A special surprise for all masochists. A brand new short story, still covered in afterbirth, with that new car smell.
Voila: Of All The Beasts Loose In The Night Man Is The Most Dangerous .PDF
How can I tell you what it’s like to wake up every day into a pyrrhic victory that takes out your legs and pokes your eyes into the back of your skull and spits on your face but leaves you living, probably mistaken for dead because you’ve gone limp, in the trench to die conscious and alone and scared of what you know is coming, like an appointment you don’t want to keep, and then, when you’ve made your peace with the fact, get wrenched up off the ground, a sore and bleeding casualty, weighing on the shoulders of your burdened countrymen who hoist you away to be patched up and sent back into the fray again with only your SOP-issued crutches for defence, attack, whatever they may be called for? What it’s like to wake up and immediately notice you’re more tired than you were yesterday with a tiredness no sleep can sate; you feel it in the density of your bones like a mist that penetrates the skin and cooks the inner organs. To feel your muscles tighten every day until they eventually strangulate you to death and then collapse into overwrought meat, a coil of disused copper wiring. Sometimes I just sit and rock, trying to read some lecture notes or a message from a friend, just rocking back and forth, and that helps unless I have to capture a pen in my hand and muscle out some sentences. Feels like bleeding. I can feel myself deflate and whiten. With every word that haemorrhages out, every concept I brutally mate together, I lose something vital of myself. A million little sub-mortal wounds. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the faceless night, out of breath from running in my dreams, screaming a scream that never escapes my chapped lips for they too are too weary to work. Sometimes I wake up in a pool of my own sweat that has ran hot from the turmoil of my body, the pink-faced tantrums of my heart.
I am a victim of the day. I am night’s pathetic catamite and take its cock deep into my insides and squeal out feeble tears that can’t even wipe clean my cheekbones. The morning whips me like a dog, the walk into work rides on my shoulders like a giant with its fingers in my ears, the everyday interactions with strangers—mountains and trash and piles of fleshy biology that each emit their own God-awful scent—takes a part of my soul and inspects it, throws it onto the spit-covered, gummed-up floor while I watch, nervously clasping my mop and wondering how I’ll clean it so the customers can see the off-white tiles again.
I’ve moved back in with my parents, because I couldn’t even afford anymore the drugs that close my eyes and lead me by the hand through the day and the strain of being an existing thing. A thing with awareness, whose vision is populated by objects not half as inert as I. I can’t even say a living thing, because I’ve crossed the threshold of consensus reality so many times and seen everything in its equivocal aspect, in its minute daily dying, on lease from the black hole of certain Time, at the top of Being’s yoyo and waiting to descend again. Death would be preferable, an infinite dreamless sleep after barbiturate binge with weed-singed throat. But I know, I suspect, there must always be a waker, a condemned prisoner who emerges sweaty and crying and covered in amniotic fluid and vernix back into Life.
I wake up, am instantly assailed by thugs of my body’s awareness; deal hesitatingly with the paparazzi of my mind, the interrogations and censure I have (some morning I believe at least) learned to live with. I throw on old clothes that haven’t been washed and smell like rot, and make my way down the hallway to the hot prison of the shower, which I let chastise my skin until it’s red and numb and I am awake, I’m sure of it. Then I eat breakfast, looking deep into the toaster with a silver butter knife in my hand, until the toasts pops out of the machine and I eat half and feed the rest to the dogs, diligently reminding myself how hungry I will be later and resolving to eat better tomorrow. I will catch some part of my anatomy on some table corner or loose nail or dresser draw and hear the familiar scream echo exasperatingly back in my ears. I will close my eyes until they’re just wrinkled cavities in my face and ball my fists and feel the blood pressure swell in my head—my breath instantly stolen by something or -one—and try to lay down and take this assault without even exhaling too loud so I don’t wake my parents and unbalance that avalanche of guilt hanging on the precipice just over my head.
Then I’ll get in my old boxy Volvo and it’ll stall and the de-mister won’t de-mist shit and I’ll put my freezing, purple hand on the windshield and wipe the condensation into little cabals that laugh at me and reform while my fingers ring like a gong.
