Mary-Lou grilled me all the next day on how I knew Bertram was really at Unit X-9. How I’d manage to save him if he was. How I’d deal with Bixby and his boys. I sensed she didn’t believe me. Didn’t think I had the sand to go through with it. What of it. I fed her arbitrary lines to a vague scenario. Nonsense only a narrator knows. Make her feel like she’s part of the story to get her off my back. Some people need to know everything before they do anything. And the truth is I didn’t have a plan. I never do. I only care about the objective. Let the rest fall where it may. It’s got nothing to do with me. As long as I’ve got my snub nose at my side and a little grit in my gut, I’m ready.
The Volks’ cut through the city like a jagged blade. The night air played with Mary-Lou’s hair. Her skin veiled in moolight. A voice like Edda Dell’Orso was singing in my head. I took a couple hits from my cigarette. Blew smoke. Watched the wind play with that too. There was nothing to it. We were a regular Bonnie and Clyde, the two of us, headed down the road towards whatever came next.
As we neared the alley of Unit X-9, distortion and heavy bass obliterated any sense of tranquility. The Volks’s windshield vibrated violently. Mary-Lou cupped her hands over her ears.
“What is that god-awful sound?”
“The future,” I said, flicking my dirt out the window.
Two large men dressed in black were standing in front of the warehouse. They were waving in strange creatures covered in glitter and neon colored light flashing over their bodies. Some of them veiled in paint. Others dressed in fairy wings, or half-naked like some futuristic dirt tribe. Bixby was standing next to them, making hand gestures to those going in. He followed after a group and disappeared.
I drove passed and parked the Volks’ on a side street a couple of blocks up.
“Looks like they’re getting ready for a seance.”
“Frank, what if he’s not in there.”
I sniffed the air.
“You smell that?”
Mary-Lou looked at me curiously. Took a whiff.
“It reeks of cow shit. And I know just the cowgirls who made the mess.”
I got out. Mary-Lou moved to do the same.
“I’ll go ahead and clear the way. Wait here until I give you the signal. ”
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
She argued with me until she realized even a mule couldn’t change my mind.
Once in the alley I could feel pulsations in the night air like heavy static. A throbbing of indefinable sounds. I made my way to the front of the line. The two large men in black eyed me. One of them had a lazy eye. The eye wandered off to check out a little number walking by. The other guy had a square-shaped head.
“That’s some trick you got there,” I said to Lazy Eye.
I gave them the business. Folded my hands this way and that. Slapped. Twirled. Flicked. Interlocked. Slid. Bumped. Snapped. Wiggled my fingers.
“What the hell are you doing?” Blockhead asked, his big brows becoming one across his forehead.
“I’m here for the sacrifice.”
“This is a party, you idiot. Not Bohemian Grove.”
They tried to shove me aside. I flashed my tin. They laughed.
“That’s not going to work here, pal,” said Lazy Eye.
As I motioned to find another way in, one of them tapped me on the shoulder.
“It’s gonna cost you, pal,” said Blockhead.
“Twenty,” said Lazy Eye.
I fished out some bills.
“Each.” They both added simultaneously.
I dug out some more. Greased the two jerks.
“Try not to have a heart-attack,” Lazy-Eye said, waving me in between two black curtains.
It couldn’t be that easy, could it? Bixby must’ve known I’d be coming. Trick me into thinking this was something else. Distract me. The bastard. I went in anyway.
Inside it was a living nightmare some might consider a dream, like being trapped inside a piñata on acid. A madhouse where logic and reason are thrown out the window and there’s nothing left but raw, carnal emotion. A gathering of moral lepers and the sexually depraved.Bright lights flashed in colorful spectrums. The air in there reverberated with electric noise giving me a near deaf experience. Bodies contorted this way and that, convulsing in spastic fits on their feet. Some even on the floor. Foam coming out of theirs mouths. No one cared. They just danced and moved between the flashing lights. Long streaks of paint and mascara running down their faces. Eyes wide. Pupils bulging out of their heads. This was a place to leave behind responsibility, to play-act in a world made possible by fairy farts. It was a futuristic orgy of fantasy and phantasmagoria. The word pandemonium came to mind . . . It seemed like they were trying to summon some kind of spirit. Everyone else has a god. They probably felt left out.
“Where are you, Bertram?” I thought, making my way through the fleshly world like mobile stone. The place was so packed you could barely move. I couldn’t help but brush up against these creatures. Some even grabbed at me and moved their hips against mine. One tried sticking its tongue down my throat. I shoved the creature aside. Moved on through the madness.
