New Horizons like a Crack on the Head
A Credencium story
Kaolin Imago Fire
Start at the beginning of the Credencium series
Music was thumping somewhere far away, and voices. Loud. Joshua opened his eyes, and looked around the small room, trying to remember how he'd gotten there. He was on a couch, some folding futon number, with a girl next to him, and his heart was racing. Was she talking to him? No, through him, to herself, tracing lines in the air.
He could feel the energy of—of what, of life? Of the universe and everything. He giggled, then tried to stifle the giggle. His stomach felt empty and full. Butterflies, a thousand butterflies flapping about, scrabbling tooth and claw to get out. His stomach hurt, but he couldn't help but picture the butterflies, purple and blue with bright yellow claws raking through him from the inside. He giggled again. Why didn't they drown in his blood or in his bile? But everything was liquid, even the air he breathed was liquid and he didn't drown. Joshua shivered.
The torchiere beside him buzzed uncomfortably loud, and voices drifted in from some other room, laughter and growling; harsh words, and wonderment; and the floor squeaked and he could feel all of the people around him, the entire apartment building, a pressure building in his head and in his chest. Like they were all pressing in on him, pressing through reality.
Could he still be on the bus? He was pretty sure he'd nodded off and he'd been on the Greyhound for days, had woken up from some pretty strange dreams. Being crammed into such a space with that spread of humanity and a toilet that didn't seem able to hold in half of it—but if he was on the bus, he must be dreaming. Was he a butterfly dreaming he was on the other side of the world? Or a human, dreaming he was on the other side of the states? Would his wings bring tremors, or would he shatter under the pressure?
The thought of butterflies brought his stomach viscerally back to the surface, and he tried to stand, fingers buzzing. He turned to the girl, her face swimming disquietingly, yet alluringly, before him; if this wasn't a dream, he should know her name. Or should he? He'd gone to sleep after taking the tab. Had she been there then? He remembered going to sleep, or thought it was likely he did. A tiny burp escaped him, bringing with it a bubble of vile uneasiness.
"Bathroom?" he whispered.
The girl's eyes focused on him, briefly, then wandered off again, hands waving through the air like she was playing a theremin, conducting an orchestra and a dance troupe all in one. She shrugged, forehead furrowed in concentration.
God, it was hard to think. He'd heard stories...what if he was stuck like this? Was that interesting enough for him? His father's voice intruded, berating him for thinking that he needed to make his life more difficult. "It's a curse," he mimicked and shocked himself with the vehemence of it. The girl looked at him again, and he hiccupped.
"Take a deep breath," she suggested. Her voice was rough, older than her skin, older than her eyes. He stared at her, trying to get his own eyes to focus, to keep her flesh from swimming with unreal contrasts. Maybe she was older and he just couldn't see. Wasn't that a metaphor for everything, though? Maybe. He couldn't think. Maybe he was getting hungry.
He pushed himself up from the couch, arms trembling. It felt low or he was high—well, he was high. He giggled again, then stumbled trying to move towards the door. Where was his stuff? Maybe he shouldn't leave the couch, if his stuff was there. How could he tell? And why was it so loud?
Joshua looked back at the couch, swaying with the effort of controlling himself. He could feel levels, and levels, and levels in levels: feedback loops, dynamical systems. Chaos. You couldn't control chaos, right? He started to ask about his bag, but saw the girl wasn't there anymore. Maybe she was chaos. He really wanted his bag. A sudden fear gripped him, twisting his guts further. What if he'd left his bag on the bus? Or anywhere, really, between then and now. How could he connect the places if he couldn't connect the times? If he didn't remember the intervening time, had it really happened?
Maybe he just needed the bigger picture. Maybe he just needed to step back—
Joshua fell down backwards over his bag, barely catching himself with one arm. His fall rang the room like a drum; he could feel the universe quieted, looking at him, just for a moment, and then it started up again: twenty drums to his one.
His arm shook with the effort to hold himself up, with numbness from the impact. He let himself back down to the ground, looking up at the ceiling. He'd fallen, and he had no clue if he'd be able to get up. First, he'd have to extricate himself from his bag. But he didn't want to do that; now that he'd found it, he didn't want to let go. It had his stuff, the last of his stuff. His safety net: clothes, money, identity. Joshua goggled at the enormity of the ideas each of those words conjured up.
"Stuff," he said. "Oh, my god, stuff. It's so," he paused, trying to find the right word. "Complicated. And we try to hide it all with words. No, not words. Assumptions. We create assumptions to deal with all this...stuff." Joshua cocked his head, trying to figure out whether he'd made any sense at all, trying to replay what he'd just said; then looked around, wondering if anyone else would join in on his discussion, his exploration.
