Psychonaut I: Mercury

NABEEL AFSAR


Nabeel Afsar

Copyright © 2011 Nabeel Afsar All rights reserved.

PSYCHONAUT

0

The mountainous black cloud roared across the blood red horizon, as Aruk stood watching from the cliff's edge. When the dark smoke slipped over the hills and settled in the valley, he woke Anika. She saw his silhouette against a sickly sky, brown and soiled, a sepia hue catching in her throat. Wordlessly, Aruk dragged her from the hole he'd dug for them, and she stumbled to her feet, staggering behind him lazily as he plowed ahead determined. She tried adjusting her skins, but Aruk yanked too tight at her wrist. She cried out in pain, but he ignored her and pressed forward on bare feet, climbing the first slope of the mountain. Before she could raise her voice again, her breath leapt from her lungs when she saw the birds. All around her, like a garden of motley flowers, ink black and treetrunk brown, lay a field of dead birds, wings akimbo, feathers still softly falling to the grass. And even then, more birds, freshly dying, pelted the valley floor like a trickle of hale, landing with wet thuds. The darkness of these omens was not lost on the young girl. A great terror roiled in her belly as the afternoon sun shone pathetically behind the veil of poison cloud, too weak to burn through and brighten the land. That scant taste of diffused light would be her last before the night settled and the great winter arrived. They reached the highest peak they could manage, and from there they watched as the smoke filled the sky like clotting blood. The blistering winds had started several suns ago, but each day they grew sharper and more furious. By the fourth day, when the atmosphere soured and the sunsets lit up with colors unfamiliar, the winds were now a chronic feature, whistling ominous warnings to whatever life still lingered. Aruk and Anika watched for several days, going hungry with the meager supply of berries they managed to forage on the bare mountain's crown. They sucked on icicles and stayed close to share their body's heat. The merciless winds stamped out any attempts at building a fire and the hilltops were so barren there was scarcely enough bramble to catch let alone logs to burn.

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Anika's body quivered, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. They had never known cold like this: a chill that hardened their animal hides and seeped into their bones, settling there and eating their warmth from within. Aruk pulled her in closer under his arm. She looked up at him, at the thickness of his scowling brow, blunt and rigid, the bronze of his skin, the width of his nose. To think, it had been just three moons ago that her first blood came and Aruk had taken her. He terrified her then; the brute had many more years on her, and his body was riddled with scars of violence and hardship. He was a beast, eager to hunt and satisfy his base desires, and she no more than a child. And yet now, Anika was thankful to have him. She shook as much from confusion as from the cold: she could not understand what malevolence was swallowing the world, why the birdsong was silenced by a low rumble from the north, why the sun was turning away, ceding the sky to fire and smoke. When the last touches of daylight were no more, a starless night settled and no man laid eyes upon the sun or stars or even the moon for generations to come. The cold soaked deep into the ground itself, freezing oceans and rivers into glacial tombstones to the life that once thrived. From atop the world, Aruk and Anika starved, observing with awe the death all around them. Desperately they chewed on the corpses of birds suffocated by the volcanic ash, and upon swallowing the meat they would retch painfully and sweat hot with fever. The snowfall enamored them both, even Aruk who could not comprehend the gentle flakes dancing angelically slow as they fluttered to the ground and gathered there, much to his astonishment. At first, the light dusting was beautiful and calming after the thunderous roars of the volcanoes to the north. But as the flurries turned to squalls and the squalls grew to blizzards, Aruk knew this snow was a deadly beauty. A silent death, but hardly peaceful. Within a matter of weeks, the verdant green land once brimming with life that pranced through its grasslands and loped up its hillsides was now a hushed white graveyard, bleak and quiet, a long silence to mourn the dead.

PSYCHONAUT

They descended the mountain when they had scavenged the last of its fruit, but their was no sight of the others. The blanket of snow disguised the terrain that Aruk had known all his life, so that they were lost and disoriented. And with the sky as egg-white as the snow-covered land, there was no sun to guide them, no stars to orient them. But with the snow and ice all around, there was no shortage of water. That was almost the worst of it: to starve with a belly full of water, a clear mind forced to live only to face madness. They needed food, they needed fire and warmth. Berries offered little nourishment, and the others were gone, their tracks untraceable beneath the frost, and their food gone with them. Their bodies shriveled. Their ribs shined through as they ate themselves from within. Aruk's arms were taut, his thighs, once heavy, were now lean and aching with cold. Anika managed to retain some of her weight and some warmth along with it, but still she couldn't stop shivering. On the thirteenth day, Anika collapsed in dizziness, stammering nonsense and intermittently crying out for someone Aruk did not know. He rubbed her hand in his, blowing breath on them to warm her. But her lips were blue, the color drained from her cheeks. Even her eyes seemed pale, the brown in her pupils fading to a dim honeysuckle. Aruk sobbed in desperation and begged the gods for mercy, cradling Anika in his arms. He shook her, but her eyes simply rolled back and her ramblings grew louder and more incoherent. The tears froze on his cheeks before they could drip while Aruk pleaded with the gods to spare her life, to spare him from having to carry on alone in a desolate wasteland awaiting a cold death. But Anika's eyes eventually closed, her breath inevitably fading to a shallower and shallower hiss. And then he saw it. A light in the distance. A dim, golden glow, far across the valley. The black night and the white snow played tricks on one's perspective, and Aruk knew that the light was further than it appeared. Nevertheless, he summoned what little strength he had left and hoisted Anika in his arms. It was a struggle to get to his feet

