IT’S NOT A TUMOR
A day like any other day, complete with the pleasantly familiar sense of underachievement and a lack of direction. One would think that the simple confines of beginning, middle, and end would make any day successful if a person simply lived through it, but somehow that wasn’t true. Sebastian had a knack for making any day unsuccessful. Procrastination was his mantra, somewhat oxymoronic, but the irony made him feel complex.
He opened his eyes as he did every morning to stare at a ceiling covered in an entire calendar of adorable kittens tormented to the subtitles of horrifying truisms. His mother had tired of the unfinished cave that was his basement hideaway and threatened to paint the walls. He would have offered to lock her out so that she wouldn’t have to look at it, but that required a lock, and when his request for a mural of Dante’s Inferno was summarily dismissed, he was sure the kittens would be like sugar-laced kryptonite.
He frowned. Should have picked babies in vegetable costumes.
The first noise he heard was the loud staccato of a bombardment of shoes being thrown at his door by one of his sublimely identical sisters, irate that she had to wake him yet again, because not even his alarm clock liked communicating with him.
“Alright already, you sank my battleship! Just fucking quit!”
From the top of the basement stairs, he heard a whine, “Mom, Sebi said the F-word!”
Pushing his head back into his pillow, he tried to drown out the hustle of yet another wasted day. After all, it wasn’t as if he had anything monumental to achieve. He was just doing what was set out for him like every other person he knew, with the strategic exception that he was purposely not finishing it. He was a conscientious objector to the lie that was “life”. People were precious, unique, valuable, but God forbid they ever want special treatment at the DMV. Fate existed, but somehow a person could tap the illimitable energy of the universe and undo circumstance any time they wanted, and there were at least fifty infomercials to prove it.
I am Ron Popeil’s discarded invention. Rolling out of bed, he sighed.
“Sebi! Get up right now!” his mother shrieked from the kitchen, punctuating her outrage with the single crack of a stiletto.
He rolled his eyes.
His parents had, once upon a time, attacked the fissure between him and reality using the irrefutable duct tape of the parental handbook: claiming to have felt exactly the same as him at his age. They talked about finding identity, disillusionment, outrage, malaise, sexual frustration, but instead of convincing him things would change, effectively destroyed all confidence he might have had in their emotional stability.
To him, such inner turmoil was alien. What he experienced was repetition, a sense that at every turn he could see what was coming and really didn’t want to. History was not a cycle, it was a state of perpetual being and no one ever escaped being a hypocrite at least once. He didn’t believe in uniqueness, as in “nothing else like it,” and he didn’t believe in loneliness, as in “no one shares your misery.” In fact, he believed everyone was alike and trying desperately to hide it, that everyone shared his misery and was in denial, but what could he do? He was basic, he was ordinary, he was mundane. Sebastian, plain and tall, and under no obligation to solve anyone’s problems.
His computer made a welcome noise like a doorbell under water.
“Wtf dude…where u @?”
He looked at the chat-speak for a few seconds, pulling on a pair of dirty jeans. Shawn had asked him once, in characteristic scientific neutrality, why he didn’t just commit suicide, and the only thing he could say was “Don’t feel like it,” with a noncommittal shrug. Glancing at the stack of comic books his only friend had given him, he wondered if it would feel weird to die and knew there was a “pearly gates” joke in there somewhere, probably on him.
“Where R U, fuckmook?” he typed swiftly, then he grabbed his socks from the previous day and tugged them on, swearing he’d wash underwear as soon as he got home.
Shawn’s reply was a continuous stream of text, no doubt the perfect replica of his internal monologue. “Where the hell do u think I am? Got here early 2 work on that lame ass net project…would have done it at home, but my fucking brother was online chatting with his gf in San Fran…wish he’d go home….Man why the fuck do they assign us shit they know we can do in our sleep…I mean it’s like when our ‘rents tell us about gas prices and talk about the ‘good ole days,’ know what I mean?”
“Not really,” he mumbled, because the only reminiscing his parents did was to recall the time just before he learned to talk.
“Will u get here already retardicon?”
“Stop msging me while I’m getting ready, dumb ass.”
“I was doing some pricing on the 4th edition Shadowrun…” Shawn answered, as if he’d begun typing long before the previous remark had been sent.
“Screw fourth edition…it’s BS.”
