Noah’s apartment isn’t bad at all.
Situated on the edge of a vibrant neighborhood within the Montrose district of Houston, it is, at the very least, prime people-watching real estate. In addition to being the current and historical center of Houston’s LGBTQ community, Montrose runs rampant with general human diversity: artists, artisans, musicians, spoken-word poet-baristas, cool thirty-something couples who together run small niche businesses, corporate dicks, various species of freak, aging punks, wizened hippies, burnouts, addicts, god-damned hipsters, homeless unfortunates, aggressively stalwart homeless, white people, black people, Vietnamese Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iraqi Jews, Hispanics, East Indians, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, and indeterminate millennial mutts all call Montrose home.
Montrose’s food mirrors its kaleidoscopic population, making every restaurant an embassy and every dish a cultural ambassador on a mission of peace from far-off lands. After twenty-five years of patronage, Noah has practically earned dual citizenship within the Central American borders of Chapultepec on Richmond Avenue. He has an adventurous palate, but here he always keeps it simple: one A-bomb sized queso chicken burrito, one side of chips and pico, one Coke in a glass bottle.
Bars in Montrose are open late. Chapultepec is twenty-four hours.
In and of itself, Noah’s apartment is nothing special: a single bedroom, a narrowly rectangular kitchen, and one bathroom with tub, toilet, and sink all nearly touching. The highlight of the place is the floor-to-ceiling windows that take up two-thirds of one living room wall and bring the outside in, making the apartment feel twice its true size.
The apartment is in a complex with a courtyard that is gated, but not in an exclusive, monogrammed way. See, neighborhoods populated by unique and interesting people come complete with unique and interesting activities, not all of them strictly legal or particularly welcome. It’s safe enough, though, and Noah has always embraced its unpredictable weirdness – thrived on it really, believing the more he opened himself up to his community, the more he let it in, the safer he would feel.
He has embraced this truth for decades. His friends and life are here.
It’s late Sunday morning. Noah is alone and enjoying a slow mug of coffee on the patio of a cafe called Brazil. The patio is canopied by limber trees, and the exterior brick is latticed and crawling with fragrant jasmine. Flowery perfume melds with Noah’s coffee in a way he enjoys not understanding.
It’s a sleepy day: cool but humid, with late afternoon thundershowers still far off. Mockingbirds are singing their pilfered songs. If he lets it, the arrhythmic jostling of cars banging into potholes down Dunlavy Street will overtake his caffeine dose and lull him into hazy pre-sleep. Weekend moments like these transcend the grind and stink of Houston and help romanticize a city not always willing to live up to Noah’s idyllic, Montrose-hued perspective.
Taken as a whole, Houston is a hungry sprawl of imminent gentrification threatening to feed upon any area that has managed to maintain some semblance of identity.
Both Montrose and Noah are relics. Hell, Noah owns and operates a store – Round Sound Records – that sells music on vinyl, exclusively. No, records never really left us. But the future of music they ain’t, most would agree. Noah, respectfully, would not.
As he nurses his coffee, Noah sees a man standing across the street, just under the stop sign that marks the intersection of Dunlavy and Westheimer Road. Dunlavy is narrow, and Brazil’s patio opens right out onto it, so the man is only thirty or so feet away. Nothing overtly strange about him, save for the fact that he seems to have not been there a moment ago, and now is.
It’s entirely possible Noah just didn’t notice him walk up, but from where he’s sitting, he has several blocks of unobstructed view, and so should have seen this guy coming, right?
The man’s stance is tense. Rigid even. His knees are locked straight, practically hyperextended, and his feet are held tightly together. Hands hang at his sides in balled fists, and he is staring into the middle distance, focusing on something unseen by all but him.
Noah is staring at the man, can’t take his eyes off him, but also can’t seem to bring him fully into focus. A white delivery van rumbles into view and stops at the intersection, splitting the distance between them. Noah blinks, and when the van drives on, the man is gone. Noah leans into his table, rattling it, craning his neck to search up and down the streets. Yes, the man is gone, and Noah has spilled his drink. A fat fly buzzes his ear, makes him flinch, and lands on the table, skirting around the coastline of his coffee.
