It was all coming to an end. With the asteroid only hours away, Gigi and Daryl let their legs dangle over the sides of the hammock as they watched the burnt orange of the last ever sunset that highlighted the beauty of their tanned, naked bodies.
“Welcome to the Food Network! Pitch us your show!”
“It’s called The Quantum Chef.”
“And what’s it about?”
“Preparing delicious scientific dishes that allow you to om-nom-nom your way into cyberspace, the astral plane or even alternate realities!”
The psychic rapport successfully bridged the gap between both men but as the telepath spotted a patch of sanity, he was attacked by his client’s psychosis. There would be no time to explore the malicious mindscape. This was going to have to be a snatch and run.
Aggie’s anger was a genetic thing, passed down from parents she never knew. It was a curse feared by the townsfolk for when her temper exploded it created a crater that scorched dirt, trees, and small animals for a hundred meters in every direction.
Maylene disobeyed her parents’ wishes and visited the “so-called” haunted house of Jaan DeCoumar, the soul cartographer, because she needed the assurance that her one true soul mate existed in a fixed position relative to hers just as the stars in the sky.
On December 30th, 2017, all of this changed. A Queens-bound J local train derailed between the Myrtle Avenue and Kosciuszko Street stations, at least it was listed as such. The train was traveling at five miles per hour and the track running between the stations was elevated above ground so a true derailment would have resulted in a jack-knifing of the train, sending cars toppling into buildings and the street below. Since the train had just departed Myrtle Avenue it hadn’t reached its average speed of thirty miles per hour, which probably saved the lives of the train crew, the one hundred and fifty-four passengers and pedestrians below. The truth was an event occurred within the fourth car from the front that caused it to cant several degrees, lifting one side of its wheels slightly off the track.
The incident happened roughly eleven thirty in the evening, in a car that suffered mechanical issues with the doors not responding to controls. Passengers were asked to move to one of the adjoining cars as the train crew locked down the faulty car, which was preferable to taking the entire train out of service. While the latter would have resulted in fewer injuries in hindsight, the action taken meant luckily there were no fatalities within the car in question.
According to eyewitness reports, as the train was leaving the station there was a slight rocking that might not have raised any alarm had it not been for a passenger, illegally standing outside the train between the fourth and fifth cars. He claimed he was not riding between cars to urinate, despite statements from other passengers that when the man rushed back into the fifth car, his fly was undone and his right pant leg was wet. The man yanked the emergency brake cord, yelling, “It’s a bomb! We’re gonna die!” At first, the other passengers were angered by the seeming lunatic but one of them looked through the windowed door into the fourth car and confirmed, “We gotta get out of here!” This statement caused a panic as passengers pushed and shoved one another to get through the door at the other end of the car. Fear spread like wildfire throughout the train as the fifth car passengers forced their way through car after car inciting their fellow passengers with speculations of another New York City terrorist attack. Eventually, the eighth and final car was jam-packed with passengers eager to escape, who took turns trying to smash out the windows and pry open the sliding doors. The Metropolitan Transit Authority crew tried to reassure them everything was under control but it was far too late by then.
The MTA acted quickly in cutting the power of both the downtown and uptown tracks and passengers were evacuated from the train station, some having to be rescued off the tracks when they had fallen between cars during the passenger stampede. Of the one hundred and fifty-four passengers all but seventeen were sent to the hospital with injuries sustained from the panic resulting after the activation of the emergency brakes.
Despite being told of the unlikelihood of the incident being a terrorist attack when the police and fire departments arrived it was investigated as such. From the outside, the only sign of distress to the fourth subway car was the bloating on one side that pushed against the station platform which caused it to cant. The initial thought was an improperly detonated explosive device. The inside of the car told a different story. On the side facing the platform, striations ran along its entire length, floor to ceiling. One investigator reported, “It was like looking at stretch marks on a pregnant belly from the inside out.” Another investigator thought the striations looked like watermarks, as if tides over the course of years had pushed against the car wall at decreasing levels. What the investigators did not find were signs of an explosive device, evidence of human tampering or vandalism, or even traces of unusual and/or toxic chemicals or gas.
