The Epistle of Stephen
[The tape begins. Photographs of Keith Woodland slowly fade and dissolve in sequence across the screen.]
There was little wonder. In a way, we had worried for some time, but that was how it was with Keith. You worried about him while he’d be-bop through life, impervious and clueless to the faceless masses allied against him. He was funny like that. I don’t think that I ever knew anyone else who drew the gossip quite like he did, or anyone who was more oblivious to the words that were said in his absence. He was like a figment of your imagination. A rare bird so unworldly, it seemed to never exist in the first place.
Stephen stared at the man at his door.
“You mean I have to tell you that I’m choosing to die?” he said. His eyes were level with the man’s belt buckle.
“No, sir. Nobody is saying that you’re dying. But, if you are not going to obey the mandatory evacuation, you will have to register with the Coroner’s Office.”
This was not the first time the man had delivered this speech. Stephen could tell. His eyes held nothing but the condescension of professionalism.
“That’s what I’m here for. Going door to door, checking in on folks.” He sighed and tapped his clipboard. “Some people have to know these things whether they’re pleasant to think about or not.”
Stephen stared into nothing for a moment, his eyes glazed.
“So, you’re staying or what, sir?” The man put his hand on his hip, while the other shifted the clipboard tightly against his ribs.
Stephen woke at the sir. There was something about his eyes being at the height of a grown man’s waist that he simply couldn’t get used to. He looked up at the clipboard.
“Yeah, I’ve no place else to be, really.”
“There are the shelters.”
“I’m not sitting in a shelter with everybody’s kids crying and the goddamned lot tired, pissed off, and on edge.” Stephen pictured himself trying to get in and out of his chair to sleep in front of people. He shuddered. “I’d just as soon have my house fall on me.”
“You know that’s a definite possibility.”
Stephen laughed. The man looked down at the ground near his shoes.
“Well, that would be a favor of sorts,” Stephen said, patting his wheelchair.
The man flipped his clipboard around and ran licked fingers through the pages.
“This is what I need from you, then”.
The Gospel of Jacqueline
[The camera frame is filled with a young girl in sunglasses at a café table. She is smoking a cigarette covertly, tapping ash as she speaks into the remnants of her lunch. She hides this act absently with a paper napkin.]
When Keith was young, he thought that he had already died several times. Kind of like a cat’s lives, he just kept coming back until, you know, one day, and then they would run out and he’d be gone. He’d tell us stories of having lived out on the barrier islands and eating seafood for dinner every night over a fire on the beach. We thought he’d been spending too much time at the museum in Ocean Springs, but there’s really no telling.
In one story, he was a strung-out cabaret girl turning tricks. “The trick is always the magic part,” he’d say. No one wants reality, according to Keith. He also claimed to be the very first lizard on land, nervous and unsure if he really could breathe air or not. Then there was another where he was a sheriff, or a deputy or something, and he gets shot in the back using the toilet. A urinal. He refused to use urinals because of this, and would only go to pee in the stalls of the restroom, where he could lock the door. I’ve forgotten a lot. There were so many of them.
We used to laugh about it, Keith and his lives. When he would hurt himself, I don’t know, nearly get hit by a car, we would joke, “There went number three!” Something like that. Just like a cat.
We never really took Keith seriously when he would talk about having lived before. I think a couple of people suggested that he be put on stronger medicine. For his own good, of course.
The boy was standing before the front of the house in the middle of the sidewalk. He stared straight at the house, his head cocked to one side.
Maybe he had never seen a fat girl before.
A dark brown bowl haircut framed the sharp features beneath it, hard lines for a boy his age. The boy looked like he was younger than her, not by much, but she had never seen him before, not at school, not in the neighborhood. Maybe he’d really never seen a fat girl before.
She sat beside her mother on the wooden swing, moving her feet and the swing just enough so as not to hit her mother’s wine glass on the cement porch. She looked down at her mother dozing with a half-open mouth. The breeze beat its way from the backyard by the clothesline through the space between the neighbor’s house, where the live oak covered the ground with leaves and grass never grew. The boy stood staring, and Jacqueline didn’t know what to do. Small oak leaves tumbled in spirals.
“What are you looking at?
A car drove by on the street behind him, and he never moved, not a single muscle, as the wind from the car blew his hair about his head.
“Do you need help, or what?”
The boy shrugged, his neck straightening. He scratched the back of his head with his left hand. “What’s with the old lady?”
“She’s sleeping,” she looked at her mother beside her, “and she’s not old, either.”
“Just older than me. That’s old,” he shrugged again, “and some little kids are younger than me and to them, I’m old.”
Jacqueline shook her head. She wondered exactly from where the boy had come, and looked down the street.
“She shouldn’t fall asleep on the porch,” he said.
“And why not?”
“Bugs,” he said with a shudder. “Bugs will eat you alive, if you let them.”
She rolled her eyes. Her hands folded around the bulge of stomach hanging over the waistband of her shorts.
He looked across the yard.
“Then there’s the raccoons. They’re like a gang. But they won’t mess with you, just the garbage cans.”
She was a little nervous, but he wasn’t laughing or pointing. Plus, he was by himself.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
His eyebrows fell and his head cocked to the side again.
“I’m from right here.”
“You mean the sidewalk in front of my house?”
“No, right here.” He motioned in circles with his arms.
“Never mind,” she said, smiling.
“I live with my Nanny. She’s old, too, but with white hair and little legs that shake when she walks sometimes.”
“What’s your name?”
The boy’s face moved into a smile that made the peach fuzz on the back of her neck tickle. His eyes burned straight ahead and didn’t waver. She couldn’t see anything but his face as his eyes became hollow and black and drifted off into a distance that was not here, but somewhere beyond. She twitched looking into them. It took less than a second.
