Voices In the Dim Light
IMPORTANT: This is a continuation of my story "Path of Glass", which has its own link on the frontpage. You should read that story first, then come back.
"Hey, Jimmy, remember when I said 'Path of Glass' sounded like a cult?"
"This doesn't help any," I said, nodding at the disheveled warehouse we were walking towards. "And why the hell did we park so far away?"
"It's a privacy thing. Damon doesn't want anyone stumbling across our little gatherings. I'm sure you understand."
Despite the paranormal incident with Martin a week before, I was still a little skeptical. "Yeah, but this shithole?"
"Appearances can be deceiving," he said cryptically.
We walked the rest of the way in silence.
Jimmy banged his fist twice against the massive metal door. I could hear the sound bouncing around the inside of the building. The place sounded huge.
I half-expected one of those rectangular sliding windows to open up, and for Jimmy to give the secret password, but instead a motor kicked in, and the door began to slide open, no password needed. As soon as he could fit through, Jimmy stepped inside, tugging me along with him. Just as I crossed the threshold, the door began to close again. The motor sound, the gate, the dim lighting inside, it all reminded me of something out of a prison movie.
The warehouse was one huge open space, as large as I had imagined by the echo. Other than half-circle of chairs divided into four sections facing the far wall, there was no other furniture.
At least a hundred people were already there, a few sitting quietly, most standing around and talking in groups of three or four. Jimmy led me over to one such group.
"Hey, Jimmy! How've you been?" a pale man in his fifties called as we approached.
"Not bad, Neil. No complaints."
"Who's this you brought with you?"
"This is my main man Eric," he said, grabbing my shoulder a bit rougher than I would have liked. "We go way back. Mischief and such."
Neil grinned awkwardly, as if there was no one he went way back with. "Oh my god," he gasped, refocusing his attention on Jimmy. "Your eyes! Donna, look at his eyes."
The woman standing beside Neil moved in closer to inspect Jimmy's new irises. She gasped too, sounding just like the older man. "Jimmy, where'd you get those?"
Jimmy smiled slyly. "You know the rules, Donna. 'Don't ask, don't tell'."
She shook her head playfully. "Alright, have it your way. They are lovely, though."
Jimmy nodded respectfully, already accustomed to such comments.
"So where's this Damon guy?" I asked.
Jimmy shuffled to one side, looking around the crowd. "I need some longer legs," he complained, perching himself on the balls of his feet.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Neil said, winking at no one in specific.
Donna laughed politely.
"Oh, there he is. Over there," Jimmy said, pointing to the section of chairs on the right. I craned my neck to look.
There were dozens of people in the area Jimmy had motioned to, but I knew right away who he meant. It wasn't hard. Damon was built like a pro wrestler, muscular and broad-shouldered. He was easily over six feet tall. He stood with his back to me, looking down at the twenty or so people who were gathered around him wide-eyed, clinging to his every word like he was Jesus on steroids or something.
But more than his Mr. Universe build, what got my attention was his posture. He stood like a Marine, his back so straight that it looked like he had a steel rod for a spine. And then there was the way he moved, or rather, the way he didn't move. He stood perfectly still, arms at his side, thumbs hooked into the pockets of his pants. It was like he was a wax sculpture. And then suddenly, he turned, breaking off conversation and looking straight at me.
I have never been so scared in my life. It was the way he moved, every action fluid and precise, like something out of Terminator, a powerful machine turning to face the camera with deliberate efficiency. And then it was over, his gaze turning elsewhere.
"Are you okay, man?" I hear Jimmy ask, his voice far away.
"Yeah," I managed, my eyes still on Damon. The Terminator reference wasn't far off, I realized. The imposing size, the mechanical posture, the sheer physical presence - it was all there.
At first glance, Damon looked Caucasian, like almost everyone I saw, but there was a trace of distinctly foreign ancestry in his features and the slight bronze of his skin, Italian maybe. His black hair had expensive-looking platinum highlights and was styled in tight ringlets that accented his forehead. A perfectly squared goatee accented his strong jaw. I had never seen anyone so well groomed. He was dressed in a tight black shirt that showed off his chest and the most immaculate pair of khakis I'd ever seen. He looked like a model.