The train was taken out of service and at the train yard, engineers were at a loss to explain the condition of the fourth car but one of the engineers knew a colleague who was a theoretical physicist who was more than happy to take a look and venture a supposition. And though the visiting expert was fascinated by his own findings, the MTA was less so. Somehow, a passage from his report was leaked online in which he wrote, “The investigator who said these striations looked like watermarks was closer than he realized, only these aren’t watermarks, they’re timemarks. I’m willing to wager that the metal between these linear marks are of a different age than the metal within the marks themselves.”
It did not take long for public opinion to link this new piece of evidence to the subway shroud, but now the theories shifted from it being a monster or alien to a time machine. The shroud now claimed responsibility for train delays, subway accidents, and even missing persons who were last spotted riding the rails.
And just as before, a new series of speculation threads, fan fiction stories and memes cropped up seemingly overnight. One clever NYU film student who beat everyone to the punch created a Doctor Who-inspired web series about a time-traveling subway rider with a quantum Metrocard, who encountered the likes of Agatha Christie, Leo Tolstoy, and Leji Matsumoto while solving train-based mysteries. Shortly after, The Hollywood Reporter ran an article about the filmmaker currently being in talks with Steven Spielberg to take the show to network.
To be continued…
“Is he still at it?” you ask and my reply is, “Damn skippy!” Welcome to Week 3 of my personal 2018 writing challenge to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive. This story is an experiment to write a stream of consciousness book with no outlineor plot in mind, just a year’s worth of whatever-pops-into-my-fragile-little-mind tweets without edits or the fancy flourishes that will come in the rewrite. I still have absolutely no idea who any of the characters are, or how many there will be, what the story will ultimately be about or how it will end, and that terrifies and thrills me at the same time. And you get to watch me either create something (hopefully coherent and good) from thin air or fall flat on my writerly face.
So, if you can spare a moment, I invite you to either cheer me on or tell me what a colossal mistake I’m making. I’m good either way.
Aida stood in the black slashes of shadow, watching him, ears full of the howling of her own rough breathing, as her mood turned in a slow circle, searching for a familiar sign that would lead her back to loving the man she married… who savagely murdered her.
She had braved love once and though it nearly destroyed her, she would do it again. This time, she would clean her heart properly, boiling away as much resentment and hate as she could manage and step unencumbered into a new relationship. That was the plan, anyway.
His breath came in frantic little gasps as he smelled the hot, sickly sweet, fragrant cloud of burning sulfur that singed the edges of his nostrils. Long white fingers spidered on his shoulders and a mouth with crowded sharp teeth kissed his neck. Mother was home.
It was the ninth week of the gender nonconforming strike in Rhode Island when the armed skirmishes began. After the Governor called in the National Guard, sexual orientation guerrilla battles escalated to the point where the state was officially declared a war zone.
He was born pug ugly and it only grew worse as he grew older. “Ya better get rich cause not even a blind girl’d wanna be with you!” his schoolmates teased. But they were wrong. He had eventually found someone, a sighted girl who only saw his heart through her own.
Telepathy was Annabelle’s internet porn. One peek at a stranger’s seemingly innocent thoughts led her down a delightful rabbit hole of dirty little secrets and it was all fun and games until she accidentally peeked into her aunt’s mind and found herself in bondage.
The negative backlash for B.U.L.L.’s pirate broadcast video in addition to the spam and flame wars for the initial subway video had filled YouTube to the point where a denial of service (DDoS) attack had been launched out of protest. The American video-sharing website suffered an outage in the United States and most of Europe and remained offline in excess of two hours. As a result, Google suspended the “Ya Can’t Unsee S#!t Like This” account but by then it was too late. The moment YouTubers received the error message: “500 Internal Server Error. Sorry, something went wrong. A team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation” the subway video began appearing on Vimeo, DailyMotion, Metacafe, flickr, and Veoh.
Then it multiplied. At first, it started popping up on accounts attempting to confirm or disprove the video’s authenticity, then it was examined by film students, video editors and special effects artists and then by bandwagon jumpers who wanted a spike in their account’s view count. In less than a month, the subway video had been analyzed and broken down as much or more so than the Zapruder film.
The attention paid to the video would have subsided and been forgotten, replaced by some new fad or other, if not for the other videos. New cell phone footage from various sources sprang up from subway riders who encountered what had come to be known as the shroud, the tall, almost column-like, objectless shadow that appeared and disappeared when it moved as if short-distance-teleportation was its mode of transportation.