I work and do it like a dog or a mule or some other animal that looks superficially strong and obstinate on the outside but inside is as helpless as a crying child and knows it. People try to talk to me and I do my best to make my eyes flame with malice and frustration; or to make my demeanour so sullen and pathetic no one would dare inflict even the simplest request on me, and it never works. I wish death or ill-will or misfortune on random strangers I don’t know and can’t possibly understand the life or motives of. If they smile I hate them for being so unselfconsciously happy (and parading it in public). If they frown I hate them because they probably have more material reasons for doing so than I who just frown because, contrary to factual opinion, it takes many more muscles to smile: those of the face and those of the heart and those of the soul—obscure muscles manipulated by ancient autonomic nerves and unable to be controlled by the conscious mind or will. Anger ring-around-the-rosy’s into guilt, into frustration, crescendo-ing into blind anger again like a push sending the merry-go-round around for another revolution. I hear children screaming in my head like the seashell’s bad-conscious echoing. Their laughter is worse though. I hear a customer asking me where aisle 5 is. Not what’s in it but where it is. I hear a scream in my head. I know it’s mine but how? How do I recognise the voice inside my head when my ears can’t ever hear it? I tell them globes, batteries, etc but really I want to tell them to die, to kill themselves, to do something worthwhile with their life, to grow up and waste someone else’s life trite minutes at a time. I do this because we always give others the advice we know we need but can’t ever accept.
I think I’ve found a way to get through though. The day that is. Not get through to the people around me—I doubt if there’s anything hiding under the millimetres of skin except muscle and more muscle and tissue and ignorance. Ignorance all the way down to the atoms but nothing real, just a car with no driver. But of course they are real. Don’t slip back into solipsism again. So lonely. Lonelier than even now when I lay alone in bed and think that my suffering is alright because someone, somewhere, is having a great time of it and, in some way, me staying alive each day might be part of it in a kind of loose butterfly effect way. Coping strategies, the first cliches any psychologist worth her salt will gift to you like some horse turd wrapped in bows and expensive advertisements and eu de colon. Mine? I’ve been pretending to go to sleep, laying stiff as a board under the covers until everyone, even the dogs, are snoring. Then I get up and sneak down the screaming hallway and start my car, which thrums like a steam engine in the eery night, and go. Everything is silent except the radio and the gearbox struggling to find its mark. I listen for a few minutes as I drive away from the house and find an artery connected to the long country roads that surround the area my parent’s have bought, and capitulated, into. Then I turn the radio off and make the silence complete bar the hum of rubber sighing away on dermis-layers of bitumen.
I manoeuvre onto long, unlit stretches of road. These are everywhere and always surrounded on both sides by dense trees. Occasionally there is a house set back amid the trees and you can see its front lights are left on, left on all night, like some placebo sleeping pill allowing one to retire to bed feeling secure and certain of calm rest. I wonder how many houses are tucked away in the kilometres I generally make a circuit of? How many lonely people live inside these desolate dwellings, taking their life’s medicine alone. Then I push my fist down onto the horn and force my foot flatter to the floor.
That’s what I do to cope. I drive around until the middle of the goddamn night, or morning, dissolving into the passing kilometres and monotone scream, driving until my hands slide off the wheel or until my fuel runs low and, knowing I won’t be able to afford more until so-and-so a date usually many days hence, turn around and retrace my steps home. When I get back and lay in bed, the stridor of the horn’s high F still encoring in my ears faintly and drowning out all recalcitrant thoughts, I am finally able sleep, to take it like the bitter pill it is.
I’ve never been caught in this eloping/coping dash. I always come back so deep in the night, so deep into my parents’ asymmetrical sleep rhythms, that no one could possibly awaken. Even the perpetually barking dog only half opens his eye before sleep gnaws on his ear and sends him back to chasing birds in his dreams.
I have been doing this every night when the thought of killing myself becomes overpowering and meets head on the shame and heartbreak and confusion my parents would feel knowing their only son necked himself after so much struggle and seeming progress.
