Previous: Episode 10
I follow Cruz and his Grandmother up and down the aisles of their store in a complex pattern. I’m neither relieved nor concerned that they were waiting for me—it’s testament, I suppose, to the weight of being successful in my task for Bergdorf.
Along the way, I try twice to speak and the witch tells me to shut up both times, so I stay quiet while she leads our course. By the time we finally get in back to the work room, I feel like I’ve walked to the store from my house. I’m sweaty and my feet burn.
“You know what to do,” Cruz tells me, smiling.
I take the same cowhide seat as before and the crone takes the other. Cruz gathers ingredients from the shelves.
I apologize for destroying her heart.
“What did I tell you? I have more. Did it help?”
She knows it did. I nod anyway. Then I blurt out, “I might need another one.”
“Is he being cute or stupid?” she asks Cruz.
In the brazier, Cruz stands a black candle, seven days’ worth, and lights it. The flame crackles and spits.
Cruz’s grandmother tells me to take off the coat and my shirt. She tells me with a wink, “This is going to hurt.”
I look to Cruz and he nods his head. He sprinkles and pours materials around the candle. The more he adds to the brazier, the faster the candle melts, the black wax running like blood from an artery. The candle becomes just a wick and flame, and Cruz’s grandmother starts reciting in Spanish; the only word I recognize—muerte—she says often. She extends her left hand to me and I take it with my right. She grips my hand hard, puncturing the center of my palm with one of her rings, and squeezes blood from my hand like juice from a lemon. My blood bubbles in the pooling wax, ultimately engulfing the flame with the bruja’s final word.
“Here we go,” Cruz says. He and his grandmother cup their hands and gather the wax, then pour it over my shoulders, down my back and chest. It burns incredibly. I bite my tongue—bite it clean through. It wriggles down my throat into my stomach, dissolves and is absorbed into my bloodstream; it courses through my heart and into my brain, unlocking a door.
On the other side of that door are more doors. And gates, windows, folding panels and sliding panels, hatches and curtains. I cross the threshold of each one, hundreds of them, simultaneously. Looking back, they all remain opened behind me, but I cannot see what is there. I pass through one more entryway. This one closes tightly upon my exit—my own eyes.
“Drink this.” Cruz places an earthen cup in my bloodied hand.
I sniff it. Maybe tequila.
“Just drink it, pussy,” his grandmother says.
Inside the cup, writhing in the alcohol, is a worm, fat and pink. I slam it all back, choking on the worm, which is my tongue reattaching itself.
“Holy, holy shit,” I utter. Whatever was in the cup was not tequila.
After a few moments, all the pain reduces to a tingle, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Yet, the sensation feels as though every cell of my being is aware. Before she leaves the room, Cruz’s grandmother tells me, “You are one of my hearts now. Vital muscle, comprende? Take this shit seriously.”
Cruz turns a lamp on and takes my punctured hand. “Let me see.” The hole looks deeper than it could possibly be, yet it doesn’t open on the backside. It’s dark and dry, and itches incessantly. “That’s going to be there for a while.” I realize Cruz is reading my palm again.
The wax dries, hardens, flakes off into motes dispelling in the air. I put the mink back on.
“Okay, sexy man, you’re ready.” Cruz, as always, leads me to the alley door. “You want a pop for the road?”
“I got one,” I say, showing him the spirit bottle. The black thing inside swirls around and around, animated by my heightened sensitivity.
“Wow. You are ready.”
I hug him and say, “You’re my friend.”
“Whatever, dude,” he says. “Don’t start acting like you’re all interested in this.”
The lining of the fur coat feels good on my bare skin. I am cognizant of every shiny fiber of the pelt. The knowledge is staggering: this awareness of all. Striding down the alley, I’m infected with strength and confidence, fevered with knowing.
I take the crowded ley line bus to the downtown station. Milling with the other passengers, I’m just another derelict magus, another mad shaman on the westbound #15. I transfer to a nearly vacant bus that winds through a blighted neighborhood on the verge of redevelopment, terminating at the Commerce Center.
The area remains an anthill of mineralogists and rock people. They pay no attention to the man in the ill-fitting fur coat. Across the way, the hotel should loom like a grotesque bastion of malice; a black tower fortified with razor wire and iron spikes. But it’s the same sleazy place, unchanged from the day before.