He scrambled off of his bag, and fumbled with the knot at the top. He was cold, and there was an answer for cold inside his bag. Layers, protection. If only he could figure out how to get inside. The knot was like a lock, the fundamental idea of one. It kept things from escaping, kept him from escaping into it—not that he could fit inside. Or he thought he couldn't fit inside, anyway. He wondered how much the duffel would stretch.... His fingers trembled, refusing to put the right pressure on the right sections of rope to make untying happen. "God dammit," he shouted, "just one tiny knot?" Joshua felt on the verge of tears with his frustration.
There was commotion outside. "The dreamer needs a shoulder," he heard. Was it her, or someone else? Who was anybody, really? "Time to help him up before he hurts something."
Help was coming. Well, that was...that was okay. He could use help. It was a little embarrassing, but he was trying to find a new family, right? And families, real families, helped each other, right? Didn't just belittle each other, hurt each other. Didn't just ignore each other when someone needed help. Especially when the music wouldn't stop pounding on his head, on his heart.
He stared at the ceiling, trying to imagine how it was all held together. Paint, of course, and plaster. And what, particle board? Wasn't that pretty flimsy stuff to hold up a house? Houses were...heavy, heavier than he could imagine, and all the stuff inside of them had to be held up, held over, held.... And the music pounding against it, beat after beat after beat.
He really had to go to the bathroom. Okay, maybe he could get up without help. That would be fine, too. He could get into his bag later, start the process of warming up later. He didn't feel that cold, now, anyway, or he didn't think he did. Which was more important? He needed a different set of instructions. His leg was shaking in the effort to stave off wetting himself. Do we learn that, or does it come naturally? A belief or an assumption? Is that really the difference between the two?
A face filled his vision, sparking some recognition. This was a face he'd met earlier, he was sure of it. The face blossomed larger—rough sideburns, a funny, greased mustache, bulbous nose, eyes the size of saucers ready to swallow him in—then was replaced with an arm, a hand. "Hey, dreamer. You doing okay? Did you get too much?"
"I'm...I...don't know." He gradually managed enough control to move his arm up and around, to catch the hand in front of him. "Am I dreaming?"
The hand pulled him up, squeezing tighter when he started to let go prematurely. "Life's a dream, man; and any time you can ask that question, you're in the grip of promise. I heard you saying some magic words, earlier. Make any progress?"
Joshua settled back onto his own feet, and found himself still looking up at the face. "You're wicked tall, man. Were you that tall before?"
The guy chuckled. "Some progress, then."
"What do you mean?"
"Assumptions, beliefs, words...stuff. It's all there. All a construct, right? And most of it's useful, or we wouldn't use it, but we need to be able to be aware of it. You're starting to become aware of it. The dreamer is waking."
"Waking...umm. Right. I, er.... I don't remember a lot before waking here. Like, I, umm. I forgot your name."
"Cerb. You know, like Greek myth: Cerberus." He twisted to show Joshua the ink on his left shoulder, vaguely recognizable as a three-headed dog. "I have an affinity for dogs, but sometimes the voices get to be too much, you know? Pulling three different ways?'
"Wait, okay...." Joshua put up a hand. "Oh, man. I can almost remember this morning, this afternoon. I'm getting snippets. But, like, if I don't remember it, if it's not important, did it really happen, right? What's important?"
"Now. Now is important," replied Cerb. "You need to let go of the rest, so you can examine it as it comes back to you."
"Now.... Now. Alright, now I have to go to the bathroom. I'd forgotten and so I didn't. But now I do. But if I'd known.... This is confusing."
"Yeah, it's confusing. Hold onto that. Don't latch on to any easy answers, not yet. Come on, I'll take you to the bathroom."
Joshua felt Cerb's hand on his shoulder, had a glimmer of recognition...felt himself being guided through an odd maze of what might have once been an office overlooking some warehouse floor. The walls flowed like a cheaply-rendered video game, covered in repeating grime and lazy fog and smoke effects. He blinked a few times, trying to get back a sense of reality, but decided to just go with it. Who needed reality? Then he smelled the bathroom, and affirmed for himself that he wanted nothing to do with reality. It deserved its bum rap.
The bathroom door was open, and he could see three guys peeing into a metal trough that took up one entire wall. Fluorescent light flickered spastically, and he sympathized with it. A stall flushed, and a girl came out, still pulling up her pants as she exited the bathroom. He shook his head with wonder, and entered, cautiously, at the continued prompting of his bladder. There were strange symbols over the urinal—tribal art, only more like something H. R. Giger would dream up—and he lost himself in that as he drained his anxiety down the trough.