“My name’s Keith,” he said.
He waved with one hand. She breathed deep and tried a furtive smile in his direction, afraid of the eyes and the teeth.
“Is that wine in that glass?” he asked, looking towards her feet.
“My Mom’s, yeah,” she said.
“You know they give people wine at the church down the street?” He turned his head again. His voice held his astonishment on a silver platter. “I went into there one morning and they were all sitting and standing, over and over, then they give everybody wine if they walk up to the front.”
“They call that Communion,” she said.
“Right. It was over there at the big church.” He pointed east toward Point Cadet. “They talk funny there, too. I didn’t understand a word.”
He shook his head from side to side.
“That’s cause it’s a Catholic church.”
“A Catholic church,” she said.
“Uh, ok. I don’t know what that means.”
Jacqueline thought for a moment and realized she had no idea how to explain what it meant, either.
“It just means they’re not a Baptist or a Lutheran church.”
“Whatever,” he said, looking at another car driving down the street. “Do you go to school?”
“Yeah, of course I do. Don’t you?”
“Not yet. I just came back from staying with my other aunt. They can’t decide which school I should go to, the one here, or over the bridge, there.” He kicked his foot against the sidewalk when he shook his head toward the bridge. “Is the school nice?”
She thought hard on this one.
“I guess,” she said. “I think they’re all alike, in a way.”
“I want to go to school,” he said. “Even if they are all alike. Maybe I’ll go to yours and we can be friends.”
He smiled again, and she grew tense. His face wasn’t mean. It was something else, something different.
It was the eyes. Jacqueline felt left out of some secret that only he knew, a secret only ever mentioned in the silence behind eyes that sat above rows of teeth. A wolf, or a shark swimming past on TV. A never-ending space wearing Velcro strap shoes, soulless, but deep. From a time before there was such a thing as a soul.
She smiled back.
“That would be nice,” she said.
“I don’t really have friends,” he said, without any more emotion than he would have stated his phone number.
They kept looking at one another.
“Ok. I’m going to go back to my Nanny’s before she gets to yelling too loud.”
“I don’t hear anything,” she said.
He shook his head. “Oh yeah, she’s on the porch in her nightgown hollering for me. She brought her cane with her today,” he said. “I better go.”
“Well, bye then,” she said.
“Bye,” he said, and ran off down the sidewalk and across the yards of several houses.
Jacqueline wondered how he could have seen his Nanny from that far away. She’d never heard a sound.
The Epistle of Stephen, Chapter II
[There is a shuffling of items around the microphone, the striking of a lighter. Photos of the neighborhood at sunset mix with shots of the water in the morning and birds on the beach, dissolving to glossy pictures draped over a pile of uneven newspaper cut-outs and special editions. He sighs.]
Nina always liked Keith. She would tease him when he first moved to the neighborhood, telling him that she saw Little People hiding in the bushes and behind trash cans. Keith would hunt for hours. Nina sat on her porch and tried to hide her grin when he would come back for more. He was never tired of trying to find out where they were hiding from him.
Some of the people in the neighborhood were as bad as Keith. Asking about money and love, or wanting charms for their shrimp boat, it’s the same thing; only they paid for it.
Nina was old. She seemed to always be old. As long as we could remember, she’d been old and white-headed, sitting on her porch in the morning sun watching the school buses drive past. Some women are like that, right up till the day they’re gone.
It was dark in the house. Candles burned outside the beaded curtain in the living room, but that was not where they were, and the darkness accented the secrecy somehow. Keith lay the items on the table before her, and she looked them over one after another, a silver dollar from 1879, two human molars, a half-handful of red beans, and a large brown John the Conqueror root.
“This what you want,” she said, looking up with her jaw sideways.
“Something like that, Nina,” he said.
“What you figure you’re going to do with that, I don’t know. Probably should, to help. To be perfectly honest,” she picked the teeth up in one hand, eyeing the gold crown attached to one. It sparkled in the candlelight. “I’ll try to keep a straight face. I don’t know that I want any part of this here.”
“No. This is for me to help. Not in a good way,” he stopped and looked down at the table, “but nothing that’s really good for you feels that good at the time. Now does it?”
He tapped the table with his knuckles in thought.
“It’s like cancer, coming hidden and microscopic. A cataract. Some rotten bit that’s just going to spread,” he sighed and shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
“I keep seeing this thing with the face of a man, a shark smile, moves in and out of the shade, but with snake eyes, and scales flashing in long, flowing tendrils instead of legs. The whole body is covered with wings. Black feathers. Its eyes are bright fire. When I’m alone, it sits close behind me, and whispers silence, but not words. From before words.”
He stared off through the table.
“There are times when I feel like it wants to talk, but I’m afraid and I pretend it’s not there, and that I’m probably losing my mind, schizophrenic, or maybe I really never should have started doing acid when everybody told me to Just Say No.”
She looked him over without expression, her round eyes glazing half-lidded and her breath held.
“Ha,” she shifted in her seat. “Okay, right. You talk like you got the oldest soul around, you know that?” Her face pursed. “I’d like to think you were crazy just to get the damn hair on my neck to sit down.”
Her chair screeched on the floor as she stood. Walking over to her box on the shelf on the wall beside them, she placed several candles on the table between them, a Bible, and a small sewing kit.
“Yeah,” he said. “Cigarettes, weed, really whatever.”
“Ok, sure. Give me your lighter for these candles, child, and I want to see your hands before we get this ball rolling.”