Noah finishes the last few sips of his refill (strong French roast, lots of cream), pulls his overweight, average-height frame out of his chair, and starts the short walk home. He’s let himself go over the past ten years, not that he’s fat, but he is carrying around twenty extra pounds and looks it. Feels it, too. His knees and back hurt. Stairs are an affront. As he walks, the man under the sign floats through his thoughts. Where did he go? Where had he come from? Was Noah even sure it was a man he’d seen?
It hits him just how few details he’s actually captured. But why does he care? Just a guy on a street corner. Surprising how much brain space is being usurped by this stranger.
Noah reaches his apartment building, unlocks the exterior gate, steps in and closes it behind him. In the quiet of the courtyard, a virulent and shitty song takes up residence in his head.
Where did ya come from? Where did ya go? Where did ya come from, cotton-eyed Joe?
Tonight, a local band Round Sound promotes by being the only place in town to carry their records is playing at the Metro. Noah will be there to show his support. They’re good kids, the members of Run Rabbit. Young, hungry, hard-working. They’ve hit the Houston, Austin, and San Antonio clubs relentlessly and repeatedly, trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be relevant. They have Noah’s respect, which is a big deal to some around here. Anyway, they’re a band he’s happy to get behind.
Walking up to the Metro at 10 PM, he foregoes the line (meh, seven people), says “hey” to Bobby working the door and enters the small club without paying. Decent crowd; maybe fifty people. The opening band’s still on, and they are…doing their best. Noah straddles a stool at the end of the bar farthest from the stage, orders a Shiner, takes a pull, and swivels in his seat toward the crowd to see if his friends have shown up yet.
Yeah, there’s Adam, a high school chemistry teacher, catching up with Valerie over the noise of the crowd and the band. Val’s had her own independent music store on South Shepard for a year longer than Noah’s had his on Richmond. Everyone wonders how, after all this time, the two of them haven’t hooked up, to which Noah has offered, “Who says we haven’t?” To which Valerie then clarifies, “We haven’t.”
Noah spots Mitchell and Claudia (married) in the crowd enjoying a night off from the kids, though they’ll beg off before the show’s over because little Toby’s been sick. Nick’s here, sans wife Julia, who stayed home because crowds get to her. And just walking in now is Mikey, with his new, uncomfortably-young girlfriend in tow. Ashlynn’s of age but, damn, Mikey (Mikey’s like Matthew McConaughey in that movie. Don’t make me quote it).
And that’s the gang, such as it is.
There are friends noticeably absent. You know, people change and all that. People move on or move away. Sometimes friends get pissed and drunk-punch each other, which the next morning they’re shocked and embarrassed to have done. But they just can’t seem to find the humility to set things right again, so they fade away instead.
Some friends end up sad casualties, like Jay, Noah’s best friend from high school who barely made it into the new millennium before overdosing and dying. He just wasn’t done with the ’90s yet.
Hell, sometimes people just get old and tired and fat and their favorite black T-shirt stops fitting and that’s it. Everyone understands. Everyone gets it. And your friends miss you, and they all wonder if they’re next.
Noah surrenders a quick wave hello to the friends he’s accidentally made eye contact with. For some reason, he’s in a sit-alone-at-the-bar-and-be-cool mood and hopes that’s precisely the vibe he’s giving off. His friends feel it, and for the time being, they leave him be, even though he’s the one who dragged them out to the show. He briefly surveys the rest of the crowd before bellying, literally, back up to the bar.
Everyone’s so fresh and bouncy, which makes Noah happy, actually. He’s no grumpy been-there-done-that scenester. Well, he is, but still it’s nice to see kids dancing at shows again, instead of just nodding their big dumb intellectual heads along to intellectual post-rock rhythms. Noah’s, and most of his friend’s, dancing days are over though, and that makes them stick out a bit.
Yeah, maybe they are too old to glom onto a scene filled with kids who could be their kids, but the truth is, without them, there would be no scene. There would be no right now happening right now. They are, in fact, the architects of the scene. They are the ones who chased down bands and begged them to come to town when there was no scene to speak of. They did the promoting. They hand-drew the flyers and posted them everywhere. They were the shitty opening bands! They let the headliners sleep on their cold couches and drink up all their warm beer. They did the drugs, drank the cheap well-whiskey, lived the life, put in the miles, did the leg-work, and built themselves a god damned scene. Their scene! This scene.
