“You been through a lotta shit.”
—Aaron ‘Lucky’ Johnson
Sunday morning, 30 September 2007
GM: Lucky drives like a madman getting the car away from the parking garage. Wailing sirens draw steadily closer. Traffic seems to favor the escaping vehicle, and after some timely green lights that let Lucky blend in with other cars, it’s not long before they’re in a bad-looking part of town with ruined, graffiti-sprayed buildings and trash piling up on the streets. Lucky and the once-silent man find a crappy-looking car to break into. They swap its license plate and ditch the first stolen one. The cloth seats are torn and stained. Soon they’re on the I-10 and headed out of the city.
No one talks.
Emil: While the others seek a sufficiently shitty car, Emil slinks not far off to take a piss.
GM: The once-silent man grabs Emil’s arm when he tries to get away. Upon hearing he wants to take a piss, the man responds only, “Here.”
Emil: He looks to Lucky, and then back to the silent man. “I’m not going anywhere if you don’t want me to. Even if I wanted to, or had a single benefit of not following your lead, I’m far too weak to try. I’m grateful you came to save me tonight and I’m sorry for freaking out on you. But this is all a lot to handle right now. Is a wall to piss on and a moment to myself to catch my breath too much to ask?”
GM: “Piss where we see you,” says the once-silent man.
Lucky, working a coat hanger through the car’s window, grunts in apparent consent.
Emil: Emil nods in agreement and thanks the men before walking to a wall as far as acceptable but still completely within their view. The shiver he gets as he finishes off nearly knocks him over, his knees were so tightly locked. The foul-smelling puddle, concerningly decorated with cloudy rivulets of red, reflects a sickly looking-face. His features seem more angular, his skin strung taut against his bones in dehydration. He looks as jaundiced as a day’s old corpse, and the heavy bags under his tired eyes don’t help his case. It reminds him of those terrible faces under the car. Of Carter, struggling.
What are you?
Relinquishing his self-consciousness, he follows one of the exercises his old therapist prescribed but he never seemed to follow. He whispers to the reflection, who isn’t quite Emil and isn’t quite Carter.
“אני מדבר מרח רחוק. בדרך לעיר חנוך, עיר בבל. הפתעת אותי הלילה. אולי גם אתה מופתע. אבל מעכשיו עלינו לגלות, ולא להפתיע. ברוח זו עלי לומר לך שנפגשתי עם הנסיך הלילה, אם כי לא באופן אישי. הקמנו יחד את המגדל שלו, הוא שמח לראות אותי. הנוצרי הסתדר לפני שהגענו לשיא. אבל זו מתנה בתחפושת. אני מקווה לעלות את העלייה הסופית לצידך, ידיד. אני מאמין שהנסיך יראה בך כמו שהוא עושה בי. הגן על פול, תתוגמל בעולם הבא. אני מקווה לפגוש את הנסיך בקרוב שוב, אם יש לך משהו שאתה רוצה שהוא ישמע, תגיד לי עכשיו. אני אהיה איתך בקשר.”
(“I speak from afar. On the way to the city of Enoch, the city of Babel. You surprised me tonight. Maybe you’re surprised too. But from now on, we should discover, not surprise. In that spirit, I should tell you I met with the Prince tonight, though not in person. We rose up his tower together, he was happy to see me. The Christian got in the way before we had reached the peak. But that’s a gift in disguise. I hope to make the final ascent alongside you, friend. I believe the Prince will see as much in you as he does in me. Protect Paul, you will be rewarded in the world to come. I hope to meet the Prince again soon, if you have anything you’d like him to hear, tell me now. I’ll be in touch.”)
Emil blows the message accross the surface of the bloodstained urine, blows hard. He can’t stop the current flowing from his throat. Out! Out! The words swirl in and around the air, floating on the water, and its carrier claws into the sides of Emil’s throat, its feathers brushing against his teeth as it bursts out and sups the message, holding it in its beak. It flaps its wings and rises, far and away. To the ear of the other man who wasn’t quite reflected in the puddle.
He readjusts his polka dot hospital gown.
GM: Emil stares into the puddle of red-stained piss. It occurs even to the physically and mentally exhausted young man, who Lucky said had schizophrenia, that this is what he is doing.
Talking to his own piss.
Expecting a response.
He’s answered by a voice. A voice whose source he can’t see anywhere.
“We… can hel… you… show you… wha… you are…”
“Don’t… you… wonder why… how… you can… do these…”
“Come… back… I can… no… save… with… ou… ou…”
Emil is suddenly interrupted as the once-silent man grabs him by the front of his hospital gown and whips him around.
The word is sharp and direct as a knife to the gut. Emil sees the same look in his eyes as when he executed the pleading men.
Emil: Emil looks down, a mixture of shame and awe confusing his stance.