Above us, trapeze artists swung from the ceiling, their bodies effortlessly twisting in the air. Large cages held half naked women dancing between the bars. It was a living labyrinth and at the center was the donkey spray-painted gold on a platform, one of the little clowns riding it like a miniature Quixote in drag.
I saw Jake’s face flash in the light. He was dancing between a nymph and nymphomaniac, tits out like Zulu dancers, paint all over their bodies. I moved towards him. Grabbed him. Spun him around. He looked half-crazed. A big smile on his face.
“FRANK! YOU MADE IT!” He screamed into my ear.
I leaned in and did the same.
“BERTRAM WELLES. DON’T GET CUTE WITH ME, KID”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT, FRANK.”
I shook my head. There was something missing.
“I THOUGHT THOSE COWBOY PRICKS HAD IT IN FOR YOU?”
“ALL IS FORGIVEN. I FOUND A WAY TO MAKE AMENDS. BROUGHT THEM A NICE COCKTAIL OF CAPSULES. THESE GUYS LOVE A GOOD TIME . . . YOU NEED TO RELAX, FRANK.”
One of the Zulu dancers leaned in and added her own interpretation.
“YEA, MAN, LIKE, CALM DOWN. YOUR AURA IS RED . . . IT’S A RAVE. ENJOY YOURSELF.”
She was right. They were all raving, mad.
“TAKE THIS, POPS.”
Zulu number two handed me a capsule, then started caressing herself. I held the thing up to the light. It was translucent, and in it contained all the colors a human eye could possibly see . . . And maybe a few more.
“DOES IT MAKE YOU SHIT RAINBOWS?”
“DON’T BE SUCH A SQUARE. IT’LL MAKE ALL YOUR WORRIES DISAPPEAR,” said Zulu number one.
I wasn’t worried. All I wanted to do was find Bertram, take down Snyder and his Exos, and send my foot between Bixby’s legs when I got the chance.
A famished belly has no fears. I threw the thing back. Took out my flask. Hit it. Gargled. Swallowed. Spit. What next? I moved away from them and continued looking for Bertram and Bixby and his boys, whoever came first.
This had to be some kind of charade, an electric woolgathering before my eyes to keep me from seeing the truth. I looked at these people, moving. I wondered if they had everything handed to them is this all they’d do? If Bertram tapped into the inextinguishable source of all that moves the world, is this what would become of them? Or is this only a symptom of some greater existential crisis? Are these wild beasts acting out from the discord of their own lives to be free of themselves? Did they live through misery only to escape all responsibility for a brief, flashing moment? Is it some sort of ablution? . . . And what would become of me in a world like this? Is there a place for a snoop? What would I do? Write books? Travel? An Exo wouldn’t live like this. And that’s just what the movers of the world want. Obedient slaves. Not a bunch of lunatics sweating their balls off, having a good time . . . I sure hoped Bertram knew what he was doing giving these animals a gift worthy of the gods.
As I moved around the place looking for Bixby, a euphoric tingling washed over my body, like taking a dip into a pool of bliss. I felt like a noodle. All my extremities were languid. Loose. Just as it was kicking in I turned around to find one of Bixby’s goons staring me down like some kind of psychedelic western showdown.
He moved towards me. I smiled like an idiot. I felt like hugging him. The thought made me sick. But I couldn’t help it. The pill was taking over. Everything had movement. My body was able to understand the music. The white noise found rhythm in my bones. As the goon drew near someone else grabbed me from behind. It was the other suckerfish. His grasp was warm and comforting. I tried swaying to the music, but his hold was too tight . . . What was happening to me? I hadn’t a clue.
Then there was Bixby standing before me. Wide brim hat and coyote face. He flashed a smile amidst the jungle of lights and flesh.
He came close.
“I CAME HERE TO KICK YOU IN THE BALLS. BUT NOW ALL I WANT TO DO IS HUG YOU.”
Bixby smirked, then leaned in.
“WHERE’S MISS WELLES, MR. BERRINGER?”
I heard him, but I felt too good to care. The colors flashing in the light became vivid and surreal, pulsating to the point of having a life of their own. The music thundered in my ears and moved through my body. The spectacle was orgasmic.
“HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT COLOR FEELS LIKE? OR WHAT KIND OF MUSIC THE PLANETS MAKE WHIRLING AROUND OUT THERE?”
