(Today I began work on the rewrite of the second book in my Soren series. This is chapter one, where I lay groundwork and hopefully catch the reader’s interest. It’s a little disjointed, scene-wise, but I like it that way. As if it’s all just one, long, dream.)
If you spend enough time talking to your shadow, your shadow talks back. Not that anybody listens.
My toes touched carpet that touched sand, a salt-sea breeze drifting through cinderblock walls. The sun filtered hot through rafters. Two chairs waited, one wedged between a pair of identical full-length mirrors.
He preferred dark, dank, rot, death, black, clau-stro-pho-bic rat-races. I preferred sun, sea, clouds, a Mid-west sky.
I rolled a mirror between my fingers and waited for him. I listened to the ocean waves and waited for him. I lined a series of paperclips on the table and waited for him.
And when he chose, he came: first a reflection of black in one mirror, then a shape in both, and then a discerning step as if he had just exited a stagecoach into solid air. Gloved hand sliding along a ruby-tipped cane. Top-hat, gloved hands adjusting.
He had no face. Perfect pinstripe suit, sport jacket a la 1800’s, grey shirt collars up his neck, chin, and where his mouth, nose, eyes should be—black space. A hollow shadow. Ears, shaggy hair beneath his hat, and one big trick of the eyes between it all.
“Porphyrius Jackal,” I whispered. The word vibrated through the air.
Salt-chalk in my mind, in my pocket, clinking against rings. Clinking against ankh, maple-wood, sage.
He sat straight-backed in the chair, brushing sleeves in a grandiose form of mimicry. As if this place made him feel somehow dirty. I patiently waited, my mirror face-down on the table.
I listened to sea-gulls crackle. Jack looked around, up, then back at me. “Soren Jackal,” he said, his voice a hoary echo. My concentration stuttered; my fingers stabilized against the table. I hadn’t expected the name. He smelled like wood-smoke. “Olivia Borea,” he continued.
Here in the Astral, sitting before Jack, the introductions alone could kill.
“Porphyrius, I welcome you.”
“Pro tempore.” He stiffened, his ring tapping against ruby. “We do not play chess,” he replied. “We ci-ca-trix.” It sounded like a corpse’s throat clacking with beetles.
He massaged his throat as if he wasn’t used to using it.
I slid the bent paperclips forward on the table, a wall. His side of the room mouldered in the corners with a sickly green pallor. Grave-rot.
“Time for me to talk, Jack. I’ve finally found your name. I’ve finally found who you are. I talk, you listen. At the end of this, I will ask you one question, and one question alone, and I expect you to answer it.”
“Rebirth,” he whispered, and whispered some dead language under his breath. I heard the smile in his voice, almost a chuckle. “Virtus. Simper. Viridis.” He flicked fingers toward the walls behind him.
I waved his archaic words away. “Twenty-six years, Jack. Death. Violence. Abuse.” He stiffened again. I saw his arms tense. I saw him try and adjust. He could not. He was stuck between the mirrors. “I survived. Screwed up, alone, among the dead, but I survived. This is a new story. You took Tara. You took my family. My life. For years, my sanity. You aim to take more. Olivia. Wren. You aim to use me forever.”
He whispered in violent huffs, whuff sounds emanating between syllables. I could only make out ar-gu-men-tum ad ig-no-ran-tia.
“You no longer have all the power.” He splintered the arms of the chair. “Remember the lychee.” He stopped struggling. “I have another guide. I have another teacher.”
More unsettling than his struggles, Porphyrius stopped struggling and waited.
“I do not need you.”
The hole in his face disappeared, and a craggy, disjointed face stared at me. Solemn, hard, black eyes. Wrinkles on his cheeks that looked all wrong. A beaked nose. Thin lips. High cheek-bones. Sallow-to-powdery white skin. “Cravat,” he whispered, angling his chin forward. Other whispers accompanied it.
“I can let you go.” His face slid away to shadow, an endless misty-black hole. Sixteen hundred years of death had turned him to his base. I nearly felt pity. “Why should I not?”
The question posed, I slid back against my own chair. The wall behind him now threatened to crumble away. Dirt cascaded like black hourglass sand over fully-grown, pale mushrooms. My side of the room remained exactly as I had found it. The paperclips—Jack’s paperclips—continued to serve as a boundary.
He sat. Twenty-six years of his black shadow. Twenty-six years of his blood-talks, his cryptic prayers, his lessons, and he sat. “Frightener,” he whispered.