“My doctor. He says he could save my stepdad.” He waits a moment. “I’m sorry; he’s family. I’m sorry,” he apologizes dejectedly.
GM: The man’s other hand seizes Emil’s chin and jerks it up so their eyes meet.
“What’s your doctor.”
Emil: This is real. What Emil saw under that SUV was one hundred percent real. This man’s terrible grip forces it to be true. Mad men aren’t deluded loons, truly mad men shoot their tops off because they figured out something truthful, and most truths are ugly. What has he seen, Emil wonders, that he has become so un-apologetically mad?
He raises a terrifying question. If what he saw was real, what is his new friend? He races through the file cabinet in his head of assorted folk entities to find a match, throwing folders left and right. A thousand and one folders clutter the floor of his mind, but one sticks out.
Why was Carter so intent on discussing the first language with a patient he just met? He brought up Dee, to tell him about Angelical, to ask him about Enoch, about the tower. He looked mostly like man, so is partially made in the image of God. But on the other hand, he has fangs like the beasts of the earth. He encompasses the earth as a whole, an entity pertaining primarily to this world. He’s seen so much and works as a doctor. He watches and protects. Just like the Irin, the Watchers, the guardians of the Earth’s inhabitants. His doctor is,
“An angel. A guardian angel,” he says resolutely under his fingers.
GM: Pain explodes through Emil as the man’s fist smashes into his mouth, hard, knocking him off his feet. His ears dully ring as he tastes blood and a dislocated tooth.
The once-silent man stares down at him.
“Do anything that stupid again.”
“You won’t get a third chance.”
Emil: He nods weakly as he groans in pain, made to sit flat on his ass. His head’s next to the piss puddle. It smells awful.
GM: Lucky finishes breaking into the car. They swap its license plate and ditch the first stolen one. The cloth seats are torn and stained. Soon they’re on the I-10 and headed out of the city.
No one talks.
Emil: Not even Emil.
And his thoughts are consumed by ache, pain, he feels like he can barely move. He tongues the loose tooth and immediately regrets it, but his quiet groan goes unheard over the janky rumbling of the engine. He watches as the city he escaped to becomes the city he escaped from. No matter where he goes, his past follows. With it comes two things: knowledge and pain.
He used to think those were different things.
He knows better now.
Sunday morning, 30 September 2007
GM: The drive is underscored with the thick rumble of an asthmatic engine with a vice for smoking a pack a mile. Besides that, before they leave the city limits, everything is quiet. Houston is a shrinking light in the distance.
Emil: Once the horizon swallows it, Emil speaks over the rumbling. “Can I ask you a question, Lucky?”
GM: “Can ask f’ anything you like. Don’ mean you’ll get it,” Lucky answers over the steady thrum of interstate traffic.
Emil: “Is my mom safe, Lucky?”
GM: “Don’t know,” Lucky answers. “We came soon as we heard you were in Houston.”
Emil: “Oh.” He pauses. “How did you know I would be in danger from… them?”
GM: Lucky just grunts.
Emil: “Understood. Is there anything I need to know about them if they come after me again?”
GM: “They lie about fuckin’ everythin’.”
“Fire fucks them up. Don’ ever look in their eyes.”
Emil: “How long have you been doing this?”
He adds after a moment, “…dealing with them.”
GM: “Long ’nough,” Lucky answers flatly.
Emil: “There any of ’em in New Orleans? Do they care about coming after me there too?”
GM: “Might. Might not. Not gonna risk it. You’re goin’ back to California.”
Emil: “That’s where we’re going now? I’m not doing so well physically.”
GM: “No. We’re goin’ back to New Orleans. You’ll take a plane.”
Emil: “What about my stepdad?”
GM: “Too late for him. Sorry. Bes’ you can hope is they don’ connect the dots between him an’ you.”
He adds darkly,
“Hope an’ a couple bucks though will buy you a cold drink.”
“I would’ve give two shits about a kid that wasn’t mine,” says the once-silent man. “The fuck you care about a man who ain’t your dad?”
Emil: “It’s not that,” he says dejectedly.
Emil closes his eyes, resting against the torn cloth of his headrest. He doesn’t cry. He just mutters empty phrases to himself, failing to affect anything.
“First Earl, now Paul. How can I look her in the eyes and tell her… tell her that… tell her that her husband is gone? That it’s my fault?”
GM: “I’ll talk with her,” says Lucky.
“She still got you. Any other kids she an’ him mighta had. Plenty to live for.”
Emil: “And what if he comes back unharmed? If they got him under their grips and let him come back? Could I even trust him? I’m not sure which would be worse.”
GM: Lucky grunts.
Emil: “You’re right. I’m afraid my mom would trust him though. How couldn’t she? She’s strong, but if she’s told he’s gone and then he shows up one day, I couldn’t blame her. What would I do with him?”
GM: “Don’ put the cart before the horse.”
