I do my best to open the front door with a degree of stealth, not wishing to disturb my ersatz landlord from his daily routine of playing online games against pre-teens. He’s had a bit of a troubled life, James. Up until four years ago, he had been a graphic designer for an entertainment firm that I’d rather not name. Not for fear of my own financial health, mind you, I’d just rather not be the sort to provide free press to a gang of corporate assholes.
The door, as it is wont to do, stealthily and noiselessly opens to the point where a human being might be able to squeeze through with a certain amount of difficult. I silently hope that I can manage, at least for one day, to avoid the belligerent whining sound that persists despite months of oiling upon its hinges. It defies my needs to elicit a high-pitched cry that echoes throughout the lobby, to which the equally annoying voice of James responds in kind with, “Holy fucking shit, learn how to open a door properly!”
“Sorry, man.” I reply, devoid of enthusiasm with just a hint of shame at interrupting his no doubt scintillating activity of making homophobic and racist commentary towards 13 year olds. I barely have time to kick off my shoes before I manage to digest the sound of plastic dropping against hardwood. The familiar stench of burnt herbs and a love affair of spray deodorant herald his arrival a few seconds before he even steps into my visual range.
It’s a damned shame. Before his cousin had left under circumstances that he refuses to divulge, he at least had something of a feminine touch to his life. If I weren’t privy to his constant wailing over the utility bill, I’d swear that he had made a personal vow to exchange an actual shower for the clinical and overpowering scent of an extreme forest. The sight of his sunken eyes and pale complexion would make anyone weep if they had known him only half a decade ago, a time where he didn’t simply enjoy the benefits of an estate left to him in his father’s will.
He had a promising position, too. A decent wage and a way for him to utilize his creativity without falling through the ever growing cracks of Canada’s gaping and hungry media maw, a behemoth that swallowed entire careers whole before they had the good sense to up and leave for the ironically greener pastures of our southern neighbours who refused to acknowledge that flagrant spending led to their initial economic crisis to begin with. James forced himself to stay awake for nearly days on end, his methods of doing so became more questionable with each passing week until they finally found him at his desk, completely snow blind, with their next first person shooter ready for beta.
Fortunately for him, by the time they finally rewarded his sacrifice he had already found a supplementary source of income in the form of his favoured vice. Sadly, I was one of the only sane people left in his life, a brilliant bundle of energy who became a regular customer to aid in my more primary of addictions. Somehow I doubt a cable network will pick that plot up for its Thursday line up, but here we are.
“You finally find a job out there?” he asks, his eyes constantly darting from one focal point in the room to another, as if the walls could collapse at any moment.
I shake my head, “I’m still doing alright with what I have.”
“Yeah, whatever. Fucking bum.” He jokingly gives me what he assumes is a soft shove, causing me to lose my balance as I’m still hunched over in an attempt to free my feet from their leather prison. I remind myself of the better days, when he wasn’t so caught up in whatever reality is bouncing about his skull.
There have been several occasions in the past where I’ve tried my best to explain who I am and what I do to the pathetic shade of a once brilliant artist, and every time I had he managed to forget the entirety of our conversation little more than an hour after parting. “Oh, you got enough for a teener?”
I nod and dig around my pockets, knowing that the hundred will manifest itself in some corner or another. Sure enough, it presents itself in the form of a crumpled wad, causing Robert Borden’s already aged and creased face to look more weathered than usual. I hand it off with little more than a passing glance at the currency.
“Here.” I mutter, barely able to finish off the monosyllabic statement as the bill is snatched from my hand and replaced with a clear plastic bag. He smooths it out against the skeletal framing of his chest, admiring the brown of the dye and tucks it into his waistband.
“You need to take better care of your money, Rick. This shit is ridiculous. That’s why you can’t find yourself a woman, you slobby prick.” His words come out with all the poise and eloquence of an un-medicated Tourettes sufferer, and just as devoid of any hint of irony. I’ve also long since stopped informing him of my tri-weekly exploits with the fairer sex, if only due to his constant blasé sense of disbelief and frequent chauvinist outbursts.
