Wednesday, Thursday… what’s the difference, right? In any event, welcome back. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the third part of I Vanish, an urban horror/dark fantasy detective thing-a-ma-doodad. This section rejoins our protagonist in the present where we begin to see how dour his life has become, and what that’s done to his outlook (hint: it’s not too great).
All caught up? Good. Let’s roll.
I Vanish — Chapter 2
The way I’ve come to see things, life is like a really slow race. Everyone marches around their own little track, ambling along from place to place until they loop back around to the start again. There are cycles nested inside of other cycles. One breath leads into the next, days feed into weeks, then months and years. Little changes creep in with each trip around, and sometimes a detour becomes a permanent part of the course, but the overall shape usually remains the same.
We go round and round until something breaks down.
When I broke, I suddenly found myself running laps on the homeless circuit. Yeah, vagrants are in the rat race, too. Our tracks are just a little less symmetrical.
Out here, bare necessities are landmarks and life is a tireless slog from one to the next, never staying in one place long enough to get noticed. Today, you grab a whore’s bath in the library bathroom then fish for change in the fountain out front. Tomorrow, make a stop at the soup kitchen downtown, and find some shelter in Tent City down by the creek.
Contrary to what you may’ve heard, you always know where tomorrow’s meal will come from. You won’t last long if you don’t, and no one will give two shits when you’re gone. That’s just how it is.
Long-term survivors are the ones who blaze their own trail. They’re the ones like Barnaby Wills. He lives by the grace of a paper cup, haunting a corner near the rec center where bleeding hearts flow easy. Dark shades and a red-tipped cane keep Johnny Law off his back, even though old Barny can see about as well as an army sniper. He learned that props can make all the difference in life.
That’s a lesson Cornelius learned, too. I pass him every now and again whenever our tracks overlap. You’ve surely seen him crossing the street with his great loping stride or smoking a Swisher up against the bus stop. He’s lanky tall and dark as night, with a patchwork backpack and a blue mop slung across his shoulders. Life for Cornelius is a series of grimy floors, which he swabs after hours for a pittance and the occasional bag of fries. There are worse ways to live, and at least he’s got a shred of dignity left. He takes pride in something.
I’m not so big on pride. I’m a scavenger, a back alley buzzard who spends most of the night hip-deep in trash. I know when the italian place on 5th dumps old bread, and which nights to check for still-edible fruit behind the organic grocer on University Avenue. I’ve got a good eye for valuable office cast-offs, and once a month, I dive for stripped paperbacks behind Barlowe’s Books.
That’s my life. I eat, I sleep, I scavenge. I wander from one end of this shithole city to another until my cycle loops back on itself. Until the serpent eats its tail.
I vanish. That little detail refuses to fit into any pattern I can recognize. It won’t play by the rules, so I relegate it to an after-thought.
But that’s enough bragging about my glamorous lifestyle. Even I get tired of it sometimes, and that’s probably why I found myself standing on the curb that night, watching the gutter stream rush down the drain. The lights of the city—furious red and jealous green, smouldering coal fire orange—reflected on the water’s surface, only to burst apart at the sewer grate like so many endless party streamers.
I was onto this idea that I could just dissolve. I’d wash away in the stream, glittering with all the city’s gaudy neon lights before crashing into an underground ocean. I wanted to be dragged down and drowned in a darkness so pure that light perished before ever touching its surface. It could swallow me whole and snuff out the last flickering spark of me.
I begged and begged for the rain to rinse me away, but it refused. It spattered and dribbled down my grease-caked skin and ran off in tainted rivulets. It recoiled in disgust.
And I stood there like that, lost in a dream and numb to the wet, the cold and my own perfect despair. I was a broken robot, slack at the shoulders and shiftless, with run-down batteries that refused to hold a charge. Sooner or later, my joints would rust and I’d be permanently frozen in place, a mottled red-orange reminder of someone already long forgot.
Maybe that’s how things would’ve gone if that man hadn’t run into me, sending us both tumbling into the path of oncoming traffic. My death-trance crumpled under the weight of a sudden and immense clusterfuck.
Headlights flashed in the falling rain. Horns cried out like braying donkeys and sheets of creased metal swerved to make way. The river parted, creating a pocket between funhouse mirrors on either side of us. Each distorted reflection revealed a new perspective, a new face twisted in its own fleeting instant of terror.