Some speculated the shroud wasn’t teleporting at all, that it was a two-dimensional entity, having length and breadth but no depth, that rotated as it moved which gave it the appearance of momentarily vanishing. This theory was quickly dispatched when an eagle-eyed viewer noticed the trash on the subway cars, food wrappers, empty paper coffee cups and plastic water bottles, being pushed away from the shroud when it appeared and being drawn into the void left by the shroud’s absence.
The next big question tackled: Was the shroud a life form, a cosmic event or some supernatural occurrence such as an apparition?
Someone online pointed out for something to be considered organic it required traits shared with all the living things that exist on Earth. Of the six traits, the shroud only checked one box: Movement, but even that was a source of controversy as people debated whether teleportation of a stationary object counted as true ambulation. But was the shroud truly stationary? In the brief video clips, it never appeared to bend, wiggle, expand or contract. Perhaps there were slight movements imperceptible to the human eye or it moved at such a snail’s pace that it gained the ability to leap short distances faster than the eye could follow. The five remaining traits:
Living things being made up of cells
Organisms using energy and receiving energy from a source
Growth and development
The ability to reproduce and respond and adapt to their environment
could not be verified without a sample or test subject.
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, physicist Brian Cox, and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, as well as several other noted professionals, were invited to weigh in on the matter of whether the shroud was truly a cosmic event. Each, in their own way, expressed the notion to be unlikely as cosmic events better known as astronomical events typically occurred off-world and though the planet may experience the effects of certain events, none of the recent eclipses, comet encounters, close planetary pairings, or other celestial wonders could have been reasonably connected with the subway shadow. They would not comment on the notion of the shroud being some form of extraterrestrial communication without examining the evidence further but appeared to think it was highly unlikely.
Now, when it came to the paranormal aspects of the shroud, so-called experts were crawling out of the woodwork with explanations as to what it was and how it came into existence. No one exposition matched or supported another so they were easy to dismiss. A popular one that garnered more attention than it should have was that the constant rumbling of New York City subway trains over the years had worn down the barrier that separated us from the underworld and eventually created a vibrational rift that led straight to Hell.
On October 14th, 2017, an MTA worker on a refuse train running on the J local line that operated from Jamaica Center in Queens to Broad Street in Manhattan, claimed to encounter the shroud between the Alabama Avenue and Broadway Junction station stops. Refuse trains, as the name suggested, bagged garbage collected from each station’s trash receptacles and stored them on six flatbed-like cars between engineer car and the caboose. The worker, who wished to remain unidentified, thought at first one of the black garbage bags had burst open and was flapping in the wind and as he prepared to make his way to the bag to secure it, he saw that it was no bag. He described it as a mysterious object that was there one time and gone the next, just to appear somewhere else and it was moving in his direction. Bags of garbage exploded when it appeared and the trash was sucked into nothingness when the object disappeared. Trash bags erupted like geysers and the refuse inside vanishing a moment later as the object drew nearer and nearer. Then it was close enough for the worker to feel the blast of air when the object appeared, pelting him with garbage and having the breath temporarily sucked from his lungs as it disappeared. He scrabbled back and fell over trash bags as the object advanced so close he could almost touch it. He kicked out with his feet and threw his arms up to protect himself and then… nothing. The mysterious object was gone. The worker later tested positive for alcohol, even though he admitted to having one drink after the incident to help calm his nerves, and was placed on suspension.
The very same day at very nearly the same time, on the very same subway line but on the track going the opposite direction between the Gates Avenue and Halsey Street station stops, a commuter captured the shroud on a video which showed trash being spat into the air when it appeared. Trash that wasn’t there a moment before. Connecting the two sightings gave light to the possibility that the shroud wasn’t simply teleporting itself in short distances but teleporting back and forth between two (or perhaps even more) locations. This revelation opened several scientific threads online, which reexamined older shroud videos to see if there were simultaneous time coordinations linking any of them, and calculating the distance of the two most recent trains and the speed they were traveling in order to map out a teleportation range.