Keith placed his flip-top lighter on the table, and she lit it, holding it to each candle in turn. The room brightened and crisp shadows moved over the walls.
“Right now, you’re thinking, This is really mystical and all. But it’s more that I just ain’t on such great terms with the power company, ok?” She laughed as she sat back down and looked at Keith. “You ever heard of a loa?” she asked.
“Like the things in Hawaii?”
“Well, then I guess I don’t know what that is.”
“There are more than one. Some call them by their names; others call them by the saints. It’s all the same thing after a while.”
She ran her hands over one of the candles and rubbed them together.
“And they say there’s this old one, the one who’s a snake and all the other spirits of things that were, once, and since then have been forgotten. All the forgotten rolled up into one voice, he’s the Big Daddy before they knew what a daddy was. Bossman Loa.”
Keith stared ahead numbly.
“He don’t talk, so much as hiss. And he’s really all bad, you know, but he ain’t the type for a top hat and cigar, touching you funny when you don’t want him to.” She looked off in the other room. “He’s the pure spirit, a storm that moves straight ahead like a snake would, you know?”
Keith stared into the candles. Small flames danced in his black eyes.
“Well, throw them up here,” she said. “I can remember you standing around the corner store before you could even talk. Or would talk, one. Wouldn’t believe anybody ever watched after you the way you act.”
She laughed and her smile hovered disembodied in the shadows.
“I don’t know how you catted up and down the street so long, and I never seen your hands.”
Keith placed his hands on the table, palms facing up.
“Remember here now, Keith. He takes the shovel and makes his own mind. Who goes in the ground and who walks on. Baron can work when he wants, and he can break that shovel when he wants just the same.”
Her hands were cold on his.
“And this,” she nodded at their hands. “This is just something you do, so folks will pay your light bills and whatnot.”
“Don’t go letting me change your life or anything.”
The Gospel of Jacqueline, Chapter II
[The waiter interrupts with more aperitifs. Placing the drinks on the table, he asks the smoking woman not to smoke. She sighs and begins speaking again between puffs of white.]
Keith would get bored with most people telling him stories. He seemed to know the endings to too many of them, and they seldom went fast enough to hold his attention. They diagnosed him with ADHD, but there really wasn’t anything like that wrong with him. Not like he watched too much television and his brain’s fried, like all commercials and stuff, all the time. Some people just bored him. He never really took the medicine, just fooled his Nanny about it. When we got older he would give them to us. We’d crush and snort them and be up for days.
Brian sat on the couch at Dave’s house, smoking a pipe and watching CNN on the TV. Jacqueline’s head was tucked into the crux of his lap with one arm bent beneath his leg. Beer bottles littered the table in front of him, flanking his feet on both sides. Dave slept in his chair to the left, his head cocked to the side and jaw slightly open, an occasional snore escaping. One of the other guys was prone in front of the TV, covered from the waist up with Brian’s cheap Mexican blanket. He couldn’t tell who it was from the jeans and sock feet sticking out from the tasseled edge.
“Hey, Brian?” Her voice was brittle and slurred.
“We got any coke left?”
“A little. I’d keep quiet about it, though. Let everyone think that we’re out.” He ran his hand down the hair on her temple. “We can just pass it back and forth on the way to the can or something.”
“Yeah, let me go to the bathroom, then.”
She sat up and straightened her arms above her chest. She was almost skeletal. Brian pulled a small white bag from his watch pocket.
“Thanks, sweetie,” she said, leaning over to take the bag from his hand and kiss the side of his neck. She walked to the bathroom a little unsteadily, and he watched the sway of her butt until she turned the corner in the hall.
They had recorded the band until a smoke break, when the bassist came back inside from his private phone call. His National Guard unit was deploying to Pascagoula.
After the swift departure of the bass player in a flurry of apologies, most of the night had involved heavy drinking and nitrous oxide from inflated balloons of rainbow-colored rubber. Brian ran around the house holding his balloon breath, and ended up collapsed on the floor, flowing in and out of consciousness in a haze of white noise and bizarre thoughts. Time could be slowed down indefinitely here, he had mused, if only we knew and could take advantage of what he knew, we could fly to the ends of the solar system without ever aging. He thought of Jacqueline’s friend from school, the one that didn’t like him. The kid with the black eyes. Keith.
In hindsight, his ideas felt trite and a little too 70’s-ish for his taste. He kept them to himself, picked himself and his emptying beer off the floor, and walked back into the living room, where the other guys were filling the heavy balloon from small, silver catering cream dispenser cartridges. Between them, they passed pipe after bong after cigarette. The room was filled with smoke and conversation while the television rambled on in the background.
The conversation had become hard and then stopped. Eyes bounced shut and bodies slumped to more entropic positions. He hadn’t been able to shake the image of that black-eyed kid staring at him.
Then things were a little off. The frantic rolling of tape came down to only a few overdubs of vocals, or maybe just a little lead guitar, but not too much, lest it stray from the punk rock idiom the band was so earnestly aping. There was a good deal of beer, whiskey, and weed going around, and recording seemed to get fuzzy and psychotic. People fell into walls and passed out on the floor. He’d hid in the master bath and done blow with Jacqueline until she’d gotten bored. They had done dirty things to each other where someone brushed their teeth every morning. He watched himself in the mirror until his eyes seemed to belong to someone else and stared back at him, smiling. He couldn’t get off after that. She didn’t seem to care. They did a couple of quick lines. He felt the mirror staring at him while he cut the powder finer with a dead credit card. Jacqueline eyed the counter. When they were done, they opened the bathroom door and burst back into the party.
