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By C. C. Parker
It was the first thing in the morning while nursing a hangover that Thomas Bentley gave up drinking for good. He told his wife, Eloise, this over a cup of coffee. "That's it. I'm done."
"How many times have I heard that?"
"I understand, but you've got to understand that I mean it this time."
Thomas's eyes were red and sorrowful; his lips slack and dry. Eloise thought he looked like a little kid right then. She reached out, took his hand, and felt that he wasn't lying to her. She didn't know how she felt it; she just did. Thomas was going on fifty. She would be there too in a few years. They'd been running on this same treadmill nearly half their lives, and Eloise, who loved Thomas with everything she had, never once thought of getting off of it alone. She knew, even when she married him, the kind of pain that he kept locked up inside of himself. She also knew the type of medicine he needed to sate that pain. She loved Thomas and therefore was willing to do whatever it took to comply with his unspoken wishes. She knew his silences and his little-kid fear. But she also knew his heart; his big sad heart.
She touched his hand to her cheek. She was crying. One of his nicotine-stained fingers followed a cheek to one of her eyes. "Now what's all that about?" He asked.
Eloise looked inside Thomas's dry and serious blue eyes and said, "I'm happy. That's all."
"So you believe me."
"I'm tired of it, Eloise."
She knew it was going to be very hard for him. Impossible, she thought, feeling immediately guilty for even thinking it.
"I'll get help if I have to."
My God, she thought. Her ears strained beneath the weight of those words. He had never spoken them before. And she wanted to believe them so badly. "I'll help too," she said. "Anything I can do."
"First you can accompany me to breakfast." His smile was bright. "And when we get home I'll start to make the calls."
Eloise went to get her coat. Everything was happening so fast.
* * *
Ten minutes later Eloise Bentley was dead. A car had run a red in a nearby intersection doing better than 50.
When Thomas finally managed to open his eyes he was met with a vision of most dismal proportions; Eloise's twisted face opposite his own, blood flooding her wide-open eyes where tears had flowed only moments before. Thomas could feel her filling his lap with her substance and his brain lurched. The rage that filled him forced him to remember:
* * *
It was so silent. He could hear their footsteps entering the clearing and the distant, monotonous hum of 'copter blades churning up the hot, dusty air. He watched them through the foliage; their slanty-eyed, yellow faces resembling something inhuman and alien.
Thomas looked down in his lap. Private Gridley, a boy scarcely eighteen, looked into his eyes. There was still some life in them. "Oh fuck! Oh shit!" Thomas could see where the boy's guts were leaking through his fatigues. He knew what he should do, but he couldn't. He had experienced enough death in the last few months to last him an infinite number of lives.
"I'm sorry," he said. Fear and rage filled his heart. He could smell Charlie now.
"Oh shit! Oh Christ!" The kid coughed the words.
"Charlie's out there." Thomas didn't know if it was an excuse as much as a declaration of his cowardice. "I'm sorry."
* * *
"I'm sorry," he said, before opening the car door. The door opened easily and closed the same. The driver's side of the vehicle had barely been damaged. Thomas vaguely wondered if he'd been driving at all. He usually did do the driving.
His nerves were fucked. Bleary eyed and dazed, Thomas surveyed his surroundings. He walked around the backside of the car and peeked around it to see where the impact had been made. The driver of the other vehicle, a silver Mazda, dangled out the front window, shards of glass lodged in various places. Thomas noted that his legs had been trapped inside somehow, thus eliminating any possibility of projection. Caught between a rock and a . . . But this was really no time to be joking.
Thomas rubbed his eyes furiously as if expecting a sudden change of scenery when he was finished. In the distance he could hear sirens approaching. People gathered on the sidewalk paying all their mind to the twisted wreckage, many wincing at the sight of blood. Thomas realized that most of these people were ill-prepared for such observations. Mostly, he envied their virginity. At twenty-one, when a young man should have been enjoying his first beer in a bar, Thomas had already witnessed every atrocity life could throw at him. He'd seen pregnant women raped and beaten to death, their solemn heads beaten in with the bottoms of soldier boots. He'd seen baby carcasses lined along thin, winding streets, little arms draped over little chests . . . They'd never had a chance. He'd seen innocent napalm victims, their scorched flesh hanging from thin bodies like tapestries in some kind of torture palace. Besides, he had killed. Never women or children (at least any that he was aware of), but once a man killed it was difficult for him to look back. Finger, delicate against the trigger; a sharp breath; a quick pull; Gook brains flying out the back of Gook head. At the time it was heard to imagine that they were even human. Still, the women and children over there . . . But it was Vietnam, man; America. They, it, had done things to him that he couldn't undo; had taken things away that he would never be able to take back. They, it, had done that to many fine, young men.