I fly through tiny tear-droplets of space made by my headlights, looking at the transformed trees of nighttime, their ghastly pointing fingers full of recrimination and aloof menace. I look at their mightiness and think about the full stop of hitting one head-on, like hitting a wall, like what my Mother calls it when you can’t try any harder and are just stuck, and everything prevents movement. The digital time brands the inside of the cabin into scarlet colours, satanic sigils. My hands, always sweaty on the wheel, slide in and out of the leather grooves. Out here in the middle of the country no one would pass the wreck until it had stopped smoking and the muted dawn colours and I were long dead, my body’s features barely recognisable. I think about hitting a tree head on and getting knocked out but coming-to minutes, maybe hours later, in the freezing, owl-dense night and sitting trapped against the steering wheel and the bent chassis in the driver’s seat witnessing myself slowly die in the rearview mirror, the cold the last thing I feel as I permanently become a facet of the darkness, one with its abstraction. This I why I have not ceded control and let the entropy of speed and the quirks of the road’s gradient take over. I admit I am a coward, maybe I should have confessed to that sooner? I don’t care, fling it at me like any other name a bully might use. Saying it doesn’t make it true, saying it enough does though.
Then I got bored with my coping method and needed to up the ante like you always have to with any drug that numbs and gets you by. I started turning my headlights off and driving through the dark with my fist on the horn, a little vessel of complete pain slicing away in the night, leaving figments of massive shippers and foghorns in the dreams of half-roused country folk like insignificant scars. People can hear my suffering coming from miles away like a war cry or early alarm. I think nothing when I do this. Just let my pain rise to the surface of my skin and become palpable and force it to my fist and out through the horn into the cold night air to radiate off in every direction. Complete darkness inside and outside the car, a valkyrie could be behind me on the road, my true love could be chasing down the white lines to me, I wouldn’t know. I just look at the dark windscreen like a velvet curtain. There’s no rationalised end, no purpose I’m running to the sun-dappled finish line of. I don’t think ‘I’ll stop after so-and-so line of trees or x and y houses’. It just happens, natural as tears on a child’s wounded face, and stops when it needs to, with no premeditation.
Then I can go to work and look all the faces directly in their eyes and reciprocate their pathetic smalltalk which is wasting our precious oxygen one mumbled complaint and vapid adage at a time, without too much pain just suck it all up deep into my sequestered regions. I eat their bitterness and shirking like unsalted vegetables that I know my body will appreciate as fuel despite how unhappy may be their taste. I no longer keep a record of my life’s injuries or tally the totals neurotically; I’ve found I can turn my rosy cheek and let it be smitten and let the pain just accompany me through the day like a stray that won’t leave my side but doesn’t seem to want anything. And at night I put it into the passenger seat as I drive, letting it ride commando and push its head into the broken glass winds.
I have even, since adopting this modus operandi of keeping alive, began feeling the towers of resentment and bitterness inside me start to crack across their facades. Ivy of joy from knowing you can go deal, process the poison, get home with your pain and there’s something you can do about it, is creeping across their windows. I find some understanding of other people starting to swell within me. They drink, or play golf, or wash their cars, or cook, or do whatever it is that heats up all the shit and kills the bacteria and makes it fit to eat and unscented to sit with. And life is the open space in this paddock of incentivising and coping and putting off complete breakdown and you should just try to run around in it as gaily as possible without worrying if your feet are getting wet.
And then I met a girl in aisle 8, the deserted juice aisle, who told me a ghost story. She had mango-coloured hair and a tropical breeze whipping off her skin and her feet left no mud on the floor I had just cleaned despite how wet it was outside. She seemed to take material form out of pure will, to be uncaused, a deity that just appears as its intention’s violent force decrees. Maybe she was there forever, haunting that position, waiting for my eyes to be ready to see her. First she wasn’t there then she was, tapping me on the shoulder, preceded by no snare of footfalls. I turned, expecting to see another angry customer with generic pissed-off look that would quickly be filed in the back of my brain with all the other trite hessian faces.
“Do you like working here?” She inquired, her fair eyebrows’ obeisance pushing them up in the middle of her head in apparent sincerity.
I was taken aback.
“Yes,” I responded, in the customary way I always lied to customers.