Bixby wrenched his arm back. Threw a fist in my face. My eyes went crosseyed. Warm blood rolled over my lips.
“WHERE IS SHE? WHERE’S BERTRAM?”
I shook off the stars. Regained focus.
“YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S RED!”
“MR. SNYDER DOESN’T LIKE BEING TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF. HE PAID YOU TO DO A JOB AND EXPECTS RESULTS.”
He motioned to his pals to take me out. They dragged me through the crowd with a big, dumb smile plastered across my face . . . It is regrettable knowing I was face to face with that chapped-ass scumbag and couldn’t do a thing about it. Had I the sense I have now he would’ve been howling high-pitched hymns with scrambled eggs between his legs.
Bixby’s boys took me outside and roughed me up. I was confused. I felt one thing and received another. I wanted nothing more than to embrace these men, to hold them and love them as brothers. Only, each blow to the head jarred free the notion that we are compartmentalized as a people. I realized how fear keeps us from being vulnerable, from bringing us together. From revealing our true selves. Something entirely human. No. Out of this fear births contempt, anger, hatred. It becomes much easier to cut off connection for isolation to prevail. Animotophobia snowballing over centuries through misunderstandings. I could only imagine what might come of us if something catastrophic were to happen. How the fear might drive us into our holes pushing us further and further a part, forcing humanity into isolation to the point of manipulation. The masses would become judge unto themselves. Good intentions leading to persecution of the wrongfully accused . . . That sort of thing. Something Bertram might’ve known about.
Sitting there, taking each blow on the head, I came to the conclusion it was the lowest high of my life. Then it all went black.
In that darkness I saw a serpent’s eyes flashing green to red. Those narrow, reptilian eyes tucked in the face of a coyote. Its forked tongue flicking in and out. I watched as its body slithered off, forming giant Ss in the sand. It was saying “Sssisssyphusss . . . Sssissyphusss” until it vanished off in the distance.
I saw myself walking across the desert in no particular direction. I was watching the shadows of strange, familiar objects retreat past me in the direction I had come. I was walking on an ocean of dirt that ebbed under my feet back to some previous state of being. Dark versions of cacti diminishing into themselves. Boulders, faceless and indifferent, followed. Then came faces of hysteria. A world gone mad from terror. From climate change. From pandemic. From war. What did it all mean? A boulder rolling down a hill? We didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t create this world. We didn’t create the sun. It’s all happening. It’s all fleeting moments of beauty amidst the chaos. We are all just part of it. And we will have to bare the weight. We will have to push the boulder back up, on and on for eternity.
There was a city on the horizon like a steel hand. Silent. Its fingers reaching for the sun. A bright light flashed. BAAANG!!! A huge mushroom cloud rose out from where the city stood. Grey plumes barreled out, one after the other. Another flash. CRAAACK!!! And all at once a heavy torrent of hot air ripped past me carrying every plant, animal and boulder. Every brick, steel beam and fragment of glass with it. The sun bled out and ash rained down in grey flakes over everything.
When it all settled and the land was silent again I saw my body lying in the ashes. Three ravens picking at my bones. I was the bones, and I wasn’t. I was within and without. And I was alone in a great empty space.
The ravens flew off.
Soon my organs began to take shape again from the empty space between my ribcage. First with the heart and lungs. Then the spleen and intestines. Ventricles like vines climbing through and across. Muscle and sinew stretching outward over my bones. It felt like a rubber band being pulled tight across my body. I tasted hot air. I could breathe again! I was whole! Only it wasn’t me as I remember me. I was someone else. Someone vaguely familiar.
The sky grew dark and I was immersed in the darkness. I felt at home laying amongst the shapeless world, where formlessness connected me to all things. I was empty with everything else. I held no meaning. Stars coruscated in the darkness. I stared up at them and smiled dumbly.
They’re all dead . . . All of them. Yet, there they are, burning bright so far away . . . Search my soul?. . .Do I have one?. . .What is it made of? . . . Plaster? . . . Stone? . . . Maybe my soul is already dead and all anyone can see is that light burning bright long after I have gone. Maybe I’m leaving behind little fragments of myself, little bright seeds scattered across the emptiness . . . Yes . . . My soul is transferring to something else. It’s giving way to new things. New bright, burning things. And that light gives purpose to all forms . . . This energy borrowed . . . This energy given.