The TV was still on in the morning, and tuned to the news after recent events. The talking heads were a flutter over the coming storm, sending rookie field reporters to stand soaking and fearful on hotel room balconies, peering out sliding glass doors, no longer able to withstand the power outside. The video was interesting enough without the stuttering voiceover.
Brian had honestly grown tired of the band’s formulaic songs and melodies. Not really drifting very far from the tree or even bothering to fall from it, every song had a distinct familiarity that one could pass off as influence, if one was in a good mood. He was a little hungover, not in a good mood, but working on a good buzz already, feeling the fuzziness cover over the morning nausea like a soft blanket.
It wasn’t his fault if they sounded like that. He just set up mics and pushed the record button. There was really no input from him, other than to suggest turning the amps down to keep the bleed out of the drum mics. So his mood was turning, the less he believed that he would have to listen to the band’s songs today. They should be unconscious until well after noon.
Brian looked at the water on the TV and tried to discern exactly what he was seeing. It wasn’t like in the movies, there was no definition to the camera feed, just windborne water and froth with bits of man-made something poking out here and there. He lit the pipe and wondered what Stephen was doing.
The Epistle of Stephen, Chapter III
[Quick jumps cuts of still-frame photos and quick snippets of teenagers on camcorder video.]
He was a coyote trapped indoors, trying to claw his way out with a paw under the door. Keith’s gears turned, and were turning for the same reasons as everybody else’s, but he needed neon and carnival music for the simple sake of having them, like a parade of the day just passing without circumstance through the middle of the desert, making racket and generally being an eyesore. That’s not quite it, but it’s close.
In the blue light of his living room, Stephen sat staring. The shuttered windows blocked the fading sunlight from entering the house. Beneath the screaming wind and shaking roof, Stephen heard each shingle flapping and slapping in the changing pressure of the storm.
He had little sense of time, and could feel a growing panic in the back of his mind that he knew he couldn’t answer. There would be no running away.
This was not his first rodeo. Stephen rolled into the kitchen, opening the fridge to the dead bulb inside. He’d already lost the entirety of what was in the dark, fogging space. In a way, it didn’t make the least difference. Pulling a beer out, he shut the door out of habit, unscrewed the cap, and decided that he would be fine. He’d have his own hurricane party.
He wheeled himself to the cabinet to see what he had left in his liquor stash. Finding a bottle of tequila with a couple of fingers left to it, he laid this in his lap and rolled toward the bedroom.
He fought with the dresser drawer. It creaked open, and he reached a hand up and into it, blindly patting his hand until it landed on the prescription bottle with a dull rattle. His fingers clasped the plastic and placed it in his lap with the tequila.
Behind him, twenty feet away at the back door, water began to seep inside the house from beneath the wainscoting.
The Revelation of Keith Woodland
[The scene cuts suddenly to a rectangular stage with two middle-aged men in button-up shirts and clip-on ties. They cough for the room’s attention and begin the litany into a small plastic microphone.]
We pray to St. Narcissus, laying the mirrors at our feet, prostrating our heads between our knees. The devout stare into the silver glass to receive his blessing, while the faithless find themselves positioned, should his wrath come again. Needing placating, St. Narcissus. Tiring easily, St. Narcissus. We ask your image why, knowing this desire insubordinates. We’re hedging our bets, St. Narcissus. Fifty-fifty, ninety, St. Narcissus. Fifty-fifty, ninety.
[Attendant boys pass mirrors from a gilded basket, the small silvered panes flowing outward from the center aisles, reflecting sunlight from the stained glass on the ceiling high above the pews. The litany is repeated until the mirrors are distributed, allowed one complete rendition, and signaled to close by the attendants striking a brass gong as their reserve of mirrors is exhausted.]
Keith looked out over the water to the darkened horizon. The wind was whipping from the East, his shirt and backpack pulled taut against his side and his eyes watered. The palms were bent, their fronds shaking in a blur. Sand flew inland and dusted everything in sight. He dropped the broken shovel onto the damp sand. The handle fell across the wooden shaft of the shovel head, clanking dully.
Lifting his head to the sky, he opened his mouth and felt the wind and rain fill his throat. He found he could barely hear himself speak from the howl of the air around him.
He reached into his left pocket and removed the small wad of flannel sack, turning the wire wrapped around the tied end until it loosened and he could feel the bag opening. Pouring the bag into his left hand, Keith rubbed the teeth against the silver dollar and the John the Conqueror root, bits of bloody flour fell from between his fingers. He dropped the square of flannel from his other hand into the water before him.
The waves raced in to the land as high as his head, each pummeling the sand in succession, while he stared snake-eyed at the clouds moving in the distance. He could make out three funnels reaching down for the earth, one having found the sea and spewing water, white and twisted, into the air off the surface like a drill thrust into a bed of grey sand.
From his backpack, he pulled out a fifth of rum from the corner store. Cheap stopper, opening the bottle with his mouth, thumphnk, its dark gold liquor poured over his face and shirt. He spat the cork top into the waves before him, and turned the bottom of the bottle to the churning sky, letting the hot liquid burn his throat and warm his stomach.
When his eyes began to burn, he spat a mouthful of the rum into his left hand, feeling the flour congeal and the blood loosen from the items, falling in small thick streams to the drowning sand at his feet. He turned the bottle up again, watching the gold line move further down and closer to his lips. Stopping and gasping for air with lungs that burned from the alcohol, he belched deep and wet. The rest of the rum he poured straight into the pile of objects in his left hand. The bottle empty, he threw it underhand over his shoulder as high and as far as he could. It caught in the wind, flying over the dunes, and smashed on the asphalt of Highway 90 behind him.
