Lights flicker on with a whisper in a room I didn't even know I was standing in. I feel the scratch of aged shag carpeting and look around. I am in my grandmother's living room, complete with the floral sofa, circular glass coffee table and her toy clown collection in the corner. It looks just the way it did when I was five and storming through her attic for antique treasures. The TV buzzes as it flashes in between coherent sound and static. Salt and pepper fill the screen.
I take a step forward and notice my grandmother out of the corner of my eye, sitting on the couch. She stares glassy eyed at the television, disregarding me entirely. I follow her gaze to the TV screen. Amidst the chaos of bad reception, I can barely make out a line from an old sixties sitcom, the name lost to my memory, repeating over and over against the tracking.
". . .This is real bad, Major. . ." canned laughter.
"This is real bad, Major. . . This is real bad, Major. . . This is real bad Major. . . This is real bad Major. . ." more canned laughs.
I turn back to my grandmother slowly as the laughter rapidly increases in volume, ringing in my ears like the tolling of a ten-foot tall bell. She's quit the television and is now staring at me with a small smile.
"It's sad isn't it?" she whispers, and somehow I can hear her through all that insane laughter.
"They don't know a thing, and they wouldn't care if they did." She reaches her hand out to me.
She's wearing that same white cardigan she always used to wrap me up in when I was shivering. It felt warm and comforting. She leans further with her hand outstretched. I stretch out to meet her, my feet still planted in the same spot. The cacophony of laughter swirls in a hurricane around us.
Suddenly, from where there was a five-foot gap between my hand and hers, her nails are digging in to my wrist and I'm on the couch next to her, with her eyes widened in insanity and the grin vanished. She draws her face close to mine and I can feel her cold, rapid breath on my cheek. Before my eyes she takes a serrated kitchen knife from nowhere and carves a bloody, open-ended O on each of her pale, pearlescent wrists. The skin peels and flaps down like the skin of a fruit, and the blood pours in torrents.
"Two days." she rasps, engulfing me in a voice that is not her own.
The laughter is deafening.
I shoot up from where I've been laying down asleep, with the covers fluttering around me. My breath heaves in my chest as I look around frantically. Slowly the truth pours into my tired mind.
I am at my parents' house for Christmas.
Grandma has been dead for seven years next Tuesday.
It's 2 o'clock in the morning, and in five days I go back start up classes again at Boston Community College.
My head collapses back against my pillow and I let out a breath, letting my eyes close. But I don't get any more sleep.
In the morning I refuse the blueberry pop tarts box my mother offers me but accept the coffee, warding her attempts at cream, sugar, or worse, decaf. I take a spoon and stir in an idle attempt to cool it, and watch the black, manmade whirlpool I've created in my cup. Conversation in this kitchen has long ago been replaced by the sounds of my mother sipping orange juice and the riffling of my father's newspaper.
On an impulse I put down the spoon and look up.
"What do you think about inevitability?" I say.
My father lowers the paper slowly and gives me a skeptical glance.
"Honestly, honey, it's seven in the morning." my mother says, never putting down her orange juice glass. "I don't see why you left Yale if you're going to be bringing up subjects like that."
My brother laughs as he walks in.
"Are we on this again?" He strolls by and steals a gulp of my coffee.
"After what we paid and then having her leave at semester, we can bring it up as many times as we like." My father grumbles from behind his newspaper.
I sigh and look down at my coffee, and glare when my brother sits down next to me. What a horrible hypocrite to mock someone like me when he's two years older and still living at home.
"Hey, don't look at me," he says with an indifferent sneer. "I'm not the one who decided to go and get a Kerouac complex."
"Fuck off." I say as I rise from the table, grabbing my jacket along the way.
"Where are you going?" my mother asks as my hand is on the doorknob. She doesn't look up from her section of the paper—she's stuck on number two, down.
"I need a drink." I say, and slam the door behind me before I can hear a complaint.
I hop on the bus to downtown. It'll be hard enough to find a bar that's open at nine in the morning, but it will be even harder in the little suburb where I live. The bus seats are peppered with people, mostly twentysomethings plugged into their IPods or businessmen typing on their laptops. Bus etiquette states that you shouldn't stare at one another or try to strike up conversation, so everyone is careful to have their own occupation for the time being.
Then of course, there is the slight sprinkling of the homeless, who can have an hour or so's worth of shelter for a small traveling fee. One such man, grey-bearded with a dingy hat and hollowed out eyes, sits in the corner front seat, protectively clutching a pile of newspapers as he rocks steadily, back and forth, to the musak playing over the speakers.
"We are the hollow men. . . We are the stuffed men. . ." he mumbles.
