They lived under bridges, in tents and makeshift hovels made of black, plastic bags or discarded tarps with frayed edges. I passed them while driving to work, through rain drenched streets and endless stoplights. The tents changed color or arrangement. The hovels fell or blew away, exposing huddled figures covered in unkempt beards. Sometimes there was a woman or a child or a dog, but I ignored those times or else they’d cease being the nameless hordes of homeless.
Otherwise, they wandered into coffee shops with dirty hands outstretched. Their clothing stunk. Their breath stunk. They reeked of alcohol or body odor or some deep decaying scent that curdled my stomach. Most times, the barista or manager swept them out the door with stern words and sterner threats. Sometimes it was a patron, broad shouldered and confident, that escorted them out.
That was the days before space. That’s what they called it, “space,” because it carried them “beyond this world” – to a place floating far away from their crude villages and poverty and slow, hungry deaths. It was in the news, this addiction outbreak. Time and Newsweek and CNN covered it with lengthy exposés explaining the dangers of the new drug and how meth and crack and heroin were in decline.
The one thing they always missed, as they do in these articles, was the feeling when the homeless stumbled forward with cupped hands and bullshit stories on their lips. In the old days, with booze and the usual suspects, they actually looked you in the eye when they wove their tales of bad luck and worst circumstances. It was difficult to deny them if their words resembled coherence. Space changed that.
They say space-junkies never lasted long. It became easier to deny them when their eyes looked through you, to some place a million light years from here. It didn’t matter because you rarely saw the same one twice, as was their half-life. They burned like supernovas, only to be found dead under bridges or rolled into an alley or simply left to rot in some abandoned building. Tomorrow or maybe the next day, they’d be gone. These facts comforted me when dodging them with a latte in hand and hoping their stench didn’t leap upon your suit like some societal stain.
That was, until Sam walked into my usual coffee shop.
I recognized him. Through a beard resembling twisted Brillo Pads and hair like half-boiled spaghetti, it was him. His voice tipped me off. I remembered the days when he tucked a box of donuts under his arm, a smile creasing his smooth face, and that booming and joyous voice when he arrived on Fridays. “Got your fritters and jelly-centers and sugar-glazes right here. Come and get them before I munch them all.”
He would too, if left alone in the break room. Such was his expanding gut that made his suits look borrowed from some previous version of himself. Sam was never productive, instead he wandered the cubicle farm discussing the latest ballgame or asking about some picture hung in your cubicle. Sometimes he simply plopped down on the floor, cradled a chipped mug of coffee and ranted about this or that. Those rants signaled his “rare form,” a term I coined in one staff meeting where he talked uninterrupted for a solid hour before he burnt himself out and we all scuttled to the bathroom like a herd of crabs.
He was a good guy though, always the first to organize a luncheon to celebrate birthdays. He lived alone in some condo downtown, with vague forays into dating life that never lasted more than a week or two. During long bouts of singlehood, he invited me to a tavern downstairs where the staff knew his name and reserved him a stool by the mahogany bar. He introduced me as a friend and always bought the first round. My all-night benders with Sam ceased when I ventured into a serious relationship.
Time passed. The friendship lost momentum. Domesticity clawed its way into my skin and habits. Sam’s productivity stumbled and fell to nil, yet his lunch hours expanded until he returned reeking of cigarettes and booze. Often, he spent the afternoons dozing at his desk or ranting in a slurred and rambling tone. Soon enough, he had to go. The last I saw of him, he carried a cardboard box filled with odds and ends from his desk. There were more than a couple of bottles of hard alcohol peaking from the top. He had a problem, but I never thought he’d spiral to this.
There he stood in the coffee shop with his voice spreading across tables and countertops and recycle bins filled with paper cups and plastic lids. His tone shook me from the lethargy of routine. My head whipped towards the doorway. His wide shoulders filled the corridor. Space burned off his gut where a pair of greasy Levi’s was tied around his waist with a belt made of unraveling rope. A ragged suit jacket hung over him like shedding skin still waiting to slough off.
All this time, after alcohol and cigarettes metamorphosed to a harsher substance, his voice remained unchanged.
“Anybody got a few bucks? I only need two or three and I’ll leave you fine folks to your fancy mochas and lattes and cappuccinos.”
I turned away, embarrassed and petrified that Sam might recognize me. I wondered how time had sculpted me, a month after Megan left me and I still woke in the morning hoping to find her curled on the other side of the bed. Would Sam identify me? What clue would trigger his memory?
I didn’t find out. The manager ambled around the counter, untied his apron, and showed Sam the door. The cowbell hanging from the handle chimed their exit. I clutched my precious latte, tossed a couple bucks in the glass tip jar, and followed them out to the rainy morning.