Reaching into his shirt pocket, he removed a pair of sunglasses, placed them on his face, and pulled a long cigar from the same pocket, its tobacco emptied and re-rolled with herbs. Though damp, it lit after some trying in the heavy wind, with Keith’s hands cupped in front of his face. The rum erupted in blue flame, burning his arms only slightly as the wind blew the heat away from him. He puffed deeply on the sweet smoke from the cigar, and threw the handful of flaming charms to the South with everything he could, slamming his hand into the wet sand afterwards, and, without really wondering if he was still on fire or not, his mind twitched in feral panic, then relaxed. Warmth spread from his stomach and his limbs tingled with electricity.
The wind screamed in an ever-increasing miasma of spray and granite cloud, thickening with force and pushing against everything it met. White caps leapt from the waves in the distance as the bands of black lowered from the horizon and crawled toward the land in dark, lumbering tendrils.
The water was rising, and Keith’s thin legs were soon covered in the dark grey warmth.
He breathed deep on the cigar, feeling the hair on his arms and neck lift and then disappear, peeling away with a life not his own. The bones reached for the light, his skin prickled with the wind, swimming across his body until it retreated, catching the currents and blowing into trees further inland. He could feel his skull beneath the sunshades, cold bone in the wet air, his shirt flowing through his ribs in a billow of grey vapor, the smoke streaming from the holes where his eyes and nose had been, and from his bare teeth smiling to the storm.
[Alea iacta est.]
The attic hatch shifted, and Stephen could slide it up and over, feeling the warm water and salty debris lifting him at the right instant to push his arm through the small frame to grab hold of the far side. Pulling his weight over, he lifted his other arm and made it through to the dark of the attic, sliding amphibian-style.
It was beyond hot. He rubbed his face and smeared fine dust across lines of water running from his hair.
Turning and looking back down at the hallway, Stephen watched as the water climbed toward him, brown and swirling with loose magazines and junk mail. The smell of the bayou filled everything, thick and musty. He thought about oysters. He hated oysters.
Breathing deeply, Stephen tried to ease his heart somewhere lower than his voice box. He could hear nothing but the constant howl of the wind like a car window opened on the interstate, amplified and aimed directly at his house, pulling at the roof and slamming against the walls.
Closing his eyes, Stephen found himself trying to pray, but, in reality, he was begging in a more general manner, feeling the tears pooling from the corners of his eyelids and running down his face. He didn’t care who or what answered, only that they did, and would make this all stop. There was nowhere after the attic. He’d have no way back down except through the water. The light in the hallway was fading.
Jacqueline ran her check card over the three white lines, her back hunched over the bathroom counter. She glanced at the door, noting the lock in the center of the doorknob sitting vertical.
Definitely locked. With a couple fingers holding a nostril, she took the three in one quick inhale, tilting her head back and tapping with her ring finger the rolled dollar bill while it still stuck out of her nose. She snorted deeply with her eyes closed, biting her bottom lip on one side of her mouth.
Some part of her looked in the mirror and recoiled, not looking back from the mirror, but searching from the deep green eyes flecked with gold. That watching knew only reflex, she looked it in the eye and felt her heart race. Her body melted deliciously numb and electric from her nose and throat outward. The beat of her heart reached beyond her chest. Her legs quivered as she pressed her thighs against each other. She sniffed her leaking nostrils against the back of her hand, and put her card and the dollar back in her back pocket. She was sweating, but it was an amped sweat, cold and chilling.
There was a storm, somewhere. She could feel it moving in her veins, high winds and rain pushing from within something, somewhere. She pulled the dollar back out of her pocket, unrolled it, and licked the thin coating of white powder from one side, losing her tongue in a numbness that made her veins and eyes dilate with heat.
In the silver glass, Jacqueline’s eyes blinked, each time growing darker, until the balls themselves were gloss black and dripping thin transparent lines of black out of the far corners of her eyelids, running wide on her cheekbones and off her chin to the floor.
The Revelation of Keith Woodland, Verse II
[Fade in to a handheld camera shot cutting between speakers standing before a stiff, red curtain. A man in black enters from stage left. His shirt collar is fastened in the front with a small square mirror. The priest clears his throat and begins reading from a book covered in broken shards.]
It comes smashing through the windows in white columns of saltwater: takes the books off the shelves, spins the room around within itself, ripping pictures from the wall and depositing the cold metal folding chair somewhere after puberty, in the dark forgotten region before responsibility became such an expletive and there was that optometrist sharpness to the edges of things.
Picking himself up, he turns over the remains of the desk, wipes the mud and leaves from its surface, and begins arranging the chair before it, sitting, pantomiming his hand into an ink well, scratching his name into the surface of the planed wood, all in caps, over and over, until the space before him is filled with muddy, etched letters and his fingernails bleed, one after another.
Outside what had been until recently a window, the daylight punches out and turns over to night. Some birds stop singing. The room turns amber and then indigo.
In the darkness, he runs his fingertip over the scratches in the desk and begins to recite the sounds. It’s many hours till morning, and he has nothing better to do.
[Fuit Illium. Et in Arcadia ego.]
The Parable of Alexandria (Apocryphal)
We weren’t sure of anything, anymore. The flames were daylight. The smell of smoke as the olahs of our thoughts caught in the dry air and suttee rushed upward into the sky, the dark sky, so black and so moving in shaded patches and wisps that spiraled and spread until our eyes could take in no more and they burned, as well. The water falling in twin rivers, clearing the ash and the dust, our scorched hands holding what they could on the way out.
Never enough. We knew that much.