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and when his thighs burned with their weight, he fell on his knees. Blood steamed and froze on his shins, but he was too numb to feel the pain. He tried again and this time, he managed to get on his feet with a stiff lurch. The hard part was over, he realized as he found himself surefooted and stable. He set out on the long march to the golden light. Aruk trudged through the fatigue, no longer afraid of death. What little chance there was of survival lay with the golden light, Aruk knew that much. And if the exhaustion was enough to kill him, so be it. Then they would die together, and he wouldn't have to face this hell alone. As Aruk drew closer to the orb of gold, he found it was higher up on the valley walls, overlooking the gorge below. Aruk knew attempting the climb at night would be perilous, but Anika would be dead by morning. With weariness building in his muscles, he had no choice but to try now while he was still able. So Aruk, with his childbride Anika thrown over one shoulder, scaled the valley wall, his toes purpling with frostbite, his fingernails chipping from starvation and bleeding from each grab of jagged cliff. The terrain grew steeper as Aruk found himself just a few feet away from the light, but at the bottom of a near vertical crag of rock. He'd come too far to die now. He summoned strength from the gods, chanting the prayersongs of his father's father before him. His hands bloody, his body bruised and worn, Aruk climbed the last strength of cliffside until he reached the ledge where the light shone. There he reached for it but his fingers smashed into an invisible wall: a thick layer of ice as clear as glass. Golden light shined deliciously behind the sheet of ice. Aruk grunted angrily and kicked at the wall. The ice chipped slightly, but Aruk's heel burst open, blood blossoming out like a blooming lotus. Aruk did not care. He felt nothing now, just animal desperation, the will of instinct. He pummeled the sheet of ice with kicks, chipping away at both the wall and his legs. But finally, enough of the ice shattered off. He had created a crack big enough for a man where the scent of firewood slipped through.

PSYCHONAUT

Aruk's heart fluttered. He pulled Anika around to his front, cradling her like a baby. He looked at her face, blue as the pre-dawn sky. He stepped into the cave and found a cavernous tomb. The cave had been carved out, a great domed ceiling arching overhead, and the ground leveled flat beneath the feet. The cave walls were adorned with great paintings the likes of which Aruk had never seen. The ghosts of great beasts - the snarl of long-toothed cats twice the size of a man, the regal flocks of antlered stags, the venomous stares of eagles - comprised a mural teeming with life and motion. In the center of the circular cavern, a fire raged beautifully, dancing hot and cheerful while casting restless shadows on the wall, giving life to the paintings of the animal spirits. And by the fire sat a beautiful young man in robes the color of ocher, the flames lighting his boyish face smiling at Aruk and Anika. The man did not share Aruk's strong brow or his permanent scowl. His features were delicate, his sandy skin was several shades lighter than Aruk and Anika's dark brown, and his almond eyes lit up playfully. He wore his hair long, tied back between his shoulder blades. Dread boiled in Aruk's belly. There was something unnatural about this man; his face was alien, his demeanor too calm, too still. The womblike silence of the cavern rang like a bell in Aruk's ears. Aruk set Anika down by the fire. He held her hands close to the flames, rubbed warmth into them. But Anika's hands were limp and lifeless. Aruk pressed his ear against her blue lips and found no breath there. She was part of the cold now. Aruk cried, burying his head in Anika's bosom. The man smiled at Aruk. "Son. Do not weep." Aruk heard the man's voice, but he did not see his mouth move. No, his lips still held that smile that radiated love. But nevertheless, Aruk had heard a voice in his head and while it spoke a tongue he did not know, he understood it regardless. Dumbfounded, Aruk sat by the fire across from the young man in the sunset-colored robes. He'd never seen such fabric. Aruk