Apart from the theory and amateurishly fake sighting videos, some done for comedic effect, the shroud became the topic of fan fiction, appearing in Reddit threads and on Creepy Pasta. DeviantArt was also plagued by shroud drawings, from pencil sketches to manga pin-ups to full-blown CG portraits. It then became a meme with Hollywood stars like Harrison Ford from his 1993 film The Fugitive running from the approaching shroud. There was even a first-person video game in which the player entered an abandoned subway. Once inside, the entrance collapsed and the player had to investigate a derelict J train, car by car, to collect seven pieces of a device that when assembled created a teleportation device to transport the player to safety. All this while avoiding the deadly shroud which always appeared out of nowhere.
When the memes had run their course, interest in the shroud had waned and the subway shroud joined the ranks of Slenderman, NoEnd House, Polybius and The Smiling Man.
To be continued…
What the hell is this, you may be asking yourself. It’s none other than my personal 2018 writing challenge to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive. This story is an experiment to write a stream of consciousness book with no outlineor plot in mind, just a year’s worth of whatever-pops-into-my-fragile-little-mind tweets without edits or the fancy flourishes that will come in the rewrite. I have absolutely no idea who any of the characters are, or how many there will be, what the story will ultimately be about or how it will end, and that terrifies and thrills me at the same time. And you get to watch me either create something (hopefully coherent and good) from thin air or fall flat on my writerly face.
So, if you can spare a moment, I invite you to either cheer me on or tell me what a colossal mistake I’m making. I’m good either way.
You may ask, “Why this project?” and my simple response is, “Why not?” A new year calls for a new writing challenge and the one I set for myself is to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive. I have many unfinished works in progress that I could chop up into tweet-sized bits to give myself a head start but where’s the fun in that?
So this story, that does not as yet have a title, is not only brand new, it is also an experiment to write a stream of consciousness book with no outline or plot in mind, just a year’s worth of whatever-pops-into-my-fragile-little-mind tweets. I have absolutely no idea who any of the characters are, or how many there will be, what the story will ultimately be about or how it will end, and that terrifies and thrills me at the same time. And you get to watch me either create something (hopefully coherent and good) from thin air or fall flat on my writerly face.
So, if you can spare a moment, I invite you to either cheer me on or tell me what a colossal mistake I’m making. I’m good either way.
And so it begins…
As the countdown heralded the arrival of 2018, my personal new year was marked by a mysterious phenomenon that would inevitably alter the course of my life and brought into question whether I would survive to see 2019. But before I delve further into my involvement with the phenomenon, perhaps I should explain the phenomenon itself or at least share the rumors I stumbled upon from online social media sites and less than reputable news outlets. To provide background, if nothing else.
It all began, as a great many viral things do, with a YouTube video. The initial cell phone-captured video, posted to the Ya Can’t Unsee S#!t Like This account, ran exactly one minute and fifty-four seconds, the average length of a movie trailer. Within twenty-four hours it reached nearly four billion views, making it the second most viewed item on YouTube, just under the Despacito music video. Needless to say, the post divided viewers instantly, with comments ranging from WTF did I just watch? to Is this real life??? to #FakeAF! Even celebrities and politicians were not immune and weighed in with their thoughts and opinions, igniting a slew of new flame wars and insane speculations. So what was in this web video that excited the global public mind and made anyone who watched it deeply interested in the matter, you ask?
The shaky vertical video begins with the cell phone’s owner capturing a female performer on a crowded New York City subway car singing a song I am not familiar with so I cannot say whether it was a rendition of another artist’s song or an original composition but she was definitely talented. She was not the reason for massive internet interest, though. Fifty-three seconds into the song, something appeared in the background. Something as tall as the car itself. Something shadowy and out of focus though the passengers behind the shadow were in crisply visible. The shadow appeared to blink in and out of existence in the middle of the car and when passengers noticed it, they shrieked and scrambled over one another to get out of its way, some even ignoring the “Riding or moving between cars is prohibited” notices on the sliding doors at either end as they risked safety by rushing into the adjacent subway cars. The shadow then began advancing toward the singer, increasing speed and then… the video ended.