Emil: “I’m catastrophizing again, I need to stop that. There’re enough catastrophes to deal with already. More on the point, I want to be prepared. You were very careful on the phone. If there’s risk of them being wired in, I can secure my family’s communications. Lay low.”
GM: “Do what you’d do anyway. Jus’ don’ talk about this shit over the phone. Online. Whatever.”
Emil: “Right. OK. How deep does this thing go? I’m going to be looking for a job soon. Any companies I need to avoid? Signs of manipulation and influence?”
GM: “How the fuck would I know out in Cali?”
Emil: “I dunno, it was a stupid question.”
He rolls down the window but it only comes halfway down. The air is hot and sticky, but its fresh, and that’s miles better than inside. He breathes.
“I’m sorry for yelling at you in the restaurant. I should’ve listened. And after all this, I’m not sure I can ever repay you for what you’ve done for me and my family. I can offer more than gratitude though. I’m studying cybersecurity. If you’ve been keeping this business away from digital communication for fear of interception, I can build you private, secure communication channels. Disconnected from the greater internet. If it would help you, that is.”
GM: The ongoing rush-thrum of interstate traffic gets louder. Emil smells omnipresent car exhaust in the humid east Texas air.
It might still be an improvement.
“Oh yeah, how’s that?” Lucky asks.
Emil: “The internet, fundamentally, is just a giant network of computers communicating with each other by passing special messages alongside data files. A lot of private messaging services are secured by scrambling the data in transit and then unscrambling them upon arrival. That provides heaps of security. The current system was developed by and for the use of the US military. That’s good and all, but it leaves two gaping security holes. The computer sending the info and the computer receiving it. The data is unscrambled at both of those points, and because those computers are hooked into the greater internet, they are vulnerable. The key to fixing that is creating your own infrastructure, a private internet, parallel to the public one. Without a connection to the larger internet, the only security flaw would come if the hard drives that hold your messages, which can be encrypted so no one can read them, get physically stolen. Store them securely and you’re good.”
GM: “Huh,” says Lucky thoughtfully. “How’s someone do that, set up their own internet?”
Emil: “Someone would do it the same way the original internet was built. Get as many computers as you want access points, and link them together via the TCP/IP and tunneling protocols. The computers can come pretty cheap if you limit the behavior of them to simple messaging and small file sharing. You get them, place ‘em where you want, I’ll wire ‘em together so to speak. Course, you can’t completely separate from the public internet, we don’t have the money to wire that. But the tunneling should protect against any espionage attempted over it.”
GM: “How would you get into a private internet like that, if you were the one tryin’ to do it?” asks Lucky. “Besides usin’ one of the hooked-in computers.”
Emil: “Depends how complex the communication is. The more complex, the more likely a mistake was made in its construction, and so the more likely malware can seep through the gaps. We can make those gaps tight though, depending on how bad people would want to break in. If the system is tight, simple, and obfuscated using both encryption and cryptographic communication techniques, I wouldn’t bother targeting it directly.”
“Instead, I’d target the weakest link using the network. At that point it’s a matter of social manipulation. Break the person, break the link. Let their guard down, get too comfortable, they can be made to break it themselves. That sort of thing can be defended against of course. Communicate in coded language with constantly shifting codes. Only distribute the code to users of the system who pass authenticity tests. Naturally, that only becomes a problem if the knowledge of the system is leaked, at which point the network system would need to go on a hiatus and be shuffled before coming back online once the leak is… plugged.”
GM: “You know your shit, college boy,” says Lucky. His expression is thoughtful at first before the faintest trace of a grin starts to slip in.
It subsides after another moment though as he looks back out across the endless stream of highway traffic.
“Shit… your mama was right. Mosta us over at NOPD, we’re dinosaurs. Dinosaurs who wouldn’t know college if it punched us in the balls.”
“I fuckin’ barely know how to move a mouse. You got a lot… a lot more ahead of you, I bet. Bright things an’ shit. In some fifty-story office with your name on the door an’ degrees on the walls.”
Emil: “That’d really be something,” he responds without really meaning it.
He nestles his chin between his arms after folding them over the open window. “You know Lucky, not all dinosaurs went extinct. Yeah, most fell under the thick smoke, some of them were driven to the end of the earth but were stopped by the waters of the sea, but a couple of ’em figured out how to sprout wings, and when they reached the end of the world, they simply flew across the sea to find the start of a new one.”
GM: “Yeah, evolution an’ shit. Took ’em a pretty long while though. You got those wings already.”
Emil: “Well sure. I’ve got most of a four year degree tucked away in my head, and a childhood staring at a blinking cursor on a screen. Now, if we were actually dinosaurs, or birds for that matter, you’d have a point. But we’re humans. We’ve got planes and shit. You don’t gotta be a pilot to fly cross the ocean, just gotta walk through the right terminal and be on time. This metaphor is getting a little too far extended but what I’m saying is, if you’re in need of a pilot, you have one.”
