Previous story: 400 years
The elevator in the apartment building rattled and stopped sometimes and with it, time. The inside covered with vibrating metal sheets and worn wooden moldings that reminded him of a basement in a house where a family had hung hollow and drained. The floor of the entrance and the steps in the stairs were carved from ancient stone that would always remain in some form. Here and there, fossils and traces of calcium deposits appeared as white blood vessels in a grayish skin. The smell of people changed over time. He hadn’t known the taste in ages. Not since The Order had embraced his part of the world and the grounds had been formed and the boundaries had been drawn and enclosed him in his cottages and homesteads, later apartments and tinny elevators.
In the winter he could remain standing at the staircase for so long that the strips of light in the ceiling went out, waiting for someone or something that never came, soon a fossil in grayish skin. The house always smelled of garbage and urine. On each floor the waste lids in brushed tin covering round holes in the walls. He listened to all the people in their apartments. Babies screaming of hunger, men groaning and masturbating obsessively, coffee boiled in puffing percolators, skin scratched and stuck under nails, water and excrements flushed through pipes, air squeezed out of wrinkled lungs and in the background of it all a dim wuthering, the soothing sound that mothers and fathers make to mimic a pumping bloodstream before expulsion. The sound of life and the living. Someone opened and closed a door. It slammed and echoed in the stone and through the fossils and he could scent who it was and smell blood in its veins and he respired deeply and hid in a built-in corner used for strollers between the elevator and the stairs, felt how it blackened before his eyes and how it stinged and squeezed as his teeth emerged from their lairs. He listened as someone hurried away and disappeared through the entrance and was long gone as the fluorescent strips were still just buzzing and struggling before slowly beginning to one by one lit up until the hall was white and dazzling and the smell of living blood had diluted and died. His teeth crept back and his mouth closed and the only thing left was the fossils and veins of lime and the steps up to the fifth floor where he kept himself. He was standing there now, in the dark corner below the stairs. She was already here, in his apartment. Waiting. Overseeing. Smelling of cigarettes, alcohol and something foul and bitter, barely breathing.
Something had happened out there. He used to circulate, just like the other guards. Took as many night shifts as he possible could, most of them in the hospital and the emergency room where he could steal blood bags. Days dissolve when you don’t sleep. Years too. It had taken him a while to remember, standing in the dark corner between the stairs and the elevator, still in his uniform. After midnight, an alarm had gone off in the emergency room. A red car had skidded through the snow that dusted and roared in the lampposts over a vast and white wasteland-like parking lot. It gathered in dunes just outside the entrance, stuck to the wall and covered the windows. He could scent it even before the three men had stormed out of the car, carrying a fourth, towards the doors that drowsy swept open, letting the winter in. Shortly after, another car filled with other men quarreling in a foreign language, a young woman screaming shrillingly, but he barely heard them. He watched as the nurses and doctors laid the wounded man on a stretcher, his shirt sky blue and soaked in blood. The man breathed shallowly, staring up at the ceiling with flickering, childish eyes. The heart that just a moment ago enraged and heavily had been pounding the chest to keep the limbs warm and the mind awake, begun to hastily fade on the stretcher in the entrance, even before the automatic doors had stopped buzzing and shut close. He had known it himself, long ago. How the heart heaves and the body solidifies and seals itself. The eyes tries to reach for answers, but all you perceive is flashing, dream-like images floating on the surface. How consciousness withdraws and ebbs away. Your body is no longer yours and everything becomes distant, faint echoes of footsteps over old floors in houses long ago forlorn and torn to pieces. He had once lingered in such a house, which would soon be demolished. Drained of everything living, just shadows and relics remaining, but the house spoke to him. It leaked and reeked, but it spoke to him through subtile calls. Squeaks, grins and moans.