Buildings soared over crowded sidewalks. I checked my cell and knew I’d be late. I texted the boss before weaving through men and women hustling somewhere important, all with stern faces and sterner clothing. Sam rocketed through the crowd. His disheveled hair floated up every few feet, catching my eye and sending me surging against the tide. I pushed and pulled and apologized and never broke my gaze from Sam’s head.
Memories flooded back of sharing a pint or two with him. He downed two to my one. He drank stouts while I drank lagers. His rants grew louder with each empty glass. He laughed and slapped his hand on the sticky bar. I chuckled behind an open hand, as if excusing myself from some social faux pas. This occurred before I met Megan. Once she moved in, I stopped meeting Sam.
He still invited me out every Friday, with sugar-glazed crumbs smeared on his lips. I declined and declined and declined. His sincerity never waned, even as our verbal dance became routine. After each denial, he smiled and rapped his knuckles on the edge of my cubicle. “No worries, Harry. I’d be the same if I had a lady like yours.”
Oh, how close our lives flew parallel. Maybe he needed a Megan and maybe I’d be Sam if I never met her. There were many roads left untaken, yet I followed like a lost puppy while he skimmed through the hordes and led me to the outskirts of the city where rusting train tracks crisscrossed the pavement and corroded machinery lay unused and forgotten.
We passed under the highway. I recognized the area and tents. Tires roared overhead. The rain stopped and the city felt calm. No deadlines. No emails. No inane conversations about sales. Nothing, but the heartbeat of the highway and a subtle wind kissing my skin. Sam walked a beeline towards the hovel village. I leaned against a support beam covered in swirling and overlapping graffiti – vaguely resembling an octopus. His voice faded in the distance as he greeted his people. Heads popped from tents. A dog barked. Sam disappeared and I turned around.
Megan stared at me from a pile of leaves. She wore a fuzzy turtleneck sweater and her hair pulled back in a blonde ponytail. This was before our last anniversary; the one where I contemplated buying her a ring and never did. She gave me this framed picture and I gave her a boxer puppy who we named “Armstrong.” When she moved out, she took him too.
I held my head in my hands. The office swirled around me in a galaxy of activity. Phones rang and emails popped up and deals were made and people mattered and the world moved on and I closed my eyes. A field of stars swam in the darkness. I pushed through until all that remained was black. The world disappeared. The noise ceased. The people vanished. I felt myself falling, spinning, rising beyond the office to somewhere beyond all this – beyond the labyrinth of high rises and donuts and stale coffee pots and staler conversations. I imagined Sam calling to me, waving his chapped hands and beckoning. I sighed and opened my eyes.
Two days later, he returned. His scent tumbled over the serpentine queue, where I was next in line. An old lady held an arm over her face. A young couple abandoned their table and launched towards the exit. The manager frowned and made threats. Sam shrugged and dove towards the tip jar. The manager’s arm yanked on Sam’s shoulder, whose cracked fingers touched the jar. The glass wobbled and wobbled and wobbled as if in a planetary spin before tipping, rolling, and crashing to the linoleum. A starburst of shards exploded around our feet.
The old lady leaped back with a clawed hand reaching towards an occupied table. She found air. Her body tipped and cantilevered in ever-increasing angles until she too tumbled to the floor. Her hands scraped against glass. There was blood. There was yelling. There was crying and curse words and confusion.
I grabbed Sam’s elbow and my latte. We walked from the coffee shop. Outside, the sky filled with gray clouds threatening more rain. People wore slickers and held umbrellas far over their heads. We pushed and swam through them. I forgot who led whom. Maybe it didn’t matter as we found ourselves under the overpass.
He said my name and smiled. I counted his missing teeth.
“Where are we?” I dropped his arm.
Tents fluttered in a breeze. A black circle marred the pavement, where a fire probably burned the night before.
“My side of town.” He led me deeper through cracked sidewalks. Thick trees leaned over the pavement like ancient monoliths. Heavy leaves pulled their branches down, down, down towards us as if reaching with a million hungry tentacles. Far above, in patches of sky still visible between foliage, a plane roared through the clouds. A line of exhaust traced an arching path.
Sam and I watched.
“What you think is beyond all that?” Sam shielded his eyes from the falling mist.
I looked at him. “Space.”
Sam smiled as if he caught me in some riddle or joke. “You want some?”
He didn’t wait for an answer before propelling inside a tent. I checked my cell and sighed.
Inside, a woman sat cross-legged. She wore a thin tank top stained with smudges and her thinning hair tied back in a bun. Her eyes contemplated my suit while a cigarette, in desperate need of an ashtray, dangled from her lips.
“I’m a friend of Sam’s,” I said.
Her head creaked between the two of us. Rain danced on the nylon above our heads. Wind rattled the walls. I pushed my collar up and shivered. Between us, a man slept on a bare mattress. His naked arm curled over his eyes as if blocking an incredible radiance. He wore nothing but a beard and a thick swath of body hair.