It's ten thirty before I find a decent bar opening. It's very dark inside, but there's a solace to it in the closeness it makes me feel. Nobody's there yet except for me and a couple of alcoholics at the lonely end of the counter. You can always tell which ones they are by the way they look defeated at the bottom of their glass, filled with a gratuitous sort of self-loathing.
"Scotch." I say, to the bartender with his back turned, a little hoarse from the morning.
"Sure thing," he says, turning. "On the—"
"No ice, no water." I say, looking at him a moment. ". . . Just scotch."
He stares back at me a second, trying to decide whether I'm one of the drunkards at the other end, or what I actually am—someone spooked and in desperate need of a buzz.
"Sure." he says quietly, not looking away. I wonder if his eyes are just naturally filled with that intensity, all the time. It's rare these days to actually look other strangers in the eye, and I feel the requisite discomfort in doing so.
He hands me a glass and I down it before the minute is over.
"What do you think about inevitability?" I ask him. He gives me a small smile.
"Lemme ask you a question." He says, five scotches and three Jell-O shooters later. My head is sagging a little bit now.
"What?" I ask, smiling.
"You don't seem the type to come into a bar first thing in the morning." He gives me a knowing, crooked grin.
"Hey—I've been to plenty of bars. . ." I respond, wobbling a little on the stool.
". . .yeah, but there's a difference between an A.M. drinker and a P.M. drinker." he says.
I hear the thunk of a dart hitting the board on the wall and jump a little in spite of myself.
He gives me a look that shows I just proved his point.
"Let's say that I really needed some alcohol in my system this morning." I glance at his skeptical face. "I've been feeling a little… prophetic, lately."
"Yeah." I give a halfhearted laugh and shake my head. He takes the empty glass from in front of me.
My face finally sagged to the counter. "God, I'm tired." I muttered.
"It's only noon."
"Yeah, well, you'd be tired too if you went to bed at midnight, woke up at two and didn't sleep the rest of the night." I snap, jumping again at the sound of the dart behind me.
"I can call you a cab, if you want to go home." His face is caring. I shake my head some more.
"I wouldn't go back there if you held a gun to me. All it has is shitty pop tarts and even shittier coffee." I stagger off the stool mid-rant, angry and scared and wondering why no one else is. Images of my grandmother's bleeding wrists keep flashing unwelcome before my eyes. I feel the warm hand of the bartender circle my wrist.
"Shhh…" he soothes, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. "There's a room with a bed in the back if you want to sleep." Even as he says it he's leading me to the door behind the bar.
"What is this, a charity hostel?" I slur. My eyes keep closing.
The room is more like a really sparse apartment, complete with a hotplate and an oddly-placed shower in the corner.
"Shhh… just lie down." he says, sitting me quietly on the bed.
"No, I'm not that stupid." I say, fighting his arms and standing up. "Don't think I'm going to fall asleep and then wake up to find out you raped me the next morning."
His eyes go wide with humor.
"Miss, you're so out of it that if I wanted to rape you I could have done so five minutes ago."
He has a point. I pause for a moment.
"Then what the hell are you doing?" I ask.
"I'm making sure you end up somewhere safe if you're going to fall asleep drunk. It's not like I want to see you get hurt."
"You're nuts. Nobody short of Don Quixote has this much efficacy."
He gestures to the nightstand, where I can make out through my blurred vision a dog-eared copy of a Cervantes novel. He smiles at me.
I sigh at him in exaggerated exasperation.
"So, nobody in this day and age helps people out like this, even if they are friends. Man's sole purpose in postmodern society is to be as impersonal as possible. That is the efficiency of today's world." I get wordy when I'm drunk.
"Well, excuse me Miss Disenfranchised-Intellectual; maybe they should." I roll my eyes as he guides me to sit back down on the bed. I'm so oddly fatigued that I let him.
"Look," he says eyeing me. "You're funny. I like you. I'd prefer to see you not get raped when you pass out in an alley instead of in here."
"Life's too eerie right now to go to sleep," I say, halfway realizing that I am making very little sense.
"Fine, but just sit in here for now until the room stops spinning, and that way you're not staggering across the streets instead."
"What is this?" I gesture wildly to the room as my body reclines without my permission. The light in the room is coming through in tiny small slits.
"My apartment." he says, but my head hits the pillow before I can question him further.
I'm sitting in the center of a Yale seminar room, and the only noise is the whirring of the ceiling fan above me. Everyone around me is intently scribbling on the paper in front of them, heads down, I can't see their faces. There begins to be a faint droning in the background, which I can only discern as words when I focus in close.
"Between the idea and the reality. . ."
Everyone surrounding me is whispering, and one by one they are mechanically dropping their pencils and standing up.