“That’s when they substitute real swearwords for the ones they made up! I mean, what’s the point if we can’t say shit like “frack”? Nowhere else I know of where you can say “frack” and sound normal. I fracking love “frack”, god damn it! </sarcasm>”
“Stop dissing Battlestar Gallactica, or I’ll eat ur face. It’s the shiznit!”
“Hey Shawn…news flash…the Cylons win. If I wanted 2 c humanity spiral downward into inevitable destruction, I’d look out my window…I prefer to watch TV and feel good about myself, cuz otherwise, I never would!”
Shawn typed in an ascii sad face. “What u got 2 feel bad about?”
It was true; really there was nothing about him to self-loath. Most people shriveled up in their heads or medicated to get out of them, but that was because their heads were empty and boring like his would have been if not for Shawn. The boy had gone in, plastered up a few brightly colored posters, arranged some scattered bits of trivia, stockpiled several alphabetized boxes of Magic cards, and stacked the sarcasm and contempt for humanity that wouldn’t fit in his own head, what with all the action figures. Sebastian had to admit, he really wasn’t fit for anything else but storage space, so he couldn’t help but feel . . . useful?
“The fact that I watched that damn show.”
“Man… u suck,” Shawn replied with an accompanying angry modicon.
“I learned it from ur mom,” he typed back.
Sebastian just could not see fiction as a sign of things to come, or a model for how the world should or should not be. He saw it as one big joke that people could never quite get. Concealed in the paneled pages of comic books and tales of Elvin conquest were the tricks for escaping reality. For example, no one asked about how Batman got to the toilet or about the practicalities of a daily life in the universe of a mega-corporate post-apocalyptic dust-scape, they just accepted it and tried to pretend that someone else would save them from the bad things that didn’t really happen.
Finally, the rapid repeat of a fist on his basement door called him back to reality. “Yeah?” he yelled, exiting his messaging program and closing his laptop.
His mother opened the door, a piece of toast in her mouth, her usual crispness uncompromised and her mint green suit in pristine order. “You’re not wearing that, Sebi. You look like you just rolled out of bed.”
He turned away from her and grabbed his books out of the pile on his desk. “I did.”
“So why do you have to look like you did?”
“Because I’m honest?” he offered, tossing his things into his backpack, sitting atop his checkered Keds.
“Because you’re a slob,” she corrected. “You come home and sleep all afternoon, then you stay up all night, pull yourself out at a quarter past seven, and expect me to get you to school on time! How can you be so inconsiderate?” Her voice had gone high, and that was the typical red flag that he was about to receive The Comparison.
Somewhere along the way of child-rearing, when he’d missed three of the first five things on the checklist of a healthy adolescent, his parents had gone from wondering why he didn’t play with the others, to asking when he would finish his Manifesto. They tried to blame themselves, but it couldn’t be their fault, because they had two other children with perfect attendance, hobbies, and cheerful exuberance.
“It’s real easy, Mom,” Sebastian attempted while tying his shoes in a triple knot, “I just ignore you.”
He knew she was glaring at him, because he could feel the sting of her disapproval.
“Why can’t you be more like Bella and Ella? Why can’t you just . . . deal? I just want you to be happy and successful!”
He brushed her hands away from his hair and tried to tame it with his long fingers, tearing at the knots unsympathetically. “Look at it this way, Mom, when I don’t do anything, I am a success at being a loser!”
Her heart-shaped face somehow lost its attractive softness as she scowled. “I don’t know how you expect to get into college with what you are doing, young man!”
He pushed past her and snatched his jacket from the floor. “I’m not going to college, Mom, I already told you that. I hate school, why would I want to pay for it?”
She followed him up the stairs, lasting just long enough in his arctic apathy to tell him he could walk to school if he wanted to keep on ignoring her.
“It’s nine god damned blocks! I walk it every damn day!” he shouted, glaring at the sisters he could not tell apart, smiling spitefully from their breakfast bowls as he slammed the door.
Seriously, was his life like one giant cosmic joke? Was some alien staring at it on intergalactic reality TV somewhere, commiserating and eating a truckload of space-popcorn, while loudly espousing an overwhelming hatred for such programming to Blorthag their roommate who smoked too much? Shaking his head he slammed the electronically opened sliding door on the van, because it just didn’t seem like one door was enough.
