The graffiti was unlike any he had ever seen. Though just chicken scratches, it stood out from all the rest and as he stared, words began to become visible, and then a pattern developed; like one of those magic eye posters at the mall he’d seen as a child. He’d stare at the pixelated bits of nonsensical color, only to be surprised when an image of a sailboat would appear.
He forced his mind to focus, remembering that to see the hidden image you had to do the opposite of stare at the picture. Instead, you had to zone out, and let your eyes rest. It was easy to do in his almost double-vision drunken and loaded state.
Slowly, letters manifested, and then a full sentence.
He is rising.
Sterling frowned. Was it a religious message? If it was just Christians, why the hell had they gone and messed it up so badly? He cocked his head sideways and saw that he’d been wrong, the words weren’t there at all. It was just a mess of squiggles and lines.
How the hell did I manage to see words in all that scribbling?
In a blink they were there, again, then they weren’t. The more he gazed, the more the words shifted. Soon he was seeing more words, saying something different.
“Don’t look at it.”
The voice startled him. He spun and saw DeAngelo, his dark face glistening with sweat in the humid heat, his breath smelling like wine and cigarettes.
Sterling tried to sound sober.
“Why’s ever not?” He didn’t know why he’d worded it that way, the words came out a little crooked.
“Because it’ll suck you in,” DeAngelo whispered, voice lowered to almost inaudibility. “You’ll disappear, following those words.” His eyes had grown wide with anxiety, pupils huge and black, dilated from whatever crap he’d taken earlier. In them, Sterling saw his own reflection. “Don’t disappear Sterling. I don’t want to be alone again.”
He touched Sterling’s arm, and though Sterling wanted to pull away, DeAngelo’s terrified face kept him from doing so.
“I won’t disappear, DeAngelo,” he said, to which his friend smiled weakly. Sterling added,
“Don’t worry. Don’t be so grim, man. Come on, I’ve got some wine and a little dope. I’ll share with you. Just don’t tell the others.”
The stopped train car began to move as they walked back to the camp. Though Sterling had almost put it out of his mind, something made him turn for one last look. He saw the graffiti again, one word jumping out at him as the car passed by.
Tugging at him, like a command.
He woke with the headache to end all headaches, sleeping in an abandoned station wagon DeAngelo found them. A strange place, full of discarded children’s clothing, but it made a passable bed for them. He realized DeAngelo was gone. Sterling could have laughed, then cried. How stupid he’d been! Never should have fallen for the man, never should have trusted him. He wanted to believe DeAngelo would appear on the street, grin wide and friendly, two cups of coffee in his weather-beaten hands. But, after an hour of waiting, no such thing happened, and he knew the truth. DeAngelo had disappeared on him, before he could do the same.
Maybe he was meant to be alone.
It didn’t really matter, he told himself as he crawled out of the car. Another hidden emotion evaded his consciousness though, a strange knot of worry in his belly. What if DeAngelo hadn’t just left? What if something had happened to his one and only friend?
He pushed himself to remember more of the night before, when they had come back to the car, drinking sweet wine. Sterling had been so drunk. He did have a vague memory of DeAngelo waking him, the car humid with breath and sweat, DeAngelo’s face hidden in shadow
“Wake up, I think they found us…” his voice whispering, low and barely audible.
He vaguely recalled turning away, grumbling for DeAngelo to go back to sleep. Then, DeAngelo’s voice, as loud as if his lips were pressed to Sterling’s ear, blasting frantic, sharp words: “He is risen!”
After that, nothing.
Sterling shook his head and pulled on his boots, sitting on the pavement in the already warm July day. He must have dreamed it; that would have been too weird. Only a dream brought on by the graffiti. DeAngelo had left him, just like the others.
“Yes. He just left.” He said it aloud as if trying to convince himself, wanting it to be true. The alternative was too strange. Too frightening. The words flickered again in his mind briefly. He shook them off.
A bedraggled old woman walking a small dog saw him and quickly hurried the other way. He supposed he made a sorry sight, tumbling out of an abandoned car half-drunk still, his hair sticking up, his eyes gummy with sleep.
He turned the broken side mirror towards him, finger-combing his dark hair into a semblance of order. The cracked glass fractured his image into several. He wiped his face and straightened his clothes and then saw himself as he must have appeared to others: a 17-year-old boy with nowhere to go and no one to help.
He left Kansas City that night and wandered aimlessly, more lost over DeAngelo than he wanted to believe. He wept in despair alone on park benches. The tears dried up and he turned cold, shutting himself down.
Then another message appeared to him.
Keep moving. Stay alone.
He listened to the message, without really knowing why. The truth was there, swimming in the depths beneath the surface of his ignorance. He had nothing else to listen to or believe in.
He kept traveling across the countryside, making no friends in the towns he visited, only staying long enough to beg for food, or drink. The messages kept coming all summer, slowly at first, then more and more frequently as autumn approached. He followed them from train car to train car, not wanting to admit he must have lost his mind.
Another voice, deep in his mind suggested something that scared him at first, and then tantalized him with its mystery. Perhaps the messages were leading him somewhere.