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was used to tougher garments; rawhide leather, and animal skins and the furs of fallen beasts. But the man before him wore silky fabrics that curtained around him like flower petals. "Many days have I waited here for you. It is good to see you." Aruk heard the man speak, but also watched his frozen mouth smiling wordlessly, and so the paradox made his heart race. The man stood and approached Anika's corpse. Aruk pulled her close protectively. The man gestured with a nod of his head and a sweet smile. The simple nod was enough. Aruk let the man approach. He held Anika's wrist, padded his index and middle fingers against the pulse there. There was no heartbeat, no blood pumping through her veins. The man held her wrist in one hand and pressed the other against Anika's closed eyes. While palming her face, the man whispered secret words in a low voice, his own eyes closed. Aruk stared in fear and fascination. When the man finished his prayersong and opened his eyes, he lifted his hand from Anika's face. She was the same - her cheeks pale as bone, her lips still grape purple. Aruk was still crying when she stirred, as if in a dream she couldn't wake from. To his amazement, color flushed Anika's cheeks before Aruk's eyes. Her indigo complexion darkened and her lips reddened with warm, pumping blood. Finally, her eyes opened and the way she held Aruk's gaze, he knew her mind was restored fully. "Aruk..?" she asked, confused, her vision a carousel of divine animals she'd never laid eyes upon. "Anika--" Aruk choked, crying and hugging his childbride. The man stood. He wore sandals made of leather and canvas straps. He picked up a log of wood from the pile in the corner and gently placed it in the fire. He resumed his seat across from Aruk, who glared at the man incredulously. "How?" Aruk asked, his eyes still brimming with tears of euphoria, terror and transcendent awe. The man in the ocher robes smiled sweetly and said, "Everything is a dream. All dreams are real."

PSYCHONAUT

1

Adam awoke in the backseat of the beat-up Toyota, golden sun seeping through the dust caked on his windows. A continent of dirt kicked up under highway wheels and smashed insects covered the whole of the car, scars from the week's sojourn. His neck ached with pain, the feeling of a bolt or screw lodged deep in his shoulders, sending throbbing waves cascading up and down the muscles in his back. The flannel blanket he'd slipped under after the night's drive had bunched around the middle, and now was mostly on the floor over the empty cups of fountain soda and crumpled bags of fast food. He opened the door, almost tumbling out onto the concrete before catching himself on the handle. Sliding out, his bare feet touched the asphalt, black and hot. It was already warm, heat lines radiating up from the hood of his car. How long had he slept? He reached for his phone, but it was dead, a blank screen glistening with oily fingerprints. He walked around to the front of the old Corolla, plopped groggily into the driver's seat and turned the ignition just far enough for the clock to come alive. The digital numbers read, "11:23," while the car beeped frantically that the driver's side door was ajar. Adam turned the key off and cracked his neck, once to the left, then to the right. He reached for the bottled water riding shotgun and squirted a few pulls into his mouth. He gargled and spat outside. His body ached and his head throbbed from oversleep, but something stirred in his belly, a gut feeling, an unremembered dream. He was displaced, sure, far from any home he ever knew. But still, this was a feeling altogether different. It was a heartache he hadn't felt since his youth. As a boy he'd fallen obsessively in love with a girl he barely knew. He'd never spoken a word to her, but one night, in a treacherous wet dream that haunted him for months thereafter, he had her totally and completely. The plot was subtle, just a moment's romance, unintelligible, out of order. A shared glance, her storming out, his friend's urging him to chase after. He did, and she turned, and they kissed, simple and sweet. No banter, no talk, no

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passionate love against bathroom walls. The dream had been quick and quiet, the delicate satisfaction of connecting with another, of sharing eyes and knowing a feeling's mutual. But that peaceful dream of his youth, before his first kiss, before he'd ever even held a girl's hand, had betrayed him, planting a seed of discontent in his once innocent heart. He'd not wanted her before, or even paid that specific girl any particular attention, but that morning he woke with a yearning he didn't understand. As the years went on, and he reflected back on the dream that began his torrid forays into heartbreak, Adam decided it was his moment of awakening, of tasting - if even only just in his mind - something he didn't have. And when the morning came to wake him, snatching away the moment's beauty, the kiss, the thrill of newborn love, Adam's insides filled with fury, inconsolable like Orpheus, his love lost to the underworld. But that was years ago, and today was different. Today, Adam could not remember the dream he awoke from, like a lyric on the tip of the tongue forgotten. He felt he had just been somewhere far, far away. And true enough, he had. Just yesterday he'd been in the mountainous heights of Colorado, and the day before found him driving through Kansas flatland and Missouri plains. He'd been on unfamiliar ground since leaving home a week ago. Home - it seemed silly to even call it that. His parent's humble New England two-story hadn't been home in years, but Adam had left his apartment in New York nearly three months ago, and that had never quite felt like home either. Sure a few girlfriends passed through - some more meaningful than others. And one had even lived there for a time. That year had probably been the closest he'd come to feeling at home in that monolithic city. But as that relationship dwindled, like the wilting of the rest of his big city life, Adam inevitably landed back where he'd started. Oftentimes he felt as if his dreams took him to distant lands and times, and he woke disoriented, having to reposition his mind to the here and now. In this case, he literally had traveled a great distance, but that wasn't what unsettled him. He relented after a few minutes, deciding whatever he had seen or heard that stirred him so strangely was better left unremembered.