“Haha. You’re a shitty liar. But I don’t blame you, it must suck all the energy out of your soul doing this.”
“Ah… yeah.” I forced myself to pull a warm doona of artificial joy over my dusty features and smile, feeling exposed.
“At least you can fake a smile still.”
Damn. She had seen through me like it was her job. Maybe it was? All of a sudden I realised she must be a mystery shopper sent to take notes on staff performance. I should grit my teeth and use whatever energy I had, psychic or otherwise, to issue the best customer service of my achingly long career, but when I looked deep down in myself for the resources there was only absence echoing terribly.
Some lines from this instantaneous thought-script must have been readable in my expression, because she nudged me with a soft elbow and told me to relax. She smiled at me in a way even I could see was attempting to be disarming and maternal, almost like she had caught some scent of desperation off my body that made her worry.
“You know what you need to make you feel better?”
“No, a story. Stories fix everything. For every bad mood there’s an applicable story that has its number. It’s funny that we rely on mum’s stories when we’re young to solve all our problems but as we get older we stop listening. Don’t you think that’s funny?”
“Maybe that’s why people binge-watch Netflix when they’re depressed?” I offered.
Her little face jumped for joy.
“See, you do understand the value of a good story! So what type would you like to hear? A mystery? Something with lot’s of fantasy and swashbuckling? A love story?…” She chuckled in a delicate way that made the word ‘chuckle’ seem beautiful and also woefully inaccurate. Maybe it was me but her eyes seemed to get big and crystalline when she said ‘love story’. I was enthralled, so caught up in the bounce of her curly hair when her she giggled, her whole chest fluttering, that I entirely forgot I was in a supermarket, at work, extensively not doing my job.
“Hmmm, maybe later,” I replied painfully, “I’ve gotta finish all this.” Motioning to the full cage of juices to be put out.
“C’mon Elias, the child in you—I know it’s still in there somewhere— must be kicking and screaming to hear a nice story. The juice isn’t going to go anywhere.” She might have been right about my inner child being in there somewhere, somehow subsisting, because I felt my face colour-up like a little boy’s when she said my name. I retained enough common sense to stop myself from asking how she knew what is was, knowing she’d read it off my name tag. An unfair playing ground, especially since I knew I was too chickenshit to ask her hers.
“But the boss—“ I pointed to an overhead security camera.
“Just stack and I’ll tell, and I’m sure whoever’s watching will just think you’ve got an annoying customer badgering you.”
“A beautiful annoying customer,” I added, before I even knew what I was saying. Before it even steamrolled out of my mouth I regretted saying it. I watched myself say it and watched her face crinkle up a bit like she had tasted something a bit off. I was dissolving into the heat coming from my face. I turned and grabbed bottles of tropical passion in each hand and lifted them onto the top shelf, hoping the sweat glazing my body hadn’t seeped into the cotton of my armpits.
“You know what? I know a good story to tell. It’s a story I wrote myself. About a haunting. It’s a ghost story. You like ghost stories?”
“Sure.” I didn’t turn to face her.
“Okay. So one night there’s this girl laying in her bed. She’s a university student studying Psychology and minoring in English Lit, so she’s exhausted, just laying in bed in her PJs.”
“She wears PJs?”
“Yeah, don’t you?”
“Ahh, I’d… rather not answer.”
“Ohhh, naughty boy Elias.”
Heat up my spine. I’m feeling approximately as self-conscious as I ever have, unprepared school speeches and nightmares of nudity in public included.
“OK. The PJs was just a detail I added in on the fly. She’s really just laying there under the covers in cotton panties and a oversized T-shirt her ex-boyfriend left in her car which she’s washed the smell out of and keeps because it’s good to sleep in. You can almost see a discolouration where she’s bleached out the memories of him.”
I was trying not to turn and deliberately do that thing that guys do where they look a girl from bottom to top and back again. I never thought I was one of those guys but something in my biology was trying mightily to tug my head around to make the vertical assessment. I read the top line of the ingredients on the tropical passion bottle again and again like a mantra against my urges.
