Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chapter 6 (concluded)

Continuing down 18th, he felt mildly guilty about his lie to the guitarist, but he certainly hadn’t been about to admit that he’d been drinking to dull the feeling of something invisible pulling at his guts.  And apparently it had worked: he had felt nothing like it all morning.  He glanced covertly at Larissa to see if she was studying him, but she was just walking and watching life on the street.  He decided to do the same.

And so down the busy avenue, a liesurely stroll in the warming late morning air.  When the lunch rush came out, they stopped to work the crowds and pick up a bit of coin.  Then they got some burgers at a fast food joint and continued wandering down the road.

By this point, they had left Adams Morgan and drifted into Dupont Circle.  When they hit New Hampshire, they turned right and soon arrived at the eponymous traffic circle.  It wasn’t really big enough to be called a park, but there were trees, and a few street people: Parking Jimmy, snoozing on a bench, Saint Thomas, who was one of the few street people who was well and truly crazy, muttering to himself as always, and the new face everyone had been talking about at court two nights ago, whose name Johnny had misplaced.  He turned to Larissa for help.  “Drew,” she murmured.  Johnny introduced himself.  Drew was white, older, still a bit skittish.  “Anything you need,” Johnny said to the new guy.  “Either of us would be happy to help out.”  Drew thanked them nervously, then moved on.  Johnny and Larissa relaxed on the bench with Jimmy for a bit—he cracked an eye at them, but didn’t really wake up—then decided to move on themselves.

They headed down Massachusetts, which would eventually take them to the construction site where the new Convention Center was almost finished.  Security around the site was pretty tight, but it was occasionally possible to sneak inside for a night, and, if this breeze kept up, they might appreciate being out of it.  But somewhere in the midst of evening rush hour Johnny suddenly felt it again.

He stopped abruptly on the sidewalk.  People jostled him, some muttering unfriendly remarks.  Larissa pulled him out of the flow of foot traffic.  Leaning against a building, he looked down the street.  It was a bit to the right of the new Convention Center, which he could just make out the top of from here.  Probably a bit south of Mount Vernon Place, then ...

He glanced over at Larissa.  She was studying him again.  “I think we need to go back to Chinatown,” he said softly.  She simply nodded.

section break

They spent the next several hours following the occasional tugs that Johnny felt.  By the time dusk fell, they had crisscrossed Chinatown’s six or so square blocks perhaps a dozen times.  They got as far east as St. Mary’s, as far south as the Verizon Center, back west to the Convention Center (the current one, not the new one they were building), back north to Mount Vernon Square.  The feeling was always just out of reach, and maddeningly intermittent.  Any thought of dinner was forgotten.  Occasionally, people they knew called out greetings; they ignored them.  They tried alleys, roads, parks, anywhere they could get to without risking unwanted attention.  Each time they came up empty.

“What time is it?” Johnny asked finally.

Larissa again gazed skyward.  “About 9:30,” she pronounced.  It had been dark for a while now, but of course the city lights were still bright.  The night air was slightly nippy.  At the moment they were walking south on 5th, just crossing I Street.

“I dunno,” Johnny said, frustration oozing out of his pores.  “I can’t seem to ...”  He stopped.  Larissa stopped as well.

To describe it as a “tug” was no longer sufficient.  This was as if he had been transformed into iron and placed near a giant magnet.  His teeth seemed to be vibrating.  He felt like his heels were being pulled along the sidewalk.  He found he was unconsciously leaning backwards to balance himself.  Glancing at Larissa, he found her staring at him with widened eyes.

“I gotcha now, you bastard,” he muttered triumphantly.

He began walking, faster and faster.  Just before they reached H Street an alley appeared on their right, and the pulling sensation abruptly vanished.  Johnny turned to Larissa.  “I think,” he said breathlessly, “that we’re finally here.”

The First Gate

Johnny and Larissa turned the corner and went down the filthy dead-end alleyway.  Several restaurants had back doors or side doors that let out on the alley and lots of food trash went out to sit, calling to the rats and the cats and the bluebottle flies.  The smell was nauseating, but in a mercurial way, constantly shifting:  one thread out of the melange—say, spaghetti—might predominate for a split second, giving that strong marinara scent that might almost be enticing, and then immediately it would get swallowed up in a soup of egg foo yung, refried beans, Korean barbecue, and sour milk, nearly making you retch.

Larissa’s nose wrinkled, and her hand rose to cover it.  Johnny seemed oblivious to the olfactory assault; his eyes were fixed on a lone light bulb burning at the end of the alley, over the last door on the right.  Slowly he picked his way towards it.  Larissa followed.