PSYCHONAUT

Before stepping out of the car again, Adam plugged his dead phone into the charger sprouting out of the cigarette lamp. As the phone yawned to life, Adam stretched his legs and arms as he greeted the day. Leaving the car parked, Adam climbed down mossy rocks peppered with mollusks and barnacles dry and crackling underfoot. The beach lay at the feet of the rocks, the sand already baking under the nearly noon sun. His eyes squinted, the cloudless blue sky and the shimmering sand too bright for his unadjusted pupils. He fished a pair of bent sunglasses out of the pockets of his cargo shorts. After fiddling with the stems for a bit, he put them on and beheld the massive ocean before him. Adam's pale skin betrayed his life growing up on gray New England beaches, summers at the Cape where Atlantic waves crashed green like dollar bills and cold as winter. He was no stranger to the water and had spent many days in his youth contemplating the vastness of that dreary ocean. But this was altogether different. There was a color to these waters Adam had never witnessed in his life. Ocean so blue it made the sky pale, a horizon so high that the magnitude - the sheer size - of the Pacific was undeniable. Adam knew there couldn't be any actual visible difference between the two massive seas that surrounded the country, and yet this view seemed impossible: the Atlantic never looked so big, and true enough, it wasn't. It was as if Adam could perceive that these waters reached halfway around the globe to the shores of Asia, whereas the Atlantic stretched only to Europe and Africa and covered not nearly the same space. Adam stared in awe while gulls circled overhead, coasting invisible pockets of warm air. The thermals carried the birds up and up, and they soared from one end of the beach to another without a single flap of wing. He unburied his feet from the sand, and plodded down to the break. The sea frothed onto the beach, foaming around his ankles and coolly kissing his toes. A school of young birds chased the tide out, plucking tiny sea life tossed out of the deep ocean currents. They'd scurry back as soon as a fresh wave came crashing, but Adam pressed further into the water until he noticed a lone gull a few meters out. The gull struggled to take flight, feebly flapping its wings to no avail. A white thread caught the sunlight, and Adam saw the

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fishing hook. Adam waded in, the bottoms of his shorts soaking. The gull stiffened at his approach, paddling away in the opposite direction. But Adam grabbed the red ball attached to the end of the fishing wire and the bird was his. The frantic gull flapped in vain as Adam reeled the bird closer. "Easy there. It's okay..." Adam took the gull in his hands. The bird closed its eyes, quivered. Adam stretched its wing out, saw the hook lodged in the bird's shoulder, the gulch of blood. "Looks like they got you pretty bad." He fiddled with the hook, trying to find the right angle to pull it out. The stubborn gull pecked at Adam's wrists, making the task more difficult. Finally, Adam slid the hook out of the gull's wing and the bird took flight. Three feathers floated down to the water's face, and Adam surveyed the splotch of bird's blood on his fingertips. A high wave swelled and washed his hands clean, wetting Adam up to the waist. Wet and wide awake now, Adam trudged back to the car, his shorts dripping the whole way. Behind his car lay the highway, and mountains beyond, sprinkled with beachfront houses and dazzling views. It was a quiet day and Adam saw scarcely a car going by. Adam dried himself off and turned the ignition key. The car sputtered to life and Adam pulled onto the highway road and drove south, toward the city. He could have headed there straightaway yesterday but as the sun waned in the afternoon sky and the fork in the road approached, he decided after being cramped in the car all week, some ocean air would do him good. He drove straight, just in time to catch the last tendrils of western sunlight escape behind the horizon and there, content, exhausted and relieved to have arrived, Adam curled into his backseat under his flannel blanket and dozed off. Now he approached signs of life, of white and glass buildings jutting up from the mountainous landscape, of hazy smog languishing over the coastal cityscape. The traffic thickened as he approached and he was glad he'd waited till now to truly arrive.

PSYCHONAUT

His body may have appreciated a motel bed but his spirit was lifted incalculably by waking near the ocean. As the scent of sea salt faded, Adam drove in circles searching for breakfast. He passed several chain diners and fast food joints - storefronts identical to all the eateries he'd passed driving across the country - until he found a hole in the wall coffee shop with a few regulars posted outside on laptops or reading newspapers. Adam grabbed a newspaper for himself off the rack out front and sat down on the uncomfortable wooden chairs. The waitress took his order of eggs Benedict with a side of bacon and a cup of coffee black as he sifted through the classified section trolling for jobs. He circled and starred a few options and quickly realized he'd get nowhere fast without an internet connection. He'd brought his laptop, but it was packed away in his bags and this cafe lacked free service so after finishing his breakfast, Adam paid the bill and set out for the library. While driving, he was struck by how wide the streets were, how long each block was between lights and crosswalks. He'd been so used to the eastern cities his whole life, dense and compactly designed to fit as much into as little space as possible. But the western life was spread out, sprawling and spacious. There were few proper skyscrapers here; sure the occasional building soared up a few dozen stories, but nowhere near the concrete thicket of New York or even Boston. No, here the sky dominated, with views of mountains and sometimes ocean uninterrupted by man. At first it had unnerved him, but the more he drove around in it, the more he liked it. There was something freeing about it, something relaxed. He didn't feel the imposition of urban landscape urging him to move along, to keep busy, to stay productive. The open air, the low buildings, the wide roads, all of it seemed an open invitation to slow down, to move at your own pace. After his years on Wall Street working sleeplessly, commuting on crowded subway trains packed to the brim, always walking, there was something refreshing about this new place. The library air was cool and inviting, a sweet respite from the now blazing afternoon sun. The morning clouds were burnt off, and the day was sweltering. Adam wasn't used to dry heat;

