Tuesday, June 3, 2014

CRUEL first chapter


Zo was born laughing, but by the twenty-first century the world had forgotten the joke. He’d lived for thousands of years by then. He wasn’t limited to Earth or to the human scale. Before I even saw his face he had me under his spell. Zo is a god. I’m just a girl. So why am I the one on trial? I object. It’s not fair. How can it be? He’s a god!
. . . Yes, Your Honor. I understand.
You want to know where it all began? Okay. I saw him for the first time last Friday afternoon. He was standing on a driftwood log on the beach, facing the ocean. From where I stood on the boardwalk, I couldn’t see his face, so I had no idea whether he was a hotty or not, but he caught my eye anyway. From what I could see, he had a great body, not too buff and not too scrawny. He had on this white denim jacket so ridiculously unfashionable it went all the way past Dorky and circled around again to Cool. His hair was a flickering black flame in the wind. His arms were open like he wanted to embrace the whole Pacific.
That moment has stayed with me ever since, through all the fantastic and crazy shit of this past weekend. Truth is, I’m living it right now: He is turned away from me, so that I can see him but not know him, and he doesn’t see me . . . but he does know me.
I’m there.
I saw him again an hour later while I was sitting with my boyfriend, James, on a bench in front of the aquarium, drinking iced coffee and talking about my screenplay. I recognized his white jacket. I still couldn’t make out his face, but it didn’t matter: a thrill ran through me like a shockwave runs through a cracked whip. I noticed the ocean’s roar harmonizing with the harsh cries of seagulls and the barking of aquarium seals. It was total cacophony, but it sounded like the music of the spheres to me, praising this man with glorious hymns.
I got up from the bench and went over to where he stood by the boardwalk’s low cement wall. Yes, I was just that forward. It’s like I didn’t care I was with James, or that this stranger might not appreciate me intruding. All I cared about was getting a look at the guy.
Your Honor, he looked better than I’d imagined. Yeah, he was beautiful, an angel, all that stuff. Those words are only adequate when you say them about ordinary beautiful people, not someone like him. I could never find the words to describe his face, except to say this:  his smile was sweeter than any child’s. It was a smile that said the world was there for his delight. You wouldn’t think it, but that kind of smile is just as frightening as it is attractive. That’s because it casts a harsh light on the rest of us unhappy nobodies. A smile like that calls to us like a siren even as it shoves a mirror before our gorgon faces.
I should have turned to stone. Instead I turned to brass—I was one brazen slut, and god only knows what James must have made of my shameless flirting. I only said “Hi,” not “Take me I’m yours,” but still. He flicked his blue-green eyes to me—just a glance, but wow! Then he looked up at the sky. There was nothing idle about that searching gaze. I looked up there, saw nothing but big blue empty, and asked him what he was looking at.
He said, “Oh, keep looking up. You’ll see it.” His voice wasn’t like anyone else’s. His accent was plain American, but with something of the intelligent civility of an educated Brit, as well as a hint of something more exotic: Arabic, perhaps, or Icelandic. However flippant he was, I felt like I had to take his advice, just because his voice was so endearing.
Before I looked back up into the sky, I caught a glimpse of the black tee-shirt he wore. It was the only ordinary thing about him: an Epiphany concert shirt, kiddy-gothic style, with a little girl impaled, improbably, upon a giant dandelion, under a grieving sun. Like, only a billion people wear that same shirt. You couldn’t go more global in 2023 than to be an Epiphany fan. Almost everyone on Earth was on that bandwagon. Of course, since we lived in the same town where Epiphany Chappelle happened to live, that shirt was even more common and ordinary. Living in the same town as a celebrity, even the most famous celebrity who ever lived, tends to make that celebrity seem a little more like one of us average people. Around the world, Epiphany fans called her the Star, or even the Goddess, they worshipped her so much. In Seaside, we called her the Hermit.
Yes, Your Honor, I know you know. For the record, I liked seeing that shirt on him, because here was this otherworldly hunk, looking like his feet shouldn’t touch the ground, but the Epiphany fanboy look brought him down to Earth a little.
While I scanned the sky, James joined me at the wall and chattered in my ear like some smartass dolphin. Something about my screenplay. I wasn’t listening. The subject held no interest for me, which was weird, because usually I couldn’t get my mind to shut up about it.
I did hear James say, “If this soldier is the incarnation of hell, then there must be a heaven, too, right? But what if there isn’t? Maybe Nietzsche got it only half right. Sure, God is dead, and the Devil’s tapdancing on His grave. But, wait, didn’t you say he’s not the Devil . . ? Hel?” He nudged my shoulder. “Hel, what are you looking at?”
“To be honest, James, I don’t know, but as soon as I see it, I’ll point it out to you.”