GM: “Yeah, that’ll be nice,” says Lucky.
It sounds heartfelt enough.
But so does the unspoken ‘not for long.’
Sunday afternoon, 30 September 2007
GM: It’s a long drive back from Houston to the Big Easy. Emil nods off several times between his assorted wounds, physical and mental.
The man in the back seat wakes up. There’s a wild, burning look in his eyes as he babbles, “They hit me. My head. Hit my head. Those fucks. I’m gonna shoot ‘em. Take a gun and just—shoot ’em. Fill their guts, with lead. Or fire. Shoot them with fire. Dragonsbreath. That’s the stuff. Those fucks. I’m gonna shoot ’em-”
“Shut up!” snaps Lucky.
It’s not the first time he winds up saying that.
Once they’re back in New Orleans, they don’t go back to the hospital. They go to a crappy Mid-City apartment with stained, peeling walls and moth-eaten furniture that looks like it was picked off the side of the road. Lucky hooks up Emil to an IV drip, tosses him some fast food they picked up at an O’Tolley’s drive-thru, and tells him to watch some TV on the rabbit-eared, battered-looking set. He’s going to be here for a little while.
Lucky heads off with the babbling man, muttering about “getting your head fuckin’ checked,” and leaves Emil alone with the once-silent one.
He lights up a cigarette, leans back in his chair, and doesn’t talk.
Emil: Emil sits in silence for a while, shifting uncomfortably against the sandpaper quality cloth of the chair.
He looks into the black mirror of the protruding television screen, it warps his features and he finds he can’t quite make out his eyes in the stretched darkness.
It makes him uncomfortable, though not much more uncomfortable than the chair is already making him. So he turns to the only other interesting thing in the room. He tells the once silent-man, “I really am sorry about hitting you like that before. And not just because of where it’s landed me, I’ve been in the hospital for what seems like forever. One more day doesn’t add much. Lucky clearly trusts you, that should’ve been enough for me. From now on, it will be. I promise.”
GM: The man looks at him and grunts.
Then he suddenly turns and vomits over the floor. Gooey, half-digested bits of burger and fries spray everywhere.
“Fuckin’ cunt…” the man rasps, staggering towards the bathroom. Emil hears the lid hit the tank, then more retching.
Emil: Emil tears a sizable strip of moth-bitten chair fabric off the armrest and covers his mouth and nose with it. Breathing through it, he can smell and taste the years of built up dirt and mold that permeate the pocked surface. It’s better than vomit, but not by much.
“You need help there, man?” he asks, pushing himself out of the dilapidated wooden cradle and wheeling the IV pole alongside him towards the bathroom.
GM: All Emil hears is more increasingly dry-sounding heaves.
Emil: He limps towards the bathroom doorway, the thump of his better-working leg matching the pace of the heaving. His hand picks up an astounding amount of awfully colored residue from the peeling walls.
GM: There doesn’t seem to be much left in the man’s stomach. All he’s hacking up is spittle-admixed blood.
Emil: “Oh. Oh god. Lemme get you something to drink,” Emil says, testing the faucet and grabbing a stained cup from the counter.
GM: The man convulses, collapses face-first into the toilet, and stops moving.
Emil: Emil turns around with a slightly off-color cup of water, feeling satisfied that this will help. Then he exclaims, “Ah fuck,” before setting down the cup and then pulling the man’s head out of the water with the chair cloth and turning him as gently as he can manage onto his back on the floor.
GM: The man is incredibly heavy. Emil, already a figurative 98-pound weakling even before his injury, has to awkwardly strain, struggle, and heave from the floor before making do with lifting the man’s head onto the toilet rim. His face is streaked with vomit and toilet water.
Emil: Emil forces the man’s mouth open and if he notices a blockage, he shoves his hand in and tries to grab and loose it.
GM: He scoops out some remaining warm, wet bile. The man does not stir.
“Lucky, he vomited himself unconscious!” Emil yells. “He’s extremely heavy too! He’s not responding!”
Lucky already left. He’s yelling at air.
Emil curses and tries to control his breathing. Panic isn’t going to help the situation.
He cuts off the man’s shirt with a rusty pair of scissors and palpates his torso. Maybe there’s something in the man’s stomach that explains his extremely heavy weight.
GM: The already half-torn shirt doesn’t take much effort to cut off. Emil sees blood crusted over the deep stab points from the demonic woman’s claws, but does not feel any especially pronounced weight around the man’s stomach. His arms and legs are also heavy, though as might be expected, they are less so than his center mass.
Emil: After noticing the man’s chest rising and falling under his hands, Emil places his fingers over his neck to feel for circulation.
GM: He feels a pulse.
Emil: Airway. Breathing. Circulation. With the ABC confirmed, Emil tries to measure his responsiveness by grinding his knuckles against the man’s sternum.