Jimmy nudged me. "Come on. Let's sit down."
We found a pair of seats in one of the middle sections. Within a few seconds, everyone was seated.
Damon had moved to the center of the semicircle and was standing next to a tall wooden stool. I wondered why there wasn't a stage. A second later, he cleared his throat, and I got my answer.
Instantly, it was silent, like someone had pushed mute on a stereo.
There wasn't a stage because Damon didn't need one. Any doubts I had as to why someone would join something as cult-sounding as the "Path of Glass" vanished. Seeing Damon up there, I knew it was all him. He was pure charisma. He could be selling tampons to football players - it wouldn't matter. He could do it. This was his element. All eyes on him, all mouths closed, he was in control. And he knew it.
He turned his head slowly, his gaze falling on each person present. He nodded slightly, conveying his pleasure, his approval.
I want his approval, I realized. He hadn't even spoken, and already I wanted, desperately, I discovered, for him to like me, to approve of me. This is the kind of person people follow to the death, I told myself, summoning to mind images of Heaven's Gate and the burning Branch Davidian compound. He is dangerous., I realized. He hadn't even spoken, and already I wanted, desperately, I discovered, for him to like me, to approve of me. , I told myself, summoning to mind images of Heaven's Gate and the burning Branch Davidian compound. .
"Dangerous," I whispered to myself. Jimmy elbowed me.
Already the room was Damon's for the taking. The warehouse was a field, and he was dominating it. Remember, I told myself. Remember who he is. He's just a man. My mind said it, but I was having trouble believing it.
"Good evening," Damon began, his strong voice filling the warehouse, commanding attention. "I see a few new faces here tonight. Welcome. You've chosen an excellent night to join us."
He began to move from one side of the room to the other, pacing slowly back and forth, his movement controlled as ever. Motion gave him a new depth, added a level of danger to his physical presence. He reminded me of a panther, coiled muscled hiding beneath his immaculate surface, ready to explode at a moment's notice.
"It was my intention to talk about self-esteem tonight and its importance to the Path," he announced. "But the plan has changed." He stopped suddenly and looked slowly around the room.
"Have you ever recognized a total stranger? Have you ever looked at someone you've never seen before and known, beyond all doubt, that this person is important somehow, that this person is going to change your life?"
It seemed to me that he was describing himself, but the question was rhetorical. When Damon spoke, everyone listened, and no one talked.
"I experienced this today," he continued. "I was passing a coffee shop, and there was a woman sitting inside the window, looking out at the street." He paused and, for a second, he seemed far away, as if reliving the experience, and the room relaxed. And then he was back, strong and in control.
"Our eyes met, and I knew she was important, vital, to me. To us. I went inside and introduced myself. We spoke for quite a while. She is with us here tonight, and rather than relate to you what she told me, she has agreed to speak to you herself." He motioned to his left, where a young woman with shoulder-length black hair sat in the front row. "Sarah…"
She stood up hesitantly, hands shoved in her pockets. She seemed terrified. Damon smiled reassuringly, extending a manicured hand toward her and, after a moment, she moved towards him timidly. He motioned to the stool, and she sat down gently, folding her arms across her chest.
Everyone was silent, examining her. There was something about her that made me think I'd seen her before, somewhere. She was average height, with dark eyes. I couldn't tell what color they were because she kept her head down, never looking up at anyone. She was somewhat plain-featured, certainly not attractive in the classical sense, but there was a feeling about her, an aura of shy, unspoken sadness that drew my eyes to her. She seemed the kind of person who, when left alone, would sit against a wall and hug her knees.
She was wearing black slacks and a loose, deep-purple sweater. She must have felt the weight of everyone's eyes focused on her, because she brushed her hair back behind her ears nervously. Damon placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She breathed in slowly, her chest expanding with what she must have hoped was confidence.
"I'm…I'm not sure what to say." Her voice was exactly what I expected, soft and imploring.
"Tell us about yourself," Damon suggested.