We stared at the sky for a while, but nothing happened. The next thing I remember, James and I were on the beach, strolling along the edge of the water. But . . . that’s not right, is it? Something happened there on the Boardwalk, but I don’t remember it. It’s like it’s been erased from my memory. Goddammit, if I don’t have all the evidence, I won’t get a fair trial!
. . . Yes? Yes. Thank you, Your Honor. Okay. I said I would point it out to James when I saw it, and he said, “Jeez, no need to get snippety,” and he looked up at the sky, too. And I . . .
. . . I’m not—we’re not—the only ones doing this. There’s an old man with a cane. A mother and her small son. A couple in their twenties, dressed too gaudily to be anything but tourists. Three women in their thirties, dressed too neatly to be anything but Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is like a gag I saw on “Little Rascals.” A guy’s doctor tells him to keep his head elevated, and on the street people follow him around, trying to see whatever’s got his attention.
What is it? To be sure, there’s nothing in the sky worth looking at. No rare birds. No neat clouds. No planes. Not even any UFOs up there. So why do I keep staring? Why does everyone?
Everyone. Somehow I know that’s literally true. It’s not just right here in front of the aquarium. It’s up and down the entire boardwalk. It’s all over town, the state, the whole country. It’s everyone, everywhere. At this very moment, billions of people are staring into skies and ceilings, yearning to see it. They’re sobbing and pleading. They’re falling to their knees, folding hands in desperate prayer. Shaking fists at the emptiness. Clinging to each other, to themselves. They’re screaming. I’m screaming. Tears are pouring down my face. My jaw is stretched so much it hurts. What? What is it? What is—
No one screams anymore. No one prays. Our eyes are transfixed. The sky is no longer blue but the white of vitreous humor. There are rivers of red in the whiteness, and an iridescent iris. At its center is the black hole, the abyss. It gazes also. It is not still. It shivers and trembles. It blinks, even as our eyes are frozen wide open. We are gathered here in the sight of God.
All around me I feel the ecstasy of humanity basking in the certain proof there is a God watching out for us after all. I feel their ecstasy, but I do not share in it. I am terrified.
I hear voices speaking. The first is my own: “So. That’s the Eye of God, is it?”
The other voice belongs to the man standing beside me.  We are talking without moving our lips, without breathing. Under the circumstances, it seems natural. “It’s scary,” I say.
“Who wants to know?”
“Okay. And what exactly is a Fal . . . Fal? What a strange word. I can’t pronounce it.”
“I . . . I don’t know. Does it even matter? What’s going on here?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course. Sorry.”
“Awareness . . . do you still want to know why the Eye of God scares me?”
“Because God isn’t just watching us now. Not anymore. He isn’t just judging us. Now that we can see His Eye, we know He’s there. It isn’t just a matter of faith anymore. We’re watching Him, too. We are judging God. That is scary.”
I blink. I’m with James at the edge of the ocean, with the chill water lapping at my bare, hideous, scar-tissue feet, and I forget all about the Eye of God watching us. I forget all about this appalling new burden of responsibility our species now bears. We all forget.
Your Honor, don’t I get a lawyer or something?
Whatever. I’ve got way ahead of myself here. I forgot to mention the kid.
The kid came up behind me while I was standing there on the boardwalk watching the guy on the beach like a sniper waiting for the kill. I was so lost in the moment that I literally jumped when he said, “There’s blood in the bathtub.”
Holy crap, but he scared me! My skin was tingling all over when I turned around and looked at him. He was maybe eight years old, and he had on this Daffy Duck shirt which read YOU’RE DETHPICABLE. Both the shirt and his hands were stained with chocolate, maybe from an ice cream cone. There was a look of terror in his eyes that really got me—I’ve never seen a little kid who looked so scared . . .
. . . Yes, Your Honor, I know it doesn’t sound relevant now, but I promise it is. You see, I met this kid again a couple of days later on, and . . . right, right. Thank you, Your Honor.
I asked him, “What do you mean, there’s blood in the bathtub? Is someone hurt?”
The boy said, “I don’t know, it’s blood, prob’ly came out of somebody. It’s in that house.” He pointed at the house behind us. The salty air strips paint from the homes on the boardwalk, but this house was greyer than ashes in winter; it might have been built out of petrified bones. I recognized it, and felt a lot easier—I knew right away what he was talking about. Sure enough, he led me over to a familiar grimy basement window and said, “Look, do you see it too?”
I knelt on the grass and peered inside. The basement was dark, but a dusty shaft of late afternoon sunlight illumined a table, some rusty tools, and an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub. It looked the same as it had ten years before when I’d first peeked through this window. The tub was stained with red streaks, surprisingly vivid in the sunlight.
