Thursday, November 06, 2008

No escape from the past

All night I heