Sunday, December 07, 2008

'Suicide Station', Part 2

[To read Part 1. The Dead Ravine go here.]

2. Helen
Scrambling to the top of the embankment thrust all previous surprises into greater perspective. What had I expected to see? A great city skyline? A suburban sprawl like the one I lived in? A pastoral pasture dotted far and wide with sheep and cows?

There were no houses, no cities, no landscape; indeed, there was no life, save one, which I will draw in presently. I was looking out over a vast, nearly infinite wasteland.

Three things were immediately noticeable. The first was the unencumbered emptiness of the earth – if this was even the correct planet. The color of the sky was almost indistinguishable from the color of the ground – an ashen, dusty hue, with the corpse of the color red cremated and scattered throughout. There was no sunlight. It seemed to be entirely overcast.

The second immediately obvious feature was far in the distance, most of the way towards a jagged horizon. There stood a huge black obelisk, a tower of some kind. It was not exceedingly tall, but tall enough; and given the distance between it and me, it seemed very wide as well. However, distances might very well have deceived on a canvas this broad. But no matter how great the tower actually was, there was no way to miss it; it was the focal point of an otherwise featureless expanse. It looked to me like there were trails or pathways from all directions leading towards the tower, for I could see streaks over the cracked ground, much like the fragile thread beams that anchor the delicate framework of a spider web. How long this tower had been there was anyone’s guess, but it had an ancient aura about it, like the Acropolis or the Pyramids, and even from far off it looked as though it were definitely made of stone, not metal or wood.

For whatever reason, this tower seemed to be some sort of significant destination, a place people migrated to for one reason or another, and had done so for a very long time – decades, perhaps even centuries.

The third item to capture my vision as I emerged over the lip of the ravine was a wider road, stretching from left to right at the bottom of the downslope. It was the only trail in view that did not appear to lead to the obelisk. Instead it meandered and curved its way across the grain of the other, thinner pathways in its own unspecific direction. And now that I was paying the road attention, I noticed something else on it that hadn’t stood out immediately, probably due to the massiveness of the surrounding wasteland. A human figure, slowly making its way forward, heading to some place that was not the tower.

The sight of another person trumped all others, and I sucked in all my breath involuntarily. I felt the scrape of air over the infected soreness in my throat. Was there any kind of shelter out here from which one could escape the elements? Unless yonder obelisk was hollow, it didn’t look that way. Nothing seemed more important to me at that moment than flagging this wandering figure down and engaging them, if possible; and perhaps even traveling with them to wherever they were going.

I squinted down towards the lone traveler. It was a fairly long slope down the embankment; everything in this bizarre land seemed to be constructed on a broad scale. But one thing was instantly clear as soon as I zeroed in on the walking figure: it was a woman. I could tell this by the brevity of her strides – although she wasn’t exactly moving at a rapid pace – and by the fact that she was wearing some sort of dress, a garment that seemed every bit as inadequate to the conditions as my own outfit, if not more so.

The woman hadn’t seen me yet. She had her head canted downward and appeared to be lost in thought. Was she in a similar position to my own: lost, unaware of where she was, or where to go? It was impossible to know, but it seemed clear that she had something weighing on her mind. I was filled with a sudden, irrational urge to help her with that burden, no matter what it was, in utter disregard for my own widening predicament.

In any case, she did look as though she could use the assistance of, or maybe just the reassuring presence of, another person. I knew I could use the same, so I resolved to flag her down. However, just before I stepped off from the lip of the embankment, something made me freeze again. It was a noise – a terrifying one. A stronger gust of wind had swept over me, moving in the direction of the tower. When the gust came through it carried the sound to my ears, something I had not been able to hear in the ravine.

I can only describe it as a kind of semi-human wailing, but from numerous mouths, not merely one. All the voices were stepping on top of one another, over and over. It is nearly impossible to communicate the sounds accurately in language, but if pressed I would say they were like the crossing of an aggravated dog’s bark and a human being’s cry of extreme anguish. The sources of the cries were a great distance away – so far off, I supposed, that they could not be sighted: I whirled around and scanned all horizons, including the totally empty one behind me, but saw nothing else. Wherever they came from, it sounded as though they were moving together, like a pack of wolves, searching ravenously for something and obviously not finding it. These sounds were remarkably disconcerting, given the imbroglio I was in already. They honed in immediately on my nerves as if they had some kind of tracking capability. Perhaps the woman in front of me could help to demystify them. For the moment, as the wind died down again, the voices faded away, but I was certain they would be back.