She raised her head, at last looking cautiously out at us. "My name is Sarah Ma-"
Damon cleared his throat.
"Oh, right, just Sarah." She bit her lip apologetically. "I'm twenty-four years old. I've lived here all my life."
Damon took his hand off her shoulder and squatted down beside her. "Good. Now tell them what you told me, about what you want. About why you're here."
Something happened to her then. It was as if, with that question, Damon brought to life some part of her, strong and determined, that had lain dormant under her skin her entire life. "I want to die."
"That's a very serious thing to say, Sarah. Are you sure you mean that?"
"Yes," she said, the same intense resolution in her words sending a chill through me.
His eyes hadn't left her. "Have you talked about this with anyone? Friends? Family?"
"I've been to therapy. It didn't help."
Damon nodded sympathetically. "Have you ever attempted suicide before?"
"I've gotten close. Twice. Once, on a bridge, and then…I was going to shoot myself."
Damon nodded again, and it seemed to me that he understood her thoughts as if they were his own. "But you didn't," he said. "Something stopped you. What was it?"
"I…" Her eyes turned down again as she searched for the words, vital and exact, that could explain to all of us who she was. "I…I want to leave something behind. Sounds cliché, huh? But I don't want to have done nothing. Life is…too powerful to waste."
"You're exactly right," Damon said slowly. "Life is too powerful to waste."
"But," her voice filled with frustration. "I've done nothing. I've never painted a picture that moved someone or sculpted something beautiful. I've tried, but…" She shook her head sadly. "I've never written a song, a story. I'm not creative like that. I've done…nothing."
"What about poetry? You look like a poet."
She smiled slightly, and I got the sense that it was not something she did often.
Such a shame, I thought. Her smile was beautiful.
"No, she said. "Sometimes I feel it, but words are never enough. They do nothing, they have no action."
"But you had a plan," Damon prompted. "For action."
"Yes. I was going to donate my organs, help save people's lives."
Damon nodded, waiting for more.
"I thought I could give people better lives, maybe even another chance to live." She was becoming more animated, eyes and voice alive with fervent energy. I'd have done something good. Something lasting, you know?"
Damon smiled and squeezed her hand. He stood up and, after looking around the audience, addressed us. "I've never believed in a god, in a 'higher power'. You all know this. But the timing that has brought Sarah here is far too precise to be coincidence. Something, someone perhaps, made certain that our paths would cross. I don't expect you to accept this simply because I say so. That's not what I want at all. But this is what I believe, and I want all of you to know that.
"But I'm getting ahead of myself. Sarah, tell everyone what you were going to do, after you left the coffee shop."
"I was going to go home, mix pills into some ice cream and eat it." The way she said it, so factual and sterile, brought the shivers back. "I was going to call the hospital near the end, tell them what I'd done, that I didn't want to go to waste."
"So this was it?"
"This was it," she affirmed. "It seemed like a good plan, until…"
Damon tilted his head to one side. "Until what?"
"Until you offered me better."
Damon smiled and turned back to us again. "As long as you have known me, you have heard me speak of the sanctity of life. Life is, as Sarah said, powerful. Death is not something to be treated casually. Sarah, are you sure that this is what you want?"
She looked out at all of us confidently. "Yes. I'm sure."
"And I believe you." Damon looked out over the audience, addressing us once again. "How you go about 'improving' yourself is none of my concern. You all know that. I don't ask. I don't endorse or condemn. Tonight, however, I am making an exception. Speaking with Sarah today, the thing that I came to understand, the thing that she couldn't put into words, is that what she wants most is to know she's making a difference. Is that right?"
She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Yes. Exactly."
"Organ donation won't do that for her. She would never get to see the people to whom her body would go. She wouldn't get to see the people she'd be helping."
"I want them to know who I am, to know it's me," Sarah affirmed.
Damon nodded slowly. "We can give her that opportunity. And we will. Go ahead, Sarah."
She stood up silently and pulled her sweater up over her head. Before anyone could react to the sight of her bare chest, she had unbuttoned her slacks and let them drop to the floor, kicking them lithely off her leg. She had no doubt come prepared for this, because she calmly sat down again, completely naked. The women in the group must have been too shocked to speak. The men were definitely too preoccupied to say anything.