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summers back east had been muggy and humid, the air thick with moisture you had to wade through like molasses. Humidity that made seventy degrees feel like a hundred and made you sweat while sitting down. Here, the sun burned hot on your skin, but didn't evaporate your will. The light fell differently here. The light back east had always been white - whether through winter gloom or summer highs - but here, the light was syrup, deliciously glazing the earth like milky gold. The vaulted ceilings hung high, two stories above. Adam wandered around the atrium till he spotted the bay of computers in the far corner. He signed up as a visitor and explained to the librarian that he didn't have an address with which to sign up for a card. After a brief wait, he sat down and browsed ads online in search of jobs. A peculiar array of people populated the library, spanning all ages and ethnicities. So many in fact that Adam wondered how they were all here - shouldn't they be at work or school? But then he figured, the same could be said of him. "Excuse me, I'm looking for a copy of The Red Book. By Carl Jung?" The girl's voice caught Adam's ear and he glanced over at the pale brunette leaning over the librarian's counter. She wore a short miniskirt made of denim with rips in them, white strands of tattered fabric hanging frayed at the edges. Her black tank top was adorned with silken fabrics hosting intricate geometric designs in dark purple & indigo. A heavy brown leather purse hung lazily off one shoulder, overflowing with who knows what. She looked a whirlwind, even standing still. Her hair was a wild swirl of dark brown carelessly framing her face as white as ghosts. Her legs were long and smooth, and Adam eyed them self-consciously, from the full thighs blooming out from under her skirt down to the sandal straps that wrapped just below her calves down to her ankles. She wasn't as beautiful as she was a mess, but there was something captivating about her that Adam couldn't explain. "I'm afraid we only have one copy and it's checked out at the moment. I can reserve it for you if you like, or have a copy sent from another library in the district." "You're kidding me, right? You don't have like a copy in the back or something?"

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"Uh, there is no... 'back.'" "Listen, lady, I just drove to every fucking library in this city and--" "Excuse me. You need to lower your voice--" "This is like my umpteenth library today, and I just really, really need some good news from you right now." "Well have you tried just buying the book?" "Wow. What a great idea! Why didn't I think of that? It's not like the book's a hundred fucking bucks or anything. I don't know what recession you've been living in, but--" "Okay, that's it. You need to go." "Whatever." The girl gathered her things in a flurry, and whirled towards the door, muttering, "Bitch." In hindsight, he realized it was really uncharacteristic of him, but Adam grabbed his backpack and ran after her. He wasn't necessarily shy around girls, but he was no Lothario. Often he found himself freezing up when he met someone interesting, unable to come up with anything to say. Other times he focused in like a laser beam, plucking just the right words from the ether, the definition of charm. But being a stranger in a new land meant now was not the time for shyness. Outside, he found the girl standing at the sidewalk, struggling to light her cigarette in the wind. The sun was getting low in the sky and the ocean breezes were biting as the temperature dipped. There was something terrifying about her, he thought as she stood with her back to him. She was a force of nature, with her silken scarves dancing the color of night skies and her skin so porcelain white. But really what terrified him about her was in her pupils, those hollow, gray eyes. The penetrating stare of a jungle cat, calculating, impregnable. Her mind was opaque, invisible behind her pupils despite their clarity. "Hey," Adam said. "Hey yourself," she said dismissively as the cigarette finally sparked to life. She took a deep drag, cherished it like it was her first that day, but from the thinness of her lips and the yellow tips of her gaunt fingers you could tell it was merely the latest of many. When she glanced over her shoulder and found him still there, she warned, "If you're gonna ask to bum a cigarette, save your breath."