The driver of the silver Mazda, clearly dead, managed to twist his head toward Thomas. It was the face of a young man. "Oh shit! Oh Christ!" It said." It was the same voice Thomas heard every night of his life, but this time it was in broad daylight.
Charlie's comin', Thomas thought, fleeing the scene.
None of the onlookers tried to stop him. None of them asked him if he was okay or where he was going. Time felt stopped.
Thomas needed a drink badly.
He lumbered home. When reaching for the doorknob he wondered how he'd gotten there. Mostly, his mind was foggy; or at least not where it was supposed to be. Violent images etched themselves into his thoughts like dark embroidery.
The door was locked.
And something else was there along with the darker aspects. Thomas looked closely. It was the notion that life had been decent, or at least better than he often thought. Before Nam, Thomas had had great disdain for anything standing in one place. The regularity, the complacency, of a life without windows, without doors (that had been his impressions at the time), could lead only to boredom and unsatisfaction. One had to keep moving . . .
But the doorknob wouldn't budge in his hand, and he knew what that meant.
While in Nam all he wanted was the exact opposite. Everything over there was so fucking insane. Between the drugs and the fighting . . . Things became unreal very quickly. He was exposed to states of mind that no man should ever be exposed to.
He thought of the people standing on the street looking for a spot of blood just so they could look away in disgust. Humanity was a spectacle of contradiction; humor and sadness.
And he thought of the doorknob, but mostly he thought of how they, he and Eloise, kept it locked when they were out. The fact never changed. That, in Thomas's opinion, was reality.
Thomas felt like he needed to cry, but his eyes, instead, remained dry. Once again he was defiled in the wake of his emotions. Swallowing hard, Thomas dug into the pocket where he knew his keys would be. Either he'd pulled them out of the ignition or they'd been there all along. Either way . . .
He slipped the key home and opened the door. The warmth of the morning came out to embrace him. He could smell her too. It nearly brought him to his knees.
Thomas left the cold behind. He turned on the hall light illuminating a gallery of photos on his left; windows into their past. He knew what all of them contained. We hunger for the past, always. He spared himself this pain and ignored the pictures as if they'd always belonged to someone else and had never meant anything at all. It was funny, almost hilarious, how a few moments could shatter a mind's composure; a life aggravated out of sleep by violent spasms of doubt.
He turned the kitchen light on.
Eloise had grudgingly called it the medicine cabinet. Thomas opened it and peered inside. There were at least twenty bottles in there, all in varying degrees of fullness; or emptiness. Still, there was plenty, all of which he had planned to send down the sink the minute they had returned from breakfast.
Thomas grabbed one of the bottles , any of them really, and unscrewed the top. Her took a heavy pull. It burned down his throat and into his empty stomach.
Thomas took the bottle into the living room. Taking off his shoes and pants, he began to evaporate into the couch. He drank while his head became lighter, and by degrees, more and more grateful. If in doubt, drink. That was his motto. And he was in doubt, yes sir. Huge doubt. Mammoth doubt. It was a doubt, he concluded, that could fell an entire civilization.
Thomas looked at the television sitting across from him. It might have been humanity's closed eye, gray and lifeless; a thing that had blinked its way into non-existence.
He was tempted to turn it on. He knew that the mindless blather juxtaposed with the effects of the alcohol had helped him forget many things, or at least put them in a place that was out of reach for the time being.
Thomas picked up the remote, setting it down just as quickly.
He took another drink and waited.
What was he waiting for?
A phone call maybe. The police. The hospital. The morgue. Someone to tell him that this was all a very bad dream and he could wake up now. Maybe even someone to tell him that his whole life had been a bad dream and he could wake up from that too.
* * *
Thomas drank for three days straight. He'd never been a binge drinker. Mostly he liked to drink steadily, day after day, rarely missing a day, and killing himself slowly. One day at a time. Wasn't that a motto or something? When in doubt ... Everybody had some creed to live by. This from the man who had once despised tones of regularity. But nothing was regular anymore was it? So he drank through the nights and into the mornings and into the days for three nights straight. The chance that he might kill himself lingered somewhere in the mounting darkness, but what did he care? The chance that he might die was even vaguely inspiring. It was a sad, black situation to be in.