When he reached the light he could see what had drawn him there.  There was a single wisp of mist, curling around the light as if caressing it.  It floated slowly, unusual at first only in its solitude, but Johnny just stared, unmoving, as the minutes ticked by.  And, as the time elapsed, they could see that it was completely abnormal mist, because it would slowly float to the edge of the illumination provided by the bulb, then it would turn around and float in the other direction.  And when it reached the opposite edge of the light, it would turn again and start back.  Except, of course, that mist didn’t turn around.  That was ... preposterous.

After a few circuits back and forth, Johnny reached out to touch the mist as it went by.  He heard a gasp and a truncated plosive over his shoulder; Larissa’s concern for Johnny was obviously at war with her sense of detachment.  But he wasn’t worried.  He knew the mist wasn’t there to hurt him.  Actually, the mist wasn’t there for him at all ... he was there for it, in some way.

As his hand passed through, the mist swirled around it, seeming to cling to the short hairs on the back of his hand.  As Johnny slowly pulled his hand back, the mist seemed to want to follow it, briefly, then it pulled away from him, almost as if with great effort, and went back to its original spot.  The feel was not particularly unusual—cool and moist, as you would expect mist to be—and yet there was something that Johnny felt beyond feeling, something that he was aware of on a level that he didn’t even know he possessed, as if the whole concept of five senses was a lie and he actually had seven, or eleven, or nineteen.

“It is,” agreed Larissa, talking fast now.  “You have nine, not including your sense of time and the homeostatic interoceptive senses ... visual, auditory, vestibular, olfactory, gustatory, somatic, thermoceptive, kinesthetic, and nocioceptive.  The concept of five senses was advanced by Aristotle, who of course also believed that there were only four elements, or five if you include aether, and nobody believes that drivel any more, but for some reason the five senses thing just ...”  She trailed off into silence and Johnny returned his attention to the mist.  Curiously, since he had touched it, it was just hanging in the air, not pacing back and forth as it had been before.  He stepped forward and looked at it, put his hand out but didn’t actually touch it this time, just held it close, mere millimeters away, and opened up a door in his mind and reached out.

Then Larissa was shaking his shoulder, with some determination, and he looked lazily back at her, curious but not worried, and she was talking again, in that college-professor way she had that was so weirdly incongruous in a girl of her whatever-age-she-was, and he couldn’t really make out the words she was saying because his hearing was turned down because this other sense, this new sense, was cranked way up, and he was cocking his head to one side now, in what Larissa, judging from her expression, found to be a very un-Johnny-like way, and he spoke, or at least his mouth opened and words came out: “I have to put the mist in the box.”

Larissa looked down.  There was a large cardboard box, open, empty, and clean, which in itself was bizarre beyond belief in this food-strewn alley.  She looked back at the mist.  She looked back at Johnny.  She enunciated very carefully.  “That’s just silly.”

Johnny smiled, a big dopey smile, and he nodded.  “Yup,” he agreed happily.  “Very silly.”  Then he began to push and scoop and swirl the mist over to the box.  And because it clung to his skin ever so briefly after his hand passed through it, he actually made some small progress, pulling the mist gradually over to the box.  Once he reached the cardboard, he took off his coat.  Larissa pointed out that it was getting cold.  Ignoring her, he took off his outer shirt, and then his tee-shirt.  His nipples puckered in the night air, but he couldn’t actually feel it.  He kicked off his boots and then pulled off his socks.  He actually had his hands in the waistband of his trousers when he remembered Larissa.  He looked back at her.  Her eyes were big and round.  He felt he ought to blush at this point, but somehow that didn’t matter.  “That’s probably close enough,” he said softly, still smiling.  And then he stepped into the box.

He pulled the mist to him, then squatted down on his haunches.  Immediately he felt a strong urge to urinate, but he suppressed it.  He began to spread the mist over his body—that was really the only way to describe it—and it felt moist and sort of squishy and vaguely ... organic ... and both comforting and a little bit gross at the same time.  Mostly it felt right.  And although it hadn’t seemed like there was very much of it—just one little wisp of mist, after all—for some reason he was able to keep spreading it, and spreading it, until every inch of him seemed to be covered.  Once he was finished, he looked down, concentrating on a spot on the bottom of the cardboard box between his feet, and his eyes began to burn, as if he had something stuck in his eye, only it was both eyes, and instead of blurring his vision, he could see everything much more clearly now.  Everything was both brighter and darker and the world made so much more sense ...

When his head cleared, he was standing again, and the mist was thick and unmoving on his skin and his pants.  His feet were together, arms stretched out to either side, as if he were portraying a crucifiction victim.  Larissa was staring at him, open-mouthed, her eyes still large.  “You’re wearing someone,” she said.

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