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"You were looking for a copy of The Red Book." She spun around suddenly, almost startling him. Her scarves and bangs echoed, falling a moment after. "Oh my God, do you have one?" "Yeah. In my car. What do you need it for?" "My stupid psych class. It's a gen ed that I have to take and this gay ass book costs over a hundred dollars. Look, I'm a whole new kind of broke right now, so I can't give you money for it. But if you just let me borrow it, I promi--" "I'm not giving you the book." "But I'll give it back, I just need it for a few days to write this paper and then--" "It was a gift from my dad, I can't just give it to you." "Then what? Please tell me you're not just rubbing it in my face to fuck with me." "Look. I'm new in town. Like, got here last night new. I came here pretty much on a whim, so I don't really know anybody, or have anything to do, or anywhere to go really. Getting a job is somewhere on my list but--" The girl snorted. "Good luck with that..." "So maybe you could show me around. A cool bar or a party or something. Whatever you're into." "Oh, you fucking sleazeball. You don't have even have the book, do you?" She wasn't asking, she just stubbed out her cigarette, screwed it into the ground and started off. "Wait, wait--" Adam went after her. Instinctively took her by the arm. "Don't fucking touch me--" "Whoa - sorry." He threw up his hands, showing her his palms as a peace offering. "I promise you I have the book. See that shitty Corolla parked over there? That's my car. The book's in the trunk in a white box. Come on, I'll show you." "Ha! So you can put me in your trunk in a white box? Please. Do I have a ridge above my eyes? Am I wearing a helmet and a Special Olympics bib? I'm not a fucking idiot." And with that, she turned and beelined across the parking lot for the bus stop at the curb.

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"Dammit," Adam said to himself. He sprinted to the Corolla, popped the trunk and rifled through his own personal library - a white box overflowing with paperbacks, hardcovers and textbooks collected over the past decade. Luckily, The Red Book was big and true to its name. Adam fished it out quickly and followed the girl. Only later did he consider how desperate he must have seemed, but in that moment he didn't care. A couple of young Mexican guys and an old Asian lady sat on the bench at the bus stop. Lilah perched at the edge of the curb, practically falling into traffic, one hip jutting out, a fresh cigarette dangling from her lip. "See? I'm not a liar." Adam held up the book for her to see. She furrowed her brow in irritation. She wanted the book, but she looked like she might bite his face off if he dared come closer. He stopped short a safe distance from her, but instead of offering her the book, he extended a hand. "I'm Adam." She sized him up, and just like that, turned her shoulders toward him. "Lilah."

***

The bar was quiet and the food was passable. Lilah picked at a tuna melt while Adam hungrily took down a cheeseburger and fries. They ordered a pitcher of beer and as they ate and drank, Lilah perused Adam's book, occasionally writing a note on a yellow stickie and pressing it against the page. "No, it's not actually on the syllabus." "So what, you're reading it for kicks, then? Extra credit?" "It's a final project, big thesis paper," Lilah said. "Like an idiot I chose this book pretty much because it's trendy, and frankly because I heard there were pictures in it and I wasn't about to read some gargantuan Freudian analysis of the human mind. Gag me. So, I chose Jung, not realizing the book's so expensive and of course no library's gonna have it because everyone and their mother has a Jung boner. I mean--not like a youthful boner, but like a fetish for Jung."

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"Yeah, I pieced that together." "I thought you were a numbers guy. Why'd your dad give you this?" Adam shifted in his seat, sipped his beer. "Well, you know how people give you gifts that they'd really like?" "Ah. What a douche. Well for Father's Day you should get him, I donno, XBox or whatever it is you're into." "Oh, he passed away." "Oh. My bad." "No, no worries. It happens." "How'd he go?" Adam stirred again, uncomfortable at her directness. "Cancer." "That's rough. Is that why you came out here?" "No. My dad died a few years ago." "Then what brings you out west, kiddo?" "I was working for a pretty big finance firm in Manhattan. Last year when the shit hit the fan, my firm got bought up and liquidated pretty much. Since I'd staked all my connections on that gig and it ended up being a dead end, I had nowhere to turn. Applied for work all over, but that job ended up being an albatross. Anyone who was hiring didn't want folks from my old firm, and so after a few months of unemployment and taking bullshit jobs to pay rent, I said fuck it, moved back in with my mom. That, of course, was an incredible nightmare so I figured, what the hell, I've alwayed wanted to live near palm trees. And I was just so fucking done with those east coast winters. So I packed my shit and here I am." "So what do you wanna do here? I mean, you're not gonna get a finance job in LA." "No--but I'm not really an econ guy, I'm a programmer. Comp sci linguistics, that sort of thing." "Wow, you must be super boring." "Says the girl who's on a date to steal a book on psychology." "First off, I'm not actually interested in psychology, it was the winds of fate that blew me onto this boring shore. You on the other hand, like math. Like, you like math." "Well, what kind of work do you suggest I look for?"

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"Don't know what to tell you, dude. You came to the land of artists, free thinkers and free lovers. This town isn't like other places." "Tell me," Adam said. "Gimme some perspective." "Every city's got its thing, it's self-absorption, the theme that runs through everybody's mind all the time, right? With New York, everyone's trying to make money. In DC, everybody's trying to make a difference. And in LA, everyone's trying to make it." "So all the cliches are true then? It's just a city full of shallow, superficial attention whores too involved with themselves to notice anybody around them?" "For the most part, yeah. And then there's girls like me." "Oh, you're not any of those things, of course. You're deep and humble and supremely concerned with the world." "Hey, watch your tongue, pretty boy. I'm skinny, but I'm feisty." "Another round?" he said. "No. I told you, I'm broke. But there's whiskey back at my place. And you need a place to crash." Adam was surprised at her invitation, uncertain at first, but then deciphering the sincerity in her slightly drunken slurring. "Oh--uh, yeah, that would be awesome.... Are you sure?" "Yeah, as long as you don't try to, you know, rape me or anything." "I'll try not to," Adam smiled, "but I can't really make any promises." "Yeah I am incredibly good-looking, so I can see how it might be hard for you." "So, does this mean you'll actually get in my car now?" "Yeah, are you good to drive?" she asked. "We'll find out together."