There were so few hands and so many flames stealing through the stacks and the smoke thick as death daring us to try again. Just one more load. Another circuit. You could at least try—
There were those who did and were never seen again like so many leaves and saddles’ scorched edges, leather codices cooling in hands’ blackened flesh. The tears ran and the desert wind blew dust through our hearts like the olahs that rose to the gods and their pleasure. Unsure and augured flights of ash we could never tell, the story falling through time is the dirty, forgotten salt of our chins.
Through the desert we walked. Blinded. Parched. Our souls fell in piles of words that caught in the wind with the sand and the dust of what was and wasn’t and never could be again—
Now, in the wind, still circling the sky, vultures patient and silent as the penitent walk on all fours, begging for death or water, whichever comes first…
[The room bows, the cameraman pulling back the frame to show the crowd bent-necked and silent, their eyes tight. The priest shuts the book and retires to the wing. The speakers’ heads remain bowed until the priest is hidden behind the curtains swaying in toward center stage. They bid the crowd goodnight with quiet gestures, and the main stage spotlights are extinguished. The pews empty and the mirrors are deposited one at a time in large wicker baskets adjacent to each exit.]
What struck Stephen when he awoke on the muddy floor, covered with silt and slime and pieces of something, the one that had come from him, the last thought that he could really remember having.
After that, another presence had taken over, something less than him. He had watched from a short distance, detached and unaffected. He had felt nothing about the man in front of him. He could see his head held high to breathe above the waterline. Weak, useless legs floated beneath him like jellyfish tendrils.
For so long now. His neck had not only cramped, but now had locked in position and gone numb, like the rope would feel after a drop from the gallows. He didn’t care. He could remember that. He hadn’t even tried at the end.
There was no excuse for him to still be here.
The Gospel of Jacqueline, Chapter III
[The waiter has brought the check on a small black plastic dish. She taps her ash in it.]
I don’t think Keith had a funeral. There was no body. Nothing to bury or cremate. The world just kind of shrugged him off. We were all so busy. There was the clean-up, money, food, toxic FEMA trailers and MREs. No one really checked to see about him that I can remember. I don’t know how long after it all, but some of us sat down and thought about him. By then, it was too late.
The sound of his head exploding woke him. The sunlight was painful, at first, but eventually his eyes opened and could see little more than a room and the broken remains of a roof above him, with the noon sun burning through to the back of his skull, smoking and dried.
Sitting up on his elbow, he turned his head around in a semicircle. The room was the gutted skeleton of an octagonal house built on a single central pillar. The walls were only implied by the remaining steel beams, littered debris, and remains of particle board. Yellow nylon ropes, tied in random places, hung torn and unraveled to the ground. He pushed himself to his feet, and walked slowly across the cracked boards that served as a floor.
Trees surrounded him. He climbed down on the iron beam supports of the house, and wandered through trails littered with debris. Green palmetto fronds shaded pieces of aluminum siding laying alongside leather lined padded chairs from the newest casino, the one that hadn’t even opened yet. Each of them seemed to be missing one part or another, and could have made one complete chair if put together at this point.
A few steps more and the trail cleared to reveal the Southern coast of the island, waves rolled slowly into the shore over the tan sand. He found a spider plant and a cactus in their pots with scarcely any dirt missing. The cactus was sitting upright.
It was warm, and there seemed to be no breeze. The sky was clear blue as it broke through the boughs of the pine trees that rose from the grass and the shrubs below. He sat on the edge of the sand, looking up and down the line cut between the water and the land as it snaked off in steep angles to the distance. Large unidentifiable objects were partly buried all around. He picked out a large blue oil drum in the distance. Marine gear spotted the area near him, life jackets, tarps, even the plastic hood for a radar. Wooden planks from shattered hulls jutted from the sand near the high tide line. Seagulls picked the remains of anonymous carcasses and the terns flew down the shore skating on the wind.
Near his feet, he could make out the shape of two broken bones in the sand, white patches shining in the sunlight. His mind told him that they had washed out to the island from the beachside graveyards. There was always the other option, the more unpleasant one, but this thought he pushed down below the dark waterline until it no longer surfaced.
He picked up a leg bone coming to a sharp and even end, what looked to have been sawed off. Another was half of a pelvis. He picked them up, pocketed the leg bone, and walked down the wet sand in the direction that suited him, his legs feeling the warm water at knee height, and he closed his eyes and felt the cut bone close in his pocket. The other he held tight in his hand. When the wind blew, he laughed. The sun sparkled on the water like aluminum foil.
The part that really stuck with him, though, the part that would keep him from sleeping easily, so terribly often, enough for him to find himself sitting before the refrigerator with the condiment laden door open with a beer, basking in the cold light from the lone bulb controlled by his hand on the open door. He understood it, those nights, the true meaning of his decision, and the discomforting sense of relief that followed it. He had no reason to be here. It was a waste. He was a waste.
When this started, he would turn the beer up and drink until he could accept the choice he had made. His free hand would grip the wheel of the chair with white knuckles. The beer would always be cold and cause his eyes to sting and water. He would feel his throat burning from the carbonation, and he would hold the bubble until it began to hurt. Then he would let out a belch of gas so strong it would choke him. He could face his actions this way. He sank into the wheelchair and felt his weight disappear. It was his to live with.
[The congregation has exited. The priests have returned to the stage. Each removes their clothing, placing the items together in one lot in the center of the stage. With long, sharp pieces of broken mirror, they begin to cut across their chests. Blood drools in long, thin lines to the floor. In the darkness keening whimpers carry through the empty pews above the sound of blood falling onto the hardwood stage.]
The Apocalypse of Brian (Antilegomenos)
Brian put the phone back in his pocket. He stared at the crosswalk in front of him. The streetlight beside him with the button you had to push to cross. The cars moved by in a blur above the painted lines that never moved but blinked in and out of existence. For a moment, he held his breath.