Noah and his paunchy, saggy-assed friends are not just the Old Guard. They’re the Fucking Originals.
Paper Chain shows mercy and wraps up their set. Run Rabbit gets their gear in gear and up to the front of the stage, which is just a twenty-by-fifteen black wooden riser that elevates the band a few feet above the crowd. Modest, but when you’re up there, it’s more than enough to make you feel like a rock demigod. And oh, how the blood does rush.
The Metro is nearing capacity now as people make their well-planned arrivals just in time to see only the local headliner. A shrewd, somewhat dick-ish move, but not uncommon. And a compliment, really. Noah’s happy for the band; it’s a nice turn-out. They’ll make a little money, and they’ll try to give some of it to him as thanks, even though they can’t afford to. He’ll shake his head and turn his palms up at them and refuse, for now.
“Just don’t forget to square it before you’ve hit your bloated, full-orchestra, gold Lame, exotic pets in the topiary garden, cocaine pool-party phase, okay? After that, ya’ll might not quite have the wherewithal to put together the – what was it? – twenty-two dollars from your cut of the door tonight that you are so sweetly – really! – offering up to me now. Please. Don’t forget.”
They’ll get it and laugh and at least buy him a drink, which Noah will accept.
Noah looks up from the lacquered bar top, and his second beer, into the large mirror which hangs behind tiered shelves of liquor bottles in various stages of empty. The mirror’s surface is almost completely obscured – who knows why it’s even there – but in the top right corner, he sees a section of the crowd. Reflected within that section of the crowd is a blur, like a thumbprint on greasy glasses. A fly skitters across the image.
Noah squints and ice-water pours down his spine.
The man from the street is there, behind him, in the crowd, wreathed in close-cropped, fuzzy-white luminescence. Run Rabbit tears into its first song and Noah rips around in his seat too fast, nearly spinning out of it, and sees that, no, it’s not quite right to say the man is in the crowd, just one of the many dancing concert-goers. He looks inserted. Green-screened and slotted into the live video feed of this moment. No one seems to notice. Kids in the crowd slide by him like rapids around a river rock, if that river rock were two dimensional and paper-thin.
Noah stands. The glow around the man dims, or are his eyes adjusting? He can see the man is holding the same pose as under the stop sign on Dunlavy Street, rigid as a seizure.
Now the whole image dims, fading rapidly until the man is entirely gone, only to flare back into existence not five feet from Noah, who recoils, stumbles, falls, and bangs the hell out of his head on the bar. He stays down.
The man appears more solid somehow, more three dimensional, though translucent and now… now shimmering from within with the winking sparks of ten thousand cadmium-blue stars.
He breaks his pose and reaches down for Noah, who sees his face, then only black.
“Well, hey there, sunshine.”
Valerie is lying next to Noah in his bed, which is quite confusing because he has no idea how either of them got there. She’s on top of the sheets; he is beneath them, and very groggy. His mouth tastes like electricity and cat shit, and his tongue is a beat slow, making his words slur.
“What the hell happened?” He’s unnerved to hear the imprecision of his voice, and the anxious quaver within it. Val answers him lightly, not yet picking up on it.
“If you’re asking did we have ill-advised, friendship-altering sex last night, the answer is…”
“No. I’m not, Val,” Noah snaps at her then snaps the thin white sheet off his legs and stands up at the bedside. He’s still wearing last night’s jeans and thrift store thin button-down shirt. The room goes a little off-axis and he reaches for the back of his head, remembering how hard he cracked it on the bar, and finds an impressive lump that’s sore to the touch, but no blood.
“What did he do to me, goddammit? Where is he? Did anyone stop him?”
Urgency bordering on anger punctuates his tone, and his hands are working hard in the air. Val stands and joins him on his side of the bed, sliding a concerned hand behind his upper arm, steadying him. She pins his eyes with hers.
“Okay, slow down. Who, Noah? What guy? “
“Val, the bright blue guy! Are you fucking with me right now? The bright blue glowing guy who appeared completely out of nowhere and then came at me?”
