Message From The Devil (Vibrations in a Red Crystal)

“It was Lambros. I went out with her food and he had her leash and was taking Sally out the back gate.”

“Lambros? That boy with the huge forehead?”

“His kid brother.”

“That little shit.”

“He was laughing the whole time, pulling on Sally. She didn’t want to go, she was looking back at me and whining, but he dragged her into the trees.”
“Seriously? Why didn’t you follow him?”

“Christie—you have to let me tell the story.”

“Oh, so I can’t ask about what happened to my fucking dog?”

“Of course I followed them! I ran as hard as I could!”

“Okay! I’m sorry, all right?”

“It’s just that I tried to jump the fence. And my foot caught. And I fell on the gravel. Which gave Lambros even more of a head start.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know… Anyway, I caught up by the footbridge. Sally was nowhere. Lambros was on the railing, grinning like he’d just played a hilarious joke and now got to enjoy the grand treat of watching me bumble through. And then I see it: right beside the creek there’s a circular hole in the ground, with a ladder set into its side.”

“A ladder. In a hole.”

“Yep.”

“And how did we never notice it before?”

“It wasn’t there before.”

“Are you sure?”

“…no. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Did you try calling for Sally?”

“Well, by the way that asshole kid was smirking at me, I figured he’d thrown Sally into the hole. I’m not going to lie, I wanted to do things to that kid’s skull that would have put me in prison for a very long time. And right away I thought about Maria and Bruce’s—“

“Oh my god, their cat.”

“Yeah… But I figured I could deal with Lambros later. Call social services on his parents and get him committed or whatever. Something nasty and satisfying. But I pushed it out of my mind and climbed down the ladder after her.“

“But she wasn’t down there, was she? What did Lambros say?”

“So. I climbed down. It was warm and almost dark. I was in a sort of large room, there was junk everywhere, old electronics, busted couches. Twisted metal wire. Like somebody had been hoarding in this weird hole. I call out Sally, Sally! Nothing. I walked around a little, found a passageway. Another room: the same deal, maybe less junk. Dim light that I couldn’t find the source of. And only two exits. Around this time I stopped calling for Sally and just listened. I guess I got a little nervous. I started wondering who had dragged all this shit down here, and whether they were still around…”

“Eric…”

“Please listen. Because next the rooms got cleaner, emptier. The trash disappeared. The paint looked newer and brighter, and there were windows way high above, too high for me to look out. Then I heard people, lots of them, some kind of market, somebody yelling out prices. I went through another passageway and came out into a street I didn’t recognize, in a city I’d never seen before.”

“ERIC…”

“And there were all these people rushing past me. But something’s wrong with their faces. Their eyes were split four ways, like… like quartered golf balls. And they had noses like red cucumbers. White gloves. And big hanging mouths and rows of teeth like sharks do. Their throats were full of teeth.”

“Okay so there are two possibilities right now. One is that you’re completely insane and who knows what the fuck you did with the Sally.”
“You know what, it really could be that I lost my mind. I totally agree with you.”

“The other possibility is that you’re the biggest tool who has ever existed.”

“Christie…”

“You think I’m an idiot?”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“I have a Master’s!”

“I know.”

“Here’s what really happened: you thought this like scrawny sixteen-year-old kid was going to whup you, and you made up this entire fake story which no one in the world would ever believe—nobody I know, nobody who has ever lived would fall for it. You’re a coward, AND a liar.”

“Sure, I am a coward. You’re right.”

“I don’t give a shit! I just want my dog back!”

“I was a coward when I climbed down into the scary hole, when I went through all those rooms, and when I went into that strange city with the weird people. I was a coward because I was willing to risk my life to avoid the fit you would throw if anything happened to your precious irritating shitting yapping idiot dog.”

“It’s starting to sound like you’re the one who got rid of her.”

“I couldn’t. Too much of a coward.”

“…”

“…”

“There’s an easy way to settle this, isn’t there? Let’s go look at the hole.”