Regardless of how I may have presented myself earlier, I am not a sexist. I believe that sex is something sacred, a gift given to us by a higher power to prove that life is worth living. The how it’s done and who it’s with isn’t as important as the act itself. If the rest of the so-called civilized world could figure it out, we wouldn’t have any need for a church.
I had long come to that conclusion during my misspent youth, realizing that the more any large group of people tell you something that comes naturally or without suffering is a horrible taboo, the more likely it is to be something worth doing. A small amount lifted from my mother’s purse and a joy ride along Jarvis had proven me right at 13. It opened my eyes to an entirely different set of rules and a longing to find out what else lay under the bedrock of society’s crust.
James forces me to watch him play an extravagant celebration of man’s need to watch itself die. As he gleefully detonates countless virtual soldiers, I humour him by listening to his long-winded and often over-blown tales of his importance. He seems to forget that I was present during most of these exploits…but considering how pathetic his existence has become, I never bother to correct any of his missteps. After another half an hour of my life wasted on this exercise, I’m close to throwing away my idealism and the memory that he was once a decent human being and take my leave of his stupidity with a fake smile chiseled across my face.
Sprawled across my room are several forgotten texts and personal notes I’ve made over the years, many of which would more than likely get me excommunicated or killed depending on which faith I’d have abandoned by now. I remember the feeling of a Catholic mass with a bittersweet fondness, wishing that I could recall that closeness and skin-deep sense of community. The only Trinity I believe in now happens to be a college, and its Church intersects with Richmond.
I slowly shut my bedroom door behind me, hoping that at the very least I can maintain a level of privacy that I so desperately need, before I begin to cover all the windows with torn garbage bags to block out any stray beams of light. Only when total darkness envelopes the entirety of my floor am I satisfied with my efforts. I tap about the ground with my feet until I find a round space that I routinely use for my meditation and begin to strip, peeling layer after layer of constriction from my body and letting them fall as they will within my immediate vicinity.
Folding myself into the lotus position, I open the plastic bag and pour half the contents under my tongue and snort the rest from the crook my thumb. For a lot of people, the practice of communicating with another plane of existence would require the use of a hallucinogen, or something that forces the mind to become relaxed. I tried that myself, finding it difficult after the projection to know whether or not it had actually happened, or if my mind was just attempting to rationalize what had played out. I find it much better to use something that causes your brain to sprint rather than jog, this way you know what you saw was real rather than a fever dream brought on by fungal poisoning.
I close my eyes and concentrate, centering myself before the drug has a chance to take any meaningful effect. I imagine myself as a shell, filled with an endless sea of living ghosts that have their own personalities, their own dreams, their own prejudices, families, jobs, histories…anything that makes a life a life. I picture every artery as a highway, each vein a road, and as the chemical drip begins to seep along the back of my throat and tickle my uvula, I feel like I’ve developed my own sewer that traces all the way along my spine and through my intestines.
My brain wildly and inarticulately goes about in a doomed attempt to throw out orders to my body, threatening to stop certain actions from occurring and doing its best to moderate impending chaos. The social consciousness of my spirit causes the corners of my mouth to twitch upwards in a smirk as city hall is once again run by a coke head. I wait out the feeling of my internal cosmos until it becomes natural, until I can commune with my first and last love.
She comes to me in the hushed tones of an empty street in the early hours of the morning, emerging from the inky depths of my mindscape with footfalls that leave intersections in their wake. Her beautiful flesh and perfect form are ever-changing, covered in symbols as old as a cross within a crown and as recent as a half-eaten fruit. The thin fabric cloaked about her flutters with each step as she approaches, a flag of countless nations.