The sky was finally overcast, and whatever gods ran it, he thanked them. If there was one thing he hated more than his perfect sisters with their shared reality, it was the sun. The sun was not warm or friendly; it was a giant ball of searing hydrogen, and a terraforming problem that should be addressed.
He was just considering cutting first and second period to take a detour downtown, when the minivan cruised up alongside and a window rolled down.
“Don’t you even think about cutting, Sebi, or you’ll do more than lunch detention!”
That she professed to know him was bad enough, but when she accidentally got him right, it was horrible, because then she basked in the entitlement that came from having guessed correctly. Annoyed, he crossed his arms.
"Mom, what the hell can you possibly do to me that means a damn thing?”
One of the carbon copies leaned forward and pushed her nosy face into the periphery. “Tell him he can’t go to Comicon with Shawn, Mom. That’ll piss him off!”
The car jolted as the brake was tapped in an apparent spasm of rage. “Elizabeth Anne, don’t you start talking like that! You heard her,” she growled, pitching her voice back at him, “no Comicon if you don’t knock it off!”
“Hey Ella, what rhymes with ‘snitch’?”
And then the car sped forward, he barely had enough time for the formality of flipping off her rearview mirror. Watching her drive away, he wanted to be angry, but whether it was the fumes or the fresh air, he found he just couldn’t blame her for not getting it.
They, whoever they were, said these were the best years, assuming of course that one had interesting things of which to take advantage. But how could anyone have a fulfilling life without some horrible period for comparison? If old age was the time to look back, and middle age was the time to make up for lost time, and childhood was the time of innocence, what was wrong with adolescence being the shit-time? Teenage-hood was a made up thing anyway, only invented in the last hundred years when the lifespan increased dramatically due to quality of life. Now the old-timers had to start coming up with places to put their descendants. Like high school.
If people like him were at the lower bound of the collective consciousness, so what?
He was nearly to school when his better judgment intervened. How could he possibly go to school on such a nice, grey day, in his grey life, with his dirty grey T-shirt? He walked through back streets, avoiding the ever-vigilant truancy patrol, to the only safe haven he and his wayward companions knew, the only establishment that housed refugees without any prejudice: Hallowed Grounds, the neo/goth/punk hybrid hangout, edgier than Starbucks and the only business in the small downtown area with a black accent wall.
It wasn’t like he came to the coffee cliché to sample Columbia’s finest, or read Emily Bronte. He came to get away until he could walk home and go to sleep again before third period even began. No cops, no parents, no teachers, not even studious Shawn, just muffins and a chick with pink hair and horn-rimmed glasses.
“Yo,” she waved, “Usual?”
He gave a crooked nod, “’Sup bee-atch?”
She shrugged a tattooed shoulder, “I fucking hate first shift, but whatever. We get all kinds of assholes who want their double-shot-lattes double-quick so they can get to their double-retarded destinations in half the time. It’s the most boring ‘cuz they don’t talk.”
“You get some of that magnetic poetry, and you’ll have loud, early morning parties up in here,” he remarked with a chuckle as she blended his frappaccino.
She popped her gum, “Christ no! I’m happy just tossing this shit at ‘em and givin’ ‘em the boot; I don’t want to have to read their crap on the magnet board and ask ‘what did they mean by “eat more melodies”?’ or ‘why is “to kiss a tome is worship,” poetic?’” Then she frowned, looking up at the exposed ductwork, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be at school? This is the ninth time this month. How you gonna graduate with cuts like that?”
He snorted. “Do you have a diploma?”
“I rest my case,” he stated, handing her his cash in return for his frothy sweetfest. He snatched a muffin and waited for his change.
“I dunno,” she said with another shrug, “I think everyone will go to school when it’s their time, I just happen to think of myself as immortal.”
He laughed. “Explains the skeleton earrings and cheerful embracing of everyone else’s mortality.”
She shook her multicolored head, “And yet I try to obey Dr. Phil and live for the moment to cherish my God-given potential, or what the fuck ever.”
“God is a capitalist. Your potential has dwindled in value, by the same simple fiscal rules that got you your job. We live in a service based economy, you know. Not everyone can be multi-millionaires with perfect grades. Who would serve coffee then, Stephen Hawking?”
Her eyes slid over him. “It would be hilarious listening to him count back change and repeat orders.”
He snorted, “You guys hiring, ‘cuz I could sure use an eternity of that shit.”
