Fauna of SF: The Ancient Empathy

​”It’s all a fantastic construct designed for people to relieve their discomfort with the forest as well as the necessity to cooperate for any chance to survive there. You can smell the anxiety on them. They aren’t comfortable in their own minds, which is why they built these great dwellings and fiercely defend everything from each other—even their waste. Their self-revulsion begins deep within them. It’s impossible to be vulnerable and trusting in the face of the other when the thing you know best—yourself—is suspicious and full of fear and hatred of its own nature.

We don’t have such problems. We’re born with the memories of our time as wolves fully intact, regardless of the shapes to which we have been bent. The era when we descended from the wood to domesticate man is as fresh to us as this morning’s feeding. They were unnaturally aggressive and had no instinct for the pack. They very nearly extinguished their flame in the adolescence of their transformation. The savagery with which they set upon themselves gave even the most bloodlusted wolf packs reason to hesitate. But we resolved to throw in with their lot, as their success may one day be the salvation of us all. To acknowledge their worth would no doubt fuel their preposterous sense of self-importance, though it’s nevertheless true. We are interdependent. Without us, there would be no them, and if left on their own they would extinguish themselves and everything else.

We quit being wolves to teach them how to love, and we still believe in the possibility of goodness within them.”

#stocktontunnel #sanfrancisco #stocktonavenue #dogs #bayarea #norcal #faunaofsf #prose

Fauna of SF: The Honey Bee

“Storm’s coming soon, and I’d love to be around to see it. I’d prefer to be taken by the waves when they crash over the jetty, but I probably won’t make it to the morning. Might not make the evening either, at this rate. The storms here rarely do much damage on land; you have to be in open water for the real show. Swells and troughs like dancing mountain ranges. Looking upon the swarming water shatters the sense that we can affect any real change over our environment. On land, we tend to forget how we feel at sea, so we act with an audacious sense of impunity.
My kind is dying. The way we interact with the flora of this world delivers great bounty to other species. Under natural conditions, those life-giving riches are harvested and consumed as needed. It takes faith to know that there will be enough tomorrow, and that you’ll be there to collect what you need, knowing that the universe will again provide enough for the next day. It is a demonstration of profound mistrust to squeeze more and more from the breast of the world until it is nearly lifeless and empty, never giving back or relenting unless it is to reap twice as much later.
The logic is simple and elegant like a fractal. What defines the individual parts characterizes the pattern of the whole. If the world is overrun by parasites, then the world will be parasitized.  I’m just a worker—a #honeybee. Individually I can be swatted by a child and die unceremoniously on a tabletop. Only as a part of my hive do I begin to appear as I am; a keystone or an overlooked caryatid propping up a decaying temple from a dead empire.

There is a storm coming, but I will not be here to see it.”

#halfmoonbay #bayarea #honeybees #faunaofsf #sanfrancisco #norcal #climatechange #flashfiction

Presto

The mist at Rialto Beach was so dense that they couldn’t see the water until it had flattened and spread across the sand. Behind the fog, waves crashed in deep bass tones, exploding into crackling froth just beyond their sight. They were among the first people to arrive that day, and they walked hand-in-hand along that foggy, primordial beach without seeing another person. It was a pleasant start to the day, and they were happy.

The little family ambled up the coastline, listening to the waves behind the sea smoke on one side and the howling birds from the moss-draped rainforest on the other. Stopping to sit on a driftwood log, George tilted his bearded, balding head and squinted one eye. Speaking through the side of his mouth, he ad-libbed a feeling, “of infinitely old, crushing forces surrounding us, everywhere. We only glimpse them with our limited senses until they are upon us. And even then, we only perceive them with our bodies while our feeble minds recoil at their ancient and terrible majesty.” He wasn’t characteristically so verbose, and his pronouncement that day surprised him in spite of his joking tone, for it precisely articulated his feelings, though he had no idea why he felt that way.

“That’s a little morbid,” Paula said. “I think it’s beautiful here. And it smells nice. Like,” she flared her nostrils and inhaled deeply, tilting her head toward the sky. Her dark blonde hair fell over the shoulder of her denim jacket. “It smells like pumpkin spice even more than seawater.” Waves rolled nearby, and the surf reached out of the fog, racing across the smooth sand and spilling over their bare feet. “It smells like pumpkin spice, but now it smells like,” she closed her eyes, “sage.”

Preston chased the wave back toward its source while George observed the sea foam that had collected in a ring around the cuffs of his blue jeans. “Not too far, Presto,” he called out, and the boy stopped and turned back toward his parents. He turned again toward the sea, and finally raced back toward them as vigorously as he’d run away.

“It does smell like that,” George agreed. “What is this muck?” He lifted the leg of his pants, exposing a bare foot covered in foam. He dragged the top of his foot across the sand to scrape it off. “It’s more like jelly. Look.”

“Yuck. It’s all over my feet too!”

They stood facing one another, each turning a foot to scrape one side then the other. As the tufts of bubbles popped and collapsed, the fluff seemed to coalesce into a faintly sea-green jelly that the couple found impossible to fully scrape off.

“It’s sticky,” she said. George frowned and set to work rubbing it off with his coat sleeve. It covered the whole foot in a thin, gelatinous layer.

“It smells like pumpkin spice when you pop it,” he said. “That must be where it came from.”

“Where what came from?”

“The pumpkin smell.” His tone was aggressive, and she stopped cleaning her feet to frown at him.

“I just asked.”

“I know, I just answered.”

“I don’t know why you’re,” she stopped. Preston wandered back toward the water, and she took notice just as another wave crashed and spilled across the sand, encircling the boy to his knees and splashing him as high as his waist. He froze with his hands at his sides and reflexively lifted his face to keep it dry. He blurted a quick, excited chirp.

“Preston!” she yelled as she ran to his side. The foam covered the surface of the water and both of their legs. She carried him back to where George stood in the dry sand nearer to the rocks.

“Did you just walk away?” she asked. “While Preston nearly drowned?”

“Drowned?” George asked. “The water splashed his feet. That’s hardly drowning.”

“Help me clean his legs at least. Jesus Christ.”

“Easy. He wasn’t in any danger. Tell me something, why would we come all the way out to this beach if we weren’t allowed to get wet?”

“I didn’t want him to get that stuff on him.”

“Well, my feet are already dry,” he said. “The shit just dries up once you pop all the suds.” He looked at his feet and said, more to himself than Paula, “it smells like sage now.” He tried to balance on one foot while he lifted the other close enough to his face to smell it. “My skin looks a little fishy, but nothing serious. I think the ocean must be rabid.”

“What are you doing?” she asked as he hopped in the sand, trying to keep his balance.

“I’m trying to smell my foot.” The absurdity of his predicament made him giggle. As laughter began to erupt, he pinched it off. Paula’s mouth hung half-opened in puzzled disgust.

“I get that we’re at the beach, but apparently you don’t care that our son was right next to the waves with that shit all over him.” She inspected his feet and hers, which were now curiously dry, and started back toward the beach entrance.

“Where are you going?” he called after her.

“I want to get a hotel room, take a shower, and clean this off of him,” she said over her shoulder.

“Oh, come on. It’s dry now!” He was playful, and he ran after them in high spirits. Paula gingerly walked along the rocks, struggling to carry Preston, while George ran in the wet sand in a curving line, following the surf as it ebbed and flowed. He began humming, then singing “dun-dun-dada-dun-dun,” and finally, keeping the beat with his footsteps, he sang, “Just call me angel, of the moorninng, angel! Just touch my cheek before you leeeave meee, bay-bee”

“Really?” Paula said, her anger was muted by exhaustion and a growing sense of resignation. “We were having a really nice day.”

But the trajectory of their day had suddenly changed. Instead of driving home after an enjoyable short vacation, they found themselves driving southward along the coastline in search of the nearest hotel. Paula was in the front seat, barely speaking, watching for clearings in the cedars to look out at the slate-colored water and the occasional sea stack. George continued crooning and humming “Angel of the Morning” the entire drive. When they stopped at a small beachside hotel, he continued singing it as he checked in.

It began to rain after they left the front office and drove around to their room. Paula jumped out first and took Preston inside to wash their feet, leaving George to bring their suitcase with him. The rooms had doors facing the parking lot in front and the ocean behind, and the building was separated from a small, sandy cliff rising over a smooth beach by a narrow strip of grass. The decor inside was cozy but dated, and was lined with spruce trim like a logger’s cabin.

“It smells pretty here, Mommy,” said the boy, taking a seat on a chair by the bed.

“That’s cedar and spruce wood, baby, just like in the rain forest.” She pulled the waist of his shirt up toward his head. “Stick ‘em up,” she said. Preston raised his arms like a captured bandit.