GM: The man fails to respond. Emil well knows the standard medical advice to treat that event as an emergency.
He rummages through his pockets to try and find some identification or a phone. He might have to call for help.
GM: The man has a driver’s license that reads John O’Sullivan. There is no phone beyond the apartment’s landline.
Emil: He squints his eyes at the card.
Could you come up with a more fake-sounding name?
Emil limps to the phone and dials Lucky’s number. He taps his foot against the floor impatiently as the rings loop over and over.
GM: He’s rewarded with a voicemail’s automated tone.
Emil: He depresses the lever and, awfully hesitantly, dials in a different number.
He assumes Lucky intended this to be a safehouse of sorts. But if he really wanted security, he wouldn’t have installed a telephone in it. That doesn’t make him any less uneasy in calling in the Vet.
GM: There’s several rings before the ‘vet vet’ picks up.
“Dr. Blazcewicz speaking.”
Emil: “Hey Doc. This is Emil. I have an urgent request for you. I need a house call in the next few minutes.”
Bartosz’ lucrative side business is run using a series of keywords to mask the services he gives from eavesdroppers. He works on new ones every month or so, spending hours crafting what he considers absolutely ridiculous service requests for the supposed animal patient. He finds them invariably knee-slap worthy.
“I need a deep tissue massage for my sea urchin. Please come quick.”
In this case, a massage is a resuscitation, and a sea urchin is a stabbing victim with potential for poisoning.
GM: At least he doesn’t laugh at customers for saying so.
“Oh, I didn’t take you for an urchin kind of guy, Emil,” Dr. Blazcewicz remarks. “Where are you at?”
The vet waits while Emil looks around the shithole apartment and then finally hobbles outside to look for a posted address somewhere, all-too conscious of the ticking clock. Once Emil picks the phone back up, Dr. Blazcewicz says he’ll be right over.
“See you soon, if I’m getting that right,” he says in Hebrew as he hangs up.
John O’Sullivan continues to lie slumped against the bathtub.
Emil: Emil tsk-tsks at the poor man. That he’s still wearing half a nurse’s outfit doesn’t help the picture. There’s an uncomfortable breeze buffeting his backside from the draft underneath the door. He ties his hospital gown tighter before returning to the man’s side to ensure he doesn’t suddenly stop breathing without his notice.
GM: Emil sits down in the bathroom and waits. The man’s breathing remains stable, although his skin feels notably warm to the touch.
Some fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock against the apartment door.
Emil: Emil gets up to answer it and looks through the peephole of the door.
GM: Most people who see Dr. Bartosz Blazcewicz describe him as ‘well-preserved.’ He’s an older Polish-American man with a trim figure that’s probably not as buff as it used to be during his tour in Vietnam, but also lacking in paunch. Emil has heard the veterinarian joke (more than once) about how after his hairline started to recede, he opted to ‘euthanize’ it, “quickly and painlessly. Kinder that way. It’s what you do with animals, after all.” He’s dressed in casual clothing rather than the white veterinarian’s coat Emil has actually never seen him wear, but carrying a large supply bag.
“Knock knock,” the vet vet says as Emil’s shadow crosses the peephole.
Emil: Emil’s eye strains behind the peephole, and soon after the sound of a chain jingles across the door and Emil is holding it open, holding his anxiety in his overfirm grip on the handle.
“Come in. Quick.”
His eyes dart around the environment outside, trying to convince himself that there’s no one malicious hiding in the darkness. Once Bartosz is inside, Emil closes the door with a swiftness, and turns to him with an outstretched hand to shake.
GM: Bartosz looks Emil over for a moment, top to bottom, then slowly shakes his hand. The older man’s normally firm grip feels almost deliberately soft.
“So, you’re the sea urchin? Because I’d hate to see the other guy.”
Emil: “Uh, no. I am… a swordfish?” He scratches his head. “I was slashed, not stabbed is what I’m saying. But that’s old news. He’s on the bathroom floor, laying against the tub.”
GM: “Oh, boy.” Bartosz follows Emil to the bathroom and looks down at John O’Sullivan. He kneels down to feel for a pulse, starts asking Emil questions about the man’s symptoms, and starts getting things out of his bag.
Emil: He folds his arms awkwardly around each other, supporting himself against the doorway.
“He’s really heavy,” he adds as the man is being examined. “Is that um, is that something you’ve seen before.”
GM: Bartosz frowns in though as he inspects the man, but doesn’t immediately answer Emil’s question.
The claw punctures on John’s chest elicit an, “Ooh, nasty. You were right to call me. What animal gave him these?”
Emil: He stares at Bartosz, far past him. His head shakes.
GM: “Okay,” Bartosz simply says. A little while later, the vet vet gives Emil his diagnosis.
It’s is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Severe acute cases of the disease can cause unconsciousness, which usually precedes death.
