by John K. Webb
We had originally come out of Orange County, California, out of the sun-drenched west coast--Duvall, Lestrange, Moriarty, and myself--but presently found ourselves floundering on some black stretch of beach on what must have been the east coast, limp bodied and gasping; thrust into abrupt consciousness, into a void of freezing bitter sand, of an airless night sky blanketed by clouds thick as wool. My first thought: DEATH, scrolling by in bold-lettered black headline. It had rained earlier. I could smell it coming off the earth: the stifled humidity of an August blazer after a midday summer storm. But now it was cold. Duvall and Lestrange and Moriarty were little shivering silhouettes against the black sand. No one moved; we hadn't the oxygen. And resonating deep and all-encompassing: ocean surf drumming over the shoreline, rolls of thunder, a most poetic white noise. My mind was wiped fresh, like an ancient cassette tape that'd been rewound and erased and recorded over again and again in a tortuous cycle, its neural pathways a jumble of frayed wires, dead connectors, obsolescence that lead nowhere. Aimless neurons hammered into gray matter, sub-atomic nails of adrenaline and sudden wakefulness that twitched fingers, jerked limbs, fluttered eyelids.
I remember thinking that the pickup had petered out somewhere in the Carolinas, possibly Virginia. Drove here. I was trying to think, to put the dead ends together. No good, short-circuiting myself. I was trying to think but could only conjure up the image of a revolving scroll that read: DEATH...PICKUP...DEATH...PICKUP...
As we laid perfectly inert on the beach the tide began creeping over our bodies--a slow, icy burial--and when we felt its frozen pull groping our waists, the sand vanishing beneath us, sweeping us away, when we finally realized the same inscrutable forces that had deposited us onto this eastern beach like so many bits of trash were threatening to steal us back we--
Well really it was Duvall who realized this and Duvall who dragged us all up shore, where we crawled against an embankment of what felt like concrete and slept a dreamless sleep.
I felt the tremors of Lestrange's shivering echo through my body. Sensing her so cold hurt worse than being cold. Lestrange's body smelled the way a nickel tastes. And Duvall and Moriarty: I felt them too, hunched on the other side of Lestrange, felt them on the esoteric level of fellow Substance junkies. Sympathized. Lestrange's skin against mine felt moist, embryonic, and I discovered--was surprised in my short-circuited state that we were wet.
I stared, mesmerized, at the spot between Lestrange's shoulder and the clayish sand. I was aware of nothing but the exact pocket of space we occupied, and the everywhere white noise thunder like a radio tuned to nothing. Amidst this feverish twilight of withdrawal came an idea, fully formed and seemingly old, an old idea, came screaming up from the surgical-white blankness that had been my mind, and I remember it being a strange idea: we hadn't actually come out of Orange County. But the frayed, useless mess of a brain of mine collapsed in on itself, folded into the blankness, and with it, this idea and everything else fell into dissolution.
And in the morning--which wasn't so much a true dawn of a morning as it was a gradual resolution into monochrome non-color--Duvall stirred us out of our slow-motion stupor and said, “We are going home, to California. Everything's going to be alright.”
In the days following our washing ashore, Duvall (while Lestrange and Moriarty and myself were still too addled by Substance-withdrawal and sick and coming down to think straight) took stock of our circumstances and formulated a plan, for all his wherewithal. We had no wallets, it occurred. No forms of identification of any kind, no working phone, and no way to contact home otherwise. We had fifty dollars which lasted us the week. We were hungry now.
And Duvall's plan was this:
The 7-11 manager had his head exploded out against the back wall of cigarettes and condoms, splattered blood and pinkish brain tissue and reddened bits of skull like pulled teeth blossoming at the shotgun's yield over the neat rows of Marlboros, Camels, American Spirit, Newports, Pall Mall, Cool, not to mention those furtive packets of Magnums, Trojans, etc., blossoming over these things to stay and steam, a macabre patch of little red flowers on a hot day.
The cashier, a young and small and-of-course Indian looking girl stood rooted over her former employer's now cooling body. Her face held a stony, unreadable expression, her eyes faraway, transported to another place.
Duvall wasn't threatening her, not really. What was the point? The shotgun had discharged, all white flash and complex solid sound into Sarah's father's welcoming face. Broke the stagnant night. The violence had been done; the threat of violence was now superfluous. Lestrange and I were cowering together somewhere in the junk food aisle. Moriarty was outside, watching out for lights of the blue and white variety.
"Open the drawer or safe and deposit the money into a plastic bag, please." The shotgun was aimed at some Lagrangian point between person and register. Duvall was, like, coaxing the money out of her.
