Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mutt Ploughman's 'Suicide Station', Part 1.

As alluded to in previous posts, I now present the first installment of a brand new serialized short story I am debuting on this blog, entitled 'Suicide Station'. I will post a new installment every 4-5 days; there are four sections in all. I hope you enjoy this dark ride, partially inspired by the work of Stephen King, partially inspired by a dream.

A Dark Tale

1. The Dead Ravine
Most of my dreams are abstract and bizarre, and when I wake they vanish quickly. But when I came awake into this one, the one I am still caught inside even as I write these words, everything was clear and tangible. It felt different from all others. The chill in the air. The sharp teeth of this graveyard wind. The aridity of the hard earth beneath me. The smell of dust and ash and metal. The spectral wake from a pestilential tide that had recently swept over this territory, and the hint of the final destruction soon to follow.

I woke up jolting with painful coughs. A dry, brittle hand seemed to reach inside my throat and scoop out the breath from my lungs. It felt like my ribcage had been battered silly by numerous other fits that had come before, but I didn’t remember them. All I knew is that I found myself hacking away before I was aware of anything else.

The first shock of many was what stood in for my bedclothes. I discovered that I had wrapped myself in a large sheath of mangled cardboard. It must have been an old refrigerator box. Gripped by the coughing that had pulled me out of whatever sleep I had managed, I attempted to sit upright, only to discover the makeshift sleeping bag enclosing me. It failed to cover my lower legs or to keep me warm. I kicked angrily in frustration until it broke apart. Part of the box skittered away in one of the occasional gusts of wind that reached where I lay. For a while the other piece of the stained, torn cardboard lingered nearby. One flap stuck up into the air with the inverted words THIS END UP and an arrow pointing down towards the dead land.

I sat up on the cold ground, still coughing. Panic washed through me. Dream? Where I had been when I fell asleep – in my own bedroom, lying next to my wife, with our two little children sleeping down the hall – was slipping out of my awareness, fading fast as if it had never existed, as though that life, 38 years in duration, had been little more than a prolonged mirage. For I was no longer in a bed, in a bedroom, in a house or in a suburb. Now I was seated on the banks of what must have once been a stream or a river, next to the skeleton of a long-dead tree, with high ground on all sides, as though the water that at one time had flowed through here had carved out a ravine.

There were no buildings visible anywhere, but I was on low ground. There were no other human beings or life forms of any kind. The air was cold and dry and my body was uncomfortably chilled, but not freezing. A gray light in the sky seemed to be brightening slowly. Dawn. I had absolutely no memory of coming to this place.

My lips opened, with the intention of calling out my wife’s name. It was a reflex; but when I started to do so, the name itself flew from my cognizance. I couldn’t remember it. With mounting concern, I determined to picture the house I lived in, or at least the room in which I had gone to sleep. But even as I remembered how these familiarities had appeared only a short time before, the mental images, just like the names, stole away from me. It felt as though I wasn’t actually dreaming at all but had instead been transported somehow, physically and mentally, to this other place. Yet even though I could not remember the images or the names, their absence did occupy a space in my mind, and the awareness of another place (another world?) recently vacated remained.

Hacking again and shuddering now, I surveyed myself from top to bottom and saw that I was wearing strange clothes: a gray, long-sleeved sweatshirt, stained and unwashed, with long drips of what looked like motor oil or blood or some other dark liquid streaking down the front; blue jeans that were worn at the knees and frayed at the ankles; a pair of running shoes, it looked like, that must have once been white with black trim but were now discolored into more of an ashen tone with clumps of mud and God knew what else clinging to the sides. These were not clothes that I recognized, but at least they fit my body.

Then a startling thought occurred to me and, lacking a mirror or any other kind of reflective surface, I began to pat my head with my hands and fingers to determine if I was even the same person physically. But here, at least, was no great shock – I still had the same face, the same goatee beard that now had strokes of gray, the same prematurely bald dome with the remaining hair cropped close to the skull. Evidently the physical injustices that I had been dealt in the other world had not been corrected on my passage into this one.

Although I was insufficiently rested, my limbs ached, and my dry throat rasped with pain, clearly I had to move to assess the full extent of my predicament. I struggled to my feet, beating sand and brittle twigs from my limbs. Because of the steep embankments, rising over the level of my head, I couldn’t see to the horizon in any direction, so my first order of business would be to climb out of this ravine and try to orient myself. Out of habit, I patted at my pockets, which I often do to make sure I have my car keys, wallet, cell phone, and whatever else I need to carry around in order to validate my existence. Or at least my former one. There was no cell phone or set of keys, but to my surprise, the back pocket of the jeans did contain my wallet. I pulled it out and began to rifle through the contents.