Saying it out loud, it sounds stupid, but he knows it’s the truth. Val lets slip an incredulous little laugh that comes off as dismissive but is only meant to mask a twinge of concern.
“Noah, honey, your old ass had a few too many last night, and you got sloppy, fell down and banged your head. That’s it. Adam, Mikey and I got you up and out to my car. Then, I drove you home and stayed to make sure you were okay, which I thought you were, but now I don’t know with this ‘blue guy’ shit. Maybe you hit your head harder than we all thought.”
Noah knows there’s no point in trying to convince her. He knows he only had two beers. Clearly, no one saw the man but him, so he shuts up about it and lets Val worry over him for a little while, getting him situated back in bed with an ice pack, a glass of water, a book and a few graphic novels piled up beside him. He can’t deny he’s enjoying the attention. She’s always been beautiful, with her eyes and her hair hanging over them, and they’ve lived parallel lives for a long time.
“Rest, my friend. Oh, and change that ratty shirt next time you get up. Holes aren’t cool, man. Throw it out. You’re an adult.” Val smiles and leaves his bedroom, telling him to feel better over her shoulder as she exits the apartment.
The moment she’s gone Noah is twisting and pulling at his shirt trying to find whatever hole Val was talking about. He’s remembered something: the man – this glowing blue man – didn’t just reach out for him, did he. No. And just as Noah thinks it, his fingers find a small burn hole lost in the busy plaid pattern of his shirt sleeve, right where contact must have been made before he blacked out.
Noah rolls up his sleeve and finds, in the middle of his hairy forearm, a blackened spot of superficially burned skin ringed in new-skin pink and singed follicles. It is irregular in shape, like an attempt at drawing a circle free-hand while riding the crosstown bus, two inches in diameter.
It doesn’t hurt, and it itches like it’s healing, so he explores the raised edge of it with a fingertip until his nail accidentally catches and easily pops off the burnt black scab, revealing blacker empty space underneath. To be clear: not just a hole; not a pit or an indentation; not a rotting-flesh crater like the ruin caused by a brown recluse. Empty space. A void, the apparent depth of which far exceeds the girth of Noah’s arm. He slowly rolls the arm over with trepidation, expecting that the hollow goes fully through, but it does not.
Okay. It’s a trick of the light. It’s an optical illusion. He’s not seeing what he’s seeing.
Fucking skin cancer, that’s what this is.
The spot’s odd geometry does suggest it, but no, too pedestrian. He knows that. Change is coming, though, isn’t it? He knows that, too. Rabid, unchecked, fundamental.
A coup of mutation.
Round Sound Records – Noah owned and operated – is, like Brazil, within reasonable walking distance of Noah’s apartment. As is much of Montrose, depending on your interpretation of the highly subjective exertion-to-destination payoff ratio. A mile and a half to Chapultapec? Get your Chucks on. The same distance to the dentist or to Luby’s, the cafetorium where decrepit early-birds go to chew gingerly upon “famous” square fish tonged out of steam-damp pans recessed beneath greasy sneeze-guards? Hello, friend-with-a-car.
Or maybe just skip it, right?
Noah’s walking range, once expansive and elastic, has dwindled as his waistband, too, has become expansive and elastic. He prowls closer to home now, an aging jaguar lunging at easy prey. Maybe he checks out a new band or meets up with Mikey for drinks and trivia at The Cat’s Canary then splits a large stanky whore (Late Night Pizza, extra garlic, extra onions, anchovies, gorgonzola).
Whatever the destination, he will traverse sidestreets lined with gorgeous arcades of live oak and magnolia to get there. Great-tailed grackles will rattle their unpleasant calls at him. He’ll trip on a bit of sidewalk uplifted by juggernaut tree roots, even though he’s managed to avoid that exact spot countless times in the past. A 1996 Toyota Corolla with a sunbaked hood and an Obama ’09 bumper sticker will be parked on the street in front of a BMW with the same sticker.
All of it familiar. All of it comforting in its predictability.
All of it ephemera.
Of course, it is. Nothing lasts, and that’s okay, but for so long Montrose has felt immune to impermanence. Or at least prone to equilibrium, and Noah has had a role in maintaining it. He’s too modest to admit it, but he and Round Sound Records are significant variables in the equilibrium equation. As are Val and the rest of his small enclave of friends.