Sarah knelt down below the counter without a word. Heavy keys were pressed, a squeaky hinge. She resurfaced after a moment with handfuls of banded stacks of twenties and fifties, eyes faraway again.
Duvall was bagging the money himself--the shotgun (which he'd found in the otherwise empty pickup) he placed on the counter, again the threat of violence being now a moot point (which had been the point)--when Moriarty blundered in, panic-stricken, shouting Police!, Police!
The City at 4:00 AM is a great sleeping animal digesting us within itself, the hulking metal whale at rest. Sprinting short-breathed along its meandering intestinal tract of empty roads, oppressed by the gaseous cloud of useless red-yellow-green lights, we hear fragments of: the autonomous sounds of its nervous system, like the circadian echo of crosswalk signals, the pathos of bits of music wafting down from lightless bedrooms, car alarm somewhere, sirens behind us, and always always coming out of the false dawn of the City's horizon the electric hum of--something--like a distant reveille or call-to-arms. A sleeping creature that's simply too large to comprehend. High-pitched, lustful sounds around the corners of parking lots. All objects emptied of the life people breathe into them, during the day.
And somehow I feel as though I own it, own all of it, I the last dangerous person on Earth.
We ran and ran through the steel-ribbed whale. Ran through alleys frozen in their inert darkness and entropic claustrophobia. We jumped fences, ignited porch lights, set dogs barking. The best way to describe Duvall run was: post-human. We stumbled through a pot-holed construction site and its menagerie of naked machinery, and I remember thinking that they and we had been bred, created, were kin.
We were running, forgot how to breathe, and we kept running until the sirens faded into the anonymity of City sounds. We found ourselves running into the false horizon, where indeed came a steady and faraway electric buzz that heralded something incommunicable to us. This was the first of many such events: ten, a hundred, a thousand--who knew? A thousand dead fathers, a thousand stranded daughters. Once when we walked by an electronics store I saw our blurred faces on the news. They were calling us the four horsemen, but whose end, really, were we working toward?
We survived withdrawal. We broke our addiction to Substance. But in its place settled an eerie familiarity, an uncomfortable closeness, something that could only be described ultimately as nostalgia. The sensation hovered over our heads, and as we traveled from City to City, Place to Place, it grew claws and teeth, forced us to wonder how many times we've done this, when we would wake up on the beach again. Idle thoughts, idle times. It had a dreamlike quality; like being stuck in a daydream, precisely.
We entrusted Moriarty with the money. We made pacts and swear-to-God promises to abstain from the Substance. Moriarty was, of course, the first to break his pact and by proxy broke us as well; though we in our hidden fear took Moriarty's breaking as providence, as the supernatural connivance of the universe's powers to tempt us with Substance--how could we battle that, how was it our fault? It's remarkable how close the word salivation is to the word salvation.
We're in the (read: a; one of many) City, squatting in a glass-encrusted place: an abandoned tobacco factory, it seems, from the sign outside. Rush of traffic below on the interstate whispers shush, shush, shush, on a loop of sonic tape. A sea-gull-sounding whine of a bird whips my mind into paranoia. I've been transported, tricked, deceived, deposited onto that beach again and panicking--but no, the red orchid flower in the needle dropper catches fire against the wide industrial window filled with the sun that's finally dawned, a window pocketed by unsettling asymmetrical holes and spidery cracks (why the dive is glass-encrusted) that frighten me the way hexes of beehives frighten me. The long, absorbed, lecherous looks at Lestrange. The lived fever dream that is a Substance kick. Moriarty says solemnly after what seems like years of silence and for no reason that every question about God boils down to the same paradoxical conundrum: Could God ever create a stone He couldn't lift? and that theologically the answer is no, considering the moving cup and what the-moving-of-it implies.
We're in the (read: a; one of many) City again, but different, a variant--the exact Place is incidental. Only the Substance matters, its cool harmonics distilled down to a precise and unforgiving Algebra: how much?, how long?
Duvall--our protector, our Virgil--Duvall leads us from abandoned Place to abandoned Place. It's as if he has a radar for lifeless things and owns them. We all trust Duvall implicitly, and follow him west.
We live as heroes of a perverse children's book, in the rotten boxcars of the world.
I wake up in new Places all the time. Always this vague feeling of having just woken, of activation. Clings to my senses, like a film of fogged plastic I can't quite scratch off. Everything is muted, yet everything is fresh again. Experienced anew, for the first time, as a child experiences things: mysterious and grand but incomprehensible, ever-changing against the warped fun-house-glass of imagination and the relative limitations of perception. I feel as though I exclusively and only truly exist in the transitions between these new (NEW?) Places and within the sobering knowledge that the last Place I awoke to is impossibly far away and irretrievably lost to me, having been digested by each Place in turn, been corroded, shed of parts, losing my parts to them, obliterated and dully ejected. The City is an animal, digesting me. I am infection. The Transition is self-repair, a reconstitution of myself, fueled by the hope that the next Place will be different, accepting. But in the end, I know it's just not in my wiring to belong. I hunt and gather, a primitive. I adapt.