“So she’s laying there on the verge of sleep, in that druggy pocket where you close your eyes for a second and dreams break in and wash over reality, and your body fills with sweet natural morphine; then you open your eyes again and you’re laying on your pillow and half a second has passed. A very beautiful and fragile state. Like living in a fairytale and trying not to remind yourself it’s not real because then the bottom of its reality will fall out and, the bubble burst, you’ll drop back into reality with its habits and fascist schedules. She tries to stave off final sleep and prolong this half-waking-half-sleeping best-of-both-worlds position for as long as possible until, finally, when she surrenders into sleep, it’s not even noticed, she just becomes one with dreams. These moments can be the best of a girl’s day, the thought of which gets her through long lectures. But anyway this one night she falls asleep and in her dream something she’s never seen before is there. Against a dusky sky that’s impossibly moody for something that’s apparently not living she sees huge plumes of smoke and an approaching steam engine. It stretches as far back as she can see, possibly all the way around the world, permanently chasing its tail. She’s there in her dream in some weird era: watching the steam train come has made everything 1900’s-ish and she looks at herself from the dream’s third person perspective and sees herself wearing a nice Edwardian summer dress. It’s pristine white like the driven snow. No, it’s pristine white like the billowing steam from the train, which collects in the sky and turns into inkblot images of the three musketeers and other childhood fancies. Then as the train gets closer she realises how massive it is, way bigger than he perspective should allow. It keeps getting bigger and bigger as it gets closer, seems to be picking up vicious speed. The white steam clouds are darkening now, the pistons on the wheels becoming more aggressive. Some emotional tipping point is hit and all of a sudden it’s a downhill race, like when a cloud sits itself in front of the sun and the nice day disappears, replaced with a horrendous stand-in. You feel kind of mad—“
“No like, ‘maddened’. Like insane? And then the front of the carriage turns into an evil old man’s face. A sinister Thomas the Tank Engine that you can’t really pinpoint why the face is evil but something about it makes your stomach turn to curdled milk. And she sees the train, as big as a mountain now, reaching all the way to the sky, careening toward her and she tries to move but can’t. Typical nightmare logic but she never has nightmares. It’s all turning hairy so fast. She looks down and her foot is caught in the tracks, which are somehow both big enough to accomodate this massive locomotive and her dainty foot. It’s coming for her, bearing down on her, and in bloody celebration of certain prey lets out a huge howl. And that’s when she wakes up, the howl so loud it tears the internal cohesion of the dream, wakes up to sweat and her heartbeat and hears a screaming outside her window growing more and more faint but never really tapering off until minutes later when her breathing becomes regular again. The nightmare, so rare, rattles her and she lays in bed silently listening to her body. When she puts her head down again she doesn’t waft off into that warm limbo state but lays fixedly, stiff after trauma, until sleep makes everything disappear.
“Anyway life goes on. She asks her parents, who she’s moved back in with to save money, if they heard anything the night before but they say no, they slept well with their respective glass of scotch, glass of aloe vera juice with valium. They say that she’s forgotten what it’s like to live in the country, that she was just disturbed by some animal’s sounds in the night. She supposes they must be right. That night she falls asleep early—no dreams though—and the cosmic whining in the middle of the night erases her peaceful sleep again. This keeps happening until she’s a raccoon-eyed wreck, taken to daydreaming all class long to remedy what she isn’t getting at home anymore. Her grades suffer. Consequently she pays less attention. Class gets so boring she has mighty trouble struggling to keep her eyelids up and fend off the hungry hands of sleep trying to caress her. All afternoon doing her homework she keeps thinking about how, sometime later, she will be able to get into her PJs and recline and let the warm visions flood over her… Are you still listening?”
I was on my knees now putting 2L orange juices in the complete wrong spot. I noticed this and started pulling them out. I was looking at her perfectly round kneecaps, with little misshapen impressions in the middle, so beautiful. “Yeah of course I am,” I said, telling the truth.