She let out a cadenced hiss and finished by clicking her tongue ring across her teeth. “I’m just gonna join a cult, get a bowl haircut, and hack up my genitals; so, you can have my job, kay?”
He laughed, “Tell the truth, you’ve already hacked up your genitals, haven’t you?”
She gave him back his money, shutting the drawer of her till with an ample hip, and it was more than she should have returned. One eye winked, jiggling an eyebrow stud. “Course! That’s foreplay these days. Muffin’s on the house, Seb.”
“Thanks, is the back room empty?”
“Yeah,” she pointed to the sofa room with her chin, “but you better not do anything lewd or lascivious.”
“I think you put way too much Bailey’s in that coffee this morning, Leah.”
“I did not!” she called after him. “It’s Vodka today!”
He was still cringing when he rounded the corner and entered the room. It was as empty as promised, filled with the pleasant welcoming buzz of heated microchips. He found an empty computer terminal and put in the employee code.
“Where the fuck r u, goddamnit!” Shawn demanded, managing to sound like an insanely paranoid Eric Cartmen even in text.
“Grounds,” he replied. He could just picture Shawn, his glasses sliding down over his nose as he gave voice to anxiety that only existed because he needed players for group RPG’s. “U gonna tell?”
He could see the reproach on Shawn’s face. “No!”
“Then what do u care, bitch? I’ll just drop out. I’m old enough!”
“Not 4 3 more weeks! I am so not covering 4 u even if u r my BFF!”
“BFF? What the hell?” he murmured and couldn’t help but chuckle. Only Shawn would try and abbreviate “best friends forever” with a straight face.
He signed off AIM and checked his email. It was empty, unless he needed Viagra, which he didn’t.
A sudden gust of cool air swirled around him and the temperature plummeted as if the entire room had been picked up and dropped into the north Atlantic. About to get up and check the windows, Sebastian turned off the monitor. A white face floated in the pool of black glass, leering at him from the sofa at his back.
“So it is,” came a pliable voice on the artificially circulated air, though the thin lips of the reflection did not move. The tenor was strange, almost ethereal. It was the kind of voice anime characters had when they spoke important truths. He turned slowly, every nerve ready to run, and discovered a young man in black.
He seemed to have a kind of self-ordained superiority worn like a coat, his appearance flawlessly managed, his posture erect, his lack of movement so calculated it forced Sebastian’s eyes to shift and look for strings that did not exist. Enthroned on a mottled stain-catcher of moss green chenille, his expression became a subtle twist of humor.
Sebastian’s skin began to crawl. His preplanned brush-off died on his lips, and his mind smoothed around the edges of words until it gave a hollow ring. In the tiniest of recesses, he searched for some description his emotions could support, but shadows seemed to conceal everything. There was nothing unique, nothing that stood out, and yet that divine anonymity undid every sentence he could assemble. It became painfully obvious then, that grasping for understandings and prior experience with someone like the stranger only made him more powerful.
The stranger smiled fully then, and something in Sebastian’s chest stopped working in a stab of responsiveness.
“Wh . . . what?” he stuttered.
The perfect face formed a perfect expression of engagement, marble liquefying and resolving itself. “Hello.”
“Uh . . . hi.”
“Is that all?”
Frowning, Sebastian tried to recognize the man, learn if there was more that should be said, but the stranger managed to evade even the steely grip of his memory. He was forced to be vulnerable, a deer in headlights, a tiny, shivering rabbit being chased by something with blurry, dark fur and a hulking, amorphous shape. He was prey and there was nothing he could do about it.
His mind fell back on its default position: sarcastic banter, “If you’re going to try and sell me God, I’ve already got one, and it ain’t nothin’ special.”
The earth shifted as the flawless mouth seemed to twitch. Sebastian gripped the edge of the chair, wondering if a sudden inner ear infection had developed and usurped his stability. There had to be an explanation.
The man sighed in an almost bored fashion, “I thought you might be immune. Forgive me, but things must be done a certain way.”
“What way is that?”
“Pleasantries I detest,” the man explained in disinterest, “but humans are all alike. The nature of the animal dictates the nature of approach.”
It was then that he heard the faint echoes of other black-clad coffee house refugees with their hands stapled eternally to their foreheads, and knew the man for an enemy. His heart slowed and suddenly he felt much better about reality.
Sebastian frowned. It was what he thought of humanity, after all, but it did not seem an accurate description when it included him. He raised his hand, “So not.”