Presently I wake beneath the collapsed perforated ceiling of a warehouse that looks coincidentally like a great metal shoe, from the outside. It stinks of rain-rot. It is rat-infested and riddled with splotchy colonies of mold, malignantly bubbling black red and brown colonies so ingrained and solid I think they're holding up the walls of this civil war remnant; as if the building itself is, to some extent, something biological yet not quite alive.
I've taken watch on the third night because on the first night Moriarty awoke screaming to a fat oily rat gnawing on his face and on the second night Lestrange began hallucinating due to her trying to Kick the Habit and withdrawing something ugly and tried stabbing a phantom of her father with a long, jagged shard of glass, and poor lovely Lestrange was so hysterical Duvall had to administer a dose of Substance just to keep her from gutting herself, on the glass, and there was so much blood running from Lestrange's hands that Duvall had to get us all new clothes the next day, and so really this is why I've taken watch on the third night: to keep at bay those oily eaters of eyes, to stave off the phantoms of Habit Kicking, to plant little red gardens of orchids in the droppers of needles. Another strange idea screams up from the abyss but doesn't vanish this time, just hangs there unanswered in my mind like an open phone line: Yes, I've been here before.
Duvall wakes and says: "Allow me to tell you what you already know: we're not going to California, we're going nowhere." And then Duvall rolls over and sleeps again, or pretends to. It's one of those things you can't quite be sure you heard, once it's quiet.
Duvall was leading us back home, to California, or to whatever approximation of home we would find there. We did not, could not doubt this. When we staggered broke and Substance-sick into Texas--the official midpoint of our journey--Duvall's lifeless-objects-radar pointed us true as a divining rod to a semi abandoned trailer park (palatial compared to the warehouse), a place off-limits due to nuclear weapons testing where its ghostly holdouts glided in and out between scorched panels and seemed to us to glow a sickly, radiant green. Moriarty, his left eye now scarred and crudely bandaged, thought it hilarious to whistle a bomb dropping.
On more than one occasion Duvall had pulled me aside, away from Lestrange and Moriarty, and told me something important and said: "But you can choose to forget this. You can enter your memory banks, edit the data, erase whole terabytes if you want. Or you can let the Substance choose for you."
And I suppose I did.
The Texan Separatists began their protesting in the City while Moriarty and Lestrange and myself were waiting for Duvall to score. We were shivering on the cold concrete stoop of an apartment complex when they appeared; they gathered and congealed liquidly on the streets like a swarm of hornets when their nest is disturbed. On signs bobbing nautically over the masses written in red were phrases like: 'Secede and Succeed!' and 'This Ain't My Union!' and 'Don't Tread On Us!' etc. Commercial slogans for dissatisfaction. The Separatists marched in the thousands. The January air grew noticeably warmer, from the bodies. I felt drawn to them, a certain primal magnetism.
I reflected quite neutrally and without guilt that I and Duvall and Lestrange and Moriarty, that we four were now and had always been simple creatures, machines responding only to the input of rudimentary stimuli. What is light and dark, sound and soundlessness, and all the subtle shades / frequencies that exist in-between, but basic sensory data, objective phenomena independent of our existence? The Substance severs everything meaningful from the stuff of life: sadness, joy, libido. I can see the sky is blue but the fact of its blueness fails to elicit any kind of response beyond numb recognition, its yawning arc over the City transmitting no ancient messages of yearning or tragedy: it simply arcs, and is blue, and is there. Gazing in passive wonderment at the Separatists's gathering I reflected on myself: blind, deaf, unfeeling, a sick animal trapped in the organs of another animal, the Substance. It didn't matter; irrelevant.
I felt cold, so I hugged myself and slid shoulder-to-shoulder with Lestrange. Input: Output. We were broke and hungry and more importantly beginning to withdrawal but Duvall told us--promised us he could score from someone up in the hive of apartments. Duvall told us to stay downstairs. He had taken the shotgun.