That certainty gave me the impression that time was being wasted – and it was, although at the moment I didn’t know what prompted the need for urgency – so I started down the hill right away. As soon as I started moving again, she noticed my presence, and looked up. However surprised and pleased I might have been to see her when I climbed up out of the ravine was nothing compared to the effect that my appearance seemed to have on the wandering woman. She stopped abruptly, almost leaped up in apparent jubilation, and waved both hands above her head.

She began to step up the embankment, but then saw that I was obviously coming in her direction, and stayed where she was. I waved one hand to signal my peaceful intentions, even though I felt nervous about her strong reaction. The woman was now standing impatiently, wringing her hands, shuffling her feet, waiting for me to draw near, as though I was in possession of something she needed or wanted. Even before I reached her I felt an almost overwhelming urge to holler, Whoa. Don’t look at me, lady. But somehow I managed to hold it in.

I had the opportunity to take stock of her appearance as I got closer. She was fairly short, maybe five and a half feet at the most, and was clearly older than I was. If I had to guess her age I would have felt comfortable pinning it down at just about sixty. Her hair was mostly gray, but had obviously been either a dark brown or black in earlier years. It was tied behind her head somehow and hanging in a ponytail past her shoulders, by how far I couldn’t tell, but many strands had come loose from one physical struggle or another to wildly frame her face.

She had dark eyes, set deeply in the leathery flesh, bracketed by stark crow’s feet. Her face was smeared with dirt in some places. When I got closer I saw that she also had a few scrapes on her forehead and a long, angry scratch down the left side of her face, from above the eye down to the jawline. The dress-like garment she wore was nondescript and off-white, with two pockets a V-cut collar, but the most noticeable thing about it was that it was worn and dirty, stained with whatever elements the mind could conjure. There were several vertical, dark streaks of something rather ominous down the front, much like my own top, except in greater quantity. It seemed clear that the woman had been on the move for some time and had not had the easiest go of it.

I noticed as I drew close, right before she began talking as though she and I were accustomed to having conversations, that she also carried a small black portfolio that looked like something I might have taken with me to the office complex I mentioned, in my other life. It resembled one of those snazzy folders that contain a pad of lined paper and a few slots for business cards and not a whole lot else. It struck me as vaguely absurd that she might have been carrying something like this – was she running late for a meeting? – but it’s not as though this was the only oddity I’d come across in my most recent experience. Just as I was wondering what in the hell she might be carrying in the case, the woman hailed me.

Are you from the Construct, man?? she shouted.

Stumbling to the bottom, I tried to make sense of this while pausing to catch my breath. My throat bristled with irritation.

What? I rasped.

The Construct? Are you from … where were you born? asked the woman, who was evidently looking for confirmation of something she already felt was the truth. She was trying to meet my eyes, so I looked at hers: a dark, vacuous brown.

Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh, I said, perplexed.

Then this woman actually pumped one of her fists, punching the air, which might be the most positive response I’ve ever gotten to the disclosure that I was from Pittsburgh.

They said no more of you were still around, she said by way of explanation, although this clarified precisely nothing. They said it was suicide, a fool’s errand. And it damned well almost was. But I knew that there had to be some of you here. Or at least one of you. And the alternative was just to sit and wait.

My mind whorled, and at that moment I doubted the woman was all there. What the hell was she talking about? Who were they? What did no more of you mean? Wait for what?

Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I said, stopping her. Where are we? Who are you? And what is this place? I looked around again. The embankment obstructed the view behind me, and the obelisk loomed in the distance.

My name’s Helen, said the woman. She didn’t extend a hand or make any sort of welcoming gesture, but her tone was not unpleasant. It did reveal a slight impatience, as if she had to force herself to slow down. She also seemed weary. I was soon to discover that she had good reason for both impatience and fatigue.

As far as where we are, I doubt you’d have a word for it where you’re from, because you wouldn’t know about it. Now you do. Let’s put it this way. Sometimes people concoct a bloated perception of what a person, or an idea, or even a place is. It’s human nature, right? When that happens, a second version of that thing is created. There’s the actual version, and there’s a younger, illusory version. Where you live – where you’re from – is the illusory version. This is the real thing. She gestured with one hand towards the expanse.

