On time for once? And Ash and Dust Part 13

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

What? I know! Weird, isn’t it?

So I’m plugging along, and I admit that this story is sort of developing erratically. Not that it’s out of control, but I’ve never done fiction like this before and it’s a little looser than I’m used to. That said, I’m still having fun, and I get to play with some characters that I normally wouldn’t be able to. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I loved Wisdom a lot.

Here it is! Enjoy.

 

Chapter 13: We All Fall Down

“Why am I naked?” I asked. It was the first thing that came out which my mind could process. Certainly not the room itself. It was barren and grey, the floor tiled in ugly squares, and I stood in a small circle of light. That light, however, was ragged at the edges and disappeared into a murky black nothingness. I was on an island that had been set adrift in the night. That was too difficult to imagine, so my mind instead asked where my clothes had gone. Having asked that inside my head, my body reminded me that it was cold and set some things to shriveling and other things to trembling. That was all the cold, I tried to tell myself, and not because of Despair.

My mind was certainly having trouble with him. He, and I could tell it was a he because of his shriveled penis, knelt on the floor with his legs tucked underneath him. His skin was the same greeny-gray of the nurses and the doctors, but he was muscled and strong-looking. Not that it would have helped, in his case. His arms were raised as though to cover his face with his hands, but he didn’t have hands. The flesh and bone of his arms just continued and ran seamlessly into his face, excess skin hanging like a shroud. His head was smooth and round, and a small seam of flesh ran down the middle of his, well, face-thing, that marked where one hand started and the other stopped. He breathed slowly and heavily, but not laboriously. It was completely deliberate, and that unsettled me.

I wrapped my arms around me and shivered while I waited. This wasn’t the cold of a winter day or a biting wind. This was the cold of an examining room or an empty house. It nestled right beside my heart and set up shop. No fire or heater could have moved this cold easily.

“Because I will not have distractions here.” Despair said, his voice as smooth as new asphalt. “It is only you and I here, Ryan. Nothing else matters. Not your modesty, nor the things you carry. Nothing.”

“Then why is it so damn c-c-cold? I can hardly breathe!” I shot back, my teeth chattering.

Despair turned his flesh-covered face towards me. “You believe it ought to be because you are naked. Vulnerability, exposure, fear. These are responses ingrained in you from when your people ran on the Savannah and worshipped the stars. The lizard that lives in your brainstem and dictates your hunger, your thirst, your lusts still howls for your attention. You no longer need it. Release yourself from your primitive bonds and acknowledge who and where you are.”

By this point, I’ve heard this spiel a dozen times before, but I still got pissed off for forgetting. I concentrated for a second and imagined what it would feel like to be back in the sauna at the gym. It was perfect. Wet, clammy heat suddenly rolled around me and the shivering stopped. It felt so real I could almost see the steam. Hell, I even had a naked guy sitting across from me. It was just like home.

“Good.” Despair said without a trace of happiness. “You are on your way towards understanding.”

“Understanding?” I said, unsure of what to do with my hands. Five minutes naked and I missed having pockets to shove them into. “Is this going to lead to me understanding why you tried so hard to get me here? Because that is first on my list right now.”

Despair swivelled on the spot. Well, not quite. His body squirmed underneath the skin. Muscles and bones shifted but the flesh on top stayed where it was. Joints popped and ligaments cracked as Despair shifted within himself. I nearly retched, but bit back the disgust. Maybe I wasn’t listening to my hypothalamus anymore, but it was still hard not to respond to something like that.

“Understanding. Enlightenment. Science. Mortals are so demanding. Your demands were the only thing that dragged you from the ocean to flop onto land. Your Darwin might have deluded your people into thinking that it was your goddess Nature that caused you to walk upright, but you would be wrong. A long time ago, your ancestors looked up and wondered why and how. For so many of you, it is all that drives you. Look at you now. You should not go on. You know what has happened and that there is nothing left to do, yet you humans do so enjoy these fruitless searches. No bear would wonder “how”? No iguana would ask “why”? And yet you could spend the rest of your time searching for an answer to that question, even if none were to be found.”