“Not good enough,” I roared. My hands veritably trembled. I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t harm him. This room, this talk, was posed as a gift for him to even show up. A trap he wouldn’t fall into again.
“Intuit. Sahv-ior.” His accent reminded me of an Italian man speaking English for the first time. “Hal-cyon.”
“I earned those names! You gave none! Why should I not?”
The insult sparked his rage. The house shook. I heard the enlightened dead rustling upstairs. He tore against the mirrors, but he remained bound. He roared like a gale wind.
“Don’t make me ask it a third time,” I whispered.
“Fer-ru-lous.” I opened my mouth to speak, and he cut my intake of breath with a hurried, “Truths.” He spat the word, worming his head against the back of the chair as if avoiding a flame under his chin. “Truths and truth.” He clicked in his throat, pinstripe suit splitting with mold. “Ci-ca-trix,” he repeated. When I didn’t react, he tried to lean forward. I felt his power radiating like a Tesla coil. “Even ground.”
Tiny puffballs like pimples broke across his shoulder. He cocked his head to one side.
He offered truce.
“Good enough,” I whispered, picking up the mirror. The moment it reflected him, he exploded to mist. The astral mirrors smashed against opposite walls. The wall behind his chair collapsed.
“Vale,” he whispered, nothing more than a pile of spores and dirt.
A truce hard-won. I woke, sweating in my bedsheets, knowing I owed the most powerful of dead philosophers a favor.
Her cheeks red with Blue Moon, and her normally restricting and inhibited masque of calm and control shattered around her fake leather chair a half hour ago. She closed her eyes to the music behind her—something old remixed into something new, possibly Imogen—and bobbed her head for a moment before opening her ray-beam intensity toward me.
The things my neighbor Autumn would have asked of me if we were alone.
Thank God we weren’t alone.
The much more stylish Wren sat beside me in a combination of decorated clothing I had never seen before; a sarong-style dress with several different colors of blue and green, all melded together in a trippy design inspired by a peacock that drowned on the set of The Beach. Accordingly, she wore a linen blouse that was see-through at the shoulder and contained small dragon-laced designs over the chest. A single streak of aquamarine ran around her waist and two streaks wound around where the linen lace ended at her shoulders. She wore simple silver earrings and a silver necklace with a single set emerald in the center. She wore a silver bracelet around her right wrist.
As my co-worker, she sold candles in my house. She was once, also, as bubbly a person as you could imagine. Things happened. She changed.
“Jack?” she mouthed, as if suddenly remembering she left the stove on. I nodded.
“Trapped,” I lipped back. She shivered in reply, wiped her cheek on her dress, and stared at the bar behind Autumn. She couldn’t quite hide the fear in her eyes.
I wore a white shirt and a pair of jeans. In my defense, she didn’t prepare me for how she dressed. I wondered if she showed me off—or herself—to her company.
We sat at a table set for six, and five of us had been talking for nearly an hour. An empty seat sat beside me: Olivia, the sixth, hadn’t yet joined. She was my date for the evening, but she had to work an emergency late shift at the bakery, so she wouldn’t come until later. Wren had no issues acting like my date, and filling the seat on the other side of me. Like a couple, perhaps, or a business team administering a perfect presentation.
She simply preened.
Wren’s roommates sat across the table, beside Autumn; a Korean-American by the name of Sung Lee that spoke in a deep Cajun accent and studied Haiku at Washington University, and a tall Michigan woman by the name of Sarah that spent most of her life perfecting her mother’s cooking recipes and painting in shades of white. She studied business.
Sung Lee’s hair reminded me of an even mahogany grain, and she had dark olive skin, yet still managed to radiate a glow. I blamed her smile.
She had intimate knowledge of the workings of alligators, and recited a few poems she had written in growling voodoo-tinted Korean paralleling a relationship to rows of teeth (Kraeken spells my love as “chew”/Clack with its short-teeth/Row, row, tear the tension up). She spoke it in the masculine, and I gave her credit for not speaking Korean in the feminine. I wanted to hear more; her words alone left me daydreaming on the verge of projection, but nobody else understood it.
Sarah was much more introverted, only speaking when directly spoken to, or when a topic specifically interested her. Civil rights activism and religious dogma ran her in circles, and for some reason, she loved a red wagon from her childhood so much she still had it in the closet in her bedroom.
Nearly seven years had passed since I spent so much time with so many people at a time.