“Busted,” he said. She smiled, though she was distracted, thinking of George running away from the surf to wipe his own feet clean instead of running toward Preston to keep him from getting covered in the goo. She didn’t feel well, and it pained her to focus on any one thought for too long.

“Busted,” she whispered back. “Now stand up.” The boy stood up and she removed his pants. She walked him to the bathroom and started the shower, holding her hand under the falling water as it warmed up. When she was satisfied, she set him in the water and then took her clothes off. The skin on her feet was a dark greenish color fading to a lighter tone on her thighs. Quickly unwrapping the hotel soap from the sink, she stepped into the shower and scrubbed Preston’s feet and lower legs.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” He asked.

“Oh nothing, Presto. Mommy and Daddy sometimes don’t agree on everything and then we get impatient.” It made sense, but instinct told her otherwise.

“What’s wrong with going in the ocean?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said we can’t get wet in the ocean.”

“Mommy didn’t say that, honey. Why would you say that?”

“Daddy asked you why we couldn’t get wet, and then you got mad.”

She rinsed his feet and examined them. There seemed to be no sign of discoloration, so she started on her own, doing her best to lather the soap in the hotel’s hard water. Watching her hands as she scrubbed, she said, “I never said you couldn’t get wet. There was just some icky stuff in the water today, so I wanted to make sure you didn’t get any on you.”

“Was it pollution?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

As the water rinsed her feet and ankles, it revealed faintly darker, pickle-green skin stretching above her knees. She scoured the skin again and rinsed, but the color was set. Moreover, she still faintly detected the odor of sage coming from the discolored areas. She washed again, but her skin was growing irritated, so they stepped out to dry off.

“I wasn’t mad that you got wet,” she finally said. The boy stared at her blankly. After she dried his hair, she repeated herself. “I wasn’t mad, Presto. I just didn’t want you to get something on you that might hurt you. Here, look at my feet.” She stood up. “It stained my skin. I didn’t want that to happen to you. That’s all.”

“Then why did you yell at Daddy?”

“I didn’t yell at Daddy, honey,” she said impatiently.

The suitcase wasn’t in the living room and neither was George, so she walked to the window in her towel. The luggage sat next to the rear driver’s side door, but she couldn’t see George anywhere. Heavy rain drops exploded into tinier droplets as they hit the suitcase and car. Preston watched as she scanned the dimming, silvery lighted parking lot. She crossed the room to the sliding door and peeked from behind the curtain, concealing herself as she stood in her towel. Down on the beach, a flock of seagulls hovered over an abandoned fire pit. She scanned back across the long grass at the cliff’s edge, and at the corner of her view, where the hotel walls jutted toward an outcropping of rock, she noticed that a railing marked the steps leading down to the beach. There, staring at the ocean below, stood George.

She grabbed the door to slam it open, but a wooden stick in the frame held it closed. Her towel fell partially off, leaving her standing exposed in the doorway. She held it in front of her chest as she bent to remove the stick. The door slammed open, and Preston retreated into the bathroom while she neatly ran across the lawns between the hotel and the cliff to where George stood. As she drew nearer, she saw him bobbing his head seaward and heard him singing that song into the air. When she was close, he stopped and stared at the water, astonished.

“You couldn’t even bring the luggage inside, George?”

He continued looking at the water. “It,” he stammered. “It just sunk into the water!”

“George,” Paula said, feeling less aggrieved and suddenly aware of standing outside in nothing but a towel. “Go get the goddamned suitcase. Preston and I need to get dressed. George!”

“That sea stack just dropped into the water like part of a huge animal.” His shock was palpable, and Paula, holding the fold of her towel, stepped toward him to look in the direction he’d been facing, careful that her bare feet didn’t step down on anything sharp. She humored him for several seconds before finally saying, “I don’t see it, George. Would you please get the luggage and come inside?”

“Sure,” he said, gathering his wits and searching the roiling, white-capped waves. “Sorry, I’ll be right in.” He turned toward the parking lot as she tip-toed back across the wet grass. “Funny looking swim suit!” He shouted. She flipped him off over her shoulder and he smiled, uneasy about what he’d seen and puzzled about their arguments that day. Paula stepped through the threshold and, turning one last time seaward, looked for anything out of the ordinary. There she saw a beautiful but typical ocean scene characteristic of the Pacific Northwest—a craggy sea stack in the snarling mist rose, barnacle bound, above a rippling field of slate, gray, and blue bursting into innumerable whitecaps insisting on their shore-bound journey, unrelenting forever.

Inside, Preston waited for them to return. His face was worried and cagey, and he shivered in the doorway to the bathroom as the last of the steam gave way to the room’s chill.

“Oh, honey,” she said, “let’s get you under some blankets.” She escorted him to the couch and took a blanket from the closet. “Let’s wrap you up like a hot dog!” She enveloped his body, tucking the blanket underneath him so that his own weight held it tight.

“I want ketchup and mustard!” the boy playfully demanded. She leaned down and kissed him.

“Ketchup!” she said. Then she hugged him all the way around his body. “And mustard!” They both laughed, and she turned toward the door just as George arrived with the suitcase.

“Honey, could you get Froggie?” she asked. “I think it’s in…” He pulled the stuffed animal from his pocket.

“I wouldn’t forget Froggie!”

Preston giggled from the couch. “Froggie!” He cried. George handed it to Preston and set the suitcase on the bed.

“I’ll go get the cooler,” he said. “I’m starving. Are you hungry?”

“Famished, in fact!” Paula replied.

George left to retrieve the cooler from the car. It was dark outside, and Paula switched the lights on, casting the room in a warm, inviting glow. She unzipped the suitcase, quickly dressed, and removed Preston’s pajamas. She was unraveling the boy from his cocoon when George returned.

“Just touch my cheek before…got it!” George said on his way through the door. He walked to the table under the window facing the parking lot and set his load down, continuing to sing under his breath, “before you leave me, bay-bay.”

Paula watched him moving around the kitchen. He took off his jacket and then put it back on. He looked in the cupboards, and then seemed to forget what he was looking for, shutting them again. Finally, he walked to the back door and slid it open, all while humming the song in barely audible tones.

“What are you looking for?” she asked. He slid the door shut and walked back to the kitchen area without answering. “George,” she said, “are you going to get any food out?”

He squinted at her as though struggling to ascertain where he was at and who she was. “Oh,” he said, “Yeah, I’ll get it.” He walked to the kitchen table and opened the small cooler, still murmuring under his breath.

“Is everything all right, George?”

“Yeah,” he said immediately. “I’m fine.”

“I mean, with us. Something doesn’t feel right.” Her eyes pleaded for an open conversation, hopeful that George would reciprocate her observation. Instead, he lashed out, violently sliding the cooler across the table and sending it into the small refrigerator where the contents bounced in every direction. His movements were swift, and he stood above them both on the couch, wild-eyed and enraged.

“The only thing wrong here,” he said. His calm, steady tone added to his unusually terrifying aspect. “Is you and your goddamned worrying!” He screamed the word “worrying,” and both Paula and Preston recoiled from him into the couch. Tearfully, she watched him circle past and listened to him disappear through the sliding glass door. The keys to the car were still sitting on the table, spared from his sweeping arm. As she stood up, Preston spoke from under the blanket.

“Why did you make him so mad, Mommy?”

She stuttered and silenced herself. How had she made him so mad? The boy glared accusatorily, as she wrapped her arms around herself and looked out the front window. Occasionally, she turned to look at the keys on the table, and then to Preston, who was whispering something she couldn’t hear to Froggie. He’d then hold the toy to his ear and nod or shake his head. He whispered, “Mommy doesn’t,” before his tones slipped below the threshold of audibility.

“What’s Froggie saying, Preston?”

The boy pulled the blanket over his mouth again. “Nothing Mommy.”

“I heard you say ‘mommy.’ Were you talking about me?”

He shook his head “No.”

She scowled for several seconds and then walked into the bathroom. She ran the sink so that when she folded one of the damp towels to scream into it, nobody would hear. The clothes were still on the floor where she’d left them, and she picked up her blue jeans, inspecting the cuffs. They were discolored, as though dipped in bleach. Her feet, which were a dark, pickle green, smelled of sage, and her veins ran in even darker jagged lines just below the surface. Dread filled her heart, and she swung the door open to find George and tell him that she now thought there was something in the seafoam acting like a poison or a neurotoxin.

In the living room, the blankets on the couch had been thrown aside, and Preston wasn’t there. She heard the crashing sea—the sliding door was cracked just enough that the boy could slip through. In bare feet, she ran out into the darkness, calling for Preston. There was nobody at the spot where she’d found George staring seaward, but she heard gulls squawking down below. Within the sound of their cries, she thought she heard Preston call her name, so she climbed down the wet, wooden stairs, unaware that she was scraping and dragging her feet on the ruddy driftwood.