“That isn’t what I asked you, Despair.”

“Very well. I brought you here to answer your questions.”

I hesitated, suddenly unsure. I didn’t trust him, especially not after the nurses, Hor-ghast, Depression, and the crows, but he certainly knew a hell of a lot more about this place than I did. I took a chance.

“Alright, fine. How do I wake up from here? How do I get back home?”

“That is simple. You must go to the Tower of Dreams, take your place on your throne and put your crown on your head. Then your soul will return to your physical body, and you will become whole again.”

I frowned. “That’s very easy.”

“Of course. To sleep is not to die. There is always a way back. But now I will give you another answer, for I know there is another question you have.”

I was still for a very, very long time. I, at least, continued the pantomime of breathing. My pale chest rose and fell, even if nothing was going in or out. Despair just sat there like a hunk of flesh, dead but for the fact he didn’t realize it. But he was right. There was another question I had to ask. Something I had to know.

“Are they…are Sam and Melissa dead? Are they really dead?”

There was no hesitation. “Yes.”

I crouched down, not trusting myself to stand any longer. Oh, make no mistake, I had pretty much assumed they were already. I mean, I had no reason to mistrust Praetix, aside from the fact she was a giant neurotic spider-lady. But there was a part of me that hoped beyond reason they were alive. That kept my suspicions burning and that little glimmer of hope alive. Unitil I see corpses, it said, they might be out there.

But Despair’s words killed that. The “Yes” was as sharp as a knife and I certainly felt it go in.

My children were dead. The End.

Will failed me, and energy fled from my limbs. It was all I could do to stay vertical, much less focus on staying warm. Cold entered my again, and I was tired. I didn’t want to sleep, but I was done.

Game over, man. Game over.

Despair shifted again, the wet snapping sounds no longer offensive to me. We knelt face-to-face, but I couldn’t even bear to look him in the eye.

“Why?” I asked, weakly. “Why did they have to die?”

“Some questions have no answer, Ryan. This is not one of them. Why did they have to die? They did not have to, but that a series of very specific conditions made it possible for them to die. The man that collided with your vehicle? Why was he there? It is simple. He imbided alcohol beyond the limit where he would be capable of driving safely. The alcohol deadened his brain and slowed his response time so that he could not react in time to your, somewhat aggressive, left turn. We may go further. He drank because he was despressed and had gotten in the habit of drinking. You were being agressive because you wanted to get home and put your children to bed. You were not looking because your daughter undid her seatbelt. Why did it happen? Because of this, that, and the other reasons. There is no mysterious why, that can only be answered by priests and philosophers. It was almost mathematically simple.”

I crouched down, not trusting myself to stand up any longer. “So he was a drunk driver?”

“Yes. Does that matter?”

“No. I suppose not.”

“I know what you hoped,” said Despair, “I know you hoped that there was a reason, divine or otherwise, that dictated the death of your children. There is none.”

“No,” I shook my head, my voice dead, “I just hoped that maybe I was wrong, or that Guilt was lying to me. I can’t really imagine that they’re gone. I don’t want to.”

“More of your primal fantasies. There never was hope. They were doomed, if you wish to use that ridiculous expression, to die the moment they were born. Awaken, Ryan. These dreams, these fantasies, they are not as others would have you believe. They falsely lift humanity, only to dash them down on the rocks of reality. Your gods are dying, and have been for hundreds of years. Technology and economy have replaced them, but even they too shall pass. Communism collapsed under the weight of the oppression needed to keep the Communists communist. Capitalism will drown beneath the blood that fuels capital’s engine. Even democracy is no match for the lure of laziness and ignorance, and your Presidents and Ministers will soon call themselves Kings and Counts once more.”

I chuckled. “So what are we then, puppets or something? We can’t help but dream, can we?”

“Yes, you can. You might be dogs tied to carts, dragged kicking and howling through life, but the wise man realizes that life is temporal. Existence is fleeting biological nonsense that serves nothing and no-one. Even your soul may be lost and destroyed. It is better to hope for nothing and build nothing, than to dream and attempt, knowing all things must fail.”