Jacqueline had been ignoring his voicemails. She was off and on the tweak without much warning, spending her days getting trashed at the club down in Pensacola, walking around in her bikini and kimono. He thought of his fingers on the silk and smiled. He could feel his pants shifting. She just danced, though. Nothing else, she said. Good money off the sailors. No big deal.
New York had been many things but it had not been kind to him. He had arrived much as he had in San Francisco, guitar and bag in hand, and once again for someone other than himself.
Staying at a cheap flat where he’d had to sleep on the floor, he’d made it to the studio to set up. The group’s manager had brought him into the picture. He was over forty, bald, and bound to rip them all off if given the chance. They were some forgettable youthful pantomime of the current style of their opinion, and it had been all he could do just to stand by and listen to the same ten or so anthems of mediocrity over and over, making adjustments to the treble bands, checking the sound pressure levels, or taking some 60 Hz hum out of the picture. Basic stuff.
It seemed to Brian that all anyone really did was ape with a pre-mammalian look of seriousness, regardless of the job. If you weren’t fat or cross-eyed, there was a chance that you too could be a rock star. One only had to sacrifice their personality to the templates outlined in the magazines, only speak as if being interviewed, always, and move with an air of complete, indifferent superiority. Any semblance of humanity would ruin the gig, girlfriends were fine while wives were right out, and god forbid that you had children.
So his head had hurt all of the first three days or so. The mass spider web of cables, ring-tip sends, 1/4 inches, RCAs, his mind felt as if it was composed of right and left channel XLR microphone feeds. His thoughts were in stereo 24-track. The two hours spent adjusting drum mics had left his skull bruised from repeated snare hits, tom rolls, and cymbal crashes. They changed materials in the kick drum to see how it affected the sound. Electrical tape was placed in varying amounts on the crash cymbals.
While the drummer cried perfectionism, Brian had the idea that the guy was merely dragging along what would be his spotlight moment, something he could talk about when he got back home, wherever that might be, to his buddies over bong hits. The singer was oblivious to any kind of gear whatsoever. He’d spent more time talking on his cell phone and fixing his hair in the reflection of the booth glass than he had with the equipment. Once he had complained that the headphones were too tight during overdubs, but the problem was quickly traced to his earrings, and soon remedied. The guitar and bass players had fallen in line fairly quickly when presented with microphones that were labeled with brand names they recognized from magazines. Brian left the more expensive tube mics in their cases, just in case someone decided to play rock star and smash equipment to get the right “feel”. A couple of times they had to be reminded to turn their amplifiers down so as to not muddy the room’s natural reverberation, which was met with a kind of teenage disdain for authority that they seemed to enjoy, but only irritated him.
His mood lessened after he and Jesse had split that blunt laced with coke in the alley behind the place late the first night, breathing large clouds of smoke between dark silhouettes of buildings, the smell of trash or nearby homeless pervading, under an orange streetlight haze of sky.
It was a routine they stuck with for the course of the work. The band would sheepishly take to their instruments in the afternoon, sometimes after two o’clock, and the two of them would escape to the alley to split a pint bottle of whiskey and smoke. After the first hour or more of takes, depending on the capriciousness of the musicians, who often had to repeat the same song for the better part of a half-hour changing really nothing but growing less and less interesting in the process, he and Jesse would pop an assortment of pain killers and put together rough mixes in the computer for the band members to discuss at length while smoking their own weed, turning off the lights and burning incense in the darkened room, feeling introspective and debating timing and stops, acting out the ends of measures with their arms in the air and hard looks of earnestness on their faces.
Brian felt numb and couldn’t care less. His only concern was getting paid for the work and the frequency of trips to the alleyway for his own sessions of Jesse’s top shelf drugs. The recording process was rough on the soul, dragging into the morning of the next day, leaving him tired of forced company and desiring solitude. Plus the pills made him itch.
He had left the studio around ten that night to get the noise out of his head, along with the feeling of inferiority that came along with being just part of “the help”. As much as he had distanced himself from what the band had called music, he could feel some voice creep into the foreground of his mind and whisper remnants of his own aspirations, hastily folded and wedged behind the grey fog of day-to-day. Teenage fantasies of rampant need traded in to the pawn shop of dreams. The ticket forgotten and lost long ago.
Brian shook his head and smirked. He didn’t need that trite cliché. At least, he hoped not. He’d seen an ad for instruments like that in a guitar magazine once.
Everything was something dug up from the pages of rock and roll magazines, fed to him by the parasitic journalist beast that lived upon the wide-eyed wonder of the young, sucking the blood from the whites of the eyes through ink smeared pages of good-looking figureheads of sound and fashion, each placed for maximum concessions, every interview echoed over and over since the invention of television. You might as well be a ponytailed, pimple-faced girl screaming and crying at a Beatles concert, too wrapped up in your own emotion to even hear anything coming out of the speakers, looking for your prophet with teary eyes and howls of desperate, lonely confusion.
He found a bar nearby, and managed, through two or three hours of drinking and random associations from Jesse, to come across a fair amount of blow along with a dime bag of kindbud. Brian had the bags tucked into his jeans pocket, and stopped for cigarettes and rolling papers at a local 7-11. He had cash in his other pocket, and nearly nothing to do for the next day or so. The band’s booking at the studio was split by a Christian choir making a children’s album or something.
Brian hoped that he and Jesse hadn’t misplaced anything that might upset them and threaten the next booking. A smirk crossed his jaw. There was always the chance.