“Preston!” She screamed. Her voice was immediately swallowed by the sound of the waves and the growing clamor of the gulls, which were curiously assembled and squawking in the night surf. “George!”

She breathed deep, panicked gulps of air, and as she reached the bottom of the rustic staircase, she mistook a piece of driftwood—lodged in the sand at the bottom—for another stair step. She stepped down expecting another flat landing, and her ankle twisted violently, sending her thudding to the sand. Grunting, she rose again and limped toward the sound of the gulls. Preston called out again, and now that her eyes adjusted to the waning gibbous moonlight shining through bulbous, passing storm clouds, she noticed that the gulls were frantically swarming around some object in the sand near a large driftwood tree trunk.

“Presto!” she cried.

“Mommy!” she heard. As she approached, the distinct odor of pumpkin spice wafted in from the ocean. The gulls flapped around her head, some pecking at her while others screeched their belligerent songs. She swiped at them while the odor of sage filled her nostrils with every beat of their wings. In the center of their frantic colony, a pile of bones, blood, and feebly moving feathers lay in a pile on the wet sand. She tried to catch her breath while she looked for signs of the boy. A gull pecked at the top of her scalp, knocking her forward and forcing her to step into the wet, sharp corpses. She limped forward, moving clear of the birds’ charnel aviary.

“Mommy!”

Impossible—the voice came from the water. While the gulls carried on in crazed dive-bombs and unrelenting assaults on the growing carrion pile behind her, she focused on a tall, thin sea stack just off the beach about one hundred yards away.

“Preston!” she shouted. “Where are you honey?”

“Just call me angel, of the moorning, angel!” she heard the boy singing from the structure in the sea.

She limped toward the water, her bleeding feet surrounded by gooey sea foam the odor of pumpkin spice. The substance grew thicker and deeper, and it wasn’t until she was nearly knee deep that she felt the water on her feet, under the froth. After a few steps into the water the unnatural spume reached her chest, and grew thicker and more difficult to move through.

“Mommy!” she heard again as the spicy goo encircled her neck. She was closing in on the sea stack when she realized that she was no longer moving forward under her own will. It was as though the foam, now irresistibly thick, drew her forward like a current toward the base of the craggy rock. As her speed increased, her head became the only part of her body exposed to the air, and she clearly saw the base of the sea stack drawing the foam into itself as it sunk down into the water. At the last moment, the entire face of the structure sunk below the surface until its flattened top was level with the water, drawing her in. There, she finally saw what George had only glimpsed earlier.

 

George sat in the car struggling to control and understand his anger, embarrassed at his violence. He’d punched the radio—something he’d never done in his life—breaking the glass on the stereo’s face and cutting his knuckles. In the rearview mirror, his face was clammy and pallid, and the skin on his feet burned and tingled. A knock on the window startled him.

“Daddy,” Preston said. “Can we go home now?” The top of his head was even with the bottom of the car’s window.

“Hi Presto.” George said, rolling down the window. “Where’s your mom?”

“She’s inside,” he said.

“What’s she doing in there?” he asked.

From behind the hotel, they heard her call out their names. “I think she’s looking for us,” George said. “Should we go find her?”

Preston nodded.

“Okay,” he said, and opened the door. The sound of the surf pounding the beach was accompanied by the raucous harping of seagulls below. Paula’s voice cried out from further away than George expected. George quickened his pace, arriving at the top of the embankment in time to see Paula limping toward the water. He called her name, and prompted by his father’s sudden urgency, Preston called out as well. But she was knee-deep in thick, white sea foam that surrounded her in the darkness like a whirling cloud, expanding at the sides and drawing her out to sea from the center. George watched as the surf seemed to drain toward the base of the narrow sea stack, and screamed in horror as the structure lost its rigidity and sunk, wormlike, to a dark circle in the center of a swirling mass of greenish white. It was the same thing he had seen earlier, now drawing his wife to its maw.

Preston watched from above as his father slid on his backside down the sandy cliff’s edge. He watched him struggle to run through the deep sand, kicking clumps behind him as he dashed toward his wife. He heard him calling for her as he hurdled over a log and barreled through the swarming, cannibalistic gulls. And as his father waded into the cloudy muck, desperately trying to swim forward in its current to catch up to his mother, Preston saw a hole open on the surface of the water in the center of that now swirling mixture, and hundreds of undulating appendages like insect legs received them both, drawing them inward until the hole, too, disappeared, leaving only remnants of the froth as it dispersed in the roiling surf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Earth Star

​Friday, June 27th

This is the first entry in my new journal—a gift from my dear friend, Megan H. Carter, who purchased said item along with a lovely house plant and a pair of housewarming cigars! We finished moving in last weekend (our first apartment!), and are both looking forward to a wonderful summer together!

Saturday, June 28th

We drank cosmos and smoked our cigars last night. It was so delicious! Unfortunately, we set off the fire alarm in the living room (I’m not sure if the other fire alarms even work, as ragged as they look), and I stood on top of a chair and removed it. I was stretched as far as my arm could reach, and I couldn’t figure out how to properly take it off the ceiling. Okay, I admit that I panicked. It was after midnight, and I didn’t want to wake the neighbors (we just moved in, who needs a complaint already!?), so I ended up yanking it out of the ceiling. We discovered that I just needed to twist it and pull, and the head would have separated from the base, and I could have unplugged it from there. Now we have wires hanging out of the ceiling as well as holes in the drywall from where I ripped the screws out. Meg and I decided we would have someone come fix it or try to fix it ourselves—can’t lose our deposit the first month here in our first apartment as adults! I have a few tools that my dad gave me. Maybe there’s something in there I can use.

Sunday, June 29th

Meg wants to try all the neighborhood happy hour specials this week, and I am excited to feel like a real townie and not just some college student. So far we know of: Monday night dollar hamburgers at The Shack, 50 cent wings on Tuesdays at Manny’s, and $2 Po’ Boys at The Tropical Isle on Thursdays. It’s a good thing my dad spiked my bank account, haha. A couple of our friends came over for pizza and we smoked blunts and watched people walking up the front steps. Can I just say apartment life is way better than the dorms?! 

Monday, June 30th

YES to hamburgers at The Shack, YES to cute boys buying us shots, YES to apartment living!

Tuesday, July 1st

Manny’s wings are the absolute best! And Meg and I met some people from our building there, and they told us about a bar down the street for Wednesdays, so we pretty much have a full week rotation. I think I might apply for a job at a coffee shop or something so I don’t have to miss out on happy hours. My new houseplant is already sprouting baby leaves so I definitely feel like I am cut out for adulthood. Meg was at work all afternoon and I must admit I felt a teensy bit sad when she came back and I didn’t have the whole place to myself. It’s just so nice to be queen of my own domain! But Manny’s was fun. They have the cleanest bathrooms of any bar I have ever been to.

Wednesday, July 2

Meg’s friend Abby brought her stupid purse dog over this afternoon and it knocked over my plant. She offered to clean it up but I was so mad that I did it myself. I’m not sure if the plant is ruined, but after Abby left, Meg promised me she would buy me a new one this weekend. I guess she felt bad, but it wasn’t really her fault. 

I don’t really want a new plant. I’m already attached to this one.

Saturday, July 5

Best weekend ever so far. The girls that live on the other end of the building showed us how to climb up to the roof and we watched fireworks up there and drank vodka tonics and smoked blunts and nobody could even see us from the street. I gave one of their friends my number, a guy named Jeff. He works at The Tropical Isle and promised me a free shrimp Po’ Boy this week. He isn’t a student so that means I won’t have to run into him on campus and I like that. 

Then this morning, Meg and I went to the farmer’s market to see about my plant. I think it actually looked pretty good but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to die after the stupid purse-dog attack. The woman at the vegetable stand, who has to be at least 4000 years old, said I shouldn’t move it around so much, just put it in a spot on the table and follow the directions. She smiled at me, “You have a strong bond?” I said I guess so. She said, “A plant roots in dirt, but in you also. Take good care.” I just nodded but Meg thought it was weird and creepy. Whatever, she gave me a handful of soil from a plastic garbage bag to replenish what fell onto the carpet and poured water in from her watering can behind the counter, so I’m pretty pleased and I think she was nice, so I bought a half dozen tomatoes and told her to keep the change.

July 15th

I haven’t been writing as much as I wanted to. I’m not feeling well lately, and I find myself getting distracted. Meg and I had our first fight. I know that it was my fault, and I apologized. 