And I had thought Damon had control over the room…
Seeing her with her clothes on, there had been no way to know how beautiful her body was. She was model-thin and had the kind of physique you see in gym commercials. Her calves and thighs were sleek curves, her breasts fuller than her sweater had revealed. I could see her heart beating. She looked like an artist's model, posing unassumingly on the stool.
Looking at her, I wondered what it was that could make so beautiful a woman want to die. I was suddenly filled with a profound sense of sorrow, as if I was witnessing from middle distance a great tragedy unfold.
Jimmy cleared his throat, and the short, frozen second shattered back into reality.
Damon looked around, a slight smile on his lips. "Alright," he said loudly, "Who sees something they want?"
"Oh, I see something I want!" a male voice called from the back.
All the men broke out laughing, glad someone other than themselves had said what they were all thinking.
Sarah's ears and cheeks reddened, and she looked down quickly.
It took Damon several seconds to settle everyone down, his hands raised in an appeal for restored order order. "Seriously now." He searched the audience for a particular face and, finding it, extended his open palm to a middle-aged woman with a wide face. "Georgia, you want to get rid of those cellulite thighs, right?" Damon ran his index finger down the outside of Sarah's upper leg. "How about these?" Georgia nodded bashfully. "Then they're yours," Damon stated.
A different woman stood up. "I'd like her hair," she called. Sarah bit her lip, embarrassed but obviously pleased. I turned to look at the woman who had spoken. She was still young, early thirties perhaps, but long streaks of silver already ran through her dark hair.
"It's yours, Jessica," Damon declared, nodding respectfully to her."
A thin woman sitting next to Jimmy stood up and announced loudly, "If I had boobs like those, I'd wouldn't go through toilet paper as fast!"
A few of the other women laughed.
"Good, Suzanne." Damon said. "They're yours."
"I'd like her stomach," a suburban-soccer-mom type called out, standing up as she spoke.
Damon frowned. "Julie, there's nothing wrong with your stomach that a day a week at the gym won't cure. The Path is not about making lifer easier for yourself." He must have seen the dejected look on her face, because he added, "But if no one else claims it, it's yours."
Another woman, much older, stood up. "She has such beautiful skin."
Damon turned to face her. "Yes, she does. And it'd be a hell of a lot cheaper than Botox, right? It's yours Ellen."
It was quiet for a few seconds, then someone coughed deeply."
Damon looked over at the source of the noise. "Yes, Charlie?"
A slightly overweight man with a thick beard stood up reluctantly. "Well, I wasn't gonna say anything, but, well, if no one else is gonna take them, I'd ummm, I'd like her feet."
About half the room exploded into laughter.
Charlie reddened. "I don't know if it'll work," he added quickly, "but I'd like to try it."
Damon looked around at all the laughing faces. "No," he called to everyone. "There's a lesson here. Charlie, do you want her feet. Really?"
"Then it will work. It is as much about you as it is about her. Do you understand?"
"Yes sir, I do. Thank you."
Charlie sat down, and they went on like that, voices in the dim light claiming for themselves aspects of the girl who wanted nothing more than to be rid of them forever, until, at last, there was nothing left for her to give away.
It was very quiet then. At first, I wasn't sure why, and then, in a split-second, I understood fully what was about to happen.
Damon looked down at Sarah. "It's time," he said solemnly. She nodded and brushed her hair back behind her ears. Damon moved behind her and, looking down at the back of her head, placed his hands gently on her shoulders.
The woman sitting next to Jimmy stood up again. Her chair made a strange squeak. Damon looked up at her, and I got the feeling that this was all very spontaneous. The woman swallowed hard, then looked directly at Sarah. "Look, hon," she said. "I…thank you."
I thought she would sit down then, but she didn't move, here eyes locked with Sarah's. Damon nodded his approval.
A chair creaked as someone else stood. It was Charlie. His head was down, eyes on the floor. "I, uhh, thanks. Thank you, Sarah."