Something is happening, though. Something that’s tipping the balance between new and old, and before he knows it the Fiesta grocery store on West Alabama – the one that plays the Stones over the loudspeaker – is gone. So is that one laundromat on Hawthorne, and the taco joint with the weird marinated vegetables on the table, and the Omni, and the Sweet Relief Candy Co., and the this and the that, and so on… Replaced by what?
Scouts. Omnivorous pioneer species laying down roots where roots already exist. Harbingers of a twisted succession of facade and simulacra that are clean and white with their names haloed in hypnotic cadmium-blue, like indiscriminate zapping bug lights.
Noah sits at the foot of his bed watching a fly twitch and shuffle around the emptiness in his arm, tasting him with its feet. He hasn’t tried to touch it, the emptiness, since he picked the scab. He’s afraid to. What if the black is as vacant and deep as it seems and there’s nothing to touch? What if the vacant deep is beyond cold, like space, like nothing he’s known?
The fly is curious. It’s edging closer to the black now, and its foot is on the precipice. It stops to self-consciously groom compound eyes with bristly forelegs, then buzzes its wings once and scoots over the burnt lip of Noah’s skin. Noah is rapt, anticipating something wonderous or horrible. The fly flips upside down as it rounds the lip, crawls along the insideof Noah’s arm, and disappears into the darkness.
Sweat beads instantly and simultaneously all over Noah’s body.
His chest is pumping hard. His eyes are on fire. He hasn’t blinked since the fly landed on him, and tears streak his cheeks. Still, he can see a pinhole of light peek into existence deep inside the portal of his arm, its source either very small or very far away, the latter of which makes zero sense.
Damn it, Val. Why did you leave? You said it yourself: I’m not well. I hit my head hard, and I’m not okay!
This single light does not grow, but splinters and splits, and clones itself a dozen times. Together the lights are very bright and it’s getting hard to distinguish between them within the tight space of a small aperture, especially now that the clones themselves have been cloned.
A thread of blue emerges around the lot of them, and they are truly one and brighter for it.
From the center of the blaze, more blue light. Its spherical core pulses then expands, elongating and tunneling away from Noah, leaving a pipeline, a segmented passageway of receding blue rings that beckons to him in throbbing, peristaltic waves.
All this within his arm.
He’s fiercely drawn to it. He is not afraid.
He has to see where the passageway leads, has to look more closely, and so throws his forearm over both eyes, covering his face like he’s about to wipe away hard-earned sweat. Noah aligns the burnt aperture with his right eye, pushes his forehead flush against his arm, then opens the eye as wide as he can. There is a moment of panic when the aperture contracts and locks tightly around the eye’s orbit. It’s uncomfortable, but doesn’t hurt and Noah quickly settles, his focus returning to the path of rings, which now appears to be disintegrating at its distant end.
The passage is unraveling.
Each frayed end feathers away and the passage becomes hundreds of distinct electricity-blue strands that are at first tubular, then flatten out before Noah’s wide eye.
They remain separate, but their color is changing. There are colors now. Each blue strand is mottled and streaked in absracts of gray, brown, green, and white.
They are roads.
Every street in Montrose, in fact, freed from the context of “city”, straightened and laid out in even lines that lead away from Noah and stretch far to the left and right of his vision’s periphery. The colors resolve into shapes, then recognizable objects: trees, houses, strips of asphalt, cars. He sees it all.
He sees that each colorful street terminates in a haze of shade and shadow and that each shadow moves like living darkness, like hungry demons, hunched and waiting for the end of everything. In the middle of it all, on Montrose Boulevard itself, underneath the jagged skeleton boughs of a leafless dogwood tree, stands the man from the Metro, glowing like a blue devil.
Noah had forgotten he’d seen his face, but it’s clear to him now.
You’re a smug bastard, aren’t you, Noah thinks. But it echoes out through the disarticulated streets like he’d sung into a microphone.
“I just know what comes next,” responds the man, who lifts his hand and tightens his fingers to snap them.
“Wait! Not yet.”
The man pauses, hand still in position.