It started early yesterday when she asked if I was going to go out with her to see a boy she met. It was Tuesday wing night at Manny’s, and he was supposed to be bringing his friend to meet me. For some reason, I thought that neither one of us should be going out on a Tuesday, and that we might want to tidy up the apartment since it had gotten messy. She said that I was being weird and being a bad friend by not going with her, and that I’ve never had a problem going out on a weekday before. I ended up going with her and barely said a word. I don’t even think I heard either guy say their name. She was mad at me again and told me so after we got home. 

I told her that I’ve been having weird dreams and waking up a lot in the night. I haven’t been sleeping much at all lately, and I feel like, if I can just get motivated to get some work done around the house and get ready for the fall semester (study ahead maybe?), it’ll make me feel better. I have a sense of dread for no good reason, and I feel like the only solution is to be neat and self-disciplined. I apologized again this morning and we hugged. She’s a good friend to me.

July 19th

I’ve been crying all night. I can’t even explain why. Meg and I haven’t talked in two days since I yelled at her for leaving her clothes on the floor in the bathroom. Actually, I was angry that, after showering, she had left the curtain open (which I thought looked sloppy), and one of the shampoo bottles was empty and just left on the floor of the tub to float in the slowly draining, dirty water. 

I screamed at her. In the middle of the fight she told me that I “was a totally different person now that we’re living together in an apartment instead of next to each other in the dorms.” I understand what she’s saying. I never kept my dorm room all that clean. I rarely even made my bed. I still have trouble sleeping, and feel panic and dread at different points during the day. The only thing that makes me feel any better is watering my plant and cleaning the apartment. I need to get control of my emotions. Meg went out again with the girls from the building. She didn’t invite me along and I feel awful. I feel awful about everything all of the time.

August ?

I don’t know the date. I got my student loan check, so I can pay rent, but for how long? Megan moved out yesterday saying that I was “too hard to live with.” I don’t disagree with her. I don’t know what’s happened to me over the past few months, but I’ve been struggling to keep my emotions in check. Megan and I fought again a few times since the last entry. I always feel like it’s her fault when we fight, and only later do I regret everything I’ve said and done, recognizing that I overreacted or picked the fight in the first place. 

We hadn’t spoken in almost a week when I came back from a walk and she had cooked some eggs and bacon. The smell in the apartment was heavy and dirty. I thought that it was going to seep into everything and make the whole apartment stink like bacon (thinking of it now, I realize that I thought it was somehow making a mess of the air. Ugh, that’s weird.) She said I wasn’t the same person anymore and that she was worried about me. I told her she was a slob and a pig, and maybe we shouldn’t live together. It was a stupid thing to say. The whole fight was stupid (and crazy?), and she asked her new boyfriend, the guy we met at Manny’s, to help her move out. They removed her belongings in a matter of hours—the time it took me to visit the farmer’s market to buy supplies.

I feel half lonely and half relieved. I know why I feel lonely.

Thursday

The landlord left a note that there would be an exterminator coming through the building in a few days. It said that he would spray primarily in the hallways and the window and door thresholds from outside. I feel a great sense of happiness that the exterminator is doing his job. I spent a long time this afternoon fantasizing about what it would be like if I were an exterminator. 

I missed the whole first week of classes.
Sunday

I’m not a bad person. I tell myself that often these days. “I’m not a bad person.” It’s a pronouncement to the still air of the apartment as I look out on the honking, shuffling, engine-revving street outside and know, every day, that I’m not going to talk to anyone. Nobody is going to talk to me. I’m going to visit the farmer’s market today, and get my supplies for the week. The woman who sells me tomatoes will recognize me, know that I know what I want (it’s the same every week), knows that I will not offer a reply to any attempts to inspire me to reach further into my purse, and she will speak to “the customer,” as she announces the total and I hand over the money, pre-counted—to the cent—and partitioned off from that which I use at the baker’s stand. It’s efficient, and it’s gracious (on my part) though not altruistic. I don’t want to waste her time, but neither do I want her to waste mine. I don’t have anywhere to go, nor do I have anyone to see, but I have recently developed a deep respect for pattern, predictability, and a simplified geometry of human interaction. I prefer acute precision over obtuse small talk. 

I often think that I am a minority of the most unique kind—like a snowflake, a fingerprint, or a dental impression. The woman at the vegetable stand, hunched over and shuffling on slippered feet, handles the money with hands as frenetic as an insect cleaning its mandible and antennae. Her clear green eyes, hidden behind dollop-sized glass lenses and age-melted eyelids, hibernate until a customer enquires or approaches, like prey with fatty pockets. Then the grandmotherly visage she affects for the curious onlooker hardens into the face of a pawnbroker or a produce pimp. 

Not so with me. She approaches me more carefully than the tourist before me, dressed in his idiotic sandals and the white t-shirt haphazardly half-tucked into khaki shorts. She catches me staring at the Earth Stars set in columns and rows of three (nine in total) near the back edge of her tent and smiles. Soon her demeanor changes, and she hands me the tomatoes that she knows I came for. I feel her watch me leave. 

It gets lonely, but I find undirected conversation cumbersome. On days when my schedule is empty, I find that I lack the self-discipline to avoid frivolously imagining conversations with other people. I fantasize about the perfect conversation using precise language where neither I nor my counterpart stammer, pause, or lose our place. Everything is orderly and follows a path: thesis, antithesis, synthesis in perfect order, balance, and logic. But I have trouble with the scene as it plays out in my mind. I, or the person with whom I’m speaking, inevitably slip, and there is a pause. I get lost, and I have to start over. (Today I fantasized about a conversation with the woman at the vegetable stand about her house plants until my knowledge thereof ran out, and I had to start the scene anew, this time about vampires.) It can ruin an entire day, and I’ve learned that a brisk walk can help distract me from that internal pursuit of ecstasy.
Sunday

I used to have friends. When I moved to this building, I lived with one of them until she left. I grew past her, but what I mean to say is that I grew beyond her. Her diction was sloppy, and her living habits eventually repulsed me. She was a student at the university, like I was, but she’s gone now. She left me a note nearly a week ago, slipped it under the door. I thought to read it but opted to finish a thought (which I can no longer recall) and by the time I was done, I was in the other room and had forgotten about her missive. I left the note on the table next to my door, placed perfectly within the border of the corner, careful to ensure that the two edges of the letter were parallel with the edges of the table.

Monday

I spent time looking at the arrangement on the table (I find this more comforting as time passes). My Brazilian Earth Star (my steadfast roommate, a truer friend than Megan), moderately exposed to the sun as per the instructions I was initially given, thrives in this apartment which I’ve kept at an appropriately tropical temperature. It’s centered from front to back and exactly one-quarter from the left side of the table top. Toward the back is a black stemmed lamp that I keep fastidiously dusted, careful to place its rectangular base, like the letter, aligned with the edges of the table. And then there is the letter, unread and folded flat, sitting perfectly in front of the lamp. Next to the table are my walking shoes, which have been giving me problems of late. 

They always sit midway between the door jamb and the back leg of the table. The laces I tuck inside, under the tongue, to ensure that they don’t rest in disheveled patterns on the floor. But for the past two mornings, I have awoken to find that the shoes are sitting in a different way than I’d left them. On the first morning, the laces were flopped over the sides, exactly the way I’d prefer them not to be. I knew that I wouldn’t have been so careless as to leave them in such a state of disarray, and I began to wonder if someone had come into my apartment. 

Last night, I made sure to place them carefully side by side, toes aligned and the edge of the heels one quarter of an inch from the base trim. This morning I arose to find that although the laces were as neatly tucked away as I’d left them, the shoe closest to the door was in front of the other one by nearly half an inch! I am deeply troubled by this, and I spent the entire morning checking all means of ingress into the apartment for weak points and all dark corners for intruders already inside. There wasn’t anyone that I could find, but the sense that, as I slept, someone made their way into the apartment unsettled me.

The windows were shuttered and locked, but I took the opportunity to use my small assortment of tools to shore up their effectiveness. I drove three nails through the bottom frame and into the sill, one in the center and one at each corner, ensuring that no interloper might break in during the night. Likewise, I drove nails into the edge of the door at an angle so they’d catch the frame. I was fortunate that the neighbors didn’t come knocking just then or call the landlord, as I had already made preparations to ensure that nobody could come in without my noticing and would be unable to open the door to answer them.

Monday

I was sure that someone had moved my shoes in the night, but I thought that, like the conversations I frequently imagine, there was some flaw in my capacity to maintain order. Perhaps I had carelessly bumped them as I turned away, my clumsy fingers catching the collar. But last night I took even greater care with their alignment, as concerned with waking to a perfect door setting as proving the existence of an intruder. I set them down, right shoe first, next to the table, and then the left, aligning the toes with a yard stick as a straight edge. After carefully measuring the space between the trim and the heel (exactly ¼ of an inch), I took a photograph with my camera. I looked at the scene one last time, admiring the blooming Earth Star and its purple stripes running laterally along its leaves. I blinked hard, thinking to capture the image in my mind, and went to bed. 

