The cashier has a terrible haircut, curly and huge. Horshack on meth. He scratches his neck and pushes the paper bag across the counter. I drag the bag and the bottle of whiskey inside off the counter and out of the store. That side of my body hangs a little closer to the floor, just one more albatross I don’t even notice.
A cab stops at the curb. A fat ghost laughing out an open window. The smell of old food wafting. A hand slaps at the door and more laughter. I think I’ll walk.
Home is in front of me in less time than it should take. My mind is wandering or worse. The parking lot is full of huge boats of cars, long steel bodies made old and mean the way a car is supposed to be. It’s afternoon. The sky is black. A curly-haired teenager in a skintight t-shirt leans into the open window of the smallest car in the lot. His belt is lined with bullets but he hates people who own guns. I don’t know if this is ironic or stupid. He hands a tiny baggy to a silhouette in the car. Heroin and Tylenol. Cash disappears into the hip pocket of jeans too tight to be comfortable. He walks away nervously. The out-of-place car drives away.
Two skinny kids kick a soccer ball between parked monoliths. The ball is a checked black and orange. The color of Halloween. I turn to the kid who doesn’t look away as I pass.
“What month is it?”
He doesn’t grab the ball as it rolls under a Dodge built a lifetime ago.
“Dónde está su alma?”
He turns away as the other child crawls under the car to get the ball, tiny bird legs sticking out between worn and muddy tires. One hand in my pocket as I walk away.
The office. A bulletproof window is unlatched and open. The little room inside is bereft of the stationary figures who belong to it. A gray radio sits by a dead plant on a plastic shelf, words coming out but the volume is too low to be anything but distant hints at voice. I lean through the open window but there’s no one hiding inside, cowering in a corner awaiting the end. The room is just a room.
The foyer between two buildings takes me by an unplugged coke machine. A sweaty man plugs quarters into the machine in those brief moments when he isn’t shaking. He looks at me and mouths something. I walk on without giving him any quarters.
My apartment is locked. I put my key in the lock and turn. Nothing. I take the key out and put it back in. Nothing. Thick shades are drawn. The room is dark on the other side. I lean against the glass, look through cracks too small to matter. A fan turns inside. I see nothing else.
“You stealin’ somethin’?”
The sweaty man stands next to me with hands shoved into the pockets of his khaki pants all the way to forearms stained with tattoos of a tic-tac-toe game. X won.
He looks me over like he’s wondering if he can take me. Like a slab of something edible. The edge of a narrow pink tongue sticks out at the corner of his mouth as one eye squints.
“Guy in there hasn’t been around for a couple days.”
I look back at the crack in the shades. The fan twirls in lazy spins with no real place to go.
“What did you say?”
The other eye squints with the first one. His arms push deeper into his pockets. He says nothing.
“I need to get in there.”
“Get a key.”
Silence. Hands moving in pockets and sweat and nothing.
“Doesn’t work. Lock’s broken. Where’s the manager?”
My foot connects with my door and the thin layer of wood snaps. This isn’t the first time I’ve kicked in a door. This isn’t the first time someone’s kicked in this door.
The light is out and there is a void in front of me. I can hear the fan turning but I can no longer see the turning blades. The sweaty man is saying something but he is already so far away.
I step into the darkness.
There are whispers of voice in the darkest corners and from somewhere the smell of a haunted memory. I take one more step and there is nothing but the hollow black. A noise like shouting and the sound of breaking glass. The crisp slap of an alcohol stink. I can’t see myself in the black.
The sticky sound of melted rubber follows my footsteps with every lift of boot, that awful almost-ripping, like celery snapping in half. I lift one foot after the other and the sound is getting worse. By the time I find the light I won’t have any shoes, flesh bubbling and molten rubber oozing between scorched toes.
A light music plays on the air, something like chimes or less, far away and insignificant. The voice swells minutely and words roll out over and over.
“This is all there is.”
Over and over and I clench my jaw to find the voice is only me. The walls sweat in the dark and the stench of everything fills me with its insult. Rotten and still rotting. I squeeze fist in my pocket and squeeze my eyes shut against the darkness but it finds its way in. It always finds its way in.
The heat grabs me and shakes. I want to take off my coat but I don’t. Crippling fear to lose anything forever in this place. The darkness curves around corners I don’t see and I follow. The ground slants at a tilt and I feel myself slowly drifting down, in. I clench my jaw tighter.
The voice is no longer me.
Whispers of whispers, hairs tickling my cheeks and planting in my eardrums, a measure below tiny, hints at words brushing up against me in the dark.
Maybe fingers or maybe tree limbs, maybe the loose strings of a frayed curtain or maybe the precious breath of some wicked god touching but not grabbing, nothing more than wanting its presence to be known. As if I could know anything but. As if I could avoid that touch. As if there is anything else in this place but that. Its hint is a mallet smashing me flat, the lightning crack of its energy standing all my hair on edge.
There is nothing in this world but that god.
All eyes are upon that god.
And here I am. In the darkness of that god.
The light at the end of the tunnel is no light at all. That suggestion of dirty glow is nothing more than an insult to light. Firelight in the vacuum of ever. Clarified in that glow are vast cracks and valleys in the ruined surface of everything. Floor and ceiling and wall and wall and the eventual void ahead, broken into pieces and waiting for me to follow. My voice is a stranger’s and the words are out. I cannot stop them.
“What is this place?”
From nowhere. From nothing. From in my head.
“You know this place.”
And the whispers are hushed. The thick plops of dripping sweat or worse are silenced. Even the plastic rip of my shoes stepping from the hot ground falls quiet. No sound can survive under the thud of that soundless voice. It says nothing more and still no sound comes back, fear alone enough to hold the world down.
A single hair plays along my essence and clutches my heart. A single whisper sings on in a heartbreaking tone somewhere in the dark. I swallow the lump in my throat and I’m running, at first away from the dark and from the nothing and then not away but to, to that voice or to the glow that’s almost there and to something, anything at all.
I don’t fall down. I don’t trip and sprawl but I should. At the full-on sprint I should tumble and roll and rip open a hundred seeping wounds but I don’t. I stop and I’m standing. I’m standing still a long time. So long I wonder if that’s how it happens here. If maybe that’s all I can do. That standing.
The smell isn’t the distasteful stink of rot anymore. A pleasant lick of smell has come up to replace that offense. She’s sunken into rock ground and black oily gristle grows from the wall and onto her arms as they are wrapped around her knees. If she had on any clothes they’ve long since rotted away. Her flesh has turned to paper, her eyes lost and forgotten in the black holes of her skull. Her mouth is a frown and the pulsing muscle wall spreads its slick grip as I watch for eons. Only the sweet smell of fresh cut grass is still her own. Only the memory of that smell hasn’t been ruined by this place.
The whispers of the dark have become words.
And she’s saying…
“Please don’t leave me alone.”
And she’s saying…
“I don’t talk to God anymore.”
The light comes on. There is a paper bag by my foot dark where it has soaked through. A crunch of glass like ice when I step a foot on the bag. The smell of whiskey everywhere. A shaky man drenched in sweat is standing in the doorway of my apartment with a single dirty finger on a smudged light switch with one screw missing. His other hand is in his pocket and moving with the shakes. I hope it’s the shakes. He’s looking at me with something like sudden recognition.
“Hey wait, is this your place?”
Craig Rodgers has an extensive collection of literary rejections folded into the shape of cranes and spends most of his time writing in North Texas. His newest release is the novella The Ghost of Mile 43.