As if seeking oblivion in nothing, Thomas had pulled every curtain closed and removed every portrait from the hall, breaking many of them in fits of rage. The television never came on, and so there was really no doubt that the world had vanished.
Still, three days later, and very near the bottom, there was a knock at the door.
Thomas was lying naked on his back in the middle of the living room, the ceiling swirling above him in the half darkness, when he heard it. He thought that he imagined it, but then it came again, and more fiercely. Thomas opened his mouth to say something, but nothing would come out. His mouth was dry, his lips cracked. His throat was raw from all the alcohol and stomach bile he'd sent up and down it in an unrelenting cycle of agonizing tag.
The knocking came once more. This time it was followed by a muffled voice.
"Comin'." Thomas managed a whisper before rolling over and vomiting. There was a wet sound as his face landed in the fresh pool. When he lifted his head again, warm vomit oozed from his nostrils
Thomas found it hard to believe that anything at all existed outside of these walls with the exception of his own madness. He couldn't even remember why he was here in the first place. A tragic thing, no doubt. He pilfered his own soggy brain for clues, but it was useless.
He got to his knees. Bottles toppled away from his awkward, drunken movements. He got to his feet. Broken glass crunched underneath. If he could comprehend the fact then he would know that the entire house had struggled right along side him. Between fits of lonesome rage and a mounting struggle with simple acts of physical conduct, well . . .
"Just a minute." Thomas had drunk so much he'd forgotten how to slur. It was as if, through the haze of mind and spirit, he had been allowed these few simple signs of cognition.
He lumbered through the hall kicking random things out of his way as he went. Remarkably, the closer he got to the door the less drunk he felt. By no means was he sober when he got there, but something had certainly changed. Perhaps an impression made by association: If something did thrive beyond these walls . . ? And his heart sagged. Something had gone terribly wrong.
What was he waiting for? What?
Instinctively, Thomas craned his head toward the door, his right eye zeroing in on the eyehole. Drunkenness couldn't steal his nature; the very obvious paranoia that came from a life lived on the fringes of human darkness and frailty.
What waited for him on the other side was distorted through the eyehole. But he could still make out the two shapes easily enough.
Thomas felt terribly sober now; and he continued to tremble from his insides. The emptiness there was absolute. And his head felt distant as if it had been forced down narrow tunnels of no light. What was he afraid of?
It was fear, wasn't it? The thing that sobered him?
Thomas examined the shapes more closely and decided that they were two men standing side by side with seemingly impenetrable, stoic expressions on their faces. They were conservatively dressed, their suits nearly identical; if it weren't for the different shades of blue, one slightly darker than the other, than they would have been.
"Thomas Bentley," one of the men said. Or was it both of them in unison. Either way, that voice was as soothing as both their expressions were disconcerting.
Suddenly, Thomas' stomach lurched. Doubling up, he grabbed the doorknob for support.
Bang, bang, bang. "Mr. Bentley!"
Thomas crept back up the door and thus positioned a hand on either side of the eyehole. Through it he could see one of their faces very clearly. It filled the glass bubble of his limited vision to capacity. Thomas looked into the eyes of that face. After which, a feeling of mental asphyxia cloyed his nerves. The eyes... There was a cold world of nothingness in them; a decayed soul imprisoned by the alien warmth of a living vessel. Thomas felt cold all of a sudden. The only times he'd ever seen eyes so vacant was in the eyes or the dead; or maybe Nazis in the war documentaries he'd seen on television.
"We only want to talk," came that voice. "It is a matter of importance."
"It concerns your wife."
Of course. Eloise. She'd been killed in a terrible car accident. Recently. Thomas's body ached and he knew why. He'd been drinking in order to forget what had happened to her. But now he remembered. He remembered and it was worse.
"Mr. Bentley, we . . . "
Thomas couldn't remember opening the door after the fact. Combined, the two men made a wall in front of him. Like an accused child Thomas avoided eye contact. It was an old fear welling up in him now; a fear that alienated him from all things knowable and forcing him to obey a darkness that was ill defined no matter how he chose to look on it.
You have let this thing in, a voice from somewhere informed him.
But that voice. Whose?