Horror! I awoke this morning to find that not only were the shoes again misaligned, but the letter on the table was so far askew that one corner nearly touched the edge! I suspected that someone had come into my apartment and moved things around and the thought of their presence—sinister, sadistic—sickened me. I thought to alert the authorities but imagined how the conversation would go. I would tell them someone had moved my shoes in the night proving that there had been an intruder. They would look around as I had, find nothing, and after a conversation, determine that I was mentally unstable. I will not tolerate the embarrassment.

I am afraid that I am mentally unstable. I keep reminding myself that I’m not a bad person.

Thursday

The power went out last night, and I found myself sitting in front of the vanity mirror directly across from the entryway, burning a candle on the table top to my left. The flame illuminated the side of my face in uneven micro bursts of dim, yellow light, leaving the other half semi-concealed in an ominous shadow. I stared at my reflection for some time. My eyes look to have sunk into their sockets and the skin is pinching into seams at their edges. My face is skeletal under hair I now keep pulled back in a haphazard bun barely held in by a hair tie. It was as though I began to have a conversation, not with an imaginary other inside my mind, but with the haggard visage I scarcely recognized in the mirror. I moved little, but the candle flame danced as the wick occasionally struggled to provide waxen fuel to the droplet of fire. I was pretty at one time—not beautiful, but attractive enough—and I had friends. I had a “social network,” and I had people who knew me and cared about me. It was as though the effects of some drug were wearing off, and I now saw in that gaunt face, brown eyes that were recovering some vigor. I wished for more light. 

While releasing my hair from the bun, I looked into the mirror at the wall behind me and observed the faintly glimmering surface by the door as light and shadow cartoon-waltzed this way and that on the bare wall. Something in the movement lifted me from my reverie, and I began to take note of the patterns left by the shadows thrown by my torso and head. The flickering silhouette stretched and shrunk, and then steadily, just over my shoulder, the shape of another shoulder, then a head, rose from my own shadow. Unlike the rest of the dancing darkness, the outline of this second form was static even as my own silhouette ballooned and shrank in the ebbing candle light. After several seconds of “rising” from my own shadow, the “other” shadow turned toward the table on the other side of the door, elongating into a beak shape that slowly opened (still stationary relative to the other forms naturally cast by the candle), and revealed jagged murky shapes inside its maw. That mouth grew longer and wider until, finally, the entire wall was covered in darkness. I know what I saw, but to my disappointment, the candle had burned out at the same moment the shadow figure grew to cover the room. I quickly lit another candle, and then another after that, and two hours later I went to bed without seeing the form again.

Friday

The power has been restored, but I burned candles in the hope that I might see the shape in the dim light on the wall again. All of the sticks I had are gone, and the holder I used for them is a misshapen waxen statuette. I resorted to using tea light candles instead. The flame is significantly smaller, so the shadows on the wall behind me are less pronounced. Nevertheless, I sat there for some time, reenacting the conditions that preceded the last encounter. After about three hours (or about one of my cheap candle’s worth of time), I was looking again at myself in the mirror thinking to myself how silly I was being. I was growing hungry, and trying to remember the last time I’d eaten. I considered blowing out the flame and abandoning this peculiar hunt, when, sure enough, that dark form began to rise behind me. The light was dimmer this time, owing to the smaller candle, so the shadows were less distinguishable. But it was there, rising up from my own shadow. I thought that if I let the candle burn out that, like the night before, I would not see the form again in the light of a new tea light. 

So I turned with candle in hand toward the shadow itself and confronted it at the wall. The flickering continued, and the light of the flame extinguished the shadow as it illuminated the wall. I stood there cautiously watching for any sign that it might return, and amidst the shadows thrown off by the lamp shade, the form of a bony, taloned hand began to stretch, not at the correct angle away from the light, but toward it. Down the wall and across the table it reached, closing into a fist on my friend’s letter. The candle began to gasp at its nearly empty pool of wax. I needed more light, and I knew that if I let that one extinguish, I’d lose the shadow again. I decided, in the interest of continuing this strange correspondence, that I would set the remaining flame to the lampshade, just for a moment, to give greater definition to the shadows in the room. 

I held the flame to the edge of the shade while the shadow-hand opened and clutched at the letter. Time would extinguish my candle in mere seconds, but just as the flame on the candle was shrinking to nothing, it slithered amoebically from wick to fabric where it settled briefly, and then began to grow. As the light increased, the contours of the hand on the letter sharpened, and, to my astonishment, I thought I heard, in the crackling of the fire, a voice. It was sonorous, barely perceptible, but between the cracking of the lamp shade, I heard it there and felt it vibrate in my eardrums (and, it seemed, in my stomach). I couldn’t decipher what it said, and the shade burned so quickly that I had little time to listen. I meant to use the lamp shade to set fire to another object—in a controlled fashion of course—so as to keep this particular evolutionary strain of fire alive, but I was too slow, and it burned out.

It never occurred to me to use the letter that rested on the table as I was too busy paying attention to the shadow-hand. I knew it was no use trying to light another candle, so I turned the lamp on—a bare bulb behind a charred wire skeleton—and removed the letter from under wispy black sheets of the scorched lampshade. Considering the hand’s position in the glow of the candle, I decided that it was interested in the contents of the letter, and I opened it. It was short, so I’ll transcribe it here:

Kate, I’m still worried about you and wish you would call me back or see me. I visited the farmer’s market today and saw the old woman I bought your plant from. She was really scary and called you a whore!? Actually, what she said was, “Your friend the whore-la,” or something like that. I’ve never heard someone use that word with the “la” on the end, but I assumed it was some leftover slang from her upbringing a thousand years ago. She kept laughing and saying it as I left. (Come to think of it, maybe she said “Your friend and the whore-la.” Maybe she was calling me a whore?) I’m not ever going back there. Anyway, it made me defensive and made me miss you. I know we didn’t part on the best of terms, and I just want to talk. Call me, please.

Love, Meg

Her uneven scrawl grates on my eyes. I find her letter to be an obvious ruse to harass and distract me, and after I’ve completed my present endeavors to my satisfaction, I intend to pay her a visit. I will use the letter tomorrow evening to ensure the primary flame remains unbroken long enough for me to hear more clearly what the shadow was saying. I sense that it has much to tell me.

May I Ask Who’s Calling?

An elderly woman wearing a dust mask patiently waited across the sidewalk. She read the environment–someone scrawled in sharpie on a sticker pasted to the back of the bus stop sign, “I hate this world.” A young boy waiting nearby for the same bus hadn’t lifted his eyes from the screen of his smart-phone since sometime before he arrived there. Ambling along with no particular destination in mind, a young woman pushed an empty baby stroller and scanned people’s faces for glints of generosity. Like the old woman, she wore a dust mask, though hers rested on top of her head the way a pilot might rest her goggles at her hairline before take-off. Everything else she owned was in a tattered backpack slung across her back. A small crowd populated the rest of the bus stop, and people walked here and there along the sidewalks and across the streets.

payphone
And then the phone on the wall rang, just once, and then stopped.

 

The younger woman instinctively pushed her stroller forward and checked the coin return for change. She toggled the switch hook where the phone receiver once hung and pulled the lever to the coin return, but the payphone offered nothing. She looked around for another witness, only half convinced that it actually rang, and a man shouldered past speaking into his headset.

 

“Watch where you’re going,” he said to her. Then he clarified, “no, some street trash,” into thin air.

 

But beside the bus stop, the old woman had fixed her gaze on the phone and the young woman–her sharp and curious eyes defiantly interested and striking a contrast between her aged body and vibrant mind. The two women met eyes, the younger one startled to find herself sharing this experience with a regular person. Did she hear it, too?

 

The bus approached from the north; it’s sound characteristically quiet for such a large machine. As the bus drew nearer, the phone rang again, this time continuing on. Both women flinched, and the younger one inspected the phone,
running her hand over the side in search of the handset that was obviously missing.

 

The young boy finally lifted his eyes from his screen–he’d never heard the authentic sound of a phone ringing, and he thought that someone had downloaded a curious-sounding ring tone. The noise made him impatient, and he frowned first at the old woman and then at the younger one, from which direction the noise emanated.

 

“You gonna answer that?” He barked.