My skin burns. I feel it spreading to each successive layer, down to the hair follicles, aching for _____. Can't quite remember the technical name for Substance, some polysyllabic Latin-named creation out of a government lab that had fallen into the wrong hands (or the right hands, depending on one's particular disposition towards Substance). The name escapes, but the apparatuses of its deliverance are as familiar as muscle memory, their usage ingrained into motor-reflex, the only solid thing to stay solid, transition after transition, snug and secure in jacket pocket or tarnished backpack, staying solid in the midst of a shifting world, immune to it--like a fireproof lockbox, except one filled with death. Protecting death. Coveting death to later siphon it into our respective blood streams, the red orchids blooming as almost like an allergic reaction, life in reverse. If only I had the _____! I stroke the length of the needle hidden in my jacket pocket: its coolness is comforting. Lestrange was starting to see phantoms again. Her father gliding amongst the Separatist crowd, staring creepily. Moriarty says that we are all haunted by our fathers, one way or another. I was doing my best to keep Lestrange calm and lucid. Smell of fungus and squeak of rats.
The Texan Separatists were crowding us, congealing in fact, solidifying it seemed to me into one sweating, chanting, shouting organism. It appeared then very clear to me, in plain supine data: we three up against the walls of something immeasurably larger than us. And so we reacted the way any animal of reaction and circumstance would react: we joined them, were gladly swallowed up. Shouting, chanting things that were nonsense to us, to me. Of course, I had no opinion on or even awareness of whatever issue the Separatists were protesting. As badly as I wanted a Home I couldn't comprehend or empathize with the wanting of one, of preferring one Place over the next Place. Relating this to Moriarty, he remarks that this seems like an odd bit of cognitive dissonance, but has no advice on the subject, for all his vague shamanistic musings.
I fantasized about what Duvall was doing up in the apartment maze, to take my mind off the burning. A real busy bee, buzzing from room to room. This brooding post-human asking pretty college girls untouched by the sapping of Substance (which it does to your whole body, saps the health, the fat, all color) if he could score. And in this morbid fantasy the doors are shut one-by-one, or go unanswered entirely, or maybe the peephole is darkened for a moment by an eye before a muffled voice tells Duvall: "Not interested." The Organism was closing in, squeezing our throats shut. I couldn't breathe.
But as we drifted deeper into the cellular creature of Separatists, the people looking at us seriously the way people looked seriously at sick animals, my fantasy took a brighter turn: there was Duvall, at the last door of the last floor--room 777--looking as if the slow burn of Substance withdrawal was just beginning to settle into his body (I could see it in those gray eyes, the coming torment, as distant train lights), standing stoic and refined under the weight of our collective need. His knocking measured, equally stoic--very European, I thought. And not only does the door open, it swings open, swings right off the hinges into an invisible space and disappears without a sound. And not only is he greeted by the occupants, he's welcomed with hugs and handshakes and tears, the long lost friend, the prodigal son. And Yes, of course you can score! Look around, we're growing the ______ on the carpet and walls! Take as much or as little as you need. Like Halloween. In this world, we'll live forever.
My skin felt like it was schlepping off, melting to fall on the ground and hiss there. I worried I was making a mess of the ground with my skin. But it was only sweat. Lestrange kept catching stares from her father and was becoming increasingly difficult to calm. I was still having trouble breathing. Moriarty was shouting slogans with glee. Anyway soon Duvall would return with bags and bags of the ______, and then I'd inject that soothing Substance directly into my brain stem and soak in its milky coolness, never to feel pain again (I imagine this as an unbelievably pure waterfall streaming over my naked machine body).
I was smiling dumbly when we reached what must have been the Organism's nucleus, squeezed there through invisible veins by pressures unknown, and was that Duvall sneering at me with what seemed to be disgust, or just a phantom?
Yes, Duvall would score. He promised us. Then what was the problem? How could I have doubted him? There was nothing to fear.
Moriarty tapped me firmly and said, pointing, Look hey there's the military.
In my daydreaming I had failed to notice: helicopters (those big black birds) whirling in from the north, sound like whump whump whump, snipers taking positions on the rooftops, the walls of the Organism inching forward and straining against lines of riot-geared police officers and SWAT teams, trying to assimilate them into itself as it did us. The truckloads of National Guard members and I guess Army soldiers surrounding--it, us, the thing we were now apart of, something--arraying themselves around the Organism's amorphous membranes.
And wandering Lestrange, hunting the phantom of her father.
I followed her for a time, but she was always just a step ahead, only barely just out of reach.