"Between the motion and the act. . ."
I look around at the blank faces, and find them all familiar. It seems like almost everyone I have encountered in my life is encased within this room, whispering, emotionless.
"Between the conception and creation. . ."
They are getting louder.
"Between the emotion and the response. . ."
"Between the desire and the spasm. . ."
I see my mother at the front of the room, a piece of chalk in her hand. In an accelerated motion she scars the clean front of the blackboard with slashes that bleed white. She steps back and stares at me, her eyes completely black and completely empty. She has drawn an open-ended O.
"Between the potency and the existence. . ."
Everyone is standing, everyone is shouting, and I'm still sitting breathing fast. Their eyes are all dark.
"Between the essence and the descent. . ." Their vacant voices croak.
I've balled my hands into fists so hard that my nails dig into my palm and I wince in pain, looking down. The skin is pocked by cuts. Where blood should be there is a dry, white chalky dust, pouring out of me like sand out of an hourglass. I can feel myself emptying out onto the desk.
They all turn to me with flat, bare faces.
"Falls the Shadow."
I attempt a scream only to find that my voice has emptied with the rest of it. I am a scarecrow sans straw.
"This is the way the world ends. . ."
They shout without purpose, and raise guns to their heads slowly as they cry.
"This is the way the world ends. . ."
I sit limp and deflated, my mouth still gaping like a fish in an attempt to make a significant sound.
"This is the way the world ends. . ."
A gun is at each temple now. My eyes wander frantic to my mother at the front. She gives a small mundane smile, her bleached hair in its usual perfect coif. The pistols cock in unison, and their voices reduce to a whisper once more.
"Not with a bang, but a whimper."
All at once they pull their triggers, but no blast emits form the barrels. There is only complete, heavy silence as they each in turn crumple dead submissively on the floor.
I wake up to the scream that I couldn't emit in my own head. My head shoots up off the pillow, narrowly missing the bartender as he comes rushing into the room.
"What happened?" he asks breathless, looking around the room for a would-be attacker. He looks back at me again, perplexed. I squeeze my eyes shut for s few seconds and regain my composure.
"Nothing," I say. "It was nothing."
"Nothing?" he stares at me in disbelief. "People one the sidewalk outside the bar could hear you screaming!"
"It was just a dream. . ." I mumble as I stand and grab my coat hurriedly. "A creepy, apocalyptic dream. . ."
"I have to go now," I say, not looking at his face and rushing out the door. "Thanks for letting me sleep." I sound absurd.
I don't particularly want to go home but it is the only place I can think of to go at this point. To bus comes to a stop in front of me, and as the doors open the driver forces a homeless man out. He stumbles to the curb in front of me, staring fixedly at my face. He is the same man I saw on the bus earlier this morning.
"You know." he whispers.
"Excuse me?" I stammer.
"In or out, ma'm?" I hear the driver.
The man grabs shakily onto the sleeves of my coat and pulls himself up in front of me, shouting.
"You know! You know! You know it too!"
"Ma'm, did you want to board the bus?"
I am trying to shake him off of me but he has a strong grip. "I'm sorry, I don't know—"
"But you do!"
"Ma'm!" the driver shouts, frustrated. "On or off?"
His face is in mine, his eyes turning wild and kaleidascopic. I can feel his deathlike, rattling breath on my cheek.
"We are the hollow men! The Stuffed Men!"
"On!" I shout, half panicked, as I finally shake him off of my coat and put a foot on the stair. He grabs my collar and pulls me back.
"This is the way the world ends. . ." he whispers harrowingly in my ear. I stifle a scream and grab the handlebar by the stairs, pushing him back in a sudden rush of adrenaline. Through the window of the closing bus doors, I see him fall back on the concrete and lie there, motionless. I run to the back of the bus and sit with my knees tucked tight under my chin, wondering wildly what is up with the world today. I am numb until I hear my stop called.
I slam my front door and hear the echoes of it through the otherwise quiet house. Distantly, I can hear the muffled clatter of a keyboard behind my brother's bedroom door. I barge up the stairs and into his room.
"Mom and Dad are at work—there's what's left of the Chinese takeout in the fridge." he says by way of greeting. He pauses to type a random sexual phrase into an instant messenger box.
"New girlfriend?" I ask sardonically.
He lets out a shallow laugh. "Hardly."
I let out a sigh and sit down on his mussed up bed while he takes his time explaining to this person on the computer screen exactly how he'd fuck her if it weren't for the fact that they are 1,000 miles away from one another. He's stopped paying attention to me completely.
"If you're planning on whipping it out to add to the experience, please warn me ahead of time." I snap. I close my eyes and massage my temples, trying to get rid of the hammers in my head.