“Hello! HELLO! Do something! Why are you just standing there! Do something!” A woman is screaming at him. He sees the stretcher with the man disappear over a sky blue plastic floor reflecting sharp fluorescent lights, surrounded by a crowd of nurses and doctors in white coats and pale green pants. Outside of him, a riot has blown up. Men wrestling on the floor, fighting, throwing each other among chairs while waiting patients flee further into the hospital, as if the place had been invaded. He walks towards the exit where two men have grabbed a third and pushed him against the wall while the woman screams like a blood thirsty primate. Someone grabs his neck from behind and he falls backward and disappears inward. He finds himself in the middle of a battle outside a city’s walls, on a field cloaked in thick fog. The morning is early and the artillery is roaring from a hill ahead, animals bray and tumble to the ground and he’s lying in a ditch, burried beneath two dead soldiers and he can barely breathe, not that he needs to. A horse stomps its hoofs right next to his head in the mud and the soil and disappears across the country road, into the smoke and fog. It smells of gunpowder, rust and dew. The air is filled with mad shrieks and hollow cannons that shudders the chest until the ears howls, howls. He tears himself from the pile of armoured soldiers and falls deeper into the trench and before he stands up and rips a rapier out of a stiff hand, he laps blood from the muddy ditch like a ravenous dog or a leech clinging to the calf of a colossal beast, sucking and swelling. He crawls up on the collapsed, narrow country road and tries to catch a mere glimpse of the sky, sprawling his fingers to disperse the smoke and fog. Still the obscure parts of the morning lingers while the dawn abides, yet, it is already too late. The fog and the smoke has already consumed them. Too late …
He wakes up to another reality. A room full of people pressed against the walls, starring mute, trying to hide in plane sight. The see him. He staggers toward the exit. The doors starts to buzz. Weary they open before him, and he disappears into the winter and is soon swallowed by the snow and the storm.
He stands in the hall of his apartment building. He had taken the company car and driven through the blizzard to the place where his former house had once stood, not to experience old memories but because he had forgotten that he no longer lived there and that the house was no longer standing there, and all his memories and years flowed together, like his mind was finally about to collapse. There was now a newly built house with rental apartments. On the ground floor a shop with thai spices and dry asian goods. In the storefront he could glimpse a golden plastic cat with a paw that greetingly swung back and forth. He had to sit in the car and look at the cat and think for a long time. Finally, he had figured out where he was staying now, went out and swept off the windshield and skidded out of there. He walks up the stairs to his apartment on the fifth floor where he knows she’s waiting. He looks at the fossils and the white veins in the stone beneath his feet and it occurs to him that this may be it, and he don’t mind much because he is tired of surviving and walking over floors and storing himself in houses and apartments and never being able to see himself in the mirrors. He struggles up the stairs, clings so tightly to the worn wooden railing that he almost gets stuck with each new grip. His eyes are swaying and flickering, and the lights on each floor burns and blinds him and pulsate against his eyelids as he shuts them, and he moves on, around and around and upward. He barely knows what happened last night or what happened at dawn hundreds of years ago and it makes him deeply nauseous and he wants to vomit but he is dry and empty.
The apartment door is not locked. The hall is dark and desolate, as is the small kitchen with the window overlooking the gloomy park behind the house that extends down to the outdoor pool where the families used to flock in summers, the smell of chlorine and urine, freshly cut grass and wet concrete. He laces off his boots. Flakes of dried blood release from the soles and fall and stick to the floor. He stops and looks at them, smudges them with the sock, hears her breath and flares from his own apartment, sees swirls of smoke rise against the cracked ceiling in the yellowish light from the street lamp that penetrates the living room window. He turns one shoe around and brings the sole to his nose and lips, shuts his eyes and weathers. Weak and distant, deep inside, there are some living bodies left. They float like glowing ashes from a crackling fire. He puts the shoes in place on the shelf and moves into the living room. She sits in his armchair in the far corner, her head hanging heavily towards her belly and genitals, her arms lying flaccid over the armrests.
“I haven’t been here before, because as long as I don’t have to, I won’t. And I haven’t had to come here,” she whispers absently without looking up. “How long have you stayed here?”
“I do not know. 20 years maybe. Maybe 30. I don’t know.”
“What are you doing? What have you done?”
“Nothing. Just stayed here. For 20 years. Maybe 30. Don’t know.”
“Tonight. What did you do tonight?”
“I do not know. I lost control. He came from behind and … I was on duty. It won’t happen again. 30 years maybe.”