I just stared at her. My teeth chattered. I was convinced that I had to be dreaming, for what this woman had just told me was what I had ruefully imagined earlier: that I was dreaming before, as in before I laid my head down to sleep in that …. with …..

Did you just say to me that where I am from is an illusion? It doesn’t exist? I stared at her.

Yes. Sorry about that, Helen remarked. That’s why it’s called the Construct. It is one huge defensive mechanism, designed to shield former inhabitants of this world from the truth. It’s a pretty good one, though. It’s almost too effective. People in the Construct go their whole lives without knowing it. I sent my own son there.

This woman was insane. There was no question of that anymore. But what was I going to do about it? Just walk away and leave her there? To go where?

While I was pondering these things, Helen was staring at me, making me more uncomfortable by the moment. She was showing more patience now, but it was obvious that she wanted me to just accept what she had said and move on. With her, evidently. She seemed to have been waiting for or searching for me, or someone in my situation.

As if reading my thoughts, she said in a gentler tone, Look, none of that really matters right now. What matters is that you are here, just as I thought one of you would be. Thank God— She cut herself off. Then she chuckled. I guess it’s rather ironic to use that expression, at this stage.

I was so dumbfounded that I couldn’t think of what to say next. She was rattling off too many utterly weird statements for me to keep up. That last remark tripped me up completely, however, so I asked, Use what expression? I was surprised by the frustrated tone I was unable to keep out of my voice.

Thank God, Helen said.

Why is it ironic?

Because of the storm, of course. Hurricane Deus. It’s coming fast. You don’t want to be here when it arrives.

Wait a minute. The storm – the hurricane – is ….

It’s called Hurricane Deus. Why do you think they called it that?

I don’t …. I croaked, but then doubled over with a coughing fit, and couldn’t continue.

When I looked up again, indiscreetly wiping spittle from my beard that I had half-expected to be blood but was not, the woman – Helen – was still standing calmly before me, her hands clasped in front of her, pinning the portfolio to her belly. I could still sense the urgency she had revealed before, but it was as though she had brought it entirely in check now, and was able to stand serenely until I was done sputtering and was ready to join her. Given that she had just told me that a storm she believed was God, or that had at least been named after God, was bearing down on us – literally – this stance of hers was instructive. She was no idiot. I suppose she technically still might have been insane, but the shape that particular term had assumed in my mind up until then seemed to be becoming rather fluid.

I breathed deeply a few times, to make sure that respiration was still possible, then held up one hand.

Helen. Listen, I don’t know where I am, who you are, or anything. You’ll have to forgive the questions, but I need the answers, or whatever you can give me. If you know I’m from whatever you just called it—

The Construct.

Yes, that. Thanks. If you know that, then you can probably understand why I’m so out of sorts. Actually, right now, it’s hard to believe I am not dreaming all this up.

Helen smiled. The wind started to pick up, just a tiny breeze at first …. it toyed with those loose strands of gray hair around her wrinkled but sympathetic face.

I wish I could affirm that you were. But don’t despair – you have the means of escape. That’s why I’m so happy to have found you.

But I—

I’m afraid we’ll have to talk about it more on the move. I’ll explain what I can. If we stay here though, one way or another, we’ll die, and badly. Come on. Then she placed a hand on my shoulder. Since I’m a good deal taller than she, this gesture seemed somewhat comical.


To the waystation. We can’t waste any more time.

The wind had increased to a howl in about twenty seconds. Then the voices came again: screaming, barking, taunting, braying. The wind masked the distance; I could not discern if they were drawing near, or still very far away.

It seemed obvious what the waystation was. What else could it have been?

Helen turned and began to stride rapidly in the direction of the obelisk, looming in the haze ahead, dead silent, monumental. I stepped in with her. The wind was at our backs as if urging us, or perhaps forcing us, forward. The long reach of those anguished cries curled around my ears like tendrils of a living vine, flicking at my inner ear, probing for the mental core.

Shivering and breathing with difficulty, I stammered, without looking at my companion, What … ARE … those??

You have to stay alert all the time, Helen responded strangely, eyes fixated on the tower. Here are bad gods.

I tried to chuckle at that. To ease my own mind. But the wind snatched the choked attempt and carried it off towards the waystation.

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