Someone else stood, "Thank you, Sarah," and another, "Thank you," until everyone who was to receive a part of her was on their feet. I looked around. At least half of the people were standing.
Sarah took it all in, her eyes shining with tears. "And you," she managed, her voice shaking. "Thank you."
Standing behind her, Damon nodded. One by one, everyone sat down, and then it was silent again.
Damon closed his eyes and lowered his head close to hers, as if he was praying, his hands still on her shoulders. "How do you feel?" he asked.
It was a moment before she responded. "Fine."
No one moved.
It seemed forever before she answered. "A little cold. You sound…far away."
Damon murmured his approval.
The silence that followed was torture.
At last he leaned forward. His lips touched her ear. "And now?" he whispered.
Silence. We waited tensely for her answer. But she didn't speak.
I looked closer. She was absolutely still. I couldn't see her heart beating.
Damon opened his eyes and lifted his hands from her shoulders. "All right," he said. "Those of you who have been promised something, form a line."
I'm not sure what happened next. There was movement, everyone standing. There was no pushing or shoving, though. It was very ordered.
At some point, Damon produced a small mallet and what looked like an ice pick. He set to work on Sarah, chipping away at her carefully. I remember his hands, thinking they were very skilled, the hands of an artist. He would break a piece off and hand it to whoever was at the front of the line. He knew exactly what each person wanted.
I remember feeling the hard plastic of the chair against my tailbone, the heaviness in my legs. I remember feeling very weak, anemic and unable to move. I remember being outraged. I sat there, and I watched him cut her up, a leg here, a breast there, like it was fucking Thanksgiving. I remember that he looked at me and smiled. I remember being scared. I remember feeling the scalding tear that slid down my paralyzed face as I watched hers disappear, first an eye, then her nose, a chunk of forehead, a section of her cheek. I remember thinking about the sister I haven't seen in years, hoping she was okay. I remember feeling hate.
When they were done with her, she was unrecognizable, an impressionistic cubist sculpture, Nude Descending Staircase, a mass of fused glass polygons, flat angular planes where curves should have been.
I watched as they assimilated her. I watched and said nothing. The fat woman who was holding a piece of Sarah's leg lifted up her dress, put one foot up on a chair, and jabbed the glass shard into the vein in her thigh. The result was instantaneous, her leg melting from grotesque to shapely in a matter of seconds.
The woman with the graying hair slid a piece of black glass under her scalp. Her gray hair darkened, black pigment saturating each silver hair from the root outward.
"Oh shit! It's working!" Charlie called from across the room. I looked over. The calluses and bunions that covered his feet were fading fast, replaced with new, unbroken skin.
The older woman who had wanted Sarah's skin was waiting her turn, wanting everyone to see her transformation. When the time came, she took the long shard and put it in her mouth, positioning it between her gums and upper lip so that it angled towards her cheekbone. And then she shoved it upward into her face. Wrinkles around her eyes and mouth in her face began fading immediately. Her skin tightened and regained its youthful glow. For a moment, I saw Sarah in her. Not just her youth, but Sarah. It made my stomach twist. My throat clamped down on a scream.
"All right," Damon called. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him. He was standing next to what was left of Sarah. The mallet and pick were gone, replaced by a sledgehammer. "All right," he said again. "We're done for tonight, but," he paused for emphasis, "We don't forget this. We don't forget her. Understood?"
Everyone nodded. They meant it.
"All right. Dismissed. Have a great week."
With that, Damon lifted the sledgehammer and brought it down on the glass. He swung so hard that the hammer broke through the glass and shattered the stool as well. Wood and glass littered the floor.
Damon smiled and set the hammer down. "Hey, Charlie, how about using those new feet of yours to get a dust pan? Gotta clean all this up."
I knew I had seen her somewhere.
It was several days before the story broke. The police tried to keep it under wraps, for obvious reasons, but someone eventually leaked it to the press. A few promising leads came in, but they never did find the body of the mayor's daughter.
An image of Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase is available at beatmuseum .org/duchamp/images/nude2.jpg (take out the space before - bastard hyperlinks)
Thanks for reading. Coherent criticism welcome.