Of course Despair would be a nihilist. It make a lot of sense, now that I think about it. And this was always the way, wasn’t it? That was pretty much what the old cops, the ones jaded by time, used to say. They’d walk out, everyday the same streets, and try to fight crime. But you couldn’t fight crime. You could only lock up criminals. Maybe the numbers would go down, and maybe you’d get the bad guy you were looking for, they’d say. But there will always be another perp to catch. Always.

I guess we’re dreamers, like that. We’re all dreaming, and every day it’s the same dream.

Some part of me refused to give up, though. It was yelling something in my brain that I couldn’t quite hear. I tried to ignore it, but it punched it’s way to the surface, if only in spite.

“So what am I doing here, then?” I asked. “I’m trying to leave, aren’t I? It’s all about me, isn’t it? You only want me so that you can ride me back to my world! You don’t give a damn about my dreams or my past, you just want to spread yourself all over the people I know back home!”

Despair’s hands shifted, and the crack in his face opened. A single sickly eye, set vertically and shot through with green lines and weeping from the edges, looked at me. It was so yellowed that it looked almost gold, and it smelled like death and rubber.

“Ryan, this has never been about you. You are no hero on a quest. What monster is there to fight, Ryan? What enemy holds you back? I have no walls to bar you here. Leave, if you so wish. I have even told you how to return to your world. Nothing of mine holds you back. But should you return, then there will be nothing for you. Your children, Ryan, are dead. Even should you destroy me utterly, should you destroy every one of us that wishes to use you for our own ends, that will not change. I do not wish to “ride” you, as you so crudely put it. I am only answering your questions, and showing you the truth. There is nothing left for you. There never was.”

I slumped to my knees, too exhausted to even stand, and too dead to care. He was right. No matter what I did, even if I kept fighting to stay alive, it wouldn’t get me anywhere but home. And that’s what’s waiting for me: two coffins and a broken body. Oh yes, comas aren’t like what they show on tv. Unless I’ve only been in one for a day or a bit, I’m going to meet with things like muscular atrophy and irreversible brain damage. Joy.

From the shadows, the destroyed Hor-ghast dragged itself into the light. It moaned weakly and stayed out of range but it was clearly hungry. It pawed at the ground restlessly, caught between fear of approaching and the palpable need to do so. I didn’t care. So what if it ate all my memories? Then I wouldn’t have to deal with them. I wouldn’t have to remember Sam and Melissa and how they looked when they were born and how they looked when they were killed.

That little bit of my mind started screaming when I thought about my children being born, but I fought it down. It was already over, wasn’t it?

Something urged the Hor-ghast forward, and it took a halting step towards me. Seeing as I didn’t respond, it crept closer, wary of me.

“Do not be frightened. Ryan has woken from his dreams and has seen the truth. He will go quietly into that deep darkness. You must also not be frightened, Ryan.”

I chuckled bitterly. “Memento mori. Remember you too, shall die.” The Hor-ghast opened it’s mouth and rings of teeth leered down at me. I smiled up at him and explained what I meant. “My grandmother had it carved onto her mantlepiece and it terrified me.” The memory came back to me, one last time most likely, as the Hor-ghast’s mouth opened wide to swallow me. It was suddenly huge, far bigger than it needed to be to take me in whole.

The memory continued on, like a movie in my head, while I waited to be eaten. The mantlepiece was huge, done in the old-world style that was never popular in North America with skulls and roses and saints. It was back in Lithuania, and I only saw it once when I had gone back to Vilnius on a whim. Emily had whistled when she saw it, “Damn, but they don’t make them like that anymore.” I remember looking around the house, an old Communist-era block of concrete. “And thank God for that, eh?”

I remember laughing with her in that room. I remembered the feel of her arms around me, and the feel of her lips on mine, and what it felt like when we made love for the first time in Europe. What it felt like, when a few days later I proposed to her and she accepted.

I was completely naked, but a ring suddenly appeared on my finger, and I knew exactly what it was . My wedding band, the one that Emily and I had picked out.

Emily.

I remembered her name. But it was too late.

“No wait!’ I shouted as the Hor-ghast’s mouth closed over me and darkness came. 

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