“Why did you bring me here instead of just talking to me when I saw you? Why show me all of this if it can’t be stopped?”
“I didn’t bring you anywhere, and what is it you think you’ve been shown, Noah?”
Noah goes cold at the sound of the man speaking his name and shudders as he’s struck by the implications of his answer.
“The death of Montrose.”
The knowing smile of the man glowing blue turns genuine.
“Yes, but I never said you couldn’t stop it.”
His eyes soften as he completes the snap of his fingers. There’s a spark then a shift and Noah is home.
Okay, you’re okay. Catch your breath. Close your eyes. Calm down, calm down. Breathe, idiot! Slow down and breathe. Slow down slow down slow down. Get a grip, man. Open your eyes.
His first move is to confirm the existence of the hole in his arm, unsure of whether he wants to find that it’s real or that it isn’t. It’s gone. In its place is a scar – more like a brand – in the shape of an asymmetrical circle, and radiating out from it are thready, branching tendrils of broken vessels that give the impression of a brittle sea star, and of damage. It’s real.
Damn it. Now what?
He closes his eyes again and attempts to empty his mind, to concentrate, reflect, process events and information. He paces his thoughts, slowing them through deeper, meditative breathing, and in so doing is gifted a moment of clarity: he stinks. He really smells. Apparently, having brief but aggravatingly vague, existential conversations with blue men inside the hallucinogenic mystery realm accessible only through an impossible portal in your own arm is sweaty business.
A shower, then. Figure things out after.
Clean, but no closer to understanding what’s happened or what to do next, Noah decides he needs his friends. They’ll meet at Rudyard’s and he will tell them everything over the course of multiple beers. The first round will be on him to show he’s serious and will be accompanied by whiskey to soften them up for the introduction of the truth. He’s going to need a susceptible, pliable audience with its defenses down if he wants to convince them that without their help, Montrose will be consumed by shadow.
Adam, Mikey, Mitchell, Claudia, Nick, Julia, Valerie; he’ll need them all and they’ll need each other, so he makes his calls.
When Val answers, Noah finds that he’s filled with matter-of-fact-confidence and so says things he wishes he’d spit out a long time ago. There’s no dramatic admission of long-harbored secret love, no revelation of creepy worship from afar (perhaps from behind a bush), nor an impassioned plea to finally, after all this time, be together. Noah just tells her what he’s always felt: She’s great and well, he just needed her to know that. Val says “yes” to Rudyard’s, among other things that have Noah smiling.
The scar on Noah’s arm itches, burns almost, and there’s an odd buzzing on the line. Noah asks if Val hears it too, but she’s already hung up.
Not everyone agrees to meet so readily. Mitchell and Claudia don’t get why Noah has to wait until everyone is at Rudyard’s to tell them what’s going on, but when he acquiesces and gives them the broad strokes, they become worried enough about his mental health to pay extra for a sitter at the last second. Mikey’s already got plans with Ashlynn, so Noah, already regretting it, suggests she come along. Mikey agrees but warns he doesn’t want “a bunch of geriatric hipsters scaring her off with stories about how great things used to be way-the-fuck back when.” She will get scared off, but that won’t be why.
Everyone else is an easy “yes.”
Now, Noah stands motionless inside his unopened front door with the doorknob in hand. He’s ready to step out; he’s not scared. He has no idea what to do, but he’s ready to do it with the help of his friends or alone if he has to. And though he doesn’t know the true form, or even the name, of what he’s up against, he knows its nature. He knows what it feeds on, and from what it draws strength: the soul of Montrose. He just has to be stronger to protect the exposed belly of his home, and Noah trusts that he will be.
That’s not why he’s stuck to the front door like a glitching avatar.
The scar on his forearm is gone.
The fleshy, veined knot that was the only artifact from his inexplicable experience with the blue man, the only thing resembling proof of the truth, has become an unremarkable, slightly discolored circle buried in hair, and it won’t convince anyone of anything. And it itches like a bastard. God, it itches so intensely now that Noah hallucinates the word “ITCHY” scrawled across his arm in inflamed histamine-pink neon letters, and he does not just want to scratch it. That won’t be enough. He wants to rip and rip at the flesh with his insufficient nails until he opens up long trenches of roughly tattered meat to make the itching stop. His hand forms a claw and is set to dig in when he’s sidetracked by another instance of buzzing, like on the phone with Val. It’s close but stifled like an alarm clock under bedcovers.