I am Soren Gahiji. I am an introverted, socially awkward Egyptian-American man that sits in limbo between having a social life and being a hermit. I owed Wren this night for nearly a month now. Since the Church, and her sacrifices.
Olivia walked into the room and went straight to the bar. She made certain I saw her—it was difficult not to, with her purple-and-white streaked Mohawk tonsure—and she shook her head once while ordering a beer. She wanted to observe the people at my table without them knowing. It was her way. She stared over Autumn’s shoulder, and Autumn burned holes in my skull while I tried—very hard—not to make eye contact with either of them.
It was halfway through the evening, and Wren’s hand absently brushed my arm. She didn’t jerk it back, but merely allowed it to finish its arc across my forearm muscle. I didn’t think she meant to do it. I also didn’t think she minded the touch. She glowed brighter than Autumn; she loved the dynamics of the table, and I don’t think she focused on me more than anyone else. This was her element.
I watched the flare of aggression flicker across Autumn’s face, and the half-smile on Olivia behind her. Too many dancers in this, and for the first time I wondered if I was even a part of it.
“Okay.” My mind reeled from the table’s revelations not five minutes before. I had asked a question between sips of my cold beer: “Tell me something no one here knows about you.” I forced myself through boundaries I promised to uphold with Tara, my dead girlfriend, nearly a year and a half ago. I felt dangerous, loopy, high on the idea that I could be a real person again. The adrenaline of Olivia watching also upped the ante.
I addressed the question to everyone, and their answers provided a powerful window into their personalities. I heard the Haiku, then the wagon story from Sarah, Wren’s near-death experience on a frozen lake, and finally Autumn’s statement. “I collect souvenirs from those I’ve loved. Belt loops of their favorite jeans. And they’re all in my grandmother’s wish jar buried deep in my sock drawer.” She leaned in close to me, her eyes slightly dizzying, saying, “I did not allow myself to remove them with anything but my fingers. And my teeth.”
“It’s the time you waste on the rose,” Sung Lee said, trailing the statement.
I don’t think Sung liked Autumn very much. She flickered her eyes every time Autumn ordered another Blue Moon.
Autumn leaned back against the music. Nobody at the table said anothing for a bit. I didn’t consider it awkward. After a minute, I saw everyone else did. Olivia rolled her eyes. Autumn grinned smugly, her glance flickering with a hint of fear toward Wren. She tried very hard to remove the rest of the people from the table through sheer mental force of will.
“I,” I almost laughed. I knew my face blushed with the delivery of my answer. “I know ballet.” It had somehow diffused the awkward aggressiveness of Autumn Sloshed, and the table laughed, all but Sung. “What?” I asked. She didn’t answer, only staring at me. I continued. “I learned when I was a kid. Something that helped keep me flexible.” Autumn nodded as if she had known all along, smug and droopy-eyed.
Yeah, her look said, you were my friend first. Before all these posers. Dibs.
Wren’s roommates apparently approved of me. Sung didn’t insult me in an offhanded manner, even with my ballet comment. Sarah talked—talked! Wren said as a whisper in my ear—more than committal conversation. Apparently, her roommates agreeing on something was a rarity, from television shows to how to decorate their apartment to, well, food. Wren had worked for me for nearly two months before I worked up the courage to attend this outing, and she’d begged at least twice a week. Their approval went a long way toward smoothing out Wren’s insecurities, fears, nervousness.
I glanced at Olivia. She lifted her beer in salute.
The conversation had started with a kind-hearted grilling of my background, affiliations, interests, and the like. I started soft, hoping I would be forgotten in the fray. But they deftly pulled me out. The beer helped.
Wren spent a lot of the time filling in for me; she seemed worried that I would feel uncomfortable around her two roommates. Of anyone, Autumn threw me off. I felt sorry for her, after a fashion; Wren’s roommates did not approve of her. Neither of them did.
Olivia continued to sip her beer at the bar, feigning interest in the Cards game.
Servers removed dinner plates. I enjoyed the energy of the room. “So. Soren,” Sung said loudly over the conversations around us, “What have you found in your life that made it worth living? The ultimate gain?”
All eyes on me. The answer came easy.
“Love,” I replied slowly, thinking the question through. They remained silent, waiting for an explanation. I considered not giving it, but decided against it. “Love. But not with a woman.”
Their eyes widened slightly and Wren nodded and accepted it as if I were bisexual. I wasn’t. “Oh Soren, the sides we have!” she said happily, giving me a gentle hug.