Despite dead batteries, the robot lurched into motion. Its fingers clenched the other man’s jacket and dragged him back to the sidewalk in a single, turbo-charged lunge. Its weight bore down on him through forearms of hardened steel, pinning him to the rain-slick concrete. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” the robot growled through my teeth.
The man’s eyes were wide with terror. His whole body was a whisper-thin wire ready to snap, and his lips spasmed around a word: “Help.”
It was the right word. The one I couldn’t ever ignore. Old voices clawed up through my head, attached to wet and desperate eyes. They were memories of a lost life. They were still-lit cigarettes in an overfilled ashtray.
I tried to ignore them, but they demanded to be heard. They called, and they cried, and they begged to be saved. They pleaded, and against all sense, I listened.
Before I had a chance to process all the crap running through my head, something else grabbed my attention. It was some kind of howl that flagged, surged and crackled like a tape being eaten by the deck, and it made every hair on my body stand at attention. I scanned around for whatever could make such a ruined sound, and I quickly caught sight of it.
The beast stood in a shadowed alley not twenty yards away. It was a dog. I think. Maybe it wasn’t. I’m still a little confused, in case you hadn’t noticed. Its fur was the color of the waxing moon, too bright where deep shadows clung to it and too dark where touched by the light. It stood there, watching and waiting, with a growl rumbling deep in its throat like a train rolling over distant tracks. It leveled a hungry gaze at me, and I’ll be damned if its entire body didn’t flicker for an instant.
Dogs don’t flicker. Not last time I checked.
I was frozen in place while blood ran ragged through my veins. All the while, the impossible thing looked on and licked its lips, then peeled them back a little too far, revealing gums as black as tar and too many rows of glistening, jagged teeth. Its tongue lapped back and forth behind them, a caged thing eager for a new playmate.
I couldn’t move a damn muscle, but—bless its electronic soul—the robot could. It did the sensible thing and ran. It transformed my shaking, insubstantial legs into steam-powered pistons, and drove them hard into the asphalt while the creature’s tortured voice wavered behind us.
Our pace was fueled by adrenaline. Threadbare boots splashed in puddles and launched sparkling streams into the air. All the while, the sound of the beast followed, somehow keeping pace while remaining out of sight. It bounced from one shadow to the next, from unlit alley to storm drain and on and on, echoing all the while in sickly tones that filled the night air. It snarled and moaned and squeeled with delight, while we did the only thing we could.
No one paid us any mind as we passed, but that’s just how cities are. Everyone exists in their own little microcosm. Their own universe. They live behind a thousand yard stare, watching the next turn in their race-track approach, perfectly oblivious to the world beyond it.
I miss being one of them. Bitterly.
Meanwhile, my universe became a huffing and puffing blur of Chinese characters in neon and impossibly beautiful female faces mounted on walls. My new friend and I fled over sidewalks and through intersections, around turn after turn guided by his insistent tugging at my sleeve, until finally his heels dug in and pulled us both to a skidding halt.
“Here,” he said as he thrust his free hand into a pocket. He pulled out a brass ring with a thousand keys and promptly dropped it to the ground. Chunks of cut metal rang out in discord. “Fuck,” he said, the word tumbling clumsily from his mouth.
I drove my panic away and caught my breath. We were somewhere in the old town. A multi-ethnic ghetto with signs in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish. Streetlights flickered in blue-green, and everything was silent except for my labored breaths and my companion’s spastic fumbling.
The shop before us, an old fashioned two-story, was wedged between two larger buildings trying with all their might to squeeze it out into the street. The sign on his door was written in flowing Victorian cursive: Biswell.
An angry howl sounded and the lights at the far end of the street blinked out with a pop. Shards of glass clattered to the asphalt, and my panic surged back to life. “Hurry,” I said, as if he needed to be told.
He plucked the keys from the ground and began to sort through them, while grumbling beneath his breath.
Another pair of lights popped, and I could finally see the queer silhouette of the beast. It strode a few steps forward and stopped just shy of the light, a barrier it apparently couldn’t trespass. It stamped its feet with impatience and huffed in fury.
“Please hurry,” I said.