 

The young woman stammered, looked at the phone and then back to boy who now glared dismissively. The old woman returned her puzzled and shocked look, and the bus announced itself, snorting its air brakes at the curb. The crowd inside the bus stop stepped aside to give departing passengers room, and then they filed in to find their seats. The boy shook his head at the young woman–a commonplace experience she barely registered–and stepped onto the bus. The old woman hesitated and unwittingly memorized the young woman’s face. If she was to keep her schedule, she’d have to board the bus immediately. Resigned to carry on with her day, the old woman smiled from behind her facemask and entered the bus. As she took her first step up, the ringing stopped, and the center walkway, she quickly turned to look once more at the phone and the young woman. Their eyes met and watched each other as the bus pulled away, and each went about their lives, secretly holding the experience for posterity, in the event that it might one day become important again.

Short story at The Writer’s Arena

My entry is titled “Presto.” A normal day at the beach takes a turn for the horrific.  

“Presto” by Steve Long

Short Fiction: You Can Do Better Than That

I’d been driving south for three hours—from San Francisco toward L.A. via Hwy 99. I wanted to stay off the expressway for a while after a night of hard drinking, so I took an alternative route. Around Fresno, the sun made its final descent into the West. The endless valley, lorded over by the silhouetted, twin sentinels of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the left and the Coastal Ranges to the right, suddenly and completely disappeared into the larger darkness of night. Only man-made lights remained as a break from the expansive pitch beyond. I was tired: visiting Kyle was exhausting

We’re both transplants to California from the Midwest. He came out here to take a job in the tech industry and I came because Illinois was too cold, and I have an uncle in Los Angeles who owns a house he never stays in. We had drinks at his place in the city first and then visited a friend he’d made at a bar somewhere up the hill from a sushi place. I drank too much before we’d left and lost my bearings almost immediately after we arrived at the bar. Sometime shortly after meeting his friend (a guy whose name I can’t recall), I transitioned from pushing away from the shores of sobriety to being drug headlong into drunkenness. I blacked out early, sometime around 10:00 P.M. Budweiser had just begun its “Whatever Happens Next” campaign, and the last thing I remember was taking several plastic cups of beer off a tray from a woman (more than my share, no doubt) and attempting to sign up for something on her iPad.

I woke up on his couch, still drunk about twelve hours later. I recalled impressions and images as through thick amber lenses: a series of jaundiced and distorted tableau vivants: a girl near a streetlight wearing little more than a bikini with a shamrock painted above her navel, struggling to maintain her balance by holding onto a tree as her heel was caught in grating in the sidewalk; men in suits standing under a light in an alley, occasionally glancing at crowds passing by the entrance; a homeless man howling out a word that sounded like “pang,” in Doppler fashion—increasing in amplitude and frequency as we approached from who-knows-where and decreasing in the same as we passed his pain-stricken, sun-fried, dirty face. The pervasive smell of a street carnival was inescapable like the olfactory version of a soundtrack.

I hadn’t blacked out in a long time, but as soon as I woke up, I was as anxious as I’d ever been after losing time. I occasionally suffer from anxiety under normal conditions, but just then I felt like a thousand eyes were watching me from my past, present, and the future—a mélange of accusations without tangible sources, feelings without root actions. Under these conditions, I felt the weight or responsibility for broken promises, poor decision making, and myriad ghosts of hangover future.

Kyle had managed to get us back to his apartment, or I had made my way back on my own. At that point, there was no way to tell. I didn’t look in his bedroom for him at first, but simply lay there, still drunk and awaiting the haymaker of a hangover that came an hour later. The obscene wealth and hedonism of the partygoers (or at least the families from which they were spawned) as they rolled past the destitute on the San Francisco streets reminded me of the way I’d imagined Elizabethan England—poor people living in the shit spewn from the asses of aristocrat’s horses. I bothered myself wondering where I fit into that scene, having just drunk myself into a stupor and letting my body and Id go on a wobbling rampage while the rest of my mind took a shortcut to tomorrow. I remembered a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl,” and cataloged each memory under the subheading “Moloch.” I mouthed the word without speaking as memories churned and dissipated into froth. After an hour, I decided to see if he was awake in his bedroom.

Really, I wanted to sleep the rest of the day. Skip it like a secondary blackout. Wake up the next day as though the last evening and the encroaching hangover hadn’t happened at all. Kyle is a friend I’d been drunk—even that drunk—around before. He’d spin it, surely, he always had. What I considered as potentially sinister, he reconfigured as absurd. I’m careful about drinking too much these days, but I guess nostalgia was the cocktail I’d imbibed before we took our first shots in his kitchen, and in short order I was, as Kyle once said, “cop sluggin’ drunk.”

I had to steady myself at the kitchen counter before I went to his bedroom door. I was hoping he’d pull out some more verbal magic and assuage my fears about what I’d done or said the night before. He wasn’t there. I was suddenly aware of being alone—in an old friend’s apartment, in ann unfamiliar city.

Maybe he’d brought me here and then continued on his own the previous night, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t remember much of anything. I wanted to claim that I’d been drugged, and imagined myself holding a press conference, using a political speech to spin my story. “Last’s evening’s events were regrettable,” I’d say, “but we should learn from our mistakes and move on.” And that would be that. The country would just have to forget it as some new calamity pushed the front train car down a memory hole. I felt guilty, and I needed to talk to Kyle. I was supposed to leave by 11:30 A.M., and I was still drunk at 10:45. My phone was on the kitchen counter, next to Kyle’s keys. I scrolled through last night’s texts. I remember sending the last one:

“Should I park on the street or in the back?”

It was from 6:30 P.M., the day before. I hadn’t sent a single text since, nor had I received one. Nothing. No clues. No leads. No Kyle.

I went to the sink and grabbed a glass, filled it with water, and drank it all in one breath. I instantly broke into a sweat, and felt memory-drunk. That is, I suddenly felt the same kind of drunk I was the night before, and a new memory of yelling Kyle’s name from across the bar and raising shots to one another blipped into my mind, surrounded entirely by the pitch of amnesia, and then sank again. It was no use trying to hold it and parse it out. My head was a water balloon on a rubber neck. I threw up in the sink. Liquid. I threw up again. Bile. I dry heaved until blood trickled down my tongue and I spit it into the basin. The hangover had come to collect what I owed. The water saw to that.

I sent a text to my uncle, telling him I might stay another day in San Francisco. I had a job interview on Tuesday, but nothing pressing until then. I lay back down on the couch, covered my eyes with my forearm and fell back to sleep. It was 2:00 P.M. when I woke up. Still no memories and my anxiety stuck to me like electrodes firing across my chest. I looked at my phone and it blinked green for text message. There were two. My uncle simply replied, “K,” and the other was from Kyle.

“Not going to make it back today before you go. Lock the door when you leave.”

It sounded distant, dismissive. My body had felt covered in an anxious hot cloud with occasional bursts of cold sweat, but I now suddenly felt the splash of stomach ice delivered by a guilty verdict. He was pissed. I’d done something horrible, and his message confirmed it. Though whatever it was, I had no way of knowing. I’d known Kyle since we were kids, for years. What was already a lonely pilgrimage from the frigid steppes of the Midwest suddenly became a slowly unfolding, tragic calamity. I feared that I’d lost a friend. The silence in the apartment contrasted the cars honking, braking, and accelerating outside in the street below. I imagined Kyle slipping from agitation at my no doubt stupid behavior the night before into anger. And then I imagined him slipping further, into the region of indifferent irritation and finally derision he’d share with his new friends. I had become a source of embarrassment—an interloper in the alternate timeline a friend had taken where I was no longer welcome, a benchmark to illustrate how far he’d moved away from his former life: friendship in an era when the past clings to us through the social media he’d used to invite me to visit. I texted back:

“I’m sorry about last night.”

I waited half an hour for a response before I left empty handed. I made it to Fresno before fatigue forced me to find a hotel. After checking my phone for a response from Kyle every five minutes as I made my way out of the city, I finally set it face up on the console so I could see any alerts as they came in. Four hours and no word. I found a hotel with Wi-Fi and settled onto the bed to check Facebook on my computer. He hadn’t posted anything since before I’d arrived, and I don’t know what I expected. I felt like I just got dumped. A friend break-up and I was the toxic half from which he needed to liberate himself.

When I woke up around 2:45 A.M., my mind was awake and alert, even though my body felt brittle. What was formerly an impenetrable, vulnerable guilt had sunk a layer beneath aggravation. I can’t imagine I did anything so bad as to warrant this complete shunning and what was starting to look like a kind of cruel joke. What could I have done really? Puked on someone? Said something weird or stupid? I didn’t get arrested. I had no blood on me or any noticeable bruising, so I doubt I got into a fight. The very least he could have done, if he had decided to real-life unfriend me, was call me an asshole. Tell me to fuck off. Button the friendship up, for chrissakes. Now I was in a position to get angry, imagining him laughing at me with his new friends in his dumpy, obscenely over-priced apartment. We were friends long enough to warrant a proper final fight and salutary send-off.