He lets go of the doorknob and lifts his arm to eye-level, and the buzzing gets louder. Noah shakes it, disbelieving, and the buzzing grows agitated, and he sees something new. Something that intensifies the itch while simultaneously distracting him from it completely.
On his forearm, in the center of the faded scar-circle, are two hairs thicker, blacker and more course than those around them. They’re the only hairs inside the circle. What has caught Noah’s fascination and horror is that they are moving. Struggling, it seems to him. Flexing and bending, swiveling aimlessly. They can do so because they are jointed. They’re legs.
A thin spot, a tiny patch of translucent skin evolves between the two scrabbling legs and red, bulbous eyes press up against it, peering out. Peering at Noah. The eyes pull back again, leaving hundreds of slight, near-microscopic hexagonal impressions, and giving the thing room to puke a sharp splash of acid against the inside of Noah’s skin. The barrier rapidly dissolves away, and a fat fly shoves its foreign body out through the corroded opening. It rests on the surface of his arm then flits open its wings, damp as afterbirth. The fly –the fly that earlier went spelunking inside Noah’s emptiness and disappeared – cleans its wings and the rest of itself anxiously, fastidiously as if disgusted to have “Noah” on it instead of the other way around.
Before he can think to swat at it, the insect leaps from him and buzzes straight into the door, bouncing off repeatedly, making little sizzling sounds as its wings whir hyperactively against the surface, until Noah gets the picture, opens the door a crack, and lets the persistent thing out.
Blue light knifes in.
Blue light floods everything.
Inside the courtyard of Noah’s complex, and looking out through the gate at the houses, the trees, the streets, the people: They are not the source of the light. They are not aglow, but awash. It’s the horizon, or what’s just beyond, that’s blanketing Montrose in ominous, oppressive monochrome. And Noah is the only one who knows it.
The fly returns, bobbing up before him. It isn’t blue, but hairy-black like it should be. Noah holds out his hands and they, too, are not blue. They’re his hands as they’ve always been, as is the rest of him. The not-blue fly approaches Noah in a way that is not like a fly, in that it seems to carefully consider him, to observe and evaluate his body-language before beginning to speak. But insect mouths and throats aren’t built for words, so the fly makes a cautious landing on Noah’s clammy forehead – he resists the impulse to crush it – and two words become real in Noah’s mind.
The fly lifts off and hovers in front of Noah, somehow projecting impatience, as if saying: Yeah, your friends! We gotta move, man!
“My friends!” We can stop this. It’s not too late.
The fly rockets off and Noah follows as best he can. He can’t keep up, but he most certainly knows the way to Rudyard’s, where he and his friends will know just what to do to save Montrose from the shadows of cadmium-blue. When their heads collect in one room it will all become clear, right?
As he runs, wheezing regretfully at not having paced himself instead of taking off like an Irish setter, the soul of Montrose trembles and begins to visibly drain away.
The storefront artwork at Scorpion Tattoo bleeds into the street and runnels down gutters leaving behind clean, clean glass.
The Ripcord is a bank.
Chapultapec an empty lot.
Brazil’s jasmine blooms swell and rupture, bleeding bird-shit white down the rufous brick wall. The patio is overflow parking for BraZilla’s Massive Churrasco across the street.
The Warwick is the Zaza Hotel is a medical records storage facility that un-melts out of red clay soil like an upended Dali.
Enormous canvases of Cy Twombly’s studies in mark-making unravel and are replaced with perfect fabrications of those same works.
The Rothko Chapel is the Rothko Chapel Experience.
All the best food is just fucked.
Round Sound Records. Noah runs harder.
Shadows of cadmium-blue pulse and glow and consume and zap zap indiscriminately, laying waste.
Montrose is dying.
The fly has turned back and finds Noah panting but soldiering on one block from Rudyard’s and its stout, oak front door. It slashes back and forth in front of his face, buzzing desperately, trying to halt his progress. Noah waves it away and tries to continue on, but the fly dive-bombs him, slamming its sick little body into Noah’s eyelashes, his lips, his nostrils. It drills itself into his ear, sending Noah spinning in circles and slapping at his head. The fly wriggles out, and Noah stops spinning, though the world does not.