Bartosz’s prognosis is that Emil should get this man to a hospital. The veterinarian can’t provide him the kind of surgery he might need, or even full diagnosis to tell if it’s necessary.
He also might not need surgery. He might only need to get some bed rest, get his fluid intake from an IV (no eating or drinking) and change his diet to cut out fat, drinking, and smoking.
“Hospitals can perform a procedure known as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. ERCP. They stick a tiny camera down your throat and stomach to know what part of the pancreas needs surgery. Different surgery might be required if it’s caused by gallstones, bile duct blockage, pseudocysts or infected tissue.”
Emil: “All right.” He thinks for a moment. “What about the stab wounds then? I had assumed that was the big issue. He was gifted them only a couple hours ago.”
GM: Bartosz looks at Emil.
“Those have had extensive time to heal. He shouldn’t be up and active, but he doesn’t need to see a hospital for them. Or even me to stitch him up.”
Emil: “They haven’t had that time though. Like I said. A couple hours at best. You ever seen something like that, Dr.?”
GM: “Yeah. I’ve seen tons of cuts and stab wounds like these.”
He then repeats,
“That all had extensive time to heal.”
Emil: He looks in his eyes for a moment.
“I saw a man and a woman lift an SUV today. It was crushing them, near flat on the ground. They threw it off with hate in their eyes. Red hate. You ever seen something like that Dr.?”
GM: “When James Stockdale was in the Hanoi Hilton, he slit his wrists so his captors couldn’t torture him into ratting on his friends. I saw some stuff I’ll never forget from guys in my unit. V-Cs, too.”
Bartosz squints at Emil.
“I’m going to chalk up that crazy talk to you looking as if you just checked out of the Hanoi. If you can go to a hospital with a real doctor, you should. If you can’t, I’ll sell you morphine.”
Emil: Emil’s eyes lose focus once more as they stare past the man, past sense. His head nods.
“I… I don’t think I can get him to a hospital. I can barely move his head. And I can’t bring the authorities into this. I don’t know. Could you take him there?” he says, half present.
GM: Bartosz gives Emil a rather flat look.
“I meant you should go to a real hospital. Given the uninterrupted crazy talk, like that, which is still coming out of your mouth. They have this handy dandy number you can call, I think it starts with a 9, where they send a van with several guys to pick you up.”
Emil: Emil snorts at the joke. Something about Bartosz’ demeanor never fails to tickle him.
“But I’m not crazy, I just sound crazy. There’s an important difference. I’ve been in and out of two separate hospitals this past week. One here, one in Houston. Isolation screws with my social cues, which, admittedly, need some work even on a normal day.”
GM: Bartosz just gives him another look.
“Do you want to buy some morphine or what?”
Emil: “How much do you have on you? Also, did you happen to bring an IV tube? Maybe some antibiotics? I was just given the one tube but until help comes, I’m thinking it would be a good idea to hook him up to a bag as well.”
GM: They haggle out the particulars. Bartosz has all those things in his bag.
How Emil is going to pay him, though, may be an issue.
Emil: While Emil doesn’t have access to much cash right now, barring any in the once-again silent man’s wallet, he offers Bartosz a deal. In exchange for the services he’s rendered, Emil can build Bartosz a website for his clinic and take advantage of search engine optimization to drive new customers to him. Given less than a quarter of businesses like his have a web presence at all, this will put him far ahead of the game in terms of reach.
GM: The man’s wallet is empty but for some spare change (less than a dollar), the last of his cash evidently having been spent on the O’Tolley’s they picked up.
He’s also stopped breathing.
Emil: “Fuck! He’s not breathing,” Emil exclaims from the bathroom as his stomach drops.
He begins to apply his best approximation of CPR, but finds his strength insufficient to apply enough force. He limps as fast as he’s ever limped over to the telephone. There’s no question about it, no second thoughts. A man’s life is about to be extinguished because of his actions. That can’t happen.
He dials 911.
GM: “Forget that, call 911!” Bartosz snaps as he pries Emil away and kneels down himself to compress the man’s chest. Emil talks to a dispatcher who calmly tells him an ambulance will be over as fast as possible.
“This guy’s a goner,” the vet vet finally says. “He’s-”
The pair are interrupted by a pounding against the door. It’s Lucky on the other side.
He barges in, looks around the bathroom, then says, “Get outta here. Both of you.”
Emil: “Yessir.” He doesn’t have to ask twice.
Emil unhooks the bag from the IV pole and says to Bartosz as he scoots his panicked self out the door, “We’ve gotta go. Can I hitch a ride in your car?”
GM: “No, dumbass, you stay here,” Lucky snaps, grabbing Emil’s shoulder and yanking him back in the door.
He looks at Bartosz, then says, “Get him out. Get him the fuck out!”
The bathroom door slams shut.
Emil: Emil sighs.