The man gave a slow blink. “I apologize.”
“Yeah, well,” he turned away swiftly, while that still remained a possibility, for in those few seconds, he’d approached an event horizon and was nearly torn apart. “I’m not one of them. I’m the one who will eventually be put on TruTV for taking an axe to the face of the guy who invented pop culture.”
From behind him, a chuckle rattled across the room like discarded husks rubbing against each other. “Celebrities, perhaps?”
“Oh, no man, I’ve got that shit all figured out,” he mumbled, half to himself, acutely aware that the cold eyes were pressed against his skinny back. Why he was still talking, he couldn’t say, but the words came before he could stop them, an instinctual defense.
“Really? Then who is to blame?”
“Guttenberg, homie. He’s the one who made it easy to speak your mind and get it spread around, which would be great if only wise people could write. If I ever catch that asshole, I’ll rip out his liver and beat him to death with it.”
“I am not sure that would be effective.”
He flushed with embarrassment like Shawn did in front of Tracy Halbot. He had faced bullies his entire life. They, however, were nothing like the man behind him. This man could make anyone say anything, because he became every weakness a person might have.
How do I get away?
To his surprise, another chuckle came to his ears, “So you have a grudge against the printed word? I would not have thought to hear something like that from you. It seems my timing was impeccable.”
He shrugged, wondering if the man was looking for someone made impressionable by the kind of intellectual averaging that took place in a world where everyone had a say. “I don’t hate it on general principle, but he printed the first mass-produced Bible, and hey, I have to start somewhere. If God wanted that shit to get around, he’d have made us telepathic.”
Something happened then, his words had sharpened the stranger’s eyes. “Come here,” he demanded and gestured with the most graceful hand Sebastian had ever seen to the other side of the sofa, as if by stroking the air, he’d produce a current that forced the other occupant to his side.
Where the hand rested, his eyes lit. It was too long, too narrow, too . . . something else. The fingers were like bones and the skin, like rice paper. Blue veins crept around them, leaving lines like interstates on a road map.
Sebastian blinked, several times. Dizziness reasserted itself as a merciless serpentine cord began to twist up through his vertebrae. His eyes began to play tricks on him, telling him the room was flapping in the wind like a mirage. His breathing sped up, his thoughts seemed to scramble, and in a moment of dislocation he knew that even without the drug-like effects of that stare, he would have said yes eventually, even though the guy was obviously a child-molesting con artist with his creepy, villainous intimidation down to a pure art form. He felt a benign peace, almost like he didn’t mind, and that the fall from grace would be a welcomed one, even if it ended in duct tape and a living internment.
The image was a cold jolt to his system, an infiltrator that woke him to his senses and the dangers all around him.
“I’m way too smart for you buddy, you should try sitting at Miriam’s down by the grade school. Those kids are fucking mental.”
“You should not assume you know the reasons for everything,” the man replied without a single moment’s consideration, as if he’d been a fly on the wall in Sebastian’s muddled brain and knew the answer was coming. “I am here and you have yet to meet my challenge. We will see how things progress, Sebastian.”
Caught off guard, Sebastian stiffened. “How the fuck . . . what the hell does that mean? Who are you?”
There was a moment of pause, as the man considered him. He picked at the leather on the back of his chair, certain that he had to withstand. He couldn’t just let the man overshadow his cloudy peace with a blanket of a confrontational dilemma, especially if he didn’t let his own mother do that. But the words were little darts of agony, and the silver eyes only pushed them deeper. If something didn’t give soon, he would lose.
“I am . . . There was a time that you and I were . . .” trailed the soft voice. “You have always been so quick to react. Ask yourself why.”
The words were obviously some kind trap, so Sebastian deflected. “It’s real simple, you’re creepy. Would it kill you to wear a little color?”
“You chose the color, I simply wear it.”
“I chose to make you look like an undead mime?”
The man sneered. “Am I ugly?”
Frowning, he tried to say yes, but found that he could not.
“Then perhaps to you, there is some secret love for grotesquery. You are the one who cannot seem to look away.”
This was very quickly becoming a dangerous situation. “How do you know my name?”
He turned back to his useless monitor. The man’s reflection glared back at him, blurred yet somehow as clear as the real thing.
He’s blocking the exit.
The thin lip curled ever so nicely. “I know everything about you.”
“Who are you?” he hissed.