“Don’t mind Glenn. He’s traveling.” The woman brushed her hand through the air in the general direction of the slumbering man. “You buying?”
I contemplated the man and imagined myself in his position. Spit dribbled from his cracked lips as he mouthed unspoken words with too many consonants. This would be the trip, exposed and gone and mumbling incoherence.
Sam broke the silence. “You get the first round?”
I remembered how many rounds he bought me back in our drinking days. I was due. I touched my back pocket, expecting my wallet to be missing and gone and tucked in one of Sam’s pockets. It was there. I took it out and thumbed out some cash. The woman smiled, revealing brown and hazy teeth.
She turned away from us and rifled through a pile of clothing. Pockets were pulled inside out and shoes turned over and shaken. I watched the search and noticed a large tattoo spreading across her skeletal back. I assumed it to be some sort of octopus or squid, as tentacles snaked from the ends of her tank top, only to twirl and twist around her shoulders and upper arms.
“Two hits,” Sam said. He crawled across the tent and tossed an arm around my shoulder like no time was lost between the days in the bar and today. “Great to have you back Harry. You’ll love this shit.”
I turned towards the woman. She held blackish green tablets in her hand. I handed her the cash and she dropped the pills in my hand. I tucked them in an inside pocket and nodded towards Sam.
“You want to travel here,” he asked.
I shook my head. “My home.”
We found my vehicle still parked near my office. The attendant squinted his eyes in our direction, but a simple nod of my head sent him back to scrolling through his cell or holding back a yawn. Sam touched the upholstery of my vehicle with loving strokes.
I nodded and started the engine.
“You buy this before or after the lady?” he asked.
“After. A present to myself.” I steered from the parking lot and signaled towards the on-ramp. A cluster of tents scattered below the freeway. “She left me, you know.” I didn’t look at him; instead I accelerated and savored the hum of the car’s engine as if we were blasting off to faraway galaxies.
“I figured,” Sam said. “You remember Molly? I think that was her name. I took her to the office Christmas party? Anyway, she left me too. I mean, look at me. You’d leave this? But seriously, we all have our demons that deliver us to this point. You know what I’m saying?”
Sam’s voice wavered towards rare form, rounding towards the days in the tavern when a beer or two sent him spiraling into the black abyss of some meandering rant while I nodded my head and ordered another round.
We drove across a bridge. The ocean swirled below us in a void of violent tides. I imagined turning hard and letting the car cascade in a slow descent to our watery deaths. Maybe the crash would smack our heads against the seats and we’d be rendered unconscious before dying. Of course maybe we’d die while clawing at the windows and each other and fighting for the last gasps of air before we sank to the deep abyss below.
Sam continued. “The thing is, it isn’t drugs or alcohol or sex or money or gambling that is the problem. It’s our minds.” Sam tapped his temple with one crooked finger. “We keep chasing a way to shut this thing off. Bring us to a higher plane just so we can lock away the worries of the world or choke the murmurs of self-doubt or strangle the seeds of dissatisfaction. We run around all day chasing some fantasy that will never matter and when that’s over, we chase a way to silence the failure and here we sit on this cowhide and drive a million miles an hour towards the good side of town and the condos and the nice shops and the nice people in their nice places and sitting on their nice couches and watching their nice televisions and drinking their nice scotch and getting as screwed up as I am on a daily basis. You know what the difference between them and me? Nothing. Time. Money. A haircut. A suit like yours. All of it is temporary. All of this is temporary, even the pain. You know what isn’t?”
He paused here and I turned to him at a stoplight. A red glow filled his face, bleaching out his coloring and casting his eyes in an amber shadow.
“Memories. Those moments back in the bar when we drank and shot the shit and just were. We weren’t worried about sales or a girl or any of this. And here we are, man. And you want to know what? This space, it’s a way better trip than alcohol. No puking and no headaches. The first time, I’ll tell you, I was scared. I just about crapped myself as I swam through the black void. Galaxies and stars and worlds and years floated away. I saw some others, like me. Their eyes wide and as scared as mine. There was an old dude. I recognized him from those tents. He didn’t look scared. He held out his hands. He had a million hands and we took them all and he swam ahead, pulling us behind. We followed him through the darkness until something glowed on the far end. We squeezed his hands, all of them, and he squeezed back. That was the first time and since then, I’ve been fighting to find that light. I found it last time. I didn’t enter it, not yet, but I want to. You know? It’s warm there and maybe it’s the place we keep chasing with our money and booze and sex and all this bullshit.”
Sweat dotted his forehead. He wiped a dirty cuff across his face. I steered the car towards my building. Two valets sprinted to our doors. I pulled out a tablet of space. He offered his hand. I placed it there.
“When do we take it,” I asked.
He popped the pill and I did the same.