A week following the video posting, when the video’s comment thread took a turn from negative to downright abusive to positively frightening, eighteen users of the online bulletin board, 1nt3rFich3, met in an IRC channel and formed the Bureau Uncovering Ludicrous Lies and hacked Ya Can’t Unsee S#!t Like This’ YouTube account and made the video private. The group then uploaded a new video featuring a puppet that bore a striking resemblance to Billy from the Saw franchise films. The puppet explained fake videos that incensed viewers and incited negative interactions, bullying and even death threats should never be created or posted online. The internet has to become a safe place for all to visit. By the end of the video, the puppet disclosed the account holder’s personal information so he could experience first hand the fear that many commenters felt when expressing an unpopular opinion on the video’s thread.
Needless to say, neither the puppet nor the video were well received.
Mandy smells of rain when she cries. Teardrops fall from sky blue eyes and I splash in their puddles as I rush to comfort her. I have ruined many a pair of shoes this way, but I don’t care. She is not mine, though I wish she were and I am not the cause of her sorrow.
A voice calls me by a name I have not heard in centuries. As I turn I am hit by a wave of pure magic that blows me off my feet and sends me hurling backward. Normally, I am immune to the effects of magic but my assailant somehow knows my birth name.
I am powerless.
When had love become an abstract concept for me? I mean, I knew it was an actual thing, not just some bizarre notion conjured from my irritatingly overactive imagination, but I could not for the life of me remember how it was achieved or how it even felt.
They visit in the afternoon between three and four o’clock, carefully avoiding adults by making themselves visible only to toddlers. They whisper secrets into tiny ears and press their lips to baby foreheads for it is a blessing to be kissed by a guardian angel.
So, your plan is to court my daughter, is it? Please, step inside freely and of your own will. Once I have taken your coat, please make your way to the sitting room and help yourself to some refreshments. Be uninhibited and eat to your heart’s content. Gluttony is not frowned upon in this house. Neither is avarice or wrath, but you will discover all this if you make it past the vetting process.
What was that? My daughter never informed you that her mother and I intend to determine if you qualify to date the precious fruit of our loins? Her mistake. And yours, if you are not afraid. Our daughter is an extension of us and if you underestimate us then you are definitely underestimating her.
Do not be an underestimator.
The rules are simple and as follows:
On the table to the right you will find three forms, one for consent, the second a waiver, and the final a non-disclosure. These must be read fully, initialed in the appropriate fields and signed and dated with the pen provided. When using the pen for the first time, some suitors have complained of a sharp pain in their writing hand. That is quite normal, I assure you. It is simply the pen’s piston converter filling device tapping an artery, as you will be signing in your own blood.
My wife will administer a unique personality test. Please endeavor to answer all the questions contained within truthfully as The Great Old Ones know when you lie and their retribution shall be swift and merciless. Be aware that we will not be accepting applicants who score below “Severely Aberrated.” Standards must be kept.
You will be escorted to a subterranean cavern and descend six thousand steps to a pit, seated with a shoggoth and made to read the Necronomicon – fleshbound volumes are available for purchase in my library for the insanely low price of your first born – front to back and back to front. You will do this aloud and the shoggoth will ask you questions at the end of each section to ensure proper comprehension.
Shoggoths are shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles. They are also extremely sensitive about their appearance. Avoid commenting on their faintly self-luminous skin, and the myriad temporary eyes that form and un-form like pustules. This is for your own safety as they are extremely hungry, and they are not herbivores.
You shall be put through your paces. I will endeavor to push you past the limits of your physical endurance while simultaneously quizzing you to determine your intelligence quotient. Your hormones will be set out of balance and your psyche unraveled, dissected and scrutinized to ensure that you are a suitable suitor. Not to fear. I will reassemble you in the exact manner in which I found you.
More or less.
You have signed a waiver, after all.
If you have completed the tests successfully, you will join the ranks of prospective suitors at a ceremony in the deep woods, where you will battle one another under the supervision of a protean deity whose name you will have committed to memory by that point.
Important to note: if the idea of death, evisceration, and dining on the organs of slain foes makes you feel even the slightest bit uneasy, perhaps you are not the proper match.
Once you emerge victorious, and hopefully whole, you must leave old puny mortal faiths by the wayside and choose a new path. Our daughter prefers the Esoteric Order of Dagon, while her mother and I are partial to the Church of Starry Wisdom, but there are others, such as the Brothers of the Yellow Sign, the Cult of the Skull, Chorazos Cult, the Cult of the Bloody Tongue, and so on. Do not be swayed by any of us. The choice is yours.
Nothing involving aliens and volcanoes, though.