“We can’t.”

“Let me guess: it’s not there anymore.”

“I can’t explain it either.”

“Your story’s so full of shit, man. How did you get out of fairyland? Did the hole like, close behind you at the last minute?”

“No. I went the other way. The people ignored me completely, they didn’t seem dangerous, and anyway in a few minutes they were all gone. I was alone in the street. I could see deserted high-rises for miles. The sun was too close and too big, it went down between two condos as if it were welding them together. Then I heard a crack, and the street split in half and began to fall apart, but jumped back into place. I hauled ass in the other direction, up a hill, and the sky seemed to sort of melt down and flow toward me, washing away the buildings as it came, and then washing away me… Then I wasn’t in the city anymore. I felt like I was nowhere. Like I didn’t have a body. I felt like a network of vibrations in a sort of red crystal that went on forever, underneath everything, vibrating. I felt like red lightning crackling everywhere at once superfast, but in a space so big that I could never branch through it all. But all that energy was swirling toward a center, to a tight black bubble, inside of which was this intricate lightshow — our entire universe, sustained by this awful red energy. The last thing I sensed was that the universe had not been created by a kind God. There had never been a God, only a Satan, and the evil he had planned was bigger in conception and in time than anything we could understand. All the evil we humans have ever experienced is only a by-product of his ultimate plan. And when I saw this, I woke up by the creek. And the hole was gone.”

“Do… you… realize that if you had just admitted to losing Sally, I would have been mad, but I would have forgiven you? Someday? But by lying… I mean what… what are you even trying to accomplish? Are you actually insane? I mean literally insane. Because how could you ever think I would be stupid enough to believe you?”

“Christie, I just came back from a first-hand encounter with the absolute evil at the center of existence. You think I still care whether you leave me?”

Something yapped.

Christie cried out and ran to the window. The garden gate was swinging open: Lambros bustled through with Sally in his arms. She snuffled his neck, licked him under the chin. Christie gave me a quick look that compressed twelve years into less than a second, then opened the window and called smiling to Lambros. In his soft voice he explained that he’d found her by the creek. But when she leaned down to take Sally, he looked in at me and grinned, baring rows of teeth, like a shark, all the way down his throat.

I skipped sideways into the bathroom and locked the door. I sat on the tub and put my face in my hands, and laughed. Briefly.

Birds 2.0

As the songbirds began to die off, the park services, having in mind only customer satisfaction, hired an innovative and award-winning start-up to troubleshoot.

The start-up’s A-team of hotrodding, tattoed, handsomely bearded data scientists recorded millions of hours of birdsong, used machine learning to sort the recordings by species, age, gender, health, and mood, and finally wrapped speakers resembling vines around high branches and began to supplement the organic birdsong with a play cycle that simulated the movements of real birds.

Later they added the droning of bees, and the sound of feral paws padding across mulch.

But then an up-and-coming young manager drank a certain specialty coffee and stayed up all night innovating, and the next morning he presented the park management with a game-changing proposal: during the day, at damn decent prices, they would sell airtime on the branch speakers, though the ads should be soothing, serene, kid-safe, and preferably for natural products; and at night, visitors could dance, chat, flirt, purchase drinks, and otherwise enjoy themselves under trees blasting the freshest hits, with a live DJ on weekends.

None of this lasted, of course, because then the war came, and no one had any time for leisure, and anyway it wasn’t long before the park, along with the rest of civilization, was incinerated during a single night of retaliatory nuclear strikes—a night that was never named, for there was no one left to write history.

But there’s good news: after a relatively brief span of geological time, living things—though not ones we would easily recognize—recolonized the wasteland: hairy, oddly coloured foliage rose in misshapen domes, the birdish creatures laid more eggs to compensate for the deformed chicks, and meanwhile their threatening, desperate songs provided a charming backdrop against which nature could finally breed and murder in peace.

Eternophobe

“Here. Put these on.”

