David F. Shultz
David F. Shultz
David F. Shultz
Deliquesce The End
Unraveling by David F. Shultz
by David F. Shultz
Right before you fall asleep there's a seam. If you stay awake long enough, you can peek through.
On the night before I found out, I had given up on sleep and buried myself in the armchair, sketchbook in hand. The pencil seemed to move on its own, scritch-scratching while I watched, like a ghost. Before long the pages were scrawled with human figures, automatic-writing from the veiled periphery between waking and dreams.
An unbroken line wound across the pages. I flipped through, tracing the path of the silver thread. At the back cover of the book, the line trailed to the edge. For a moment a ghostly thread continued off the page, a trick of the light.
The room felt stale and suffocating, and my skull throbbed. A walk would help. I put the sketchbook into my shoulder bag and left for fresh air.
It was after midnight, and there were strange crunching sounds from the park to my right. A carpet of beetles writhed, thousands of shells edged by moonlight. The quivering mass popped and crackled--a mass of fallen leaves, crinkling under the patter of gentle rain.
A bus roared past on my left, spraying me with a cold wave. A shine on the passing windows played tricks with my eyes, so that each passenger had a ghostly figure superimposed. The blurred dopplegangers of light were the same figures from my sketchbook.
I shut my eyes, but the blur remained. Ghostly passengers slid along the blackness behind my eyelids. A thread of light extended from each figure, fading into the distance. When I opened my eyes the bus was gone.
I resolved to follow these strange visions, like the thread in my sketchbook, tracing the line across the page of the sidewalk. All I had to do was walk.
The streetlights were red, but the road was empty. I passed the convenience store on the corner, the pawn shops, an empty parking lot, the church courtyard with the chess boards built into the stone tables, empty of pieces.
A homeless man sat on the bench wearing running shoes and an old tan suit. Something about his weathered appearance seemed out of place. He shouldn't be here in the city, but on some fisherman's wharf, with a pipe in his mouth and a fishing rod in his hand. He was born in the wrong life.
"Did you see the light?" he asked.
"Do you have a light?"
I told him I don't smoke.
Three blocks later was the diner.
Every booth was empty. I sat facing the wall and ordered bacon and eggs, with toast and coffee, black. The smell of the coffee arrived first, then there was the clinking of cutlery, the taste of bacon, the crunch of buttery toast.
The yellow of my scrambled eggs turned pinkish. A lump formed in the middle, the size of a fingertip. Blue veins appeared, next a misshapen head, then the tiny beak of a fetal bird. Suppressing the urge to gag, I set down my knife and fork and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the bird was gone, and the eggs were yellow.
While my food went untouched, a clamor of patrons had filled the restaurant, murmuring and shuffling.
The bill was thirteen dollars. I put down a twenty.
The morning sun had risen, maybe an hour or two earlier. Clear blue sky reflected from puddles in the potholes, so it was like looking through holes into an underworld sky. It sounded like the beach. Distant traffic, muted as it carried through the streets, was gentle waves.
Gulls cawed. They swarmed beside a young homeless man in his sleeping bag, where he'd left an open pizza box. The birds tugged at the doughy remnants, stretched sinews of cheese, sprayed cold tomato sauce, wings thrashing. The man didn't stir from his deep sleep as the gulls feasted on the pizza, vultures on a corpse. A grease-stained box remained. The still slumbering man must have been drinking heavily. He looked like any bedraggled college student might look after a night of partying, a month of poor hygiene, a year of being forgotten.
He rolled over and opened his eyes.
"Did you see the bugs?" he asked.
"Did you see the bugs?" he asked again, propping himself on an elbow. "They eat the leftovers. I can see them, sometimes."
"Do you need money?"
He held out his hand, nodding meekly, and I gave him a five. He closed his eyes and clutched the bill, turned his body, and went back to sleep.