I really need to work on those social cues.
GM: The vet vet looks after Lucky. “Right. We’ll talk about you owe me later.”
“I’d hitch a ride with that ambulance when it shows, if I were you.”
He picks up his bag and heads out.
Emil: Let no good deed go unpunished.
“Lucky I didn’t know if you were coming. I called for an ambulance. He stopped breathing. I had to,” he says through the bathroom door.
GM: “Cancel it!” comes a muffled voice through the door.
Emil: I guess it can’t hurt if he’s dead already… fuck!
“Got it.” He goes back to the phone and redials 911 and asks the operator to cancel the ambulance, that there is no more need for emergency services. He apologizes for the disruption.
GM: The operator is disgruntled and asks Emil some uncomfortable follow-up questions before hanging up. Lucky eventually comes out of the bathroom, the man’s motionless corpse lying where he left it.
“Wasn’ your fault. I shoulda stuck aroun’.”
Emil: “I’m so sorry,” he whispers into the quiet that comes, looking down.
“I tried to get help. The doc said it was pancreatitis that did him in.” He shakes his head.
GM: “Yeah, I can believe that.” Lucky sighs. “Jus’… sit tight. Watch some TV an’ rest up.”
“You been through a lotta shit. Jus’ let your brain rot for a bit.”
Emil: “So have you, Lucky. Are you gonna be all right?” Emil asks with a look balanced between concern and uncertainty, like that of a son who for the first time notices his father’s mortality, his imperfection.
GM: Lucky looks at the bathroom, looks back, then gives a low sigh.
“Today was nothin’ new.”
Emil: “Who was he to you?” He asks, before amending himself, “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want, I just think it sometimes helps to talk about it. Takes away a bit of the loneliness.”
GM: “Let your brain rot a bit,” Lucky repeats.
He closes the bathroom door on the corpse, switches on the TV, and heads out the apartment front door before adding over his back,
“You don’ need to think about this shit. He was nobody.”
Tuesday night, 2 October 2007, PM
GM: The body is gone fairly soon. Lucky comes back the first day with a cart to lug it onto before hauling it out.
More days pass. Emil sleeps a lot. He’s very tired. He watches a lot of TV too. Lucky picks up periodic O’ Tolley’s food, but mercifully varies it with stuff picked up from other fast casual restaurants.
His mother doesn’t pick up during any of the times he calls. There’s just voicemail.
Emil: He gives up on the phone quickly. He thinks back to Carter, to speaking to a piss puddle and hearing a response. He tries a few times, but the gumption isn’t there. He doesn’t feel that rush, that hard to place wind that seemed to come from no where. One night, after watching the fifth of rerun of the same 1950s B-movie, an idea sparks.
He walks into the dimly lit bathroom, ignoring the vaguely body-shaped imprint in the soft floor-tile, and fills the tub halfway with cool water.
Emil flicks the lights off and stuffs a towel under the door to light from leaking under it before sitting on the floor in front of the tub.
The water drips lazily from the faucet at a slow, steady pace, and echoes around the room. He imagines the little ripples of the sound waves washing over the room. His heartbeat slows.
He takes his hand and hovers it over the water. He says a silent prayer and then submerges his hand, imagining reaching through the dark fluid to another place, to rest it on his mother’s shoulder.
“Please speak to me, Mom. Where are you? Are you safe?”
GM: Emil’s hand sinks through those dark waters as he prays. But it’s like reaching into an ocean. Dark. Vast.
And too deep.
His only answer is silence.
Emil: He panics. He goes in deeper. His head’s in the water, it’s freezing. He’s halfway in. He’s freezing. He’s numb. It feels better than accepting it. Everything is cold. Everything is quiet except the rippling of the surface of the dark waters.
He screams into the water but his words are stolen by bubbles which rise to the surface and pop terminally, uselessly. He cries into the water but a few tears can’t salinate a pool so deep.
His words don’t matter. His strength of mind doesn’t matter. Talking to angels doesn’t matter. He can’t fight death, it plagues him. It gets its fingers into everything he cares about. It takes away every single thing he values.
Except for himself. He pulls himself out right on the brink of breathing in the cruel waters. He shivers on the ground next to the tub. The IV pole is tilted against the toilet bowl. The bag slaps him in the face. He paws blindly for a towel to swathe himself in. He cries, frustrated.
He’s out in an hour. Sitting, damp, cold, on the peeling chair in front of the bunny-eared television set. It feels like winter for the evening. On the screen is white noise and snow.
GM: The analog snow falls and falls. That winter seems to envelop Emil’s wet, battered, sickly body, always so feeble and inadequate for his purposes. If he could but transcend his limited flesh…
The analog snow falls and falls.
Across the screen.
Across his eyes.
He falls in.
He sees himself. Older. Dressed in the crescent-badged uniform of an NOPD officer, like his father was.