Tortoiseshell aviators with scratched lenses. Oddly heavy.

“Why?”

“It’s for your own good.”

Up close the lens scratches looked like overlapping letters, as if many sentences had been carved over each other.

I felt deeply uneasy.

“What will you give me?”

“Raymond, these glasses will let you see infinity. It’s the quickest way to settle our argument. It’ll completely smash your ideas about free will.”

“Mmm, yeah, sounds fun…” I laid them carefully on the nightstand and maneuvered toward him. “Let’s just…”

“What’s wrong with you? You want to stay ignorant? Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then put them on. Just for a second, and afterward we can…”

“Fine.”

The glasses felt like two stone tablets crushing my face.

“Dude, come on. You have to open your eyes.”

First I saw N. He was smiling, and suddenly it seemed worth it that I had put on the glasses.

Then his face wavered: his eyes seemed to be open and shut, and his mouth was a flickering scramble of lips and teeth.

He swung off the bed, leaving behind a trail of selves, and branched backwards into the bathroom.

Then dozens of Ns, many totally nude, burst back in, crowding through each other.

Copies of myself multiplied everywhere, flipping through expressions.

Other men appeared, strangers to me. Many duplicates of each one climbed into bed with us, and the air filled with their thrusting bare asses.

Over them the walls and ceiling became flimsy and ghostlike. Glaring skies shone through, kaleidoscopic with scrawly birds. Trees mutated through each other.

The sun was a screaming oscillation.

In the distance giant sloths wandered through rolling tanks.

Metal strings spread everywhere, as if over some cosmic guitar, but they were only bullets existing along their entire paths simultaneously.

How can I say this? Everything branched and intertwined, everything wove back into itself without ever ending. Every moment that had ever existed hung there overlapping, and then it all abruptly sort of turned at an angle, the trillion trillion instances spreading out like a deck of cards, and I saw my life cross-sectioned two hundred times a second from birth to death; I saw every face I would ever have, frozen in mundane scenes of supernatural beauty, and it was immediately obvious just how much love and patience had gone into rendering every hair and wrinkle, how meticulously each expression had been carved.

My life was a majestic baroque sculpture perfect in every detail, unbelievably grand, and yet it was only a microscopic subpart of the universal masterpiece, just a tiny, glowing vein deep within the huge frozen block of infinity.

Free will? Forget it. What we call time is just the tour through the four-dimensional sculpture.

N might have won the argument, but I ghosted him.

Skyworms, or The Man Who Disproved Sleep (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

It’d been a long day, I mean literally a day that had lasted months. I had disproven sleep in an internationally published and peer-reviewed paper and since then none of us had been able to get any rest. It turns out that sleep is a sort of trick programmed by evolution into our brains to keep from us getting too close to reality, a filter that drops down right when we’re only starting to really wake up. Once you understood my research, you saw through the trick, and suddenly you couldn’t sleep anymore, even when you wanted to, even when all you craved was just a minute’s peace away from your thoughts, which were building on top of themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything, only to leap up again in entirely different configurations.

I was about two months ahead of everyone into the great sleeplessness, and all things considered I felt pretty decent, had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. My mind was steaming on a little faster than I could handle. I’d started avoiding the lab. Keeping to myself. I guess I’d become isolated. I was in a constant conversation with parts of my head that I’d never met before, and I found I had to defend all my most basic ideas against chattering cruel voices that questioned everything I believed in, not just who I am or ideas like kindness or courtesy but all the way down to questions like whether being able to touch something is sufficient proof to believe in its existence. It was as if I had to define every last element of reality in order to keep experiencing that reality. Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to run around inside trying to put everything back into place, patch it up but stronger, and then dash off to the next leak that my personality had developed. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. I felt as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind. As though my mind was now all muscle and eyeball.