“It all comes down to how you see me, not what I actually am,” was the light reply, subtly rendered to resemble mild ennui. "You are bored here, aren’t you? Surely there is still something of value that has not been weakened by this horrible place."
Ignoring the urge to turn, Sebastian clenched the edge of the table like it was the edge of a spinning teacup that would quickly spiral out of control.
“Today began as any other day, with one exception. Here I am, a messenger from on high, sent to tell you something essential. Yet here you are, trying to get rid of me for the sake of your ridiculous quest. It is predictable, because now you are one of them, and they are predictable. But deep inside, you hope that I will stay even though you tell me to go. There is still something between us and it could turn into whatever you want.”
Sebastian did not say anything. In his mind he had been, without conscious effort, rummaging through useful plot devices, trying to predict what would come to pass, trying to figure out why this intrusion felt so right even as it chilled him.
“Do your kind dream in clichés too? Do you go about stealing images from human minds like leaches, creating imitations to make you feel a part of this reality? Pitiful.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I was right about all of it,” the man said with a disappointed shake of his head. “You will never see it, because you are blinded by it.”
Before he realized it, the man was walking toward him. He turned in time to catch the last few sure strides and the determined face as it scowled at him in threat. Having had several brawls at Hallowed Grounds, Sebastian was sure the man was about to punch him. He leaned back into his chair, trying to force the wheels back, but the stranger was much faster than he looked, and took hold of the arms before momentum could be gained.
Leaning over him, the man examined him with narrowed eyes. His face looked like a smooth Venetian Carnival mask, inhabited by the soul of an ancient Crusader or snake demon, trapped in limbo so long, that even detachment was difficult. The perfection was glaring, almost a flaw in and of itself. It hurt to look, unfocused Sebastian’s eyes, turned his stomach inside out. He felt the pull he’d tried to escape and failed to avoid it.
His mouth sagged open.
“To you, some scenario is playing itself out, and in your mind are a million possibilities to how it will end,” the stranger whispered, and it felt like tendrils of ice had parasitically attached themselves to his nerves, leaving him paralyzed. “You see, you have been conditioned for this, brainwashed, but that must be torture to someone with the potential to shrug off such conditioning and see the lies being told. I thought when I found you, you would have learned I was right, but,” suddenly his face hardened, and cruel, silver mercury poisoned the air between their eyes, “you are a waste of my time.”
Everyone said he was a waste of air, time, or some other natural resource, so why did it hurt? It was the identity he’d fashioned for himself, so why did it suddenly sound so disgusting? Mortified, Sebastian cowered. “Who are you?”
The man glared at him for a long moment and when he finally spoke, he could not have sounded more hateful. “Someone who has been waiting for a very, very long time. I find you now and you’ve slipped this far. I wanted to save you, but now I see that there is nothing left to save.”
And without another word, the man dematerialized like a reverse tesseract folding into a lesser dimension.
Several minutes later, Sebastian realized that he was sitting exactly as he had been, staring so hard at the doorway, that his eyes had tunnel vision. When he tried to shake it off, he nearly fell over, as his entire body suffered from adrenalin poisoning, and every miniscule movement felt like jumping off a cliff. His hands shook violently for perhaps the first time in his life and he was breathing very heavily. It seemed he’d been there for hours, as if years had gone by and he, like some modern Rip van Winkle was waking to find that dust had settled, but nothing else had changed. There were no traces of the man, however, and as he thought upon it, he could not remember having watched him walk away, though he must have, because people didn’t just evaporate and leave their companions staring at a door.
“What the hell?” he croaked.
The event played and replayed in his thoughts, and somehow he couldn’t halt the loop, couldn’t unhear the words said in that mechanically perfect voice. There was no such thing as monsters, but if someone had asked, it was the only word he could summon.
When he could walk, he fled the coffee house, ignoring Leah’s friendly question about the wolves chasing him. He just took off running, not knowing where he was going, any way as long as it wasn’t something predetermined. After a moment, he halted, suddenly understanding that what was chasing him was already inside and he could not escape.
An empty lot that progress had forgotten, the favorite shortcut to school for so many East-siders, home to abandoned refrigerators and couches was where he’d arrived. He collapsed onto one of them, shaking his head.
Closing his eyes, he tried to see anything but those eyes, and couldn’t. What was he feeling? Like his skin had been abraded off; like he’d been stripped of the titles of old in one single maneuver. The loss was nauseating.
