Her kisses left me feeling empty — groping in the darkness just wasn’t my style (anymore). Could she understand that? I couldn’t, either. So what? Just dance, I told myself. But that was like scratching for some kind of reason, and I was through with scratching. Over and done. My feet were blistered and sick of dancing, as well.
I made it to the factory about half an hour later. Most of the lights in the parking lot were dim, if not out completely. I had long ago discovered that I could control the luminosity of the still-functional bulbs with mere will, alone, but it failed to be anything more than a distraction from the doldrums of my otherwise uneventful life. This odd superpower only revealed itself to me. Attempts at confirming its validity with other observers were to no avail. So it was to be like this: a secret that would only be shared by the lights, the lot, and myself. No big deal, really. I was destined to have resources only partially at my disposal, not able to bear fruit for their trouble of existing. Like the time I won the lottery, only to find that the prize had simultaneously been claimed by as many people as there were dollars to give them. It was completely my fault, of course. I took it in stride. I cashed in and refused to buy a lottery ticket ever again. The State of Illinois thanked me, in my dreams, that night.
Anyway, there was a point to all of this, I think. Where was I? Oh. Yes. The factory. I walked through the iron-girded doorway inside to the deafening roar of paper-pulping machines, industriously laboring away at their task. Alongside the west wall, specked by decades of paper dust and generations of fly carcasses, a rolled-up sample of grey shag carpeting relaxed leisurely. This was my reason for coming here: the map clearly designated this as the final resting place for the bones I was to rescue.
I instantly dropped to one knee and ducked as I heard a sound even louder than the ruckus of machinery pierce the space immediately above my head. It sounded like a cross between a shrieking woman and a wounded biplane plummeting towards the Earth from an unsuccessful engagement with the enemy. What I saw (when I gathered the courage to look) was something not altogether unlike a flying reptile about the size of a hang-glider, with a number of pathetic-looking, multi-colored carnival feathers duct-taped to its wings, backside, and belly.
It had perched itself upon the not-too-distant Dr. Pepper machine and took to regarding me with its sad, disturbingly humanlike eyes. I would have been afraid had it not been for the creature’s obvious confusion with a world beyond its understanding. I could relate quite well to the beast’s bewilderment — I seemed to be as much of a factor in its disorientation as it was to mine. I stepped carefully towards it… and extended an open set of palms to prove I meant no harm. It regarded me with what I sensed to be caution, and then it opened the talons it wasn’t using to prop itself up with, in return. Its orange, scaly claws were neglectfully chapped, I noticed… and this, for some reason, made me more woeful than anything else had this entire sad day. So we were at a level of mutual understanding, this poor thing and I.
I considered the option of getting the Hell out, but realized there was no such option. The heavies had been breathing down my collar to get these bones back to headquarters, pronto. I was assured there would be nothing at the factory to stop me — indeed, this bird-thing was not making any attempt to stop me, or hinder in any way my movements, but I couldn’t help feeling that continuing the mission would be disrespectful (if that’s the right word) to its presence. I tried to offer it an orange Tic Tac from my sweater vest pocket, but it responded with a mild shake of its repto-avian head, which was twice the size of mine (beak notwithstanding). Okay. Day was soon scheduled to break, and my mission was in danger if the first shift workers arrived before I was able to whisk away the carpet-concealed remnant of forlorn carnage until now neglected by my employers. Rude or not, I had to go. I smiled and nodded at my growingly less strange companion and resumed a path towards the carpet against the wall.
The phone rang twice, and the bird-thing jumped, startled. A quick glance at my digital pocket watch established the time as being 5:45 in the AM. Thank goodness for long winter nights. The darkness would still be able to conceal my presence from any meddling go-getter who might be arriving early for the workday. I tipped a hat to my new friend and grabbed the carpet, surprised by its lightness. No circus strongman was I, but I’d wrestled back in my college days. I knew how to gauge an opponent. This carpet proved to be no such opponent. This was easy… too easy, I worried. I looked toward the door and glimpsed the shadow of an approaching car in the reflection cast by the window I couldn’t see. It had its lights off… which could either be blamed on equipment failure or the desire of the driver, like me, to not be noticed. Of the two possible reasons, I chose to believe in the latter.
With the presence of my companion almost forgotten, I looked back towards the Dr. Pepper machine. It was gone — not just the bird-thing — the whole damned machine was gone, as was a circular space in the floor that had, up until recently, supported the mechanized soda dispenser and its brief, otherworldly tenant. My curiosity to look after what had become of my friend and its perch gave way to the immediacy of the situation. I rolled across the floor and looked carefully out the now-visible window into the parking lot. My car was still there, but it was being investigated by a heavy-set man in a black suit: the driver of the vehicle that I had spied in the shadows. His black Cadillac still ran, and its driver-side door was open. Its interior lighting, I could see, glowed dimly red, and a foul, grey cloud drifted out from the open door. Oh. Nice. It was Satan, again. Well, not Satan, proper (he wasn’t really allowed out of Hell, being confined like a disobedient teenager to his room by The Big Guy since before the fall of man), but his avatar. Well, I’d been in this jam before, so I kind of knew what I was up against. I breathed a little easier, and stepped back towards the floor’s new hole, looking back and forth between the twin dangers of discovery and falling into my potential grave.
The hole was a yawning black chasm. I dropped a Tic Tac (mint, as I’d devoured all the orange ones) and expected to wait for its report far below, but it immediately bounced back and landed on my shoe. Curiouser and curiouser, I reflected, as Alice in her own Wonderland had once said. I knelt down and placed a tentative hand over the hole… bringing it back to reveal… PAINT! Fresh paint! What was this hoax? I stood up, continuing my surveillance of Satan (who was just now applying yellow chalk — more likely sulfur shavings — to my car’s tires), and then looked back down at the clear print my hand had made in the “hole.” Wiping the paint off on the carpet I held, I stepped over the painted circle and fell… down. Really far down. For years and years, it seemed, I tumbled and turned, forgetting where up was, kept company only by a constant, gnawing sense of nausea. I fell asleep. The dreams I had while I slumbered were of a life untouched by weirdness. When I awakened, I was still falling.
[Photo by Matt Corey]