I spent a lot of daylight in parks. The nature soothed me. The voices never questioned the birds or the brook, and I could still summon up that old feeling of harmony from the days when I still slept, a harmony I hadn’t even known was there, a deeply seated and unconscious sense of the rightness of reality, an unquestioned faith in the hardness of the table and the familiarity of the face in the mirror, a face that had long since stopped hanging together and was just eyes, nose, mouth, wetly coexisting without acknowledging each other. In parks there were no mirrors and few other people, and it calmed me whenever my consciousness could spread out uninhibited, as if it no longer centered around my body. I liked to lie in the grass and watch the clouds.

Until the day when I noticed that the entire sky was infested with massive translucent worms swaying like things underwater.

I howled and sat up straight—and the worms swung with me.

They were in my eyes.

I had tests done. Lights were shined, samples took. The doctors didn’t find anything and I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover. The worms had probably always been there, hidden from us by our brains, which after all evolved to generate offspring. You hunt and breed more successfully when you’re turned off to certain cosmic realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth. Sleep had been protecting us, and now, without sleep there as a buffer, we would one and all slowly have our collective face pushed closer and closer toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, objects held grudges, the sky talked endlessly, the atoms laughed until they almost split themselves, and everything that had been hidden was slowly sharpening into a clarity that was not supposed to fit inside our brains.

And I would be first. Or actually—the second. First was the woman who’d clued me into the true nature of sleep. I’d been putting off visiting her, but when the worms appeared I finally conceded that I needed her advice. The worms were waving sickeningly over everything all the time: over the sky, in the trees, on bus seats, in my cereal, on the backs of my hands, on the inside of my eyelids, over the face of my girlfriend—whose name, by the way, suddenly seemed oddly inappropriate. I felt that she had another and truer name and that when we could discover it everything about her would resolve suddenly, and she would be on the same plane as me again, and her face would come out of the fog, and I would remember what exactly she had meant to me before all of the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had undone everything and made it so hard to concentrate on what had once made sense so easily. But through the fog I still had a sense of loyalty to her, and this loyalty had prevented me from consulting the woman who knew about the true nature of sleep, because the last time we’d seen each other she’d made a pass at me, I thought.

Now I was unlatching her gate. Now I was ringing her doorbell. She answered the door without a word and we looked into each other’s eyes. The translucent worms were crawling over her face and hair and the walls behind her, and I knew she could see them on me too.

“I just want to know…”

“Yes?”

“What happens next?”

She laughed and shut the door.

Then she cracked it again.

“You mean after the snakes?”

“The snakes??”

She made us tea while she filled me in. She hadn’t made it through to the end herself. But she had stopped hearing the voices. They had intensified and heated up and gotten faster until they all fused. Now her mind was in a tunnel, she said, and the tunnel was made out of voices woven so densely they looked like black earth. I found it impossible to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes like sandbags on fire. I nervously picked up a book and flipped through it. The pages were blank. She said that she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down a tunnel, and at the end of a tunnel was a hole, and any day her mind would slide into the hole and fit into place and everything would twist like a key in a lock, and maybe then she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t even understand how to talk to me anymore, she said, and reached out like she was going to take my hand, but only stroked the back. I took away my hand and picked up another book. Blank. Same with the third and fourth and fifth book. And they were all so light. I felt if I blew on the page the whole book would crumble. She said my name—not my usual name, but my real name, one I hadn’t even known existed—and rubbed her knee on mine. Why was she still concerned with animal delights I’d long ago left behind? I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared. Then she said my real name again, and I shivered and understood that this would not end well. Talking to her had accelerated the process in my own skull. I could sense a tunnel’s mouth somewhere just behind my forehead. It made me aware of the furrows of my own brain. By now she had scooted her chair over and was leaning on my chest. I didn’t get why she liked me. Maybe I was just the only one she thought could understand. But I didn’t understand anything. It had all frayed and fallen apart. I could feel my skin unravelling, and underneath it I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and quickly dispersing. Her breath warmed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck. Her three cats were watching us and an omelette still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know if I had the neck or the hand, if I was flesh or wood; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and all her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.