Never have I wished before that I was one of those men who carries around pictures of his family! The fact is that I have never done so. When I buy a new wallet I take out the plastic thing that holds photographs. It’s not that I don’t want to have images of my wife and daughters close at hand, but I never end up showing them – nobody asks anymore. And because of all the plastic cards and various forms of identification and ATM receipts that seem obligatory somehow, the wallet always ends up being too thick. Since there exists that unwritten law of the universe that says a man simply will not carry with him what cannot be stuffed in a pocket – the unacceptable alternative being some kind of manpurse – the solution was to reduce the contents of the wallet so it could be carried comfortably. Now, however, I needed some other reassurance that I was still who I thought I was.

I looked into the cash folder portion of my wallet and was startled to find several bills. I am not affluent. It is uncommon for me to carry much cash. But it looked like I had a pretty hefty amount stashed away here, for the bills were not singles. At least I seem to have come prepared in this respect, thought I. Then the oddness continued, causing me to revisit the question of whether I wasn’t simply dreaming all of this. It made sense, given the fact that I had money. But when I took hold of the bills with my fingers, I made the mistake of pulling them completely out of the leather fold to count them. As soon as the bills came clear of the wallet, they immediately turned into what looked like ashes, or at least gray dust – I didn’t get to inspect the remnants for very long, for the slight breeze carried the dust off and scattered it over the brittle ground. So much for preparation.

My next thought was reasonable; at least it would have been in the world I had recently vacated. Lacking cash, I thought, there was always plastic. Perhaps there was an ATM machine somewhere in this place. Even as I had the thought, however, the absurdity of it struck me almost like the slap you might visit upon someone who makes a fantastically inept suggestion in the midst of an extreme crisis. The kind of idea that is so obviously not helpful it actually makes the situation worse. Not here, you idiot, my mind told me. To reinforce the point, when I took out my VISA debit card, it looked just like my own, but the critical information on it, my name and the card number, appeared this way:

†‡•‰ € ­í¿•˛–ƒ

Two other credit cards I owned had similar aspects: they looked like the ones I typically carried, but the identifying information was indecipherable. I did notice that the characters replacing the letters of my name varied from card to card, however, and never repeated themselves. Yet the characters replacing what should have been identifiable numerals were all the same, as if numerals didn’t exist any longer; this confirmed what I had always suspected as a student, that eventually numbers would not matter, but words and language always would.

The final stroke was when I removed my work identification/entrance key, a plastic card that was shaped just like every other one in the wallet but featured only a passport-style photograph of myself and the words of my name. Normally this allowed me unwelcome access to one of those office complexes, probably designed by Communist architects, where one chisels away at their own soul each day under the auspices of employment. But now the words were again replaced by cryptic characters, and perhaps the most startling, the photograph was altered. It had the same nondescript background that I recalled from the day I stood for it, and it even seemed to accurately represent my shoulders, neck, and the shape of my head. But where my face should have been was a blank. Not as though that part of the image had been cut away – I mean a blank oval, the color of my own skin.

Only at this point did I begin to feel fear. Perhaps less fear than simple panic. What the hell was going on here? Where was I? Who was I? was the next question, but I didn’t allow myself to even consider it. I was not yet prepared to concede the nullification of my existence. After all, moments ago I had touched my own face and been lucky enough to find it there. Now I did so again, with the same result. That was fortunate, but I was shaken. The accumulating questions were now weighing heavily on the thin suspension bridge formed by my reason and sense of calm. If it gave way there was only the abyss beneath.

Suddenly, I remembered about one last item in my wallet that might provide reassurance. Something that to me suddenly seemed of grave importance. I mentioned before that I did not carry photographs in my wallet, but there is one exception. In the last slot where one normally keeps credit cards, their driver’s license, etc., I had tucked away a single photograph that had been in my possession since I was five years old. I looked in the wallet again, and fortunately, it was there.

It was a neat square, not large, and was old enough to have been developed on film stock that had a thin white border around all four sides with the date printed on each. The date on this image was May 1971. The photo itself was of me, as a baby of 7 months old, sitting up next to a couch, looking at the camera with a befuddled expression on my face, which for an unknown reason was not blanked out in the picture. In my meaty little hands I was clutching a long black block, rectangular in shape, almost like a column. I never found this picture very cute or interesting, but the reason I kept it was not for the image of me. It was for a mere fraction of the person in the background.

To my right side in the picture, the left side for the viewer, was the lower half of a pair of female legs, one crossed over the other in a formal manner. On the feet were brown shoes with a half-inch heel, and over the knee, which was just barely in view, was the hem of a dark green skirt. Those legs belonged to my mother, and they were the only picture I still owned of her, or even a little of her. She was killed two weeks after that photograph was taken, on a business trip, in a wrecked taxicab. This was one of the few items left for me that could evoke even the slightest, most fleeting memory of this woman, whose absence from the rest of my life had always felt to me like a cruel injustice.

Looking at the photograph always gave me an unwelcome jolt to the heart because of what I have just described. I swallowed this back, however, for the photograph had only one purpose in this particular instance, and it was not sentimental. It confirmed for me that I was still myself, which under the circumstances was no small thing. That left only one thing for me to do.

I had to get out of the ravine and examine the world I was trapped inside.

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