And then another voice announced itself. "Thomas Bentley." Followed by: "Your under arrest for the murder of your wife, Eloise Bentley."
And then there was a sharp, stinging pain in Thomas's right shoulder.
The darkness took him before he could stifle his fear enough to face his accusers.
* * *
Birth is the hardest part . . .
Birth was only the beginning, but it was still the hardest part. Only, he'd forgotten exactly how the thing went. There was the cavernous paradise of no suffering, no pain, and then a cruel white light that was both cold and blinding. He came into the world naked and howling against them. Yes, it had been the hardest part for sure, yet also the most honest. He'd forgotten that too.
They clothed him and fed him and molded him. They told him things that weren't always true. He didn't think about it at the time, but the world was a fragile thing bending to the whims of individuals. The stronger ones made things true so the weaker ones wouldn't have to think about them.
His father sits with him on the big porch out in front of the first house they ever lived in. His father's face is alcohol-red and his eyes are filled with shadows. In a strange, preternatural way he is afraid of his father, but it is more a fear of what can be lost before it is ever gained. He searches for something real in his father's face and learns later in life that it was real; as real and as tragic as life could be.
He wants to hold his father in his skinny boy arms and . . .
I love you, I love you, I love you.
There are many things we cannot articulate with our rude, crummy mouths and minds. We hold ourselves down in that water and baptize ourselves to fool gods that cannot exist without us. We run around in circles of fear and outrage. We don't want to be alone forever, but some of us have no choice.
The words are from far away. Still, they are chosen carefully.
His mother is as beautiful as an angel. More beautiful, he thinks. She sits with him at the table while he does his homework. She looks at him like he's something special and smiles at him when he sees she's looking. But underneath it all there is something desperate struggling. He knows this, and she knows he knows. Still, if she were ever to bring this thing out in the open then someone would get hurt. It is best to suppress truth, desires, and the will to live openly, freely.
Mom, you were such a fucking coward.
Even here, he was dizzy. All the memories were so real. And they'll only get more real; more painful.
His father dies in his sleep two years before he is drafted into the service. He holds onto his mother's clammy hand as his father is being lowered into the ground. His mother is crying. He is crying too. He remembers that detail clearly because has not cried since. He is crying and thinking about his father down there in the dark and something in him turns cold and bitter and withdrawn. He lets go of his mother's hand without thinking about it.
Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey . . . The Beatles' lyric vibrated throughout his skull.
"Come on man. It's cool." Raffe hands him the hit of acid. It's small and white in the middle of his palm like a miniature door leading to who knew where. Everybody's doin' it. He reminds himself; but he's still afraid. He hasn't felt that kind of fear, like his stomach was all twisted up inside, since having to jump off the high dive in swim class.
He closes his eyes and pops the piece of paper into his mouth.
"Go with it man." Raffe's voice is calm and distant.
It's nineteen sixty-eight and in no time at all he's feeling the consciousness of a nation, of a world, of a universe. It is all sad and exciting. He looks up at the stars; they are swirling in the abyss of the sky. They sit in the bright living room listening to the Beatles' White album. The music tries to assure them that everything is okay, although at times desperate and strange.
And that album would always remind him just how things could get, but for now he's trying to get through this, and it isn't easy.
The veneer of the world is brittle and so easily confused with something of more substance. How is it that he never realized this before? Humanity is frozen in the dark. God is a dreaming entity. If we are God's dream, then why can't we wake him up, and if we did would this be considered suicide. Collective suicide, collective death. What's the use of all this suffering and pain? Chaos is a mirror. And so on . . .
"Let's go outside. I need to walk," he whispers to Raffe. His mind is racing so fast that he can barely talk.
"How are you doing?" Raffe feels the confusion and distortions peeling off of him like its electric sky.
Raffe knew that he was fighting it. After all, it was his first time.
They walk beneath a dawn sky. The sun is bleeding. Warmth settles over their skin and evaporates the night from their brains. He thinks, for a moment, that he has been dreaming all this time, but it felt too real to be a dream and too dreamy to be real.
He felt some of those sensations now, but he knew better. He'd thought that maybe he was dying. But his father had been the one who had died. He had died in a different way; and had been resurrected. But he would forget, God damn it, and all the answers that lingered inside him would slink back into their caves. If not by his own devices, then . . ?