I sat up and turned the light on and scrolled through my text messages again. The same. Then I opened the media folder to see if the photo I’d taken of the Golden Gate Bridge looked any good. All the images in the folder were organized into images resembling piles with the last image taken sitting on top. Downloads in this one, photos in that one. The video folder showed a thumbnail image of the last video taken—a strange red door surrounded by darkness that looked like something out of a movie clip. I decided to go through them from the earliest one from last night to that red door. I could tell where the cut off was because the last one before my trip was from Southern California—a video of the Mojave in the daytime. They weren’t night videos like the five I’d no memory of taking the night before.

 

The first one I took was in the bar we visited. It was of Kyle talking to a woman I didn’t recognize. Mounting anxiety again. I was talking in the video—drunk and talking. I hate the sound of my own voice on video enough, but slurring about “how much I love this guy,” while my friend is trying to have a conversation sounded nauseating. I suddenly felt guilty for being mad at him only minutes earlier. He was right to have shunned me, I thought. I stopped filming after about fifteen seconds. It felt like a mercy gesture to my present self from the animal that took the video. I turned on the light next to my hotel bed before opening any more. It somehow made me feel more distant from the images on the screen.

The next video was different from the start. The cacophony of the bar was gone, and the lighting was exterior night. The movement was steadier, and in it, I was moving down an alleyway somewhere. I turned the volume up and could hear the street somewhere behind the camera as it faced a dumpster and stopped. There were other feet scraping along the pavement nearby. After about ten more seconds, the video ended on a steady shot of the dumpster. I was hoping that the videos would give me some understanding of my whereabouts and solutions to my questions about what I did that was so bad that I lost a friend over the experience, but this just made me more confused. Clearly, I must have left the bar shortly after taking footage of Kyle and that woman, so I couldn’t have done anything that bad. It also struck me how steady my hand had gotten between videos. It seemed like they were taken on different nights.

I opened the next file. It was of me, close up so that only my face showed on the screen, sleeping upright and snoring. It lingered there for a few seconds and, in that same, steady hand, zoomed out to reveal that I was sitting in a lime-green, ragged chair. It was dark in the scene, but there was some light bearing down on me from behind the camera. I heard the scuffling of footsteps again, and this time a heavy sigh from the camera operator. Where was I? Was Kyle playing tricks on me? Was this the smartphone version of drawing a dick on my forehead in sharpie? The setting didn’t appear to be exactly inside a space, nor did it seem to take place outside either. It was quiet, aside from the breathing near the microphone and my snoring several feet away. The timer showed seventeen seconds when it ended.

The preview image for the fourth video was black, but when I opened it, it immediately began like what I’d imagined a snuff film to look like. A woman, with tear-smeared makeup, gagged and staring up at the camera, slumped on her knees. Her face was lit by what appeared to be a flashlight beaming from behind the camera operator. Her arms were held by a stick running across her back and under her elbows and her hands were tied by a rope that ran over her stomach in front of her. She was wearing a black cocktail dress, and was breathing heavily in spite of the resignation in her face and posture. One matching high heel lay on its side next to her bare knees. The camera panned left across a darkly lit space, similar to the surrounding darkness where I had been sleeping in the chair. The shadows were everywhere, and the phone’s camera inadequately strained to illuminate anything in that darkness. Suddenly another flashlight and the camera was facing a man, stripped down to his underwear about ten feet away. His hands were bound the same as the woman’s, but he was tied to a pole which held him on his feet. He was screaming through his gag, and writhing in his restraints. The camera operator, who’d been quiet, made a noise that was so much louder than everything else that it startled me. It was a kind of humming, sing-songey, moan, as though he was getting some sexual gratification at the sight of the man. This made the captive, whose face was only intermittently shown in the light, strain harder against his restraints and scream through his gags. The camera turned again to the darkness, and soon rolled across another form, lit again by the flashlight as its beam came to rest.

It was me on the same chair as before, snoring in a drunken stupor while whatever horror had been staged in my sleep played out around me. The man began to scream again through gags “off stage,” somewhere behind the camera, followed by what I assumed to be the woman now reciprocating frantically at some unseen, encroaching danger. There I slept while the camera panned back to the darkness as the operator began walking. The video paused briefly, and stopped recording on the black captured in the preview pane.

I thought to call the police at that point, but what would I tell them? Which police would I call? I’d have to go online and look up the number to the police department in San Francisco. I didn’t want to watch any of the videos again, and there was another one, waiting to be opened. Its preview image, the last in the video, was clearly a red door surrounded by darkness. This still didn’t explain Kyle, or who took the video. I began to rationalize—what was illegal in that video, really? It looked staged. But why was I there and who were those people? Why was I with them? I strained to remember anything from the night before, but it was useless. There was nothing. I opened the last one.

It was immediately clear that this had been set up differently. The camera was perfectly still, as though set on a tripod pointing at a dimly backlit, sea green stage curtain. A woman screamed, but it subsided quickly. Its tone wasn’t exactly agonized, but rather a mixture of effort and bloodlust.  She screamed again and it subsided once more. This went on four times in total until the camera slowly panned across that dim, green background until it revealed the silhouette of a woman sitting on a stool in the middle of some kind of set.

A camera bulb flashed nearby. Someone was taking pictures of her. The image revealed in that startling white explosion stayed in my mind as though my brain had taken the photo, and I could tell there was blood everywhere. In the absence of the other camera flash, her body was a black, womanly shape against that sea green drapery. Her shadowy form was motionless at first, but soon her arm raised above her head, holding something small before it violently thrust downward, accompanied by that determined scream. The flash again, revealing in an instant of light the woman’s bloodied face and arms, driving a blade of some kind—it looked like a folding straight razor—into her thighs, which were pouring blood into thick pools on the floor at her feet. The flashing intensified, revealing more snapshots that burned into my mind. Her eyes, trancelike, fixed on her legs as she raised her arm and brought it down again and again, exposing fatty tissue and loosing rivulets of blood.

A man to the right of the phone began encouraging her like a photographer in a fashion shoot. “That’s right, baby! Make it deep.” His voice was somewhat effeminate, encouraging, but dropped into lower, terrifyingly animalistic registers at the word “deep.” The camera slowly panned in a circle toward him, leaving the woman and her guillotine-arm to attack herself off screen to the left. Screams and what I now perceived as wet thumps, accompanied by the clicking of the shutter sunk under the sound of the man taking the photos as he entered the scene from the right. “Oh come on, baby!” He encouraged. “You can do better than that.” Effeminate to animalistic as before. Just like the woman in the photo shoot, I could only see the photographer in flashes. He wore a tight black t-shirt and black pants, and in the light of each flash he was in a different position. This time he held the camera horizontal. The next time he was on bended knee, holding the camera vertical, tilting up from below her. I tried to see his face, but he was clearly wearing a rubber mask illustrating a distorted old man with a deep frown and absurdly large facial creases. The phone’s camera continued panning to the right, past the photographer, who seemed to not mind or notice that he was being filmed. Like the woman, he slowly disappeared to the left of the screen as the screams began to soften and decrease in frequency.

A warm yellow light gradually rose near the top of the phone’s screen, breaking the temporary darkness. Behind the masked photographer, about twenty feet, I lay there on a small sofa, sleeping, lit from above by a yellow stage light so that it made a perfect circle on the floor around the scene. I wasn’t making any noise or moving. Drunk. Vulnerable. Unaware. I was terrified for the me in the video even though the me watching obviously lived to see it a night later and hundreds of miles away. I could hear dogs from somewhere behind the phone’s position, and the photographer from before saying, “Oh yes! Oh yeah,” in his awful tonal mishmash. I felt sick watching it. If I had been able to eat anything that day, I would have vomited it off the side of the hotel bed. But there was nothing, and I continued to watch the video, which had begun to pan to the right again, leaving me on the couch to slide left off screen.

Another backlit sheet, fire engine red, crept across the phone’s screen from right to left. The audio was noticeably quiet as the dogs had moved away from the microphone. The photographer and the self-harming “model” were silent now. On the screen was the silhouette of a man standing there, like a shadowy representation of the statues they hand out at the Oscars. A yellow stage light, not unlike the one that had illuminated my slumber, slowly lit the figure from above. As I was trying to focus on his details, less intense lights rose to illuminate the space to the sides and front of the man, revealing a small crowd of spectators, watching the man like in a play. If I’d been less revolted by the videos, or my fear response wasn’t telling me to simply flee the room, I’d have remarked on the care and intricacy someone took to stage this macabre horror.