I devour her scent like a hungry wolf, needing to consume her in her entirety despite being nothing more than a freckle on her breast. She stops, standing both before me and beneath me as I gaze up at her monolithic figure as she leans up to grab my hand. Wordlessly, she places my fingers along her midsection and closes her eyes, her lids painted with the image of a familiar blonde that I can’t quite place. The woman flutters away into the ether as the city stares into my eyes with the calm blue of a harbourfront sky. As she looks towards her stomach, I follow her gaze to her pubis and take note of the map inked upon her body, marking the location.
Her fingers find their way to my chin, guiding my vision back towards her glorious face. She parts her lips as if to speak, uttering with the voice of Gardiner’s rush hour, “Help me ge-“
Of their own accord, my eyes snap open. Body covered in a downpour of sweat as I desperately pick at the blackened ground for a lighter and my cigarettes. The hell was that all about? She’s never said a damn thing to me in the past, just pointed somewhere and let me work out the rest of it. A part of me wonders if she’s not getting worse, if she’s not simply giving up on her quest for identity and giving in to the same fate as so many of the other spirits her age.
God knows I’d never find a blonde in my own fucking home.
As I tear away at my makeshift dark room with intricate beads of perspiration slowly crawling down my skin, I reflect on what I’ve seen. Even after years of communing with the increasingly jaded spirit of the soil, she never ceases to confuse the hell out of me. I’d learned to get a better grasp of any visions she might impart, to pick away at the symbolism and get at the core of the message. Whatever God exists out there knows that I have my share of pride, but I’m not too full of myself to admit when I’m stumped.
Every riddle has a simple solution, there isn’t any question in the whole of this expanding plane that doesn’t have an answer hidden inside. Blonde hair, blue eyes, home. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that anything metaphysical can exist outside the boundaries of the present, that the elements have avatars reaching across time and space with no polite regard to paint between the lines of sanity’s colouring book. So the woman in question has either been here or will be here. Or both.
I slip into the same clothes I’ve been wearing for the past few days, not seeing any logical reason to add to my pile of laundry just yet. The digital clock that was previously obscured by my shirt reads 3 PM, suggesting I had been under for over two hours. Strange, it always feels like so much shorter than that. I would kill to have even an hour of time alone with the city, to be able to admire her strange beauty and alien fragility without also having to deal with her denizens.
Damn it, it’s not easy to pay attention after I come back up for air. I sit down on the edge of the bed and vigorously rub my eyes, hoping they’ll relay the signal back to my brain and wake me the hell up. Michael told me it’d get easier to read the signs with age. Well, I just turned 34 and I feel like someone just stuffed my ass into scrubs and asked me to do a quadruple bypass.
The bathroom doesn’t help me out, it just taunts me with the incessant hum of the cheap bulbs James refuses to exchange for anything with an HE label on it, claiming it’s just another load of bullshit that companies shill out to make more cash. Can’t blame him for his distrust of the corporate empites, but it’d be nice to be able to shave without guess work.
The first glass of water feels like wet sand being brushed against my tongue, the second carries slightly less grit. My brain throbs with the familiar after-party protest as it does with every other chemically aided sit-down. That’s actually a good thing, it’s a signal that says ‘Hey, I’m getting back to work whether you like it or not’. I give it a thumbs up in the mirror to let it know I approve, immediately feeling no less of an idiot for having done so.
Retrace the steps, it tells me. Alright, so I came in like I always do. James was playing his fucking Medal of Duty Warbattle or whatever the hell they’re calling it these days. I gave him some money for some goods and…wait. James. His cousin used to come by every day, sometimes staying here overnight a couple of times a month. Then she just vanished from his life without so much as a word from him as to why. Is that the connection? Is that what I’m supposed to be out looking for?
“God damn it,” my voice is coarse, the taste of expired aspirin still thick in the back of my throat, “Not going in without reassurance. You want to give me a sign that I’m on the right track, then you go ahead and do it.”
I slide back to my bed, hurling a pack of tarot cards from the end table onto the mattress and give it a thorough shuffle. I know, it seems trite to rely on something so simple and easily refuted, but I’d gladly trust dumb luck and coincidence over the stock market any day of the week. “Just one card,” I whisper to the stack, “Just a little hint. That’s all I want.”