That is, until I enter the hotel parking lot and the structure before me flickers between present and future, frames of the possible spliced into the blinks of here and now. The design is worse than imaginable: a warped mound of bone and hair and shattered glass that booms and screams. The asphalt at my feet is cracked in a web of fissures, issuing mottled fumes scented with roses and rotting meat. Scraps of new flesh flit in the air like embers. People—rather—naked humanoids with iridescent compound eyes transplanted on their faces limp in and out of the structure’s entryways, hauling pliant bones and ropes of nerves over their shoulders. A pale light above illuminates the sky, but it’s not the sun or any star; it’s the fungus, the pallid source, the Word. This is what Rayne’s Creation looks like—or at least Day One, in her book.
All my sensations are real, informing me that both the hotel and the mound exist in tandem. Cloaked by the ritual performed at the botánica, my passage to the lobby goes unnoticed. Inside, when my vision flickers to the mound, the hivemind zombies assemble the protean materials into scaffolding that the mound rises around. I don’t know where they’re gathering these materials from and I don’t have the time to find out. Also, I don’t care—if I complete the task, retrieve the amber and deliver it to Bergdorf, this horror will never be.
If only the vision of the nightmare scaffolding was steady, I could clamber straight up the greasy rods and poles with the ease of a swimmer ascending a dive line. The stairs, unfortunately, are jumbled in the vision, and climbing them is like forging a jungle gym with too many bars. It’s not easy getting through in a full-length mink coat, either. As I climb higher, the biological components of the scaffold solidify into a techno-organic ductwork walled by plasticized sheets of see-through skin. I presume the network converges above in the living computer at the new center of the universe.
Now, the hard part.
The top floor is more hive than hotel suites, but luckily, all the octagonal chambers are empty. Dupree is there, massive as ever, accompanied by a handful of the hivemind who attend Rayne. She stands naked in her birth-form, the lithe young woman I met barely a week ago. This should be easy, but sure enough, all the techno-organic hoses and tubes and machinery are Rayne. She is rigid except for the pulsing and twitching of the moist, pink and yellow pseudo-technology sprouting from her arms, legs and back. Her eyes are closed, but I can see them through her eyelids. And erupting from between her tiny breasts like a massive carbuncle is the blue amber.
I almost vomit, and the heaving is enough to hail Dupree. He points at me with two of his crooked, simian fingers, instructing the drones to attack.
Not exactly sexless, their anatomy is smooth and undefined like fashion dolls. One of the females gets to me first, grabbing my wrist. Her touch burns like melting plastic and I swing at her with my free arm. The concussion of my punch hurls her into a male counterpart and they both crumple like poisoned insects. Layers of my skin tear away in her hand. Another male attacks from the other side. I dodge, and bring my fist down on his back, smashing him through the fleshy floor.
Dupree folds his huge black arms, steps in closer to his master. The last two drones, females, wait for me to make a move.
I decide to go straight for Dupree. Even when more drones show up from below, the fight will be easier with him out of the way. I rush him full tilt, taking him completely off guard. I knock him on his back, but he is much tougher than the drones. He grabs me by the waist with his hand-like feet, tosses me into the women. All four of their sticky hands singe my mother’s coat—they struggle to strip it off me. I squat and roll free, flinging them aside, their plastic bodies covered in chunks of glossy black fur. By then, Dupree is back on his feet, leaping at me. I take a solid hit to the face that would have made my head explode like a melon had I not been imbued with Cruz family magic.
I’m able to avoid the next round of hits, darting from side to side. His second attempt to grapple me with his feet fails. I land a few punches, but although I may match Dupree in strength and stamina, he still eclipses me in size, and my jabs to his body are ineffective. I manage to scramble behind him and plunge my dad’s bayonet into his back. His flesh rips like cheap bedsheets, yet it has no effect. He swivels his bulk around, wrenching the knife from my grip.
I bellow some warrior’s sound out of pure frustration and tackle the djinn once more. This time, I squeeze my legs around his chest, holding tight, and relentlessly pound his porcelain doll’s head. I hope to make it shatter, or at least crack more. Instead, I knock Rayne’s teeth free.