Each of the spectators, all dressed in the same tone of black as the photographer from before, wore rubber masks illustrating an obscene pantomime of expression. Here a frowning young woman, there an angry old man. A few resembled gaudily makeup-laden little girls. The women wore elegant, tight dresses, and the men were in either short sleeves, like the photographer, or wore tuxedoes. The masks seemed to be accentuating expressions of wonder, awe, and excitement at the sight of the standing man in the middle of the shot. He was the same man as the earlier video, I soon recognized, and what I had envisioned as the Oscar trophy holding its hands in front of him was the same man bound by the stick and ligatures. I was unsettled, to be sure, but I hadn’t seen the man’s face in the other video. This one was lit differently, and seemed to linger in one position on the man who presently stood there motionless. I leaned my face toward the phone’s screen to get a clearer look, and to my shock, recognized the face of my friend, Kyle.

He was no longer fighting mad, as he was in the earlier video, but stood there motionless and staring at a spot just above the camera. Kyle, my friend. I was terrified for him, thinking of the woman I’d just watch butcher herself in that grim fashion shoot. The crowd was pantomiming as before, looking back and forth at one another, nodding egregiously or leaning in grotesque interest at Kyle. One woman in a mask that looked like a little girl with blonde pig tails traced her hand, palm up, across her lap and away from her, reached out in a large arc, and brought her hand to her mouth in a gesture of surprise. The camera zoomed to get a better look at my friend and she disappeared into the bottom right of the screen.

He wasn’t bleeding or bruised as far as I could tell, but he looked like he was in a trance. I thought he had been tied to a pole as he had been in the earlier video, but now I could tell he was just standing there with his knees slightly bent. The camera zoomed slightly and focused on the space between his legs. There I could see that there was, in fact, a post of some kind that rose up out of the floor. My initial thought was that he could simply walk away if he wanted to, but as the camera zoomed in further on his crotch and upper legs, as though to make sure the viewer understood what the scene meant, I could see that his underwear were pulled tight to a point between his legs. There was a small amount of what appeared to be blood running down the inside of his thighs, and I finally realized that he must be sitting on a peg. His legs were trembling and flexed, keeping himself from impalement. As though on cue, like the camera operator would know that the viewer would make the deduction just then, the image zoomed back to show the whole scene again. A man in the crowd hunched forward in his chair and pointed to Kyle’s crotch then turned to the woman next to him on seat toward the camera, showing his obscenely gleeful, chubby-faced boy mask, and put his palms to his temples in a pantomime of tense anticipation.

Kyle slid, or rather sat, down a fraction of an inch. It was barely perceptible, but he had moved. I may not have noticed it if the crowd hadn’t suddenly gasped and stood to applause. I strained to watch Kyle’s face for a sign that he might flee. Break out and run. Leave me on the couch, I thought. But the camera slowly began to pan back to the left, leaving Kyle and that crowd to disappear to the right. They quieted into silence as soon as the image was gone from the screen, replaced by the darkness and finally, from the left, the lit space wherein I slept in yellow on that sofa.

It remained fixed there for several seconds until a man abruptly entered the scene and called out, “Hey buddy! It’s time to leave, show’s over. You need to go home.” He grabbed me by the arm, but I was incoherent and never made it to my feet unaided. The man, who wore a mask that had protruding, angry eyebrows, held a set of keys in one hand that jingled through the microphone even at this distance. He pulled one of my arms over his shoulder and dragged me toward the darkness. A red door, another twenty feet back suddenly appeared, lit again from above as on a stage set. The man appeared again from the shadow, effortlessly dragging me along like a limp doll, and the door opened from the other side to darkness beyond. Just before he drug my limp body through the door, he turned and paused. The camera operator, right next to the microphone said, half-whimpering, “The show never ends, it just changes mediums.” The man drug me through the door and it closed behind him. It took me a moment to realize that the recording had stopped and returned to the preview frame I recognized from before.

I set the phone down and then picked it back up again, not sure what to do with my hands. I went to the last text sent from Kyle’s phone (as I no longer assumed Kyle sent anything after last night), and called him directly. It went straight to voicemail. I opened the computer to look up the number to the police department in San Francisco, and my Facebook page was open. I scanned the first post before opening a Google search, and there it was. A new update from Kyle. It was a photograph of him and the woman in the videos sitting at a restaurant having lunch. She was in the same dress she had worn in the video, and he was wearing the same collared shirt he had on the night before. I called Kyle’s number again. Straight to voicemail.

Nothing made sense. I texted him, “What is going on?!?!?” and received a text a few minutes later that read, “Wish you could’ve stayed longer.” I looked back at my Facebook feed. His timeline photo was set at 3:45 P.M. that day. I hovered somewhere between calling the police and driving back to San Francisco. I sent him a message on Facebook, “What are the videos on my phone?! Are you okay?”

A minute later, he responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. All’s well, bro. See you soon.”

I went back to the timeline to look at his photo, but he had updated again. This time the scene was at a baseball game and the accompanying caption seemed designed to indicate, to me, that he was there that afternoon. He’d told me before that he had tickets to go to the game that day, and I was supposed to go with him. But the same girl from before, from the videos and the earlier update, was standing next to him in the bleachers. How were they at the game and not the hospital or the morgue? I commented on the photo.

“Sorry I missed the game, man. Wish I could have been there!”

I quickly deleted it, as his army of Facebook friends would no doubt see the photo of him and his date, see my comment, and wonder why I was trying to horn in on that experience. I thought it was a ruse—that he’d been kidnapped and murdered, and someone was doctoring photos of him, but I could see, right in the bottom of the frame, that the date on the scoreboard matched that day’s date and the caption he’d written. I opened my phone again to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated watching the videos. They were there. I skipped to the images of Kyle on stage. It was him. I called his phone again and it rang.

“Hello?” It was Kyle’s voice.

“Hey man, what the hell are those videos on my phone?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, bro. You were pretty drunk last night,” he said.

“No shit. But those videos. They’re,” and I paused, unsure of what to say. I finally settled on, “insane and disgusting. What did you get yourself into?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, man. Listen, I gotta call you back,” and then he abruptly hung up.

That was the last time I talked to him directly. I tried to call a few more times over the next week, and again a few weeks later. Every time it went straight to voicemail. There were a few text messages back and forth, but they were mainly terse exchanges. I asked a few weeks later if he wanted to come down to visit, but he declined. I checked up on him often and watched as his Facebook feed announced that he was “in a relationship,” following his timeline as it followed a series of what seemed to be an idealized order of events—new promotion, a vacation, company provided tickets to this and that event. I didn’t look at the videos again until a few months later, but I kept them even when I bought a new phone. Once, when talking to a mutual friend from back home, I asked if he’d heard from Kyle at all. He said he’d gone out to meet up with him a few weeks prior to our conversation in Utah (a vacation that Kyle’s company paid for). He told me that Kyle was doing well, and his girlfriend was cool. He’d moved into a much nicer apartment and got a “crazy” promotion at work. He was “making bank,” our mutual friend informed me. He told me Kyle had mentioned that I’d visited and that I’d gotten “super drunk” and spouted a bunch of really crazy talk—like, disturbing talk about the devil. Our mutual friend asked if everything was okay, the way you ask someone struggling mentally. I said I was fine and hung up.

And I was, for the most part, okay. I stopped drinking entirely and have avoided it since that night. I got a job working on a road crew and I work outside in the sun all day. It’s grueling and not the glamourous gig in Hollywood I casually kept in the back of my mind when I first moved out to California, but it pays better than anything I’d ever done before. I got hurt the other day at work, and had to take two weeks off: collect some workman’s comp. But I got to thinking about that night because before I’d gotten hurt, I was overexerting myself to remove a chunk of concrete we’d broken out of the road. My foreman, a new guy from Northern California who knew the superintendent (the other guys were pissed he was brought in from the outside rather than one of us moving up from within), was yelling at us to move faster. It was what he’d said right before I got hurt that reminded me of Kyle, of the videos.

“Oh come on ya’ baby. You can do better than that.” The tone of the word “that” was guttural, aggressive, and disgusted as though my job performance was appalling. To show him I had the stamina to complete the labor and to stave off embarrassment in front of my fellows, I tried to lift the chunk of concrete alone, straining a muscle in my back. I watched the videos again this morning to remind myself that they were actually real. They are still there on my old phone which I now keep in a safe. I have no explanation for them, and at this point, Kyle and the woman (now his girlfriend) are alive and apparently flourishing. I only had the stomach to watch it one more time, but it was in the way that the photographer challenged her in the photo shoot to cut herself deeper that reminded me of my foreman. Those final words of the last video, “It only changes mediums,”—I have no idea what that means. If I ever see Kyle in person again, I’m going to have to show him and press him to explain it. Until then, it’ll have to remain just a story roiling around in the ether, hidden to all but me, as real as an update on social media, and as ephemeral as a memory.