***

Her apartment was small, but by no means New York small, with a main room and a kitchen. Lilah led him in, turning the lamp on by her bed. The queen mattress took up most of the space and there was just a big brown trunk across from it beneath a trio of

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windows semi-circling around a petite ledge adorned with chotchkes and bric-a-bac. Her bed overflowed with dirty laundry, and her mirror-topped bureau was a warzone of makeup and nailpolishes. She made a halfhearted attempt to clear some of the unwashed clothes, but Adam just took a seat on the trunk by the window. He peered into the kitchen after her, noticed the shrunken fridge, the old gas stove and the rickety metal dining table and chairs. A few plants hung from hooks in the ceiling and tapestries draped the high walls, cocooning the room in a warm coziness. Lilah poured two glasses of whiskey and without apology said, "There's no ice." "Is it at least good whiskey?" "Nope. Whattaya wanna drink to?" "To a new city. And new friends." "Cheers." They clinked glasses. Adam took a sip of his whiskey. Lilah shot her whole glass, gulping it down thirstily. "Do you like Morrissey?" she asked, but it wouldn't have mattered either way. "Sure." The music permeated the room from two small speakers on the shelf above her bed. She disappeared into the kitchen for another drink when Adam noticed the pile of papers at his feet. He picked them up and read the cover page of the short manuscript: A Wind Dies Slowly by Lilah Reed. He flipped through, skimming the double-spaced New Courier font cluttering each page. Here and there, red marks, arrows and notes adorned the margins with a longer paragraph of criticism on the back. "So you're a writer," Adam said. She returned with a fresh glass of bourbon. "How'd you know that?" But then she saw the manuscript in his hands and almost dropped the glass snatching the pages from him. "Gimme that. That's nothing." She nervously stuffed them in her brown leather purse. "Take it easy. I didn't read any of it."

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"Good. You can't read any of it, so don't ask." "What's it about?" "You don't wanna know." "Sure I do." "It's about someone who gets cancer and dies." "Wow. Forget I asked." Adam stood up. "Maybe, this wasn't the best idea--" "Hey, wait - I wasn't just being a bitch, that's really what the story's about." "Let me see it." She wrinkled her forehead, pursed her lips. Finally, she relented, offered it to him. He let it hang there. "C'mon. Sit down. You're too drunk to go anywhere." After a moment's thought, Adam decided she was right, the whiskey already warming his belly. He felt the alcohol stronger in his head now on his feet. He sat back down on the trunk, cautiously looked at the manuscript in her hands. "It's okay," he said. "You don't have to show me." "But, look, really. That's what it's about, I wasn't just saying that." "Okay. I believe you." She put the short story down, picked up the bottle of bourbon and refilled his glass and freshened up her own. She sat back in her bed, sipped. He rested his elbows on his knees and selfconsciously nodded his head to the song. There was a long silence as they both just listened to the music while neither listened to the music. He scanned the room, letting his gaze wander along her framed pictures of family, her Polaroids of friends tacked to the drywall, the ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts and roaches. "Come here," she said, patting the bed. "Take a load off." Cautiously, Adam shifted from the ancient trunk to the bed, sliding in next to Lilah. He looked closely at her, at the ice in her eyes, the hint of freckles on her porcelain nose, the bird's nest of messy brown hair. Maybe she wasn't gorgeous, but she was beautiful. Her fingers were long and slender, the hands of a pianist, but with the fingernails chewed down to the clip. Nothing came easy for this girl, and she wore her life's struggle on her face and her