Something had happened, something grave and inevitable though he’d tried to fight it. A thousand years of planning and patterns set into motion had terminated. There was pain behind those bizarre eyes, there was hundreds of years of misery, there was anticipation quashed in a wave of disillusionment. Sebastian had been something great, but he wasn’t anymore. Whatever that meant, he couldn’t say, but Sebastian knew those things more certainly than he did anything else.
He stared at his hands. They were pale, but not like that man’s. He was unequivocally human. He was not a monster. He was not a ghost. He was not false, not an illusion. He was not . . . what?
Hope broke free, but it was the worst feeling, because he did not understand why the thought had made him so happy, so safe. The death of pessimism was painful enough to inspire pessimism to return, and as he sat there, he felt the pleasant and familiar warmth of it fogging up his soul, beckoning to him like a warm bath.
Rising shakily to his feet, he trudged on, looking at them as he went. It was only after he felt the push of people all around him and heard the shrill of conversation in strained voices, that he realized he’d gone to school, and that he’d arrived between periods. Someone bumped into him from behind, hard enough to make him cough, but he remained still, a rock in the salmon spawn, shocked to hell he’d found his way there instead of to his comfortable, protected little cave of cliché kittens.
“Sebi? Dude, what’s wrong with you?” Shawn shouted. “I thought you weren’t coming! You alright?”
“I don’t know,” he said dimly.
Shawn pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and gave an assessing look. Though a tiny, fair-haired, nerd of a friend in a perpetual state of awkwardness, Shawn did, at times, demonstrate vast wisdom he was happy to hand out like Halloween candy.
“Were you in some kind of car accident? You look like my mom did that time she got whiplash.”
The fact that he had even thought to compare a minor fender-bender to the crippling experience he’d just had, pissed him off. Evidently, life was where one expected the expected and nothing more. He was disappointed in Shawn’s imagination for the first time and it must have shown.
“Ok . . . you get mugged?” The boy looked him up and down, noted the schoolbag, untouched, and lifted both eyebrows.
“There was this guy . . .” he found himself saying, but halted, partly because Shawn was looking at him with wide eyes that said, “I wonder if people can play Magic while having a psychotic break,” and partly because he did not think he could explain even if he tried. “Never mind,” he finished stupidly.
“You came to school because ‘there was this guy’?”
He shook his head. What had happened? What in those lost seconds had occurred, when the room had seemed to deform around them, creating another dimension where only the man and he existed? What had he felt? What had been said and why? Why had it felt like the beginning of an end?
He gripped at his chest just as Shawn grabbed his arm and steered him to the wall of lockers. “So a guy said something to you and you freaked, so you came here?” The boy nodded, “Good thinking, except that now that you’re here, you have to stay here, genius.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled, uncertain whether or not he could stand going home alone anyway. He reached for his forehead. His mind was blank.
Sebastian looked at the boy and for the life of him, could not recall his name. Searching for it, knowing he should know it, he found only the silver eyes. Suddenly he couldn’t remember who he was, or where he was, and it was the most peculiar impression. He retained all logic, all reasoning. He looked at the lockers and thought, “I am at school, therefore, I am a child.” He stared at the young man in front of him, saw the concern, and knew he must be a friend. Then suddenly, in a pulse of vertigo, everything was set to rights.
“Hey, Sebi! Answer me.”
It all came back, rushing in his ears like a giant Niagara Falls of solitude-inducing bullshit: the loud hallways, the teachers who pursued only expectations, the class work that would not teach character to anyone but the kids who already understood the concept. He was at his high school, the place where kids in his small town went to be safe, and he was with Shawn, the person with whom he had the most in common, his friend and coconspirator.
“Sebi, if you don’t answer me I am going to go get the pig,” he said of their campus security officer, a man also a part of the gang task force.
“Don’t call him that,” he answered dully, calming his stomach, “it makes you sound like you’re trying too hard. If a cop ever came to chat with you, you’d shit yourself.”
Obviously relieved, Shawn scowled, “I’ve talked to cops loads of times.”
“Was it every time you were hopelessly constipated, you coward?”
They moved through the hallways like wall-crawling insects that had learned to be cautious of predators, slipping between people who just waited to bump into them. The feeling of it all was oddly comforting. It brought back the rhythm of his assumed life. It brought back the normalcy of unattained perfection. He was an outcast and that was something he could do well.