The thing’s eyes locked with my own, and in its own alien way, it smiled. I shivered. Its gleaming fur grew brighter and then darker and back again, cycling slowly from one extreme to the other, building up momentum as it went. The lamps began to cycle with it, and I could guess what would happen next.
Luckily, I didn’t have to find out.
A key rattled in a lock and there was a sudden gust of dusty air. The man’s spindly hand latched onto the back of my coat and yanked me inside, then he shut the door behind us, bolted it and collapsed against the wall.
My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet. I could tell the place was cluttered, but the rest remained a mystery. “What the hell was that thing?”
“No. Safe here. Sealed,” he said, pointing to twisting figures carved into the doorframe. His voice was weak and insubstantial, like an old man on his death bed. His breaths were labored, his teeth chattering.
“You okay? It do something to you?”
He pushed himself away from the wall with a grunt and stood. Even in the darkness, I could tell he was teetering on the edge of falling. “Be fine in the morning. Took something I shouldn’t have.”
I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the guy, but he didn’t strike me as the type to pop a mystery pill at a party. I smelled double entendre.
“Is there anything I…”
“To my room,” he said, cutting me off again, and motioned to the staircase.
Without a word, I pulled his arm over my shoulders and lifted him up. His feet pedalled at the floor in a pantomime of walking, but there was no need. I held the entirety of him aloft and like a sleepy child, I carried him upstairs and set him on his bed.
He somehow found the energy to climb under the covers on his own, and with his eyes half-lidded, he looked at me and said, “You’re a good man.”
I hadn’t heard that in a long time.
“It’s still true,” he replied. “Sleep downstairs. Shower if you like.” He yawned. “Talk tomorrow.”
I didn’t have time to disagree with Yoda; he was out cold, and I had no idea if that thing was still pacing around outside. If the situation had been even the slightest bit different, I’d have headed for the door, but that didn’t sound like a smart decision.
Instead, I walked back downstairs and blindly groped around until I discovered the bathroom. I closed the door and flicked on the light, and after a long squint, found myself in a kingdom of blue tile and tiny plastic organizers.
Every last toiletry was packed away in its place. At one corner of the sink sat a soaptray, a toothbrush stand, and a floss-dispenser, all placed exactly parallel to one another. On the opposite side rested an old fashioned safety razor, a badger-hair brush and ivory cup. Behind the mirror: three identical toothbrushes still in their packaging, black comb, two packs of disposable razor blades, hand sanitizer, Brylcreem, Old Spice, a prescription bottle containing combo acetaminophen/caffeine tablets. The scrip was a week old and half the pills were already gone.
This man—Clive Biswell, if the bottle was to be believed—was fastidious. Clean and well kept to a fault. Possibly a hypochondriac. Likely gay.
It was around then I started to hear the calling. It was coming, and I knew it would be on me soon, but it was still out in the distance. I had time.
Time enough to do something about the haggard, bearded face in the mirror at least. I found an electric trimmer and a pair of shears beneath the sink and went to work. I was slow and methodical, so focused on the task that the rest of the world shrank away. Inch by inch, I worked across my cheek, throat, lip, chin, revealing pale skin to the fluorescent light, until every last trace of beard was finally gone.
An old, familiar face looked back at me through the looking glass, a little older and worse for wear. New wrinkles crossed faint old scars, and years of worry had piled up under his eyes, but I still recognized him.
Ethan Helik flashed a smile at me, and I wondered whether I even knew him anymore. I wondered what he’d think of who I’d become.
The calling was getting loud, and the pressure was sitting at the back of my skull. It was like standing in the middle of a machine shop with a bad hangover, and I knew it was time.
I gave Ethan one last glance, then reached over and flicked out the light. An instant later, the calling descended on me like a ravenous mouth, rattling the windows and tossing all of Mr. Biswell’s toys from their containers. The world screamed in my ears and I vanished.
That’s it for chapter 2. Not exactly a sunny, upbeat piece of fiction, but that’s to be expected from the genre. It’s also a little too avant-garde in a few places, in a way that my editor (if I had one) would probably have a field-day with.
Come back next week for Chapter 3, in which we find out more about this Biswell fellow, followed immediately by the tiny stub of Chapter 4 that’s the end of this particular unfinished oddity.
See you next Wedthursnesday!