He pauses and looks out at the street lamp where the snow flocks and flickers on the wallpaper and he closes himself and hears the entire house at the same time, hears blood rush through veins and arteries, hears the custodian say something, soundless and distant, hears how the wind howls and rattles the ceiling and the windowsills, hears the fat man with the sharp stench in the apartment right under his masturbating even more furiously than usual, hears an infant screaming and senses that the child has a fever for the blood is warmer than usual, expands and opens, blooms. Hear the neighbor’s animals bark. Listens to the music. A song frequently played from late in the evening until the sunrise hung low over the fall and the sick house woke and fell asleep at the same time. When he sat in his couch and closed his eyes and listened really carefully, he used to be able to hear the words in the song, whispered to him through the night. Again and again, from when he returned north after the eternal war and nothing but woods were here and no custodian was yet to constantly watch over him and break into and befoul his abode. “You know this breakdown is coming too late … You know this breakdown is coming too late …”, the voice whispered at the end of the song.
“I saw. Through them. They don’t know what they saw themselves, which is good for you. He will survive. Lucky you were in a hospital.”
She raises her head and stares at him with eyes that could see through the eyes of others, a nascent fog and fading around the hollow pupils. In this moment, they both hear everything and see everything and weigh the world and the void between them. He takes two small steps closer, turns away from her and faces the mirror to see. No one there.
“I won’t linger longer than needed,” she says, wiggling and straining, throwing her butt to the floor. It rolls across the room, slows down and stops at his feet, glows for one last breath, dies.
“Are you in a hurry somewhere?” he asks from a deeper being.
“Nothing. It was nothing.”
“No one has really understood what they have seen. No one is dead. You’ve been doing well for a long time. Continue. Stay on the right side of the border, on our ground and in your own reality. That’s all you need to do. Is it so damn hard? It’s best for both of us, believe me. I don’t want to come here again. I don’t want to send for someone.”
“I wake up in strange places … and I don’t know what’s going on …”
“I do not care. I’m not your therapist. Go and talk to someone if you need to. Say what you want. Say you’re a vampire. They still don’t listen. They may think it’s a metaphor for something, a manifestation of a subconscious archetype or … some trauma from your childhood. Or that you simply are an addict with delusions.”
Suddenly she stands right beside him and he doesn’t know how it happened and he’s struck by the stench of the battlefields and that town, a field of people impaled on spikes. Together they stare into the mirror. She is there, in the yellow light from the street lamp, staring back. The snow flickering in the room. Two of her. One in each reality, he thinks. None of him anywhere.
“It’s coming too late.”
“The breakdown. In the song. He whispers it in the song, towards the end.”
She can’t see him in the mirror but she feels him as he suddenly shuts his eyes. The lean space between them seals, as if he falls through the floor and tries to cling onto her presence and being and she sobers instantly and everything returns, haunts her. The fire in the cabin and mother humming, creatures stored in the snow, rancid horse meat and melted hair. The windmill and the beldam with the scarecrows and all the other faces and always back to the little boy hiding beneath the floorboards, tied and dragged out on the meadow behind the cottage. Always back to that first bonfire with the three bodies wrapped like cocoons in their own white sheets, burning spruce casting sparks towards the sky and eerie shadows far into the forest, and just as she’s about to step through the mirror and never again come out, she feels her feet and hands tingling. Feel the sultry smell of confinement that embraces and defines the apartment. She is back, right on the border between the realities.
“This is how I want you to be,” she says, pointing to the mirror as the drunkenness furiously returns. “Never be seen for what you truly are, or never be seen at all. Never be revealed. Never disturb the order of things that are. You don’t exist. See?”
She disappears into the hallway, uttering some vague last words about “The Order” and “my ground”, “deconstructors” and “archive” in her wake, difficult to distinguish as they blend in with the sounds of the house, and he can almost see the smell of cigarette butts and gin and soil and old, oily coffee sink like a shipwreck to the bottom of the sea that she leaves behind, but something is missing. He had met her before and noticed it, but never really figured out what it was. He can barely smell her blood. As if someone long ago had leeched her, then filled her with some other liquid. Something bitter and rank. Preservative. Some blood cells was still lingering far inside her, floating aimlessly in an endless and desolate net of pipelines in a machinery of night, but they smelled like the blood on his boots. Rust. Scabs. Clotted and dried. None of him anywhere.
“It’s coming too late,” he whispers to the house.
“It’s coming too late,” the house whispers back.