You must take a blood vow to serve my daughter, though the path will surely lead you into the depths of insanity. You pledge to sacrifice yourself without question in order to continue her existence, if called upon to do so. And you swear to take her hand in yours and spread the entropy until you revive the ancient, powerful deities who once ruled the Earth from their deathlike sleep and bring the Great Elder God back in power.
This is non-negotiable.
You are finally free to date. And since we realize in modern society sexual activity amongst adolescents has become a commonality, her mother and I fully support this. The only proviso we have is that should a union occur, you shall not spill your seed. Nor shall you engage in any sort of contraception. We require younglings.
“I’m not a liar. I just have a good memory for things that never happened.” ― J.T. Bock
There’s a story I’m fond of telling, about a girl I met in a park during a blizzard. Sad fact of the matter is I don’t remember what she looked like. Not exactly. In my fading memory’s defense, I only saw the bit of her frosty red face that was nestled within the furry ring of her hooded parka. And I’ll admit that my recollection of events might be slightly dramatized and infused with more schmaltzy innocence and devil may care fun, as we built a snow fort to defend ourselves from the invading snow army, but it happened, the girl was real and not some imaginary snow playmate—I’ve had plenty of those, so I know the difference—and a good time was had by all, or at least by me.
The memory gets more Michael Bay-ish with each retelling. It takes on mass and bulks up and challenges me to become a better liar in order to bear its additional weight. But am I actually a liar? If the current version records over the initial memory on the VHS tape in my mind and all I have left is the most recent telling, then I am relaying events as I recall them, no? And why shouldn’t I drape this memory with grace so that it might straighten its back and hold its head higher as it strolls amongst my other remembrances? I am one of only two people who possess this memory and since I cannot verify that the other party is holding up their end, it’s my sworn duty to keep it alive, embellishments and all.
It started out as one of my favorite kind of schooldays, you know, where you wake up and the world outside is completely white and Alice Cooper’s voice is on a continuous loop in your head as you do your victory dance in front of the window, “School’s out forever…“
What was that? Just me, then? All right. Good to know.
Anyhoo, after lying about leaving my books at school–thereby avoiding studying to get ahead of the class (perish the thought)–and breezing through my chores, I ventured forth into snowmageddon and discovered… no one else was outside. Oh, sure, people were attempting to dig their cars out, but none of my friends, hell, no one my age was visible in the dense thundersnow.
Cowards, the lot of them!
Undaunted–I wasn’t going back inside, not on a day like this–I trekked to the local park and that was when I saw The Girl. Out on her lonesome, rolling the lower portion of a snowman-to-be with all the intensity of a Winterland Victoria Frankenstein.
When she eventually caught sight of me, she stopped and glared, trying to suss me out. Was I friend or foe? We stood there for ages, still as statues, locked in a silent Mexican Stare Off. She was determined, this one, to wait me out. She had staked claim to this park and I was the trespasser. If we were ever going to come to an accord, I’d have to make the first move. So, I did the only thing I could do in that situation…
I began rolling the middle portion for her snowman. That seemed to be good enough for her.
You ask me what her name was? Well, there are only two words that come to mind when I think about her: amber and hazel. So, either her name was Amber and she had hazel eyes, or she was an amber-eyed Hazel. Perhaps even something in between like Hazamberel or Amhazelber? I can’t rule any options out at this point.
The park was ours and ours alone, we two intrepid children of The Bronx. We laughed in the face of the snowpocalypse and frolicked–as much as our starfish overlayering would allow–and built an ominous snow army that we waged snow war against, plowed through the snow soldiers and beat them down to the ground, before turning on each other in the snowball fight to end all snowball fights, tried to sled downhill on a ratty piece of cardboard, discovered how truly fast squirrels are when we tried to catch one, marveled at how far trees could bend under the weight of snow and made a pact to be friends forever.
I learned that day that pacts are not unbreakable–I never saw Hazamberel again–and just how like a snowflake a memory is.
Not a terribly exciting story to hear, I realize, but I’m not telling it for your enjoyment. I tell it so that I don’t lose it, so that it doesn’t fade any more than it already has from the weathers of time, or become trapped and freezes to death in the hedge maze like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
That’s part of the duty we owe to our past, to not only remember it but become the architects and build up the bits of the foundation that have crumbled away due to neglect.