I spread the deck and use my intuition to make a selection. No second guessing, just take the card and make the flip. The Eight of Swords. Great, that certainly clears everything up in a nice little package. A woman, blindfolded, sitting in the middle of a circle of blades. Sure, they’re not pressed against her or anything, but how the hell would she know. The question is, is she in danger because she put herself there or did someone shove her in the middle. The spacing suggests she can just walk right out of there without hurting herself, assuming she wants to. All this shit tells me is that she could be in trouble, not whether or not she wants to be.
There’s a strong urge to pull out another one, knowing that if I did it would defeat the whole purpose of a single card reading to begin with. This is all I’ve got, might as well see if I can work with it. It also means I’m going to have to talk to James and find out why she left. Fuck…I have to talk to James. My breathing’s slowed down, finally falling into a normal range. Good thing, too. Only thing worse than talking to a hyperactive cokehead is when you’re coked up right along with them. The conversation always ends in either buying something completely stupid or talking about women you’d sleep with.
I plod carefully down the old stairs and cough at the threshold of his living room/bedroom. I clear my throat and wait for him to acknowledge my arrival, it takes some doing. He’s wearing that idiotic headset, like a fighter pilot who forgot he stepped out of a cockpit, with eyes glazed over and a mind far away from the rest of the world. I suppose I can’t judge him too harshly, I did just spend a few hours in a deep assisted trance. I just had the good grace to plant my feet on the ground when I was done.
He finally sees me and turns off the game, nodding me into his kingdom. It smells of stale clothing and a menagerie of half-eaten pizza ingredients. Six months without someone pouring their love into him, and he quickly turns into a parody of a pre-adolescent boy.
“Yeah?” his question sounds more like a demand, like I’ve somehow interrupted his struggle to attain nirvana. It’s kind of funny, his room smells like the entire grunge era came in here to die.
“Look,” I start off, struggling to hold on that thin veneer of confidence that I need to so desperately rely, “I know it’s not the sort of thing you want to talk about, but what happened to your cousin?”
“What, Jenny?” he barks again, his features briefly shifting into deep bottomless sorrow just before they snap back into some semblance of unwarranted disdain, “She’s a whore. She up and left me just like everybody else.”
My brows furrow of their own accord, before she made her exit from his sad stage, he wouldn’t mention her in anything but the most positive light, repeatedly attempting to either set us up or demand that I stay away depending on what mask the white lines forced him to wear at the time. He registers my disbelief and nervously scurries to his desktop.
“No, seriously. Take a look at this shit, man.” He calls me over like a dog, I rationalize once again that it’s just his addiction fucking with him and go along with it. In a few moments of frantic clicking, I see it.
She’s sitting on top of a motel bed, half-naked and posing for a camera. 23 Year Old Blonde Bombshell Looking For Fun 150 HH 280 H Extras 50 Each. There’s an entire group of similar photos underneath, each one more provocative than the last. It still feels odd, something doesn’t fit. There’s a piece missing from all this that tugs at the corners of my mind, an impermissible and obvious hole that seems so incredibly obvious that it hurts. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and I should probably find a different way to connect with the land.
There’s no point in asking him why he was trolling around an escort website, he wouldn’t bother admitting to it being the lothario that he is. I look down to find James cautiously staring at me, waiting for me to make some sort of derogatory comment to his cousin’s supposed behaviour. I just can’t bring myself to do it, there’s something at work here. The silence only forces his expression to become more intense. I ask him the only question I feel matters. “Have you tried calling her at all?”
“Why? Fuck her. She thinks she’s so great because she comes down here to ‘help me through my tough times’ acting like she fucking loves me, eats my fucking food, fucks my best friend, and then goes out and gets paid for it. I don’t have shit to say to her, if she wants to talk to me, she can fucking call me. I’m not calling her, fuck her. She’s a slut and a whore.”