The gargantuan thing collapses under me, hissing and buzzing with transformation. I’m not surprised at all when the doll head detaches from the gorilla suit, and out from the doll’s neck flies a huge black wasp. Dupree is free. He circles around my head, then zips over to his former master, alighting on Rayne’s shoulder. I follow. His glistening thorax, tipped by the twin barbs of his stinger, mischievously bobs at her skin.
“I’ve got this,” I tell him. “Thanks, anyway.” Dupree flies away, chewing a hole through one of the skin walls.
I start to monologue, telling Rayne how it’s over, but I stop mid-word because I sound so ridiculous. “Okay,” I say out loud to myself. I try to pry the amber from her chest without touching her breasts. It’s not easy—I apologize for brushing one of her nipples. Behind her see-though eyelids, her eyes dart around. I wish she would just give it to me. And at that thought, the amber sinks deeper into her chest. “No, no, no, no, no.”
Rayne looks directly at me. She would be smiling if she could. The floor ripples. The whole mound ripples. Her drones are coming. The entire colony, I think.
Taking the bayonet, I dig around the edge of the amber, prying her skin away in papery scraps. The effort only further embeds the gemstone.
All around me, the floor bubbles with drones emerging like larva from roadkill. I glimpse at the hole in my hand. Like a peephole in a door, I see light on the other side, sunlight. Placing my hand over the disappearing curve of the blue stone, a web of blood regurgitates from the hole in my palm, encasing the prehistoric object. I yank, hoping to pull the amber free. Instead, the overexcretion of my force topples me backwards, my head hitting the floor with a wet smack. I clamber to my feet before the drones can get their hands on me, but I’m not in the mound or the hotel anymore. The door I’ve been awaiting opens and I’m someplace else.
It’s not Hawaii, or Camp Shalom. It’s no place I immediately recognize: a valley of trees and grass—normal foliage, not tropical, but nowhere in Colorado. The dense humidity signifies that on one side of the valley walls lies a large body of water, something saline.
Rayne is not with me. If I call her, she won’t answer. Why would she? Even though she still possesses the amber, I have the upper hand.
As far as I can tell, there are no trails, game or otherwise. I move forward twenty or thirty yards, but there is no time to waste walking the valley end to end, so I shuffle my deck of cards and head to an old tree stump. Placing the cards in a random array on the stump, at the sixth card, I notice the sides of the others popping, almost percolating. After I’ve dealt a tenth card, I see ants with bright red mid-sections crawl from the stump. Taking the cards onto their backs, they arrange them into a crudely shaped arrow pointing forward and skewing right.
Looking in the general direction, up the hill and along the base, I see no shelter or hiding spot, nothing that stands out. I make a landmark of a tall coniferous tree, collect the cards, and stride through the grass, bayonet in hand. I can’t bring myself to actually thank the ants, and I feel a little shameful about it. The face of the hill is steeper than it looked from afar, but not sheer. It’s striated with bands of rose quartz peeking through the soil, twinkling with dazzling reflections of sunlight. The track of least challenge is opposite my intended direction, so I grudgingly sheath the knife and start climbing.
I’m expecting a plateau at the top, or a shallow descent to a smaller gorge. Instead, the ridge plummets far down to a broad water basin—something greater than a bay, a long shoreline extending north and west. My heightened energy is running low. Staggering, not too close to the edge, taking large mouthfuls of air, I mutter, “Where…”
“The Caspian Sea. Appropriate, right?” Rayne appears like a thought. She’s dressed in a billowy muslin shift.
I take one more deep breath and arm myself. “What are you talking about?” I say, annoyed by her tricks. I urge myself it only looks like the place she claims. “Why would I come here?”
“You thought you chose this place? Oh, Ape. We’re in the Alborz mountains, abode of Peshyotan, the one who brings about the final renovation. I am your host, Peshyotan.”
This isn’t right. I know it’s not, but she is so convincing. Whatever this power is she has over me, infatuation, adoration, basic lust, I can’t deny it. After everything, I am still the wrong person for this job.
“If you don’t believe me,” she says, offering her hand, “let’s go down into town and have some mint tea, meet the locals. What do you say? After that, I can wrap things up, and we can start enjoying the harvest of the last world. Together.”
Final Episode: September 2