The alley by the diner offered a familiar shortcut. A canopy of wires crisscrossed overhead. The walls were mismatched material, red brick in places, flat grey cement in others, pink fibreglass behind the windows. Birds chirped nearby, somewhere above the lines of white graffiti on the walls. Wormwood was here, the graffiti told me.
Reaching the far end of the alley, I saw something pinkish near my foot. It was a small dead bird, featherless, with blue lines where veins showed beneath the soft skin. I examined it closely, then closed and opened my eyes. The bird remained, unlike the vision in my scrambled eggs. I poked it gently with a single finger, and the fragile body gave little resistance, like thinly wrapped pudding, and my stomach turned.
Worm smell was thick in the air. The commuters didn't seem to notice, stomping along the sidewalk, careless of the pungent corpses of the worms, the worms who had escaped the rain only to find the horror of human soles.
My phone reminded me of a lunch date with an old friend.
We met at the cafe. I ordered an Earl Grey tea and a lemon tart. He ordered a Steamwhistle and asked the server for the cap, which he put in his pocket. We talked about religion and politics, the birth of his son and the death of my grandmother, his career as a translator and my painting studio.
"Do you ever feel like the universe is giving you signs?" I asked.
"I'm an atheist," he said, as if this was an answer.
"But this can't be all there is."
"Of course it isn't. There's infinitely more." He took a swig of his beer, the second bottle. "And we're finite beings--so there's always something more--something we don't understand. It's like Plato's allegory of the cave. We can only see the shadows."
"If we could look past the shadows we'd have to make sense of what we saw. And maybe that would seem like signs." What I meant was, I thought I could see the signs now, and it was like staring at the sun through the slit of window blinds.
My friend had to go, but I stayed in the cafe, alone. I sipped my tea, cold now and oversteeped. Then I examined my sketchbook, turning it upside down on a hunch. The line formed a message, written unbroken across two pages, in warped cursive, not my own. Wormwood was here.
I paid the bill and left.
The afternoon traffic was not rushed. Young people relaxed on patios with beers, and old people meandered on the sidewalks, pausing to look at window displays. They all dangled at the end of their silvery threads.
I paused to look at an old homeless man, motionless in his sleeping bag, beside a shopping cart filled with newspapers and plastic bags. Pinned under one of the wheels was a cardboard sign, scrawled with black marker. Seventy-four years young, it read, but I would have guessed ninety.
His thread was taut, unlike the loose, winding threads of the men and women who breezed by with their briefcases, cell phones, and shopping bags, heels clacking on the sidewalk as they passed, each of them searching urgently for something to look at besides this dishevelled and forgotten old man by their feet.
I followed his thread. Something was pulling it, like a fishing line. It snagged on one corner of brick, leading into an alley. Around the corner garbage bags spilled from rusted dumpsters. Something skittered and squawked in the shadows.
A metal fence blocked the end of the alley. It clanged as I shook it, but didn't open. In the distance was a low roar, like a field of trees crushed under an avalanche.
The sun was setting, and my body was tired. It was time to go.
Bodies crowded the subway platform, jostled around me, invaded my personal space, tangling their threads on my own. A grainy announcement apologized for the delay. I moved to a corner away from the crowd.
All of the threads dangled and floated in the air, swayed in a rush of wind from the subway tunnel.
One man's thread was pulled taut, like the old man's. It led straight towards the subway tracks, straight into the incoming train, straight to where the man jumped. I heard the screaming of the crowd, the screeching of brakes, but above it all I heard the roar of the great beast of light that rode along the subway train, a worm with a thousand teeth in a circular, human-sized maw, swallowing the thread as it went, swallowing it right up until the end, swallowing the ghost and slurping it from a ruined corpse, and I thought of the pizza in its flat box, smeared with tomato sauce.
As horrific as the suicide was, the worst came in the days after, when I remembered the worm at the end of the thread. It keeps me awake at night sometimes, when I feel it slowly reeling my line.