I realized shots had been fired only after I noticed the Organism's membranes curiously dissolving around us: the Texan Separatists running, taking cover, firing their own weapons, their fire-cracker sounds half-lost amidst the crowd's cumulative screams and shudders like a sacrificial cow suddenly stricken. The big black helicopters were hovering overhead and shooting people in fantastic straight lines of automated machine gun fire. Bodies were simply: exploding. There was a comic amount of blood. Canisters of tear gas clanged tinnily into clumps of people and ignited in their faces, choking white smog concealing the advancing police in their gas masks. The police in their gas masks toted batons and pistols, turned faces into meat. The Substance withdrawal was reaching its apex in me. I was caught in its slow motion twilight, and the burning--consumed by fire. Not even the coolness of the needle against my fingertips brought me comfort. So when I saw Duvall emerge from the apartment complex soaked in blood, saw him run towards me across the field of the dead and dying and fighting, shotgun dangling from beneath his jacket like a spare appendage, and when I saw the slow lethal arc of a helicopter's slowly very terribly slowly rotating gun barrel explode the earth and saw Duvall--and I saw Moriarty now, too--saw both Duvall and Moriarty caught by this exploding arc and their bodies gradually liquefy into machine bits and circuitry, saw them bleed electric blue plasma--the Texan Separatists and the soldiers bled blood and Duvall was covered in blood, which was distinctly red, I knew, but Duvall and Moriarty did not (bleed red blood)--when I saw all of this happening I: smiled. Everything was going dark, falling into dissolution. The curtain was coming down.
I smiled because the world was changing before me, being swept away, in the midst of a transition to something and somewhere else.
I smiled for the sad slow pirouette of the people as they were caught in a hail of bullets, because it seemed funny that anything so slow should be so terrifying.
I smiled even as I saw Lestrange's shoulder blown open by a stray bullet fired from a Separatist's gun, her steel plated skin ripped away (a delicate rippling effect) to reveal the innards of a naked machine: frayed wires, ends that lead nowhere, obsolete parts from the junk drawer.
I smiled in spite of everything, because all around me sprouting from the blood flowing through the City dark and sweet as wine, were rows and rows of little red orchids. They grew and covered everything:
Covered the bodies of young rebels.
Covered the meaningless just-so January sky.
Covered the faces of marching soldiers.
Covered my vision, grew over my eyes, an entire sweeping mirage of a world made of flowers, as if someone had peeled back before me a new reality.
I awoke after the twilight to the rhythmic, even intake of Lestrange's breathing, and a whirring electric sound I couldn't quite locate. What was it? I thought: it's her clockwork heart. We were somewhere; it didn't matter. The instant upon waking I thought I heard the dead radio noise of ocean surf, but as the air and darkness resolved around our heads I concluded it was just the heaving City outside, it's inscrutable hum. Lestrange was lying next to me, sleeping a normal sleep. The light seemed to have a thickness to it, a material--it was night again but the City's aura was seeping through a window above us, vibrant and buzzing. I reached out and touched her arm. Lestrange whimpered and rolled over lazily to face me. She looked: healthy. Unhaunted. Lestrange's eyes as she looked into mine were bright, wide, neon disks.
I kept thinking of Duvall: We're not going to California.
You can choose to forget this.
Lestrange was looking at me expectantly. Her shoulder wound had healed well (I thought: remarkably, supernaturally well) over the course of the long twilight night. I smiled at her.
It was lovely, felt sweet, numbed me: I was choosing to forget.
I never saw Lestrange's shoulder blown open to reveal wires and metal, frayed and warped. Moriarty had not been dissolved by machine gun fire into useless parts and plasma, and Duvall--
I was Duvall, had always been Duvall, was never anyone else. (That Duvall had been a different person, a separate entity, I choose also to forget).
It had been the Substance. A bad withdrawal trip. The phantoms of Habit Kicking. Happens all the time: a glitch, a malfunction, a tic that never goes away. I was confused. After all my skin had been falling off, at the time...
"You got scratched up," I whispered, running my fingers over the scar that had been a horrific wound--in some other time, in another place. Far away and lost: for once I was glad of this.
Moriarty--where was he? But I knew somehow that he had gone his separate way and wouldn't return.
I found that there was a certain romance in willful ignorance. It tasted like a bittersweet root, a panacea for every kind of pain. This idea struck me as strange, oddly inappropriate.
Lestrange was still looking at me, staring with those big wide bright discs for eyes, placid as a dead thing, but not dead; no, I felt a spark in that machine body, a warmth, a new-found vitality, something replenished, filled up. It just hadn't reached the eyes yet. The eyes were still haunted, I thought. What had they seen?
I said to Lestrange, because I had to say something (how could I let the moment pass into silence? The most important task had yet to be done), "We are going home, to California. Everything's going to be alright."
I kissed her then: to believe there was a home, a place to belong to, the will to transition, a solid purchase: this was that spark.
And to whatever else we must remain ignorant, echoed a voice that was and wasn't mine.
There was no home. Everything would not be alright.