His finger is jammed in his ear. He’s nauseous and disoriented and he’s had more than enough of this bizarre unprovoked attack – I’ve got to get to my friends, goddamit! –when the fly full-speed kamikazes into his forehead, but doesn’t have time to transmit a word before Noah’s addled mind involuntarily sends a signal to his exhausted hand, screaming at it to swing hard. Protect. Eliminate the foreign body. Crush the fly. So he does.
The parts of the fly’s body that are not smeared on his forehead and hand tumble weightlessly to the ground and Noah is overcome with grief. He sobs into his palms.
For a fly, yes.
For the speed of death once a decision is made. For the bent and beautiful Montrose he loves and knows now he cannot save. For himself, whom he thought he could. But the tears pooling in his hands and dripping from between his fingers are blue, and they fall through the blue air and land on the blue street. Noah lifts his blue eyes inside their blue orbits up toward the emptiness of the dead black sky, and when he lowers them again, they settle on the blue shadows of his friends.
Adam, Claudia, Mitchell, Mikey, Julia, Nick, even Ashlynn who’s not scared off, after all. They’ve gathered in a casual knot of mindless conversation in front of Rudyard’s, bathed in the glare of its shining door. In the center of the happy scrum is the man who used to be the only one glowing. He turns his head from the chatter and his corrosive eyes fall on Noah, their bottomlessness so apparent now. One by one, all of their heads turn, all their empty blue eyes find Noah as they file inside the bar, and the man smiles his bug light smile.
Zap zap, Noah.
“Noah! Noah, here!”
She was the last of Noah’s friends to arrive at Rudyard’s, and before they could spot her she spotted them out front, clustered around a strange man. Alternating currents of guilt and fear bolted through her stomach, but what told her to stay away was that they and everything else around her was poison-dart- frog-blue and she was not. A clear warning in the new jungle.
And now she’s crouched five feet off the ground hiding in the armpit of a living tree, more beautiful than Noah has ever seen her, still bright in the colors of the Valerie who has always been. She scrapes down the tree’s trunk, drawing brilliant red blood from her bare legs, and grabs Noah’s hand. It’s blue like the rest of him now. Val doesn’t ask why.
They say nothing, every thought in their eyes; so afraid, so sad and displaced, and hopelessly lost.
But found in the end, at the end with Montrose burning azure all around them, by cancerous shadows that grow and grow and eat and glow.
Val tugs at Noah, but his grip has gone slack and her hand slips free as his falls away.
He steps away.
“No! You tell me what is going on now, Noah. You can’t just leave me standing on the outside of this insane nightmare. Why is everything blue!” She yells at him to stifle the terrorized scream in her throat.
Blue tears roll up Noah’s cheeks and dry as he cries them.
“I tried to stop him.” His voice is a thousand miles away. His chin is buried. He’s barely there. “I thought I could, but…”
“But what, Noah? Stop who? What is going on!” She shakes him hard by the shoulders, then beats a fist against his chest when he barely reacts. “Goddammit, talk to me!” Val panics and slaps him and he takes it. If she’s hurt him, she can’t tell. He’s dead-eyed.
“There are demons in every shadow, Val.”
“I don’t understand! Please, Noah…”
“There are demons in every shadow, but they’re not his.”
She’s too scared by the insanity of the statement to speak. Noah has nothing more to say, so he turns his back on her and ambles unhurried into the deep glowing husk of his cadmium-blue home (which really is quite beautiful, you’ll see). Val stares helplessly after him as he disappears, blue on blue.
She hangs her head.
Then she runs.
She runs away from Noah, from Montrose, from this unrecognizable museum of loss that was her home. She runs until the cadmium glow fades to azure, which fades to cornflower, to baby blue, to sky blue, to a shade nearly clear, nearly familiar, that reveals the starry black of a night not yet hung with shadow.
And yet, even here there is a man who was not, but now is.
Gregory Clouse is a middle school science teacher living in Issaquah, WA. From his window, he can see Tiger Mountain and it can see him.