Her statement made little sense. Autumn had downed five tall glasses of Blue Moon in the past hour. Wren wasn’t too far behind her. The roommates and I nursed our seconds. “I found Love when I walked alone,” I continued, barely hearing myself over the music, “in a temple, and owning just the clothes on my back, an empty stomach, and no home. I found Love between five foot thick slabs of rock and two hundred types of incense. In a dark space between footpaths and altars.”
Autumn tried to look as if she were thinking deeply on the reply. “Church?” Sarah asked speculatively. She looked uncomfortable, her hand sliding around her glass through trickling pools of condensation. Autumn snorted as if the question were ridiculous. Sung rolled her eyes at Autumn. A chain reaction of reactions.
“Church, yes, and vision.” I looked around, and I saw I toed a line of acceptance and too much information. “In India. But yes. Love. And Love of Self.”
Sung quipped, “Rumi had a bit to say on that .”
“’Love comes with a knife, and no shy question,’” Wren intoned.
“We’re all Rumi fans here?” I asked. “At least I’m not losing you with where I’m coming from.”
“Oh, no. You’re with the academics,” Wren said with a broad smile.
I lost Autumn. She bobbed her head to the music and stared into her glass as if confused as to where she sat.
Olivia smiled behind Autumn. I barely saw the dimples set in her cheeks.
For the fourth time that day, I heard the shrill cheep of a killdeer, and it jarred me: the sound didn’t belong. Just echo from the music. Remastering thing. DJ Tiesto’s alternative trance. Something.
Wren noticed my change in focus, and in response she cocked one eyebrow. “Your turn,” She said to Sarah, who squirmed a little at the attention. Wren continued to be a perfect host. The game continued on, and she cast the limelight away from me.
This evening started as a simple dinner meeting, a neutral night out between Wren and I—a celebration of sorts at the success of our business for three months. We actually made money on the thing—most of it coming from Wren’s candle sales. At Ruby Tuesday, huge salad on my plate, Autumn happened to be eating at the same place. Alone. She saw us, chance meeting, and sat with us instead of her family. A table for two expanded to three. Autumn’s hard eyes softened through our discussions on religion, spirituality, crop circles, and eventually Harry Potter and the impossibility of magic as accepted fantasy. She liked the food—not loved it—and at the end of our meals, I wanted to order durian ice cream. Unfortunately, it was Ruby Tuesday and not Indonesia.
Instead we shared a huge brownie with ice cream. I ate dairy for the first time in a long time, and it haunted me as deftly as the killdeer sound.
I paid the bill, Autumn whispered she knew a place we could go, trying to single me away from Wren. Noticing Autumn’s strategy, Wren acquiesced and invited her roommates out to balance the mood—with a “pleeeease, Soren?” I let them power-play. Autumn took everyone on a short tour of the town before we stopped at a bar/rock DJ show. Somewhere between the ice cream and her third Blue Moon, Autumn decided I was more important than she previously thought. Somewhere between her first and second, Wren’s roommates arrived.
Olivia probably hung in the shadows for a while even before she walked in the door. Smoking a cigarette, or brooding, or whatever she did when alone.
Women generally don’t throw themselves all over the man, contrary to what the movies say. At least that’s my experience: they swoon and smolder across the table, perhaps being bold enough to slide their collective foot up my leg or switch sides to sit beside me. They play it as some cat-and-mouse game, parlaying and opening doors before creaking them closed again. The alcohol loosened her up. She tried to play coy with a table full of well-aware people.
She looked so inexperienced I nearly cried in sympathy. Yet beside Olivia, they were goldfish in a lagoon. Here there be sharks.
Wren finally noticed Olivia, and as she nudged me to point at her, Olivia sauntered up.
She clunked another Blue Moon in front of Autumn’s face, sliding her finger along the rim and bringing the froth to her lips. It was Olivia’s way: she took a little bit of everyone with her.
“I’m Olivia,” she said with a smile, waving to everyone before casually pulling the chair up beside me. She used her quirky smile: she perfected the mischievous grin most often painted on succubi. It wasn’t the most genuine one of hers, although it wasn’t fake.
The table’s reaction aptly fit. Sarah’s mouth dropped. Her eyes bugged a little. Sung grinned and tightened her upper lip, grasping her beer tightly as if she were about to go all Martial Arts with a previously-hidden cleaver. Autumn outright sneered like some animal, then stared at her new alcohol with a kind of dollified happiness. Just like that, she gave up on winning me. Too many interested parties. Wren frowned for a split second before waving in mock approval. She stood quickly and said, before I had a chance to do anything, “Olivia. This is Sung Lee. Sarah. Autumn.”