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restless movements. In the dim light of her apartment, through the haze of alcohol, Adam saw a sweet innocence beneath her foulmouthed exterior, the way she bit her lip and hummed nervously. Against better judgment, Adam took his chances. He leaned his face close to hers, gently raised her chin so she could see him coming. Her eyes sleepily met his and fell as their lips met. She didn't fight him, let him kiss her slowly, softly. He pulled back and she pressed forward, meeting him again as they both fell back in the bed. She sat up, straddling him as she peeled off her black tank top, revealing her breasts, small and cautious. Her mouth hung open, her eyes glazed, a dull madness lurking behind a face distracted by sex. Adam beheld her atop him, his heart racing, his loins swelling, wondering for a moment where he was exactly. But that thought, along with all the others, faded from his mind like water through a sieve. They helped each other out of their clothes and fondled each other, acclimating to one another's bodies. They rolled around, until he settled on top, penetrating her as she clawed and bit at his shoulders. Her hot breath blazed across his neck as he buried himself in her. They adjusted awkwardly, pausing to catch their breath or shift positions, the mechanics of sex between strangers. They finished as abruptly as they started, rocking together like a cradle, her hair matted across both their faces. The music was still playing softly when Adam rolled onto his back, breathing heavily. She reached for some Kleenex off the nightstand, brought it between her thighs and cleaned up while Adam's chest glistened with sweat and heaved up and down beside her. She opened the nightstand drawer, pulled out rizlas and an amber medicine bottle. "You smoke?" she asked, but she was already breaking up a fresh bud and sprinkling the green onto the paper. "It's been awhile," Adam said. She rolled the joint expertly in record time, her fingers delicately pinching the papers with the precision of experience. She ran her tongue along the joint, flashed the lighter underneath it a few times to seal it and then lit the tip. After taking a long hit and

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sinking into the haze as she slowly exhaled the smoke through her nose like a dragon, she handed the joint to Adam. Adam brought it to his lips and as he released his breath, tasting the flavor of the smoke, the door to Lilah's apartment started rattling. The post-coital blush on her cheeks eroded before his eyes as she stared at the turning doorknob in terror. "What is it?" Adam managed before the door finally opened and a young guy with light skin and dreadlocks entered. "The fuck is going on?" "Jeff, it's not--" Lilah tried, but it was too late. Jeffrey dropped the bag he was carrying on the floor and grabbed Adam by the throat, hoisting him out of bed. Before he knew it, Adam was on the floor, naked, being choked to death. Jeff brought a fist down on Adam's right eye, slamming the back of his head on the hardwood floor. Adam, red-faced and flailing, grabbed at Jeff's fingers around his throat, panicking blindly until landing a knee in Jeff's groin. The dreadlocked intruder fell back with a squeal, just long enough for Adam to get on his feet. Blood dripped from the gash that burst open under Adam's right eye. Frantically, Adam grabbed his jeans and t-shirt off the floor by Lilah who sat there mortified. Still naked and clutching his clothing in his arms like a child, Adam ran out of the apartment without looking back.

***

Adam awoke at the beach again the next morning, in the backseat of his car shivering this time from the early morning chill. He'd driven around for an hour in search of a motel and since his phone had died, he just drove west till he hit water, parked the car, and went to sleep. The bruise on his face swelled and purpled, and the exhaustion blackened the rest of Adam's complexion. Not having showered since leaving the dingy motel he stayed at in Colorado, Adam looked a mess. He felt as much when he woke, so he stepped out of the Toyota that was starting to smell like sleep and dirty laundry. The

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beach here wasn't as pristine as it was up north, and a milky fog crept in from the ocean only to darken Adam's mood further. The morning breezes were cold, winds roaring fiercely off the ocean. The air felt good on his face, even though it stung at his black eye a bit. He splashed salt water on his face, which stung even more, but it was a necessary hurt. The salt cleared his skin and the wound, and he felt refreshed. The true nature of his situation was beginning to sink in. Yesterday, in the romance of arriving at his destination, in the rush of meeting Lilah and slipping into her bed, Adam had managed to avoid facing the precariousness of his presence here. But now, black-eyed and bruised, penniless and homeless on the beach with nothing but a decade-old jalopy in desperate need of an oil change, and not a friend for a thousand miles, Adam felt a desperation he'd not known since losing his job in New York so many months ago. The city felt like a memory from a distant lifetime, a previous incarnation. Even New England seemed unreal now, and he struggled to remember why he'd come all this way. The real reason was that he had had no choice, staying in Massachusetts wasn't an option. But what were his options now? He knew no one here, had no prospects for work, and what little money he had was dwindling quickly. Even if he could find a motel cheap enough, he could only afford a few night's stay before having to think about the drive back to Boston. With these thoughts weighing like an anchor on his mind, Adam stood in the sand just a few feet shy of the tide when Julian approached him. "Hi there," Julian said, smiling amiably. Julian was halfblack, half-Asian, his features soft and elegant, his skin a shining bronze, his eyes almond-shaped and hypnotic. His hair was a curly mop atop his head, and he wore thick black horn-rimmed glasses with a yellow scarf, a green jacket and jeans that hugged his legs. He stood on the sand by Adam in brown leather boots and held some papers in his hand. "Hi," Adam said. "I'm really sorry to bother you, but I just saw you standing out here and wanted to say something to you." "Yeah? What's that?"

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"I wanted to tell you that everything's going to be okay. That you're being taken care of. It may not feel that way now, but it's true." Adam glanced around; they were alone on the beach. "What do you want?" "My name's Julian. I don't want to take up too much of your time, but if you'd come with me just up to the boardwalk, there's something I think you should see." "What is it?" "You have to see it to believe me."

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