That fall he used money he’d spare-changed to buy a notebook and record what the messages said. Once, as he sat copying them down, a thought occurred to him—did the messages write themselves? No, that couldn’t be right. Someone, or something, was writing them. He closed the notebook and put his broken-off pencil away, scared at what was happening to him. He was in too deep, like diving, gone so far below he couldn’t make it back to the top, his air almost gone. Better to stay below and see what the darkness held. He could sense something there, close, waiting for him to see. He could feel its great darkness beating in the depths.
More days rolled by. Fall fell into winter. Sterling grew a beard, his eyes growing sunken. When he saw his reflection in the plate-glass windows of department stores, he no longer recognized himself. He understood why people avoided him. He looked like a lost soul; one being sucked into the oblivion of a collapsed star.
The messages were ever frequent; he no longer had to search. He saw them everywhere now. In empty laundromats scratched into tabletops. In the flickering neon lights of a convenience store. They might light up a darkened city block deep in the industrial district. And he would understand they were talking to him, occult Morse code, a series of dots and dashes, light held for a moment before blinking into a black void; sequence after sequence, visible only to those who knew.
Soon there was too much to record in one notebook. Sterling had filled the pages in tiny, cramped writing from cover to cover. He filled another, then another, and another.
One night a bum he didn’t know grabbed his notebook from him and read aloud.
“Tamam Shud? What the hell does that mean? You some kind of foreigner?”
Sterling didn’t reply but thought the man might be right. He was a foreigner now.
He soon gave up on writing as the words appeared in places where once there had only been blank space. In the white between words in books, or the empty spots in ads on the subway. Sometimes, they would simply appear in the air front of him, floating like butterflies made of black ink, alive with a life force alien to humankind, only to vanish when they touched his filthy skin, the letters sinking into him.
Eventually, he understood the words humans used were merely an abstraction of the real message. The truth could only be found where the words were not.
He destroyed his notebooks in a garbage can days later, pouring lighter fluid on them and watching them burn into ash beneath a starry night sky, the heat from the flames warming his face while his hands ached from bitter cold. He stood there even after the fire was gone, letting the emptiness talk to him.
Stay moving. You’re near.
At the railyard, he hopped the first train he could, staying on it in the corner of an empty car until caught. Though he’d known a police officer would come, he also knew he was close to where the messages were leading him. He waited. Sterling didn’t have to wait long.
“Sir? Do you have any identification? Why are you here? You realize this is trespassing?”
The police officer approached him warily, as if he had the plague. Maybe he did have a plague. He attempted to warn the officer, who turned to his partner—a mousy women who stood behind the larger man as they questioned him—and they exchanged a knowing look.
“Have you got anyone who can help you, sir?”
Sterling almost said yes, his friends had led him, but the metal of train against track shrieked and he knew they were saying he needed to stay quiet. He only shook his head.
After checking his pack and jacket, and quickly patting him down, the police officers conferred, and came to a decision. “Just move along, okay? Stay out of the railyards, and we won’t give you a ticket this time.”
Sterling left the barbwire lot, emerging onto a street with a rainbow of cars traveling past. They smeared like an impressionist painting with overwhelming numbers and speed. Scraggly palm trees danced in a gray smog. The sun, as red as a copper coin, sank slowly into a flat black line of ocean a world away in the distance.
He realized where he had ended up. The land of dreams. California.
At first, he walked around in a daze, other people like black and white cutouts. He ignored them, until a man ran into him, saying, “Watch out!” As Sterling kept walking, the man followed him, shouting, “What the hell is wrong with you, man?” growing more agitated at Sterling’s lack of response.
A realization came to Sterling then; he wasn’t the one on the outside. These people were. They spent their short lives running back and forth, buying, and selling—being sold, and bought, raging because they were fading, angry that they were slipping, falling into smoke.
He felt the angry man’s fist connect with his face. Though he fell, it did not hurt. The violence only disrupted the empty space between them for a millisecond, causing ripples in the unknown dark matter holding the world together. Soon, the space would reform, he understood this as if from a distance.
He let himself lay there as the man spit on him, shouting more obscenities before finally walking away muttering that all the homeless bums were crazy, and why didn’t someone put them out of their misery. He stayed there on the sidewalk while time passed next to a small cherry tree. As the people went by the few spring blossoms of the tree fell onto his prone form, the slight wind from their movements shaking the petals free. Images came to him; of his mother screaming why couldn’t he be normal, of his father telling him he was no longer their son if he was gay. The memories came from another place, a place so far away now he could no longer know it. And he finally understood. He stood and started to laugh.
People really avoided him then, a crazy man walking the streets, always moving, grinning hopelessly at some secret joke only he understood. More time passed, how long he did not know. He began to believe they had abandoned him, but even that seemed terribly funny.
Everything was nothing at all. He understood it now.
To his surprise, he began to actually hear the messages instead of seeing them. They began as a whisper, and slowly over the following days grew to many voices, finally coalescing into one. Like the cherry tree’s flowers blooming in reverse, until he saw only the bud.
He is risen.