So, please stop me if I’ve told you this one before, but once, when I was younger, I met a girl in a blizzard, at least I think it was snowing, maybe it was rain, and her name was some sort of color, Vermillion or Fuchsia, maybe…
“You have a messiah complex, got to save the world.” — Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas
I’ve never been much for crowds, not even as a child. People huddled en masse tended to embrace a hive mind of boorishness, which was why I tended to do all my necessities shopping early on Tuesday mornings. Fewer people and less hassle as I collected my weekly provisions, zipped through the express lane, out of the market and on to the next chore on my list that required social navigation. But something wasn’t quite right today. Tuesday? Of course. Early morning? Naturally. Empty supermarket? Not by a long shot.
The aisles were crawling with miscreants of every possible variety. Attention deficit disordered shoppers who treated their shopping cart like cars out of a Fast and Furious film, crashed into other carts and shoppers with reckless abandon in search of the ever elusive sale of nearing-their-sell-by-date items they probably had no practical use for; forsaken carts parked in the middle of aisles blocking throughways and creating bumper to bumper trolley traffic; and coupon carrying cretins stalling checkout lines because they hadn’t quite mastered the simple art of having payment in hand for their items and beating a hasty retreat out into the open plains of the parking lot.
I contemplated pivoting on my heels and leaving the shopping for another morning or possibly next Tuesday—surely I could have survived a week on basic rations. But had I left, I wouldn’t have run into Tatum.
It was seventeen years since I laid eyes on her last. She was still attractive, more so now, a slender Honduran with mocha skin, shoulder-length dreadlocks, and a disarming smile that tended to pull a bit to the right side of her face. Unlike previous times when I randomly encountered someone from my past on the street and immediately began flipping through my mental card catalog for any excuse to walk away, I was actually pleased to see her. In that moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history hadn’t existed. We waded in a pool of heart-warming nostalgia.
Her smile never wavered as she told me how her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she studied to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, seven and nine years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.
I had no idea how long we stood there blocking the aisle much to the ire of the other shoppers nor did I care. For the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t trapped within the confines of a television set. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we’d call and went our separate ways.
And on the way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life took. And on the tail end of that guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.
I promptly crumpled up her number and kicked it down a storm drain. Neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.
Less than a week later, once I had time to regret trashing her phone number, she called me out of the blue with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t particularly keen on the latter, but I definitely wanted to see her again.
We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast food chain done up in dime store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly, but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company. I experienced a level of comfort in her presence that oddly felt like home.
That was, until her daughter, Tracie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have S-E-X?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.
Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. I had no idea what the proper protocol was, so I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have S-E-X, Mommy?
Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes. We had sex.”
Was that how it’s done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”
The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speed bag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deep level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal discomfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and in her family, there was no place setting for me at the table. It only lasted an instant but long enough to have registered.
I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place, it wasn’t a build up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people simply grew apart. If I was honest, it was the Santería, the Afro-Cuban ritualistic and ceremonial worship of saints her family practiced religiously that rubbed me the wrong way. She asked how I felt about it and I told her I didn’t believe in things like that and it was the truth, but the other truth, the deeper truth, was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
To be clear, it wasn’t Tatum practicing rituals so much as her mother. That woman hated me from the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and after she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Little Santería objects tucked away everywhere.
One day when I arrived home early with the intention of whipping up a surprise dinner for Tatum when she got off from work, I walked in on Tatum’s mother and sisters in the middle of a Santeria ritual. There were others with them, perhaps family members I hadn’t met or just fellow practitioners, all clad in white. Drummers talked to the saints, playing their specific beat, eyes closed in a trance while robed dancers chanted in ancient Yoruba as they spun and shook off the evil eye.
And in the center of the living room, Tatum’s mother stared at me like I was a burglar, like I was the thing that didn’t belong in my own home. Before I knew it, the last of my resolve evaporated and I began yelling for her and everyone else to get the hell out of my apartment, jabbing my finger in the air at her for emphasis. The old woman ignored me and she walked in ever-expanding circles while smoking a cigar that smelled of things I’d never smelled before and blew smoke in my face as she spoke in tongues. It made me gag and start to cough. I clutched at my throat and lost consciousness to the sight of Tatum’s mother and sisters laughing at me.
