden. There were tools in here too; spades and hoes and a rather nasty looking machete. I’d never seen Art touch natural dirt. I’d never seen him dig his hands into the earth.
            “Come look at this,” said Maria. I let her get ahead of me as she sauntered to the kitchen, her hips swaying back and forth like a pendulum. She paused by the refrigerator and I almost came up behind her to seize her in my arms. But then she swung the freezer door open with a violent movement, just missing my head, and I got the impression that she’d known of my desire and had responded accordingly.
            The freezer was filled to the brim with oblong pieces of white-packaged meat. I studied this meat with Maria, lingering a short distance behind her, trying to pay sufficient attention to whatever she was trying to show me. Yes, Art was a little crazy; I knew that. Was she trying to justify her cheating by giving me evidence of his instability? It wasn’t necessary. The man had a storage closet at work filled with survivalist provisions. He drank constantly. He’d been known to carry concealed weapons.
            “That’s a lot of meat,” I said.
            She turned to face me. Her hair was a frizzy mess. Her cheekbones looked swollen. I couldn’t see much of her beneath the enormous shirt. But I was immensely aroused standing in close proximity to this woman. There’s something in the air, I thought, and just then she was jumping on me, was throwing her arms around my neck and wrapping her legs around my waist. I kissed her and felt electricity in her tongue, actual live sparks; then I was clawing underneath her shirt, running my hands along her smooth sides, sliding them up her lower back while we staggered backward, eventually toppling over the back of the couch and onto the floor. I was pinned by her; she was on top and kissing me fiercely, her thin arms pushing my own limbs down with unnatural strength.
            “Wait,” I gasped, in-between her lunges. “Let’s just stop this for a minute.”
            In response, Maria thrust her pelvis into my own, and I instinctively reciprocated with my own thrusts, and then her left hand started to unzip my pants.
            “No,” I pleaded as she pulled my jeans off. I couldn’t cheat with her on Art; if she wanted me, she’d have to leave him. “Maria, I’m serious, we’re not doing this.” I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed hard. She was off of me for a second, but then her eyes narrowed and she was on top of me again and I couldn’t move. She’s going to rape me, I thought, wondering where the power in her thin body came from. Feeling her strength and looking at her nails, I realized she’d made the deep gouges in Bryce’s back with her hands.
            “All right, Louie,” she said, suddenly leaping off of me. I backed away from her on my hands and knees. “If you want to deny yourself what you really want, then go ahead.”
            “You can’t be with me while you’re with Art,” I said, using the wall to stand. Something was tremulous inside me, vibrating back and forth like a guitar string. “And how are you so strong?”
            “Maybe you just need to work out,” she said, disappearing into the hallway. She came out dressed in jeans and a shirt that fit her. “I can’t leave Art. Not without killing him.”
            “I’ve seen how you two talk to one another. It’s a dying relationship. The breakup needs to happen eventually. You’ll both be happier.”
            “Are you sure you want me? There’s a lot you don’t understand.” She sat down on the couch. “There’s a lot I can’t tell you. You’d just have to find out for yourself.”
            There’s no intellectual way to approach desire, I thought, watching her from a safe distance as she lounged with her legs spread out, her bare feet sending disturbing signals to the wrong parts of my brain. You simply have to have someone, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
            “You should leave, Louie. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with anything.” Her voice carried not so subtle overtones.
            “Just think about what I’ve said.”
            “There’s no thinking about it,” she said quickly. “I’m not killing anyone.”
            “It wouldn’t kill him. I know Art. Have a good night.”
            I drove the old Grand AM around the outskirts of Hillsdale for a couple of hours. I took it out on 272, a nauseating road that coils around the hills like a python, because it was a very rural ride and also because I felt like making myself sick. The forest alongside me looked surreal in my headlights, and I kept expecting to see something monstrous looming out from behind a patch of foliage or a tree. There was something bizarre about Maria, I finally admitted. Her uncanny strength, her comments about killing Art, the cuts on Bryce’s back... all these facts should have affected my desire, yet I found myself extremely regretful that I hadn’t allowed her advances to progress. Before me the road curved and curved, and my stomach curled with every turn of the steering wheel, and I’d just about had enough of 272 when an object darted across the road; in my exhausted state, I swerved into it rather than away from it, and then my brakes were squealing and something was sliding up onto the hood, and my nose was filled with the repugnant odor of wet baby shit and an airbag slammed into my face, and then it all went dark in one jarring frame.

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