My condo lay in silence and shadow. I stopped opening the curtains because that was something Megan did. A pile of empty takeout boxes lay on the couch, spilling noodles across the upholstery.
Bits and pieces of Megan remained behind – a picture of us on the wall or refrigerator magnets acquired during our trips to Rio or London or the Grand Canyon. They all served as little slaps to my manhood, twisting a poisoned knife in my heart, and shattering my motivation for anything beyond trying to numb it all.
Sam plopped on the ground and leaned against a wall. I joined him there. We both wore our shoes inside, something that drove Megan crazy. He closed his eyes and I did the same.
Blackness. Complete blackness wraps around me. I stretch, expanding in all directions. My legs. My arms. My fingers. My toes. My cock. My mouth. My nose. My tongue. My head. All of it expands in this vast emptiness. The blackness takes me in. Holds me there. Takes all of me. Every part. The parts I hate and the parts I like.
I float. There is floating. There is silence. Not the silence that hurts your ears, but the silence I imagine in the womb. The blackness, it is all I know and all I need.
A hand touches me. Sam’s hand. Sam’s face. Sam. Drifting in and out of the blackness. He talks to me. “Follow me,” he says. I grab his hand. He pulls us through this blackness.
My eyes adjust. My breathing adjusts. My body adjusts. I adjust. There is depth to the blackness. Different levels of black. Different shades of black. A swirling shadow menagerie. When I stare at any one spot, it is static. Along my periphery, it writhes like a trillion tentacles snaking and squirming.
We swim through something. We are swimming through things. We are swimming through an endless amount of substance, all twisting together in some intricate and constantly evolving amalgamation. We are part of this conglomerate. It is part of us.
Tentacles push through the abyss. Push through themselves. They wrap around our legs and our arms and our faces and our feet and our hands and our cocks. They wrap around us and we keep swimming. It reminds me of fire. Random and archaic and chaotic. Licking at our skin. Yet their touch is cool. Gooseflesh paints our bare skin.
There is a light. Sam points to the light. I see the light. He pulls me closer. It is warm. Not hot. Warm. It calls my name. It calls his name. I want to go there, but I’m not ready. He is.
I release his hand. He looks back at me and nods. He pulls away, towards the warm light. I know there is something massive there. Beyond the light. Something unsaid. I know all these tentacles are part of this thing, its appendages. I know I can’t fathom its size. Yet I feel it calling for me.
Sam’s silhouette shrinks. The light consumes it. I lose him. I nod my goodbye and open my eyes.
When I returned from total darkness, the low lights of my condo felt like searing sunlight. I squinted towards Sam. Blood dribbled from his nose before disappearing in his thick beard. I touched his leg. He felt stiff. I touched his shoulder. His body fell to the floor in a heap. I touched his neck. He lacked a pulse.
I dragged him through my apartment. He lost one ragged shoe. I carried him to the elevator and out to the night. I dropped him in an alley where rivulets of rain soaked through his clothing. I held him there, with his body in my lap and his cold hand in mine. I imagined him swimming through the vast blackness and being embraced by whatever lay beyond the light. The unspeakable being we were all part of and waiting to rejoin. I heard his voice in my head, ranting about something or anything or nothing.
When I started shivering, I walked home. I didn’t call the police or an ambulance. It wouldn’t matter if I did or someone else.
I didn’t give my two weeks notice. Instead, I helped myself to the petty cash and walked down the street to a sporting goods store. I bought a tent and backpack and some water resistant clothing. I gave the clerk my suit and car keys. He gave me the cash in his wallet. I knew it would be enough for some space.
Megan needed more space. That was her reason for leaving me. Those were her words. “I need more space.” She touched my cheek and kissed me on the nose in the way she did to end all discussions. She closed the door behind her and on our relationship.
Maybe I’ll run into her, in one of those coffee shops with fancy mochas and lattes and cappuccinos. If I do, I know what I’ll say. “Megan, honey, I know what you mean. I need some more space, too. Can you give me a few bucks, just two or three to find it?”
Tom Wortman lives in Seattle with his wife and two dogs. Since that sounds incredibly mundane, he’d like to embellish by describing sweeping adventures of vicious robot-human hybrids battles, taming wolves, and spiritual awakenings involving the Cthulhu. The reality is Tom’s life revolves around wine tastings, sporadic latte addictions, writing rituals, and vague career goals, in no apparent order.
Tom’s short stories have been accepted for publication at Tales of the Zombie War, The Absent Willow, Arcane: Penny Dreadfuls for the 21st Century, Dark Eclipse, Dark Moon Digest, Horror Novel Review’s Halloween Anthology, and Play With Death Ebook. His stories, “Voices Carry,” “Ashland,” and “Cities of Dust and Steel,” were selected as winners for various contests at Dark Moon Digest andParsec Ink.