Olivia wore a tight pastel blue t-shirt with an inlaid black dragon in the center and no bra. She wore tight jeans that hugged her hips. She wore no jewelry. I realized that, although I was underdressed for the rest of the crowd, Olivia and I dressed perfectly for each other.
She bowed her head slightly and said, with a slight cock of her head, “Hey guys. Sorry I’m late.”
Olivia nearly slid into my lap, but checked herself, instead sliding around her pilsner like a purring cat. She smelled musky, earthy, like hops mixed with hickory ash.
Autumn squinted and frowned, her eyes no longer registering. She started fiddling with her necklace and looking around the room. “I want to dance,” she mumbled.
Wren touched my arm again, looking deeply into my eyes with a need for acceptance. Given the new addition to the table, her eyes asked, am I doing this right? I nodded with a smile. She smiled back, leaned over, and whispered, “She looks stellar,” in my ear loud enough for Olivia to hear.
That was two days ago.
Today I sat three stories deep in a skeleton-walled catacomb built over hundreds of generations of sacrifices, lining a labyrinthine pit of guilty, unrested dead. The place was a terror-cage of infinitely waning dead, and the prison-keepers were ancient creatures of Aztec design.
Autumn and Wren’s roommates quietly slept in their beds. Wren probably just now realized I wasn’t at home, and had no way of finding me. Olivia traveled on an emergency trip to Canada to help a relative. Nobody could help me: nobody knew where I was. Not Cerena and the police. Not Wren’s well-meaning roommates. Not anyone.
“Hey,” a man yelled nearby. I distantly saw him hanging off the wall like some deformed re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. Seth? His name was Seth. “Hey!”
Before him stood an angel: pristine, beautiful, perfect. Its wings were gossamer and lit from within. Its face radiated benevolence, trust, respect. It spent its entire life down here, beneath the layers of the dead, hiding from the scrupulous eyes of the cynical world. It hovered in front of Seth, floating off the ground. Divinely beautiful.
I sat with my back against a row of femur bones, wiping sweat and dust out of my eyes for a better view while I tightened a strip of cloth around my right arm to stop a slow bleed.
The angel prepared to accept Seth into heaven with a kiss, and I watched breathlessly, terrified and awed, for the very moment.
They connected. Seth didn’t resist. The genderless angel touched his lips. Seth’s body went rigid.
A woman shoved her shoulder against the angel, not looking at it, and slid between the two. Something long and slender gleamed from the angel’s split face: something about it looked off. The woman defiantly raised a shotgun to the angel’s face, and as I let out a cry of terror and pleading, she fired a blast that tore the angel’s face clean off with a spray of green.
I cut my cry short, stifling the sound as if it were a blasphemy. The blast echoed through the rooms. My lips quivered. Tears poured down my face. I felt so very, very alone. The woman—Carmen—ran over to me and towered above me with her lighter barely flickering across her face. The shotgun smoked in her other hand. “You okay?” she asked in an uncharacteristically quiet manner.
A girl whimpered: it wasn’t just the three of us. As if waking from a dream, the scene around me was a study in chaos: death, gore, otherworldly and disgusting, wounded crawling like a war-zone. Nodding, I tightened the tourniquet tighter. She thought I cried out for Seth, or else she wouldn’t have been so respectful: Seth was her brother.
The otherworldly light of my staff illuminated the corpse of what looked like a massive insect behind her.
This hadn’t been here before. It was a new addition to the room. Where was the angel’s body?
Behind the creature’s corpse sat a massive seal embedded in the church-like wall, brown and caked with the matte sheen of centuries of blood.
“Hey,” a man yelled nearby. He still hung off the wall like some deformed re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. Seth? His name was Seth. “It was in my throat. It was in my throat!”
I wasn’t about to move. I couldn’t. All interest in breathing, in separating myself from the scene, in existing at all, in fact, had left me when Carmen shoved the shotgun in the angel’s mouth.
In that moment, I hated her more than I hated myself.
I remembered the exact words I used two days previous; “I found Love between five foot thick slabs of rock and two hundred types of incense. In a dark space between footpaths and altars.”
The Love I found in that temple in India shattered along with the very fiber of my being, and the being that I dreamed about seeing, touching, for years dissipated like froth on a pilsner.
Steeling myself, I stood on shaky legs that could barely hold me up. “Those of Earth and Blood, I come,” I whispered, wiping my face.