"You're the one who came in without knocking." he says disinterestedly. "But this one's definitely not worth it."
"How long have you been talking to this girl, anyway?"
"About five minutes. She was in a Christian chatroom."
I laugh a little in disbelief.
"You know she's probably thirteen, right?"
"Do you honestly think I care?"
"She could even be a he. . ."
His brow furrows for a moment in worry. He types something onto the monitor about pictures.
"Oh, Honestly. . ." I argue. "You've talked to her five minutes and now you want her to strip for you? What sort of crap is this?"
"She'll do it. . ." he laughs with a cocky confidence. "Only the really insecure ones do this stuff online."
"Did you talk to her about anything before this? Her name, favorite movie, fears, dreams?" I burst at him. I shouldn't. I'm used to his hobbies, but the lack of sleep and considerable hangover are getting to me, and the blue light from the screen is bathing the room in an eerie cold light.
"What the hell is your problem?" he says without much concern for me—his eyes never leave the monitor. One by one pictures of his nude two-dimensional lover appear; every angle. Her back, her chest, between her legs—everything but her face. Desperation for love and attention is etched into every pixel.
"Kinda chubby." My brother shrugs. "I've seen better."
I storm out without another word, slamming the door in disgust. I have a date with Chinese leftovers.
I fidget around the kitchen getting it out. In the past day, I have been finding it harder and harder to stand still—something crawls beneath my skin, a mixture of fear and anticipation for something ominous I can't identify.
As the pork fried rice reheats in ambient hum of the microwave, I find myself adrift in thought, staring at my transparent reflection in the window above the sink. With the trees outside melting into the light-etching of my face, I feel even more intangible and transient. I am a ghost.
I blink, and my eyes widen in panic. The plate I'm holding shatters to the floor as I see it. My grandmother's face, frozen in an empty eyeless expression, is leering at me replacing my own reflection. The microwave timer's high pitched blare flashes in and pierces my hearing. I can't breathe. A million tiny needles prick at the skin around my neck as she stares intensely at me.
I take an involuntary step back and scream as I run into another body. Warm fingers circle my arms. I scream again, my breathe is coming in shallow attempts now as I gasp and punch frantically at everything around me. My eyes squeeze shut and I flail at my own darkness. My assailant's arms grasp harder around me, trapping my hands to my chest.
"Hey… hey! Calm down! Calm down!" The voice sounds familiar, but I can't place it. "Shhhh…. Hey, it's okay. . ."
I open my eyes and the face in the window has vanished. I stare into my own frightened eyes. After a couple of seconds I can make out the reflection of the bartender from earlier this afternoon behind my own.
"It's just me. . . don't panic." he says. "I didn't mean to scare you or anything—"
I wrench myself away angrily and turn to face him.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I glare, and he takes a few steps back, putting both his hands in the air.
"Look, I'm sorry—" He paused for a moment, mid-stutter. "Um. . . Can we sit down a sec? Out of the proximity of all these kitchen knives?"
I pull one out of the butcher block and brandish it at him. He takes another step back.
"How did you find my house? Are you following me? How did you get in?" I sputter without taking a breath.
"Permission to speak without getting stabbed?" he asks. I lower the knife a little.
"Explain." I breathe. My heart rate is starting to return to normal again.
"Your cell phone fell out of your purse on your way out." He is speaking slowly and evenly, almost like a hostage negotiator. ". . .it had your address in its files. I thought I would bring it back to you and make sure you were alright."
"And how did you get in?" I interrupt.
"I knocked on your door and got no answer. I was about to leave when I heard a crash inside. . ."
The plate breaking, I realize.
"I thought maybe someone had had an accident. I tried the door an it was unlocked, so I came in to investigate. I found you hyperventilating in the kitchen, staring out the window."
I do a mental head slap and calmly turn to put the knife away. Behind me I hear him let out a long breath.
I feel my body collapse against the countertop. Raking my hands through my hair in a desperate attempt to calm down, I am sucking in air as if I had just been saved from drowning.
"I'm sorry." My voice sounds strained from my attempts to keep it from shaking. "I'm sorry. . . but you know, you were in my house uninvited, and I don't know you. . ."
He smiles a little and takes a timid step towards me. "Hey, it's okay-- I'd be a little worried about you if you didn't find that suspicious."
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out my cell phone, and puts it on the countertop.
"There." he says. He looks up at me, and holds out his hand. "My name is Patrick, and I'd like to help you clean up that broken plate on the floor."
I smile, feeling a little more relaxed, and shake his hand. "My name is Alice, and I accept your offer."
His eyes drift over to the microwave.
"Is that Chinese in there?"