I told the boy it wasn’t real blood. “The bathtub is only painted red to make it scary. This is a Halloween House. In a couple months they’ll have it all dressed up like a haunted house, and be charging trick-or-treaters ten bucks to go on a spook walk.” He looked doubtful, so I told him, “You know, when I was your age, I looked through this same window and saw the same bloody bathtub. It scared me, too. But my Mom told me it was a fake, and she was right.”
The boy asked me, “Are you sure? Did you ever do the spook walk?”
I admitted I hadn’t. “No, I never went in, but trust me, no one’s ever been hurt here.”
The boy said “Okay,” and we parted ways. I could tell he believed me. But I also knew it didn’t matter. Like myself at his age, those murderous fancies conjured up by his first look through that filthy basement window would probably give him nightmares for years to come. We were both haunted by that stupid house.
When I looked at the beach again the man was gone. I glanced at my phone and was astonished to discover I had been at that spot for nearly half an hour. James would be wondering why I was late for our date. Maybe “date” is the wrong word for it, even though we had plans to go to this big beach party. I guess we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but those words were kind of ridiculous. We’d never even kissed. We were more comfortable talking about movies, music, books, the stories I’d written, and now this screenplay about the First World War which I’d begun working on. We were seventeen, and in spite of our hormones we were still basically a couple of nerds who’d bonded our brains but whose bodies were like a pair of north magnetic poles, never quite getting together.
It’s unreal, Your Honor, talking about all of this in the past tense. I mean, this was just three days ago! And yet it already feels like years. I’m not getting used to this trial thing.
Anyway, I was late, so I hurried on and texted “C U Soon” to James. I didn’t mention that I’d been dallying there guy-watching. So what? Guy-watching isn’t really cheating, any more than girl-watching is cheating from a boy’s point of view. Though it’s strange how the time got away from me, and how I never did see the guy’s face. What the hell had been the attraction? But already I was reliving that first sight as though it were still happening.
Already I was lost.
I hurried my ass to the aquarium where James worked selling seashells, postcards, and other cheap souvenir shit.  He was waiting for me on a boardwalk bench, polishing his Spex. He greeted me with an iced coffee and put his Spex on—in offline mode; he knew it irritated me to know he was netsurfing while he was supposed to be paying attention to me, but he was also nearsighted, so he needed his lenses to see, unlike a lot of people who just wear the smartglasses to hook into the net or zone out on virtual reality “worlds” or other shit like that. He lit a cigarette and asked about this big idea of mine for a movie.
I told him.
“Hell of an idea,” James said. I didn’t laugh. He probably thought that was because the pun was so lame and tired, which of course it was. But the real reason was because this time the pun was apt, and it frightened me. For the first time in my life I came close to seriously contemplating the meaning of my name, or my nickname, anyway. My flesh crawled.
When he realized he wasn’t going to get so much as a sarcastic sneer out of me, James asked me how my screenplay begins.
“In a movie theater,” I said, leaning back, away from James. “Graham—that’s the soldier’s name—he’s on leave from the front, watching a silent movie. Something with a beautiful heroine with lots of eye makeup and a square-jawed hero, and it’s really melodramatic and dumb, but he’s totally into it because the actress reminds him of his girl back in England. Anyway, on screen the hero is breaking up with his girlfriend, leaves her sobbing. We see one of those old silent movie captions—”
“A title card.” James tapped ash onto the sidewalk and leaned back on the bench.
“Right, right,” I said, leaning forward and sipping my drink. That’s how it was with us. We were like a seesaw or something. He’d get in close, I’d move away. Anyway, I went on, saying, “It says, ‘How can you be so cruel?’ We see Graham flinch, like the title card was addressed directly to him. That’s when the music crashes in. Something big. I’ve been imagining Mozart’s overture to ‘Don Giovanni’.”
“You mean those heavy chords like in the movie ‘Amadeus,’ right?”
“You got it. Anyway the music crashes in and the whole screen fills up with these huge stark white letters, the film’s title. But instead of staying there for a couple of seconds like most movie titles, this one lingers there, superimposed over the images, for a long time, maybe as long as a minute. And the images are these visions of total carnage. Bloody bodies, screaming mouths, explosions, mud and bullets flying everywhere, flamethrowers belching like dragons.”
James said, “I’ll bet the title is Hell,” and he smiled in that smug way he does when he thinks he’s figured something out.
“Nope,” I said. I always liked to puncture his smugness. James was my best friend, but he really irritated me sometimes. A lot of times. “You’re way wrong,” I said. “Keep guessing.” Of course he got it—but it took him a minute, and I savored that minute.
I miss him.

No comments:

Post a Comment