They sat in the muggy darkness waiting for the first strike. He lights up a cigarette. His hands are trembling. He looks around him at the ghost faces of boys lost in different phases of their own deaths. Many would die for real, for good, but they would all die in their own way only to be resurrected into socially retarded and mentally desperate shadows. There are no hero-martyrs here; only meat and numbers.
So he holds his gun and waits like a good soldier. He still hasn't killed anyone, but today is the day; or so they tell him. Christ, he's only here a few days, but it seems like fucking eternity.
"Got a light?" Someone asks him.
"Yeah. Sure." He flicks the lighter.
The soldier, a guy from Toronto named Randolph, has trouble catching the flame because he's trembling so bad. Thomas knows the new guy is scared shitless, but doesn't say anything about it. It would just make it worse. They were in this together, and the kid would learn quick enough.
There is the sound of rapid gunfire and the guy from Toronto's face explodes, bits of brain, blood, and bone spraying everywhere.
He's still holding the lighter out in front of him, but he's no longer trembling. Pieces of Randolph littler his hand and the lighter. He notices Randolph is still clutching the cigarette in his pursed lips. These are details that will infiltrate his nightmares, waking and sleeping, forever. His heart pounds fiercely and he reacts like an animal. He hears something in the dense jungle beyond the clearing, lifts and aims.
And his heart was still pumping blood through his veins; his eyes twitching beneath their lids. There was still life; but, oh, the darkness of it. There were times when he would have gladly accepted death over the smell of someone else's blood on his person, but humanity . . .
This thing, this Vietnam thing, taking so much and giving nothing.
When it is over he feels like a prisoner who has spent a lifetime getting accustomed to a confined existence, when out of the blue he is pardoned. The world outside of these walls is no longer a world he is willing to accept, even though he has spent most of his lifetime dreaming about it.
He looks around at the faces of his humanity, but is too chained up inside to function within it. They treat him like shit and expect him to jump in wherever it was he left off before Uncle Sam decided to make a monkey out of him.
His story is nothing new.
The heart was the thing; ugly and deformed with tough little valves puckered and protruding out of the sides, but when installed properly . . .
It is not love at first sight. He understands that right away. From his vantage point, from inside the cold storage shed of his thoughts and memories, there can be no such thing. She does not come to him in a dream. She is plain to see; but she is beautiful. When the sun dazzles her eyes and freckled shoulders he smiles. She also makes him laugh in the same way his mother used to make him laugh.
"I love you," she tells him, thus becoming the new angel in his life. His mother died when he was over there. He thinks she died from all the sadness in her soul, although cancer was the only clinical label they had to offer.
It's not that he could ever replace his mother; it's not that he wants to. But he certainly finds some comfort in her ability to love him. In a cruel world one needs to make friends with love. He is doing his best,
"What's the matter?" She asks him.
"Nothing," he tells her, lifting a bottle, a glass, to his lips.
There was no escaping it. The darkness was too close; the chaos too unruly. If he could have it surgically removed like a tumor he would. He would happily smile and nod and get on, but . . .
The cancer spreads so quickly.
And the next memory; pure blackness. He suffers to remember it, but can't seem to.
She is reading in her favorite chair when he comes into the room. He is drunk and there is something glinting in his hand. She feels him there, but it is a feeling of warm, safe regularity. It doesn't matter that he's haunted by something that she can't understand.
He looks at her there, but the madness has blinded him. He only sees a corpse, or all corpses; the world decayed a thousand times over. "Whatcha reading?" It's not even his voice. It's the recorded voice of memory.
He was thrust out of himself by what it was he was forced to see.
* * *
"He's coming out of it," came the voice.
"Inject him with more."
"Wait. Let's see what he remembers . . . How he reacts."
"Nonsense. Just give him the drug. It's obvious that the last part has upset him."
The voices sounded as if they were inside a tunnel. Thomas strained to open his eyes and halfway succeeded. The images were hazy gray inside of white sterility. Perhaps I've died, he thought, and the images were the shadows of those who had left him back in life. Judging by the procession of memories that had since streamed through his mind . . . All except for that last one, of course. And it was that thought alone that gave him the strength that he needed.
Thomas opened his eyes further.
Two men came into view and all of a sudden Thomas remembered. They weren't exactly like the two men who had accosted him in his house, who had accused him, but their presence helped him recall it just the same. There was something eerily similar about them, which filled Thomas with an acute sense of unease.
When their eyes became clear to him he was sure.
"He's coming out of it," said one of the men.