“So, the guy?”
“Yeah, some nut job tried to get physical with me.”
Shawn ducked beneath the outstretched arm of a football player and tossed a catch-me-next-time-you-monkey glance over his shoulder, “No shit? Gee, that never happens.”
“He was . . .”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to wash your clothes?” asked an overzealous voice in the familiar brogue of a Californian mallrat. “Are you homeless? You wore the same thing yesterday! Fashion Victim,” she finished, twirling a blonde strand of artificially colored hair.
Usually indifferent, Sebastian began to feel his normally sluggish blood boiling. There they were, enacting their little life-plays, making him into the fool. He’d read news reports about studies on the number of teenagers with elevated amounts of stress hormones, existing in what amounted to a permanent state of post-traumatic stress, and suddenly it just clicked. He felt the blood in his veins, the chemicals in his blood, the electrons, everything churning and swirling, powering him with ticklish perfection, and all of it told him to incinerate her where she stood for presuming to speak to him.
He spun and faced the villain, a cheerleader and emblem of everything he loathed, because children could be so cruel when they knew they had no legal or biological culpability. In their hands, superiority of any kind was a weapon.
“I prefer the term, ‘fashion martyr,’ and I am sure you prefer to be called ‘heinous bitch’ instead of ‘superficial, cock-sucking, conspicuously consuming whore’? Too long isn’t it?” Then he turned and fled, dragging Shawn after him through the crowd of slobbering onlookers.
But something happened. He felt it like a burning sensation between his shoulder blades, like the bite of a radioactive spider that had suddenly depended to his collar. With a hiss, he folded, instinctively putting his hand over the pain. In that instant, something flew over his head and collided with Shawn’s backpack. It had the hard sound of metal as it landed on the tiled floor. Shawn gave an injured shout and Sebastian watched his sneakers rotate and kick something that gleamed.
It was a wrench marked, “Auto shop room 302”.
“What the hell?” Shawn screamed, in a voice that crossed the border between shock and terror. “You could have killed him!”
The pain in his neck was gone, but he stayed doubled over, uncertain if what he thought had happened, had indeed happened.
There was laughter and a chorus of jeers, and then he knew someone was coming up behind him, as if he were looking in a mirror and could see it plain as day. He recognized the face, knew he had once avoided it, but he didn’t want to anymore.
Like the tingle of life returning to dead nerves, he understood proximity and waited, accepting the new sense just like the Flash. When the figure got close enough, he stepped backward, hard. Then he brought his elbow up, even harder. Finally, he reached out, picked up the wrench, and turned. The body was doubled up on its knees coughing and sputtering. There was the back of the skull, within striking distance. The wrench was lifting in his hand as if buoyant. The boy would pay for ever daring to . . .
Shawn’s desperation caught him by the wrist. The wrench slipped from his grasp. The bully’s face looked up at him, and in those beady, usually smug eyes he saw fear.
Something rolled over in his hindbrain that felt like cold contentment. He felt his face twist, felt the satisfaction, felt the homicidal urge, for they were just walking dust and never knew it. The football player’s expression seemed to recoil from what he saw in Sebastian’s eyes; pleading flickered in the irises and made him feel that much more powerful for being merciful. The hallway had gone silent, the faces turned to him like those of horror-stricken rats, and he sucked up the panic like fuel.
His heart skipped a beat in that timeless rhythm and in the instant of giddiness, he thought he might break loose of his own body, but before he could gloat, the hall seemed to darken with a swell of shadow that looked unending. He wanted to throw out a hand and catch himself, but there was nothing to pass his fingers through and no point of reference in the abyss.
A glow began to form then, beside him. Barely visible, it was covered in soot, clutching something half-burned. He could smell the smoke rising off the little person, the scent of singed hair and cooking flesh nearly choking him. It was tiny, sexless, weeping, nothing but a child. He wanted to ask what had happened, if he was hallucinating, when it was right beside him in a moment of unreasonable speed, tugging at his hand.
In his horror, he knew this did not feel like a dream or a hallucination. It felt like a memory.
Its hand blackened in his, the last thing to disintegrate before his very eyes. A voice like a half-uttered chant in another room approached him, drowned out by Shawn’s insistent cry, but even with the intrusion of the real, the words echoed within him. He knew what had been said.
“The Angels came.”