A scene appeared in his mind—a darkened concert hall. The ones who called to him were the attendees of an unknown performance, waiting for the Conductor to arrive. Though they owned the now audible sibilant voices, their faces invisible as they secretly mouthed the words to him, in his gut he knew they spoke for someone else. Someone eternal, just beyond his fingertips as he groped in the dark room for the chain to turn on the light.
Yes, it was the Conductor he was hearing. The Conductor was the lighthouse, a luminous dagger cutting through the hurricane of lies that was reality, slicing open, exposing the bone beneath. Soon, they would take Sterling to him and show him like they had been shown. Soon the dark would spill over.
Soon, Sterling. Soon…
He sat in an abandoned warehouse district, his legs hanging off the side of a loading dock near the dilapidated buildings. Drinking cheap wine. Since the scene in the opera house had appeared to him, the voices had fallen silent, but he knew the Conductor was coming soon. Without the Conductor, they were like a poorly tuned radio flickering in and out of existence; maddening to hear them, only to lose them again. He now always felt them near, their broadcast like a flashlight trying to pierce a void of a black night.
He took another swig of the wine he’d begged for money to get in LA, the alcohol finally seeming to clear his thoughts. He knew he shouldn’t drink so much, but he knew too much. Heard too much. Sterling planned to drink until the Conductor and his orchestra arrived.
He panned his burning eyes over the cement lots covered in graffiti. Glittering bits of broken beer bottles sprinkled the place in stars as the sun set. Sterling tilted his head; if he looked just right an ocean spilled out before him.
He saw a murder of crows sitting near, perched on a rusted chain link fence. They eyed him with cool interest. One suddenly flew towards Sterling, then changed direction without apparent reason, veering behind the steel remnant of an ancient electrical box. He waited a moment, still watching, not knowing why he was waiting or for what he was waiting. When the crow reappeared, it was carrying something round and wet, glistening in its beak.
His turned his gaze to the crumpled shape the crow had just flown away from. A discarded sleeping bag, or maybe a pile of clothing. Brown, soft, different from the angularity and clean angles of the inorganic. A gust of wind stirred the fabric, pulling it back some, revealing something darker, though still not identifiable. Curiosity grabbing him, he rose on wobbling drunken legs. He was barely able to feel his feet, though they were torn up from the gaping holes in his sneakers.
The other birds didn’t move, only watched him, waiting. He looked back at the shape below. A sudden terrible thought flashed in his mind.
As he began to move towards it, he heard a whisper again.
The only way out is down.
As he reached it, he saw that, yes, it was a body. Then the almost empty wine bottle crashed to the ground.
The body of DeAngelo.
One of his eyes was gone. His clothes were in rags and covered in greenish algae, like he had been dragged through a river.
Sterling stared on in disbelief, and horror as DeAngelo’s dead remaining eye flickered open. Some part of him thought about running—this was too much to bear, too much for anyone to bear. Yet, he didn’t run. He couldn’t.
DeAngelo stood, and Sterling suddenly saw they were not alone. Behind DeAngelo were others. Hundreds, thousands. Sterling knew them. They were the lost, the ones who had crawled beneath. And he was now among them, the child who was lost from his home had been found.
He sobbed with madness, and then with relief. He let all the pain slide out, falling broken onto the pavement like the scattered glass, his weeping making the shards wet with tears. DeAngelo reached out, and though his touch was moist and mushy, Sterling did not fight. He gripped the dead man’s hand tight. They walked together, the others following behind, into the burgeoning darkness toward an abandoned warehouse, where a light shined so bright it hurt to look upon, spilling out through the cracks of the old, slated roof. Brighter than the sun’s now descending orb; brighter than the light of one million stars.
Like a dream, he heard an orchestra coming out, an unseen audience murmuring as musicians in the pit warmed up. He let DeAngelo lead him inside where they joined the whispering audience, a sea of expectant faces staring at an empty stage surrounding him and trapping him.
He looked around the strange music hall for some escape. None to be found. He had been led here, as it had led the others. His eyes darted back and forth trying to find a crack to pull the misshapen reality away and bring back the flat, predictable place from which he had just come. Though he kept trying, looking, he knew they would not allow it, even if he did find that exit. Their bodies were too many, and they would stop him, the pull of the Conductor an inescapable force, their gravities together combining into a blackhole.
D’Angelo gripped his hand tighter as if sensing Sterling’s reluctance. And then, it was too late. The Conductor appeared; a magician conjured out of the air. He slipped sideways from invisibility into being. He did not look the way Sterling had expected, and his mind would not accept the image.
But what should one from there look like? a voice asked him hot against his ear.
And the orchestra began, their sound the cry of an abyss reaching out from the very molecules of air, from the spaces between the stars, from the spaces between the atomic particles. The emptiness that was the universe, the place we think is hollow; floating in front of him now, and he heard himself screaming. Or was this laughter? Had he ever seen anything so terribly… horribly… funny?
The emptiness began to bloom.
It was beautiful.
I look outside and see the world has taken on a strange luminescent green color. Horrified I see it’s not only the blooming plants reflecting this shade of surrealism but the very air itself, shimmering and bending, dancing with the faint, cool twilight breeze.