The patterns continued to play in his mind as he washed up, as best he could, running rusty tap-water over his hands and wiping them on his jeans. Outside, Cerb was thankfully still waiting for him.
"Any deep thoughts?" asked Cerb.
"They all got sucked away into the patterns," said Joshua. "They're still there, squirrely, running around...."
Cerb laughed. "We get some good artwork, here. Lot of creative folks. Lot of questioned assumptions, new beginnings. We also get some real crap, and some stuff that's argued both ways. Goes with the assumptions, beginnings, beliefs."
"Are you ready for your new beginning?"
"What, this isn't it? I can barely tell the ceiling from the floor, except one's a lot cleaner."
"Nah, come back to the safe room. You're in limbo, now, able to shift states more easily."
Joshua followed Cerb back, images from earlier flashing through his head; a dog barking, muzzled, its feet planted firmly on his chest. The sun had been bright, and warm, though he had no idea what time that must have been. Daytime. The street vendor had been hilarious, barking at the dog, waving his hands around. They'd known each other, the vendor and Cerb. Yelled at each other in an accustomed manner. Joshua had just been browsing, on his own, and the dog had picked him out. Cerb had told him that.... "I'm remembering."
"Alright, then, just a quick hit of this, lie back. Try to breathe." Cerb handed him a pipe with some dark, resinous substance that smelled like ashes; and a lighter.
He bent forward to take the hit, and started coughing almost as soon as the smoke hit his lungs. His mouth watered, his skin crawled, and the images from over the urinal filled his vision. Black, inky squid impressions slithered in his brain, leaving trails of sticky slime where his thoughts used to be. Yellow eyes gleamed, both beckoning and threatening. A thousand claws skittered over a thin, sharp, resonant chamber. Sloshing, sucking, screaming. He felt the ground hit him, enmesh him, soak into his skin, through his skin and into him. Cerb's voice broke in, echoing. "Can you do it?" It tore at him, and he screamed and wept.
Joshua shivered. It was daylight, again, just barely. The sky was turning grays and blues. His teeth were on edge, jaw clamped, and he was sore all over. His joints ached, and his bones ached where they connected with the ground.
He didn't feel very connected, though he smelled...grass, and dirt, and dew. Then he felt too connected, too cold, like the earth was sucking away his life. Except for the pain. It was sucking away his life, leaving just the pain.
He rolled over, looking up through the thin canopy of a single tree. Its roots ground at his back, and he growled, sitting up. He rubbed his back, and grabbed for his bag. It wasn't there.
He felt around, then stood up and looked more, fear starting to ice his chest. He shivered. "God dammit! I knew better, I knew better, I knew better." Why was California so cold? It wasn't supposed to be so cold, it was supposed to be summer all the time. But then, his New York jacket was in his god damned bag, where it was safe.
He felt for his wallet, but that was gone, too. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuckers!"
Well, he'd wanted a new life, right? They'd made it that much easier. Cold turkey, the old one was gone. He took a step, and staggered a bit, woozy. His hand went to a bump on his head, and he shuddered. Had they, really? Or had that just happened to him? He could have fallen, easily enough, whatever else had happened. "Fuck!"
At least he recognized where he was: People's Park. Telegraph was just past those buildings, and maybe he could find that vendor; and maybe he could track down Cerb. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding, maybe he'd just wandered off. And maybe pigs flew. He remembered the fear just before waking, the horrors dancing in the back of his skull. Something was definitely off about that crew.
Joshua did his best to collect himself, then staggered off to Telegraph. None of the vendors were setting up yet, and he didn't even know for sure that was a daily thing. He wasn't even sure what day of the week it was. But he remembered where the stall had been; he sat down against the wall, and waited for the sun to climb higher.
A soft hand fell on his shoulder, and he looked up. Visions of last night swam before him, tracers still active behind uncertainty. "Hey, Dreamer. You look like you could use a shoulder."
She looked like the girl he'd been sitting next to, but younger. Different. Maybe it was just the drugs, or the drug remnants, or maybe it was just how lonely he was.
"I'm Phoenix. You fell in with a rough crowd, last night. But maybe we can be friends."
"You were there, weren't you? You were with them."
"I was with them a long time ago, Dreamer. And anyone that escapes them, well—let's say we're family."
Story and image by Kaolin Imago Fire, Copyright 2011