Oh, Christ. I forgot how much I hated talking to him about anything involving his personal life, it always ends in some tirade about how the world’s out to get him, or why he’s so much better than the rest of the planet. It takes a great deal of effort not to punch him in the nose, only stopping myself with the reminder that he used to be a decent person, and that he’s extremely convenient since he doesn’t give a shit about accepting the rent in cash every month.
I brush off the implication that we ever slept together, I never saw her in that light. She was too pure, too angelic, to see as anything other than a symbol of what humanity should aspire to. Truth be told, she had streaked her hair so often in an attempt to capture her youth that I had forgotten she was really a blonde. “It’s been half a year, you don’t think she could be in trouble?”
“Why do you care.” He snaps back, and I find it a lot faster to give a believable lie than the uncanny truth.
“You just seemed a lot happier when she was still coming by.” I pull a cigarette from my pocket, causing James to snap his fingers with the eyes of a hungry rat. I hand him one, much in the same manner a hunter tames a wild beast. The response is just about the same, we establish a foundation of trust. I have something he wants, so I give it to him and he accepts me into his pack. Over 30 thousand years of evolution and nothing changed.
“Yeah, well…I don’t know.” He repeatedly strikes the flint of his lighter until it finally does its job. “I thought I was, but she was just using me like everyone else.”
Using him? How in the hell could she possibly have used him? She had a steady job, not that working at a coffee shop is a white collar haul, but she had been working at the same place for six years. Had her own place off St. Clair to stay close to her family and never asked anyone for anything. Hell, I think she even covered her cousin’s debts to his more unscrupulous connections on more than one occasion. I can smell broken from a mile away, and that was something she wasn’t. She still held that glimmer of hope, that childish wonder untouched by the erosion that age brings.
Then again, she was still fresh. Maybe she learned how bad and jaded the planet really was when she hit 22 and it hit her harder than most. Maybe, highly unlikely, but maybe. I briefly think about just knocking on the door of her apartment, knowing that the effort would be completely futile. The answer is here. It’s underneath this roof. She’s in trouble, I know that much, I just don’t know how or why.
“You don’t think it’s weird that she leaves and suddenly there’s this posting up on-”
“I don’t want to fucking talk about it.”
“What about your aunt? Has she said anything to-”
“I don’t talk to my fucking aunt, she’s a traitor.”
“What about her friends? You have to have some way of contacting them, right?”
He lets out a long groan, a noisome thing that escapes his throat like a water balloon being slowly deflated. “Look, I don’t want to fucking talk about it, okay? I don’t need you walking around here having a fucking hard-on for my whore cousin. She’s gone out of my life and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
His façade smells even worse than his room. I outperform him every step of the way, summoning the most beguiling and sympathetic expression I can manage. “Alright, bro. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m just worried about you.”
A hand pats me on my elbow, then grips around my arm as he stands from his seat. “I know, Rick. Sometimes you just have to let shit like this go. I’m used to it.” His voice, for the first time in a long while, comes truthful and clear. His delusional stammering disappears along with his callous and defensive wall, allowing a whisper of sadness and guilt to escape from his lungs. I’d feel bad about putting on a show for him if it weren’t for that. If it weren’t for his guilt.
I stand about in silence, clinging to my mask of care, until I feel it safe to make my leave and allow him to return to his dreamland of gore and genocide. Fuck him, I’ve got all I can out of him. At least I’ve gathered more than I had half an hour ago, now I know he had something to do with it. Something more than just being an irritating wash out.
Another cardinal rule of any school of mysticism is to focus on your surroundings and the permeable balance between reality and what most would call the paranormal, which is really just a fancy way for the general public to describe an incomprehensible event without the need to admit they don’t know what the hell they’re experiencing. With that in mind, I retreat to my room and start to analyze the situation based on what I know, even if it happens to be precious fucking little. James has a missing cousin, she could be in trouble, he might have something to do with it and he’s not talking. I can gather from those three points that he’s either terrified as to what could happen to him, he’s responsible for it, or both.
Artwork by Jamie Pollack.