“M-m? Mo-?” he calls out, his uneven voice warbling with static.
He enters a pit. Blackness surrounds him on all sides. He descends lower and lower, away from Babel. Whispers lick his ears with garbled, static tongues.
A woman’s voice. Strong and resonant, cutting through the static like a ship’s prow through stormy waves.
“The blood runs true, Emil. In your mother. In you.”
“In your daughter.”
Garbling static, cutting off the voice. Emil grabs for, flailing, tripping. He falls and floats through the darkness.
Something emerges, racing towards him like a shark’s fin through water. It is so very at home in this midnight sea.
Pinkish-red. Chubby like an infant’s, but ears that end in points, with tiny horns jutting from the top of its head. Solid, milk-white eyes bereft of pupils bore deliberately ahead towards Emil.
It smiles a too-adult smile, and then its hand reaches out.
Through the static-garbling TV screen.
Emil: TV static isn’t actually noise. In it hides an eternal image of the original creation, a self-portrait of the beginning of all things. From the cosmic static of the universe, one can see it all, everything from New Orleans to Houston to Los Angeles. All of it, little dots tucked into your television screen. But it’s the past you see, nothing complex ‘bout it. That’s why you can fit the whole thing under a pair of bunny ears. Nah. The real shit is hidden in the future. Whole world’s been gettin’ bigger, scientists been sayin,’ a trillion light years across ain’t gonna cut it, let alone a 12-inch TV set. Too much complexity. Too much information. An infinity of space so tightly filled up it can’t help but spill out into something beyond infinite, beyond comprehension. That’s what’s waitin’ in the future. And Emil wants all of it and more.
His face melts, eyes, nose, mouth all swirling about like a Picasso painting. He crawls on the ground, on his knees first but quickly dropping his hands down too. He feels the blood on his face, warm and sticky, it tastes sharply metallic. He drags his finger across the floor, saving the words, the sounds he heard, in bloody marks on the ground. He looks at the adult in the room for approval, and realizes he’s laughing. Loudly. He just pushes harder. Harder. Louder. Until it isn’t laughter but the sick screams like some demented baboon trapped in a shrinking cage. Explode-your-head screams of a rabid animal. Shrieks like the rabies-inflicted raccoon who murdered his dog in front of him when he was jus’ a kid. His mouth doesn’t look like it’s screaming, it’s still laughing in its movements, slow and steady pantomimed laughter like a video on loop, played backwards and jumping erratically over cracked film. His jaw jutting in and out, open and closed in a jittered shiver.
His hand slaps into a shake with the infant’s and holds tight while he hooks onto the bunny ears and yanks them off the top of the set.
GM: The hand seizes Emil’s with a vice-like grip that squeezes tears from his tears and an undulating scream from his mouth that he barely hears. Sight and sound dissolve into analog snow, all throughout the room now, not just the TV.
The hand pulls Emil towards the screen.
Then. Shapes, garbled with static, smashing into him. Fire roaring along his wrist. Agony as he’s never known. A final transmission before the blackness claims him, livid with rage:
“Y-U -U-KIN’ IDI-T!”
Tuesday night, 2 October 2007, PM
GM: Emil’s hand still burns when he wakes up on the couch.
The room’s phone and TV are gone. Lucky is livid. The police detective calls him “good for shit except gettin’ yourself an’ other people killed. Whas’ your body count now? Six?”
His hand looks different, too.
The palm is blistered over with grain-sized scars. Some dark. Some light.
In the pattern of television static.
Emil: Emil takes Lucky’s abuse. He doesn’t look him in the eye. His clothes are still soaked. He hedges against caressing his hand and instead rubs his wrist. He raises his hand like a witness about to testify.
“I shook hands with the devil. You saved my life. Again. I don’t think I can ever repay you. I’m sorry.”
GM: “You ain’t been, more like. You been makin’ my life harder at every fuckin’ turn. Puttin’ my neck on the line for your stunts. What are you gonna tell my kids when your next one leaves me the seventh body, huh?”
Emil: “Oh god. How could I be so fucking selfish?! Every. Single. Time. I’m a blister that keeps getting popped. Keeps getting refilled and festers. I need to cleanse this sickness from myself. I need to get my sickness out of this city.”
“My mom is gone. Gone gone. Stepdad too. Gone and out. Their families. Oh fuck. My kid! What the hell am I doing without my kid?”
GM: “You’re gettin’ outta New Orleans,” says Lucky.
“When you’re back in L.A., you’ll get your mama’s letter.”
Emil: He immediately nods and then stops. “What? What letter?”
GM: “‘Zactly what I said. You’ll get it in L.A.”
Emil: “How long have you had it?”
GM: “None too long.”
“I ain’t answerin’ shit more, if you’re ‘bout to ask. You’ll read the thing an’ decide what’s what back home.”
GM: Lucky grunts. “Get some rest.”