“Good, ‘coz this is where the ghosts start appearing. Don’t get too scared. So she’s laying there that night, after painting her toenails, (black by the way), tucked in, and she feels her chin fall against her chest. She knows the trick is to fight sleep through just enough of these sudden attacks until it becomes impossible to either stay awake any longer or go to sleep and you become immobile, watching yourself drop off to sleep. Everything gets all fuzzy and then clear, and then the enchantment comes, migrating in from a parallel world to our own where every feeling is highly saturated and the laws of reality are not enforced by any scientist’s furrowed brow and disdainful fist.
“And right when she feels her swan dive into sleep hit terminal velocity, and a smile creeps babylike across her face, WHEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWW!”
“Jesus.” I jumped. “Shhsss.”
“Sorry. Sorry. I got too into my own story. Okay, anyway, wheeeeeewww (!)— a violent scalpel running through the night shatters her luxurious state. She sits bolt upright in bed, sure it wasn’t an animal. She can still hear it erupting intensely a few houses down. In one comprehensive instant, she gets out of bed and starts running, not in fear, but curiosity, anger, not really thinking ahead, completely pissed-off her little harmless drug, her sustainable recreation, something she cherishes now since giving up drinking and weed months ago and moving in with her parents, has been ruined, lies in broken china pieces on the floor. She gets out the front door and feels the damp dirt mix between her toes.”
I felt some warm buzzard fly around my stomach. I nearly laughed despite myself.
“There’s just barely enough gas left in the moon’s lamplight to guide her over low hedges and between fence posts. Everything around her is dark, a passive part of the night. Then up ahead she sees, on the country road, the lights of a car receding into the distance.”
Something gave me pause. I stopped putting the juice on the shelf and looked up at her. Her head was ringed in the sodium glare of a downlight. Her face was all strong contours and cold colours. I felt scared of her all of a sudden; not just intimidated, aroused, submissive—the feeling in my stomach had curdled to fear. It felt like my insides were replete with viscous OJ. She smiled at me beatifically.
“So she takes off running after the car, an old Volvo, so determined on seeing its numberplate, squinting her eyes to make out the identifying glyphs, trying to see if it’s human-made or another ghost craft like the locomotive from the dream. She swears she’s dreaming but the gravel pinching the bottoms of her feet reminds her she must be awake. She pushes through the thorny pain, out onto the blacktop and down the white lines. The car chews them up like confectionary. She follows its salivation but never catches up. Eventually she’ll be on her knees in the road, hopelessly taunted, playing this wicked game fit for a dog and its master, not a grown women with her own hopes and dreams.”
Now my face was white and she was staring into my eyes, her eyebrows raised.
“You okay? The story isn’t scaring you too much is it?”
“Oh… I’ll finish it quickly. Every night she waits, but the car never materialises at the same time, and she’s never prompt enough to get out and catch it. She starts sleeping in her shoes, has nightmares of sprinting after bait like a greyhound. Because her dreams are gone. She doesn’t dream anymore. And her beloved in-between state not longer exists, because peace is a word effaced from her lexicon. She lays tense at night like a wound up toy. She starts to hate going to bed, hate waking up, hate school because there’s no reason to impose this hateful thing on herself when the reward for doing so has been taken away from her. She loses weight, puts it back on in places she’d rather not. Yet everyday she puts on a customer service face and makes smalltalk with her parents, goes down to uni and gets marked off the role, etcetera. I noticed the same face on you. It made me want to tell you this ghost story.”
I am walking away from her now, down the length of the aisle. The sparkle of the floor’s tiles is sickening. My head is in a vice. I needed to get the vomit from my stomach, to go back into the stockroom and breathe with my palms on my knees. She follows me. Keeps speaking.
“Where are you going? You’re not that scared are you? It’s just a story.”
I move away from her faster. There’s half an aisle between us now. She has stopped chasing. I turn and see her face, all sad and dejected and she looks like the girl from her story now.
“Don’t you want to know how it ends?” She asks; pleads.
I turn and run, the aisles like a labyrinth, morphing into one inescapable corridor that only telescopes. I want to look back but can’t. Too afraid of what may lay at my spine like the torrid heat, the brutal sickness does. I wanna take her hand and apologise, I wanna call her my Scheherazade and give her bounties, I wanna spy into her nightdress and learn by rote the stories of her body, I wanna tell her “…I already do.”