"So give him a higher dose."
"But doesn't he need to know? And more importantly, don't we? Isn't that the purpose of this exercise? He's afraid, but we're not exactly sure of how afraid. Only he can tell us."
"It's all up there on the screen." He pointed to a side wall.
Yes indeed. There was something bracketed to the wall resembling a movie screen, but much smaller. Globes of light flickered at its sides. Wires varying in shape and color ran from beneath the globes and down to the floor where Thomas could no longer see them. From here they curled and twisted toward Thomas's bed and brain, where they hung from pulsating temples like colorful ropes of punk hair. They also had him strapped soundly and slightly elevated.
He looked closely at the screen. It had captured the last thing to move through his brain. The slit across his wife's throat looked like a sloppy clown smile.
He looked away.
"You see," came a voice. "What we view on the screen is never as absolute as the look on his face."
Thomas could feel their queer eyes boring into his soul.
"He must accept this fate," said the other. "But not until he's gone through the whole process."
"He knows what he's capable of. He's always known. That's his greatest fear."
Thomas thought about what was on that screen and what was in his head. He was troubled by both simultaneously. What he didn't understand was why. It was impossible that he murdered his wife. She had died in a car wreck. He had been with her.
"Car wreck," he whispered. He felt very weak. Whatever they had given him . . .
"Give him more."
"But I want to hear what he has to say."
"GIVE HIM MORE!"
* * *
It was the sound of explosives coming from somewhere. At first Thomas thought they were coming from his own head; another Nam flashback maybe. But then he felt heat press up against his body.
"On the floor!" A new voice.
"You don't know what your doing." The voice of one of his captors.
"Like fuck we don't! Get on the floor and stay there!"
A young man came into Thomas's view. He couldn't have been a day older than twenty. His eyes were black and swirling in his head. "Come on!" It was not a request, but an order. The young man undid the straps that bound Thomas. "We only have a little time!"
Thomas leapt to his feet. He was encouraged by a sudden, almost dizzying burst of energy. There were three of them in all; two men and a woman. They were all dressed in what looked like black, military attire. Aside from the young man who had freed him, Thomas could not get a good look at the others. He only hoped they were on his side.
They left the room single file, the young man leading, Thomas behind him, and the other two trailing. He felt right away that they were protecting him. They held guns out in front of them in anticipation; unlike any guns Thomas had ever seen.
What the fuck is going on? His mind howled. The question was late in coming. It wasn't that he was a stranger to sudden reality shifts, but this was insane.
And then they were outside.
* * *
Thomas was not at all surprised to see the spaceship docked outside. They filed up the ramp in the same order they had maintained all along. "Move it out," said the young man.
A scrawny black man with feral eyes and golden nubs for teeth leaned back in his swivel chair like some kind of renegade Captain Kirk. "Thought you dudes would never get back," he joked, his arm coming up; a sleek, black thing corded with thick, twisting veins. He flicked some switches above him. Thomas felt the ship lurch, and then nothing; a calm nothing which could only mean one thing.
"You're safe for now," the woman told Thomas.
He could see her face clearly now. She was pretty in an unobtrusive way. Her skin was pale bordering on transparent. Her facial features were sparrow-sharp and delicate; her brown eyes large and doleful. Auburn hair was pulled back into a bun which made her face seem even smaller. Intelligence, sadness, vulnerability . . . These were all words that might define the way she looked. But Thomas had always been attracted to that kind of girl, angels all. Eloise had been like that; and his mother. He didn't even think he needed to hear her speak further to know these things about her.
Still, he wanted to hear her speak. He wanted to hear her badly.
"What do you mean for now?" He asked her.
"They might come for you," she explained. "But the chances are slim. You see, you're one of many lab entities . . . One of thousands."
"Experiments in what?"
"Madness mostly. They want to see how far they can push you."
"I don't know. Maybe to feed their own egos. We're not exactly sure yet. But we wanted to see for ourselves. It was along the way."
"Along the way?"
"We're on a mission to find God," interrupted the young man. "My name's Camryn. This is Gwen." He touched the woman on the shoulder. "That's Seth." Seth was the oldest of the crew, but not much older than Thomas by the looks of it. Although Seth's hair was dark and full, his eyes brimming with a kind sadness. He was actually probably younger than Thomas. "Seth is a doctor. And that's Sears. He's driving."