He fell into another bar, heading straight to the bathroom and into a stall. Locking the door behind him, he removed the eight ball from his watch pocket, and pinched the tied plastic knot that held it back. Once untied, he sat it in the palm of his left hand, and removed his house keys from his pants pocket and flipped his largest key to the fore. Dipping the end of the key into the bag, he lifted a bump to his nose and inhaled deeply. The sound was a bit loud in the empty tiled room, and, holding his breath, he listened to make sure that no one else was in any of the stalls.
The silence mixed with the onset of the rush, his eyes feeling the edges of the light in a different way, while the skin on his body flushed and felt cold. His throat began to numb as the wetness descended. When his vision flickered, he remembered to breathe again. He sniffed another key bump, and then one more. His heart leapt into the room onto the floor and back into his chest, he licked his lips and the end of the key, feeling the cold numb tingle of good coke. Tying the bag back, he pocketed the lot and left the stall.
In the grimed mirror beneath a buzzing, dying fluorescent, he stared at the reptilian tightness of his pupils, blue squeezing the black and tinting green as his blood flushed further. His hand moved to his face, rubbing the dull numb areas with a viciousness. He smiled on one side of his face, but he didn’t feel it. The mirror blinked darkness on his features, and he sneered, pulling a cigarette out and lighting it. He couldn’t remember if the bar let him smoke or not. It didn’t matter, and he decided to finish it here before he went back out and drank some more, probably something vodka this time. Martinis sounded fine, but too fancy. Straight sounded desperate. This felt more right, but he settled on rocks. Let them put an olive or something in it. Everybody’s got to eat sometime, he thought. He checked his fly as he turned and walked away.
The Epistle of Stephen, Chapter IV
[The montage shifts, settling on a West-facing shot of the lighthouse. Time-lapse video shifts through various days and nights while fleets of cars blur past the structure into the distance. The voice-over is tired and sentimental.]
Keith had a way of grounding out dangerous energy. It was as if he were a lightning rod or that third prong on your power cable. People could always count on Keith. Well, maybe they couldn’t count-on-him count on him, but he was useful in a way that could really get by you, if you weren’t watching or maybe you didn’t really know him that well. You could put Keith by crazy people, and they’d be less crazy. Keith was crazy enough for everyone, regardless of what he did.
We used to feed him drugs to watch how he seemed to get more normal. Once we all ate a bunch of acid, and were all wigging out about the shadows in the corners; Keith decides that he wants to make some popcorn and play video games. In one of those PSA ways, it’s sad, I kind of hate to say it.
He was a lighthouse, that night, others, and he led us away from the rocks and into the harbor. Just real quiet and kind of like one of those monks from the kungfu movies. He was immune to poisons, I guess, part of his training. It was all nonsense. Every last bit of it.
[The tape ends with a dull plastic click.]
The Apocalypse of Brian, Chapter II
They’d thrown him out for smoking pot in the bathroom. He’d been thrown out for lots of things.
It hadn’t been that bad at first, a couple of cigarettes between pinner joints, each soaked through the tobacco paper with bumps of blow. He’d stayed there for an hour, though, reading the seemingly endless scribbled rhymes and accusations that littered the stall walls and door, carving a random epiphany into the wood with his key.
It had been more than just pot. They knew it. He’d muttered otherwise to himself, still scratching Jacqueline’s name in near-perfect block lettering on the door in front of the can, right by the chrome latch. They had come in and beat on the stall door. That had messed up the last “e”, but you could still tell what it was supposed to have said, right up until the door had folded in on itself in a shower of splinters and the stall became a pandemonium of arms and curses and sweat.
When they had removed the door from the stall, they had punched him. Right in the nose. Hard.
There was blood all over the floor and all over his shirt, now. He stumbled out, the swearing bouncer dragging him only slightly, Brian tripping over the curb and nearly going down face first in the middle of the street. His knee was scuffed through his pant leg, and, while he could sense that something had happened, he was neutral on the matter, beyond feeling almost anything for the moment. His breath was fire coming in and out of his mouth. His heart was a samba in danger of losing its syncopation and his mind preached indifference on the matter.
His hands were sticky and covered with pieces of sand and glass. He rubbed them together and rubbed his nose on his sleeve, seeing the red streak like a trick of magic. His mouth tasted like copper when he spit, black and pink, on the sidewalk.
It didn’t matter. There were plenty of bars and this was a big town. He’d walk somewhere else, and maybe they wouldn’t call the police. There were other bars. He wasn’t scared of police.
He spun around; his middle finger turned up at the already shut door of the place, its vibrating neon beer sign in the window blinking unwelcome into the empty street. Shuffling down the sidewalk with twisting feet, his finger to the world, he looked over the cars parked alongside the street, their windows frosting in the dry air, like people waiting in line for something that never comes. His hand fell, and he turned, laughing at the darkness with his red teeth bared and his mouth pointed upward into the night.
K. Zeth Ozbirn was a creative writing student of both Cynthia Shearer and the late Barry Hannah, and has recently left the United States Navy, where he was a Quartermaster and Ship’s Diver/Rescue Swimmer. He writes short stories, preferably short-shorts inside of 5,000 words. He revises ruthlessly with the over-critical eye of a Japanese swordsmith folding his steel many times over, until the blade is strong and flexible at once. Short stories should cut with the same quickness as a well-finished wakizashi. Each should be malleable to the reader’s mind, ambiguous enough to bend like the best blade, but resiliently forceful enough to get the intention of the emotive impact to the reader intact. However, if there is time available, the reader should be able to spend time gazing at the sword to find its intricacies and carvings, the steel’s polished glaze in the sunlight, the hand-wrapped gilded grip.