When I came to, Tatum was home. I told her what happened and she called her mother on the phone. After a lengthy conversation, she said she understood how things must have seemed and apologized for not telling me she allowed them to use the apartment while we were out but ultimately she sided with her family over me.
That was all it took. I moved out of the apartment that night and never looked back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother was casting a spell to get rid of me, it actually worked because I was out of her daughter’s life.
I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation, mind you, but I kept the incident with her mother firmly in mind. It had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.
Tatum greeted me at the door, apron on, dusted with flour and seasonings, happy homemaking in full effect. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces looked different. They still possessed features that were reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow different, incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to being overly tired and thought no more of it.
Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes and listened with rapt attention as I talked about the time I met their mother.
When dinner was over we sat in the living room. The apartment was too small for two growing kids but Tatum arranged everything in a way that made it feel roomy, as though it was a real house.
We sat on the sofa, all of us, Tatum paging through a family photo album on her lap. Pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancy, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee and later with Tatum holding a newborn Tracie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.
Tatum told me how difficult things had been. Deadbeat had developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his children only to beg off some money to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell or threatened to take the kids.
One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he made good on his threat and Stacie and Lee were taken from her by Child Services because of alleged abuse charges. She described the hell she had to go through to get her family back.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicks on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me. “Everything all right, Tate?”
It was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Oscar lost his mind and no manner of reasoning calmed him. I showed him my cell phone, made sure he had seen me dial 911 and only then as he weighed the options in his mind did he leave, but not before he made his threats. He would be back, to kill me, get his kids and make Tatum pay.
Tatum convinced me not to involve the police but only after she agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Tracie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.
The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return, afraid that I wouldn’t be much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.
When the tension of the evening finally loosened its grip and I began drifting off, Tatum came to me. Without uttering a word, she slid her nightgown off her shoulders and let it fall to her ankles. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the living room window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.
After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was gutted.
My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that, combined with the feeling that something still wasn’t quite right, meant there was no sleep for me this night. And so preoccupied was I that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.
I strained my ears, trying to locate the noise again. After a few moments of silence, I wondered if it had just been my overactive imagination. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys, surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding into a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but the glass was solid enough to crack a skull.
I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway and heard the front doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building’s hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack holding a hooked wire, perhaps a piece of a clothes hanger, that scratched at the door until it found purchase in the handle of the security chain which it then dragged along the track slowly until the chain fell away.
I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tension that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.
The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning. I threw the candy dish with all my might into the darkness and knew that I missed my target completely when I heard it crash off the front door and glass rained down on the floor.
Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room, obviously awakened by the noise. Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm those kids!
I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, I was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me onto the floor, unleashing a hail of punches and kicks that knocked me senseless. I put my arms up to protect my face and instinctively curled into a ball but my defensive position blocked none of his attacks.
He must have sensed how weak I was, what a uselessly pathetic man he was dealing with because he stopped hitting me and chose instead to wrap his hands around my throat. I flailed spastically to get him off as I gasped for air but the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.
Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.
But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—
Who was no longer there. And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my own grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.
“Who’s Oscar?” the kids asked and, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
“Stop that! It isn’t funny anymore!” I tried to yell through a raw throat. “I’m not your father!”
A genuine look of pain danced across Tracie and Lee’s faces as they turned to Tatum, asking, “Why is he saying this, Mommy? Why is he acting so strange?”
And I was feeling strange like my entire world had suddenly shifted on its axis.
“I can prove it,” I said as I ran past them into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—
Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of both her pregnancies. The pair of us cradling a newborn Lee and later with us holding a newborn Tracie while Lee lurked in the background pulling a silly face.
These weren’t the pictures I had seen earlier and I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.
And I looked at Tracie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong and she explained that I, Daddy, just had a nightmare, that’s all. She told them that everything would be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.
After Tatum swept up the shattered candy dish, she began to usher me to the bedroom, grabbing the pillow off the sofa when something fell to the floor, something that had been resting under the pillow. It looked like a figure made of red-tinged folded palm leaves, bound together by hair but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot. I asked her what it was and she said it was just one of the kids’ toys and she would talk to them about picking up their things, or she suggested maybe I should do it, after I got back from Tuesday morning shopping, because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day down at the law firm tomorrow.