"Howdy," said Sears in his best mock John Wayne impression. His gold teeth glinted in the bright cabin light when he said it.
"God?" Thomas felt like he needed to laugh.
"He's close," said Camryn. "Gwen says she can feel him. Isn't that right, Gwen?"
"Maybe within the week. But the trajectory is always shifting."
"Gwen's a mystic," he explained. "You could say that He spent more time on her than the rest of us." Camryn flexed his tan, muscular face. Thomas thought he looked like a caricature of all the ship captains in all the movies and television shows he'd seen over the years. "We're from Earth just like you," he continued.
"Shouldn't you be seeking alien life rather than God? Besides, I don't believe He exists. He is just an idea fabricated out of people's minds in order to make them feel better."
"Number one," Gwen interjected. "He does exist. Number two, the alien life you speak of, or at least as far as we know, is back there, where we found you."
"It just keeps getting better doesn't it? So why me?"
"Because you are the first prisoner we ran across," said Camryn.
"Then how do you know there are more captives."
"We've been following their progress for some time. Only not until now have we had the means to get inside."
"For one thing an untraceable ship," said Sears. "And the blueprints to the inner chambers."
"Which is where we found you," said Gwen.
"Where is that place and how did I get there?"
"Mars," she said. "And they took you. Just like they take all vulnerable specimens."
"You were on the edge of some kind of nervous breakdown and they wanted to see just how far down you'd go."
"They think I killed my wife."
"Of course not."
"How do you know?"
"I just do. But still it's a memory. A memory I can't remember. So why did you rescue me?"
"Maybe you can help us," she explained. "We're going to feed you to God to find out if He still has a heart."
"Or if He's been asleep all these years," added Camryn.
"What do you mean?"
"Figuratively speaking," said Gwen. "With you and me combined He will be easier to locate. Your temporary madness has opened you up."
"But I'm not mad."
"Then you killed your wife?"
"We're close anyway," she said. " We will locate them with or without you. But wouldn't you like to know?"
"Why so many are suffering?" Her face was deadly serious now. Thomas's heart ached.
"Yes," he said. "I suppose I would."
* * *
Vast and infinite . . . Space is both of these things. Crawling into the darkness of mind and body. Thomas really could feel something heavy on the brink of existence. It was there all right. He couldn't deny it. It was as if the essence of his being had expanded into billions of shards of light and were now coalescing on the edge of chaos, nothingness, eternal loneliness and beyond.
"They are magnificent." Camryn was sitting next to him. They had been looking out that window for some time, silent.
"Do you think they go on forever?"
"It depends," he said.
"What do you mean?"
Thomas, who had spent most of his life struggling against himself, breathed deeply. The air inside the vessel was congested, but he managed. He continued staring into space and tried to pinpoint exactly where it was he wanted to go, but realized in the end that it was all the same. What was he looking for? God? Maybe.
"What do you think He looks like?" he asked Camryn.
"I suppose whatever one wants to see."
A good enough answer, thought Thomas, albeit cryptic. A better answer than he was willing to provide. "No white robe? No beard?" Thomas joked.
"If that's all you're willing to see."
Thomas knew that that was exactly what most people would see because that was the image they had been fed throughout their lives.
"God may be a collective ideal," Camryn went on, "but the individual impressions made are . . ."
"Hungry?" It was Gwen.
"Starved," said Camryn, moving toward her.
"Coming?" She looked at Thomas.
He turned to her and felt a lightness in his head; a dizziness.
"Are you okay?" She approached him.
"Yeah. I think so." Thomas felt an overwhelming desire to have Gwen in his arms. "I haven't had a drink in a week. Or longer."
It's funny, he thought: The way she looked at him. He recognized that look from the one he imagined giving her. They held each other's pain inside, thus needing to hold each other. "It's okay," she said, going to him; but they both understood that it wasn't. Still, he held her in his arms. She felt like nothing, yet everything. She had God tied up inside of her somewhere straining to get out. The world was waiting.
Gwen sobbed into his chest as they plummeted through space. Thomas thought it was like sinking into an ocean. He felt doubtful.
"I've killed other men." He felt like he needed to tell her.
"We've all done horrible things," she cried.
His nose was pressed against the top of her head. He breathed her in. "What?" He asked, his heart pounding in his throat.
"I kept it all inside," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"My anger. My frustration. I kept it all locked up. I was afraid, you see. And my fear, my anger, turned into hate. Hate is a terrible, terrible emotion, Thomas. It is as far away from God as a person can get." She was quiet for a moment, her ear pressed against his chest now as if listening to the life inside of him. Finally she asked: "Did you hate those men you killed?"
"I did it because I had to," he said. "It's what was asked of me."
"But did you hate them?"
"In a way, yes. At the time, I mean."
"Maybe. I can't tell."
"You either hate them or you don't."
Thomas knew why they had chosen her for this mission.
"No. I don't hate them. Not anymore. If I hate anything it's America. Young men were pushed to the brink and beyond because of America's stubbornness."
"You're a good man," she said.
"Do you think I killed Eloise, my wife?"
"No. I don't."
He kissed her lightly on the forehead.
* * *
There was really no way to tell how long they'd been floating through space. Darkness receding into darkness receding into darkness . . . Memory outside of this vessel was fading.
At first thought it was an illusion: It was resting on the horizon of black ocean. It looked like a tiny, golden teardrop in the distance.
When the teardrop opened into an eye, the pilot, Sears, shrieked: "God Ho!"
And they could all see the same thing.
* * *
Several hours passed before the pupil of that eye assumed its final role; a doorway that led to the very core of God's existence.
"I'm afraid," Doctor Seth explained.
Gwen assured him that, "we're all afraid."
"Not me." It was Sears. He leaned back in his chair, his arms stretched beneath his head like thick ropes of black licorice. His gold teeth glowed in his face.
Suddenly, Camryn shrieked: "My skin! It's burning!"
Thomas looked at Camryn. Clearly, his skin was fine. But his face . . . Anything that might have been hiding inside was now convulsing on the outside. His eyes displayed the cinema of his anguish as if there were tiny projectors expertly hidden behind them.
Why was he, Thomas, not shrieking and crying like a baby void of its mother?
But it was in there, stirring. Nothing human could escape it. Thomas closed his eyes and could see the headlights of his life approaching from the sooty blackness of his mind. Every conceivable emotion waylaid into him and he felt like he was being turned inside out. He screamed into the void of himself and wished, above everything else, to be done with it. It was a final affirmation of all human dilemmas, horrible and beautiful. It wrenched his guts, his mind, and displayed every specific facet of his being. Still, a voice buried in the detritus of his thoughts pushed him to the edge of his madness and beyond it.
Thomas looked around him. He thought: We are all crazed on the edge of chaos. With the exception of Sears, who looked like death, black and rail thin with glittering teeth, ensconced in the womb of all our suffering.
And it was the last he would see of any of them.
* * *
Once inside, things altered rapidly. The pain Thomas felt subsided and he was alone. Also, the golden light of the eye cast no shadow. It was a perfect brightness . . . Even his own shadow had dissipated.
He opened his mouth to speak. Gwen, he said, but it was only a thought. I'm afraid.
So God was a hulking ape trapped inside a glass room without doors or windows . . . Whatever one wants to see. The room was also completely barren. And the ape was asleep. Thomas could see the hairy mass rising and falling in perfect rhythm as it breathed.
Thomas walked around to the other side (the glass room itself was sitting unobstructed in a vast, bright domain of unknown dimensions) to get a better look. The ape's face was in plain view. Its expression was peaceful. So? Thomas said. While humanity suffers, God sleeps. All the pain, struggle, violence, corruption, vice . . . Every fucking thing! And God sleeps! Thomas's voice boomed from inside of him. We toil in blood! We are forced to kill at will! We are tortured and spat on! And God sleeps! Years of sickness welled out of him like sour-hot bile. But it was not his sickness alone. It was, instead, a collective sickness that had been ignored for far too long; days and nights spent in nightmare land. Love. Love was all it would take. But it was so God-damn difficult when it came right down to it; when hate was so fucking simple. You son of a bitch! You can't turn your back on us! Not now! Not when we need you the most! Tears gushed from his eyes in long, hot streams. You lousy fucker! You lousy, lousy fucker! All time and memory ceased. Only images and emotions could be counted on. And Thomas cried for all of them. You lousy fucker . . . And he began to pound the glass with his fists . . . Wake up you lousy fucker! His fists were bleeding; runnels of blood twisting down his forearms. You . . !
And one of the ape's eyes opened, but just barely.
It was the end of everything.
Story copyright 2001 by C. C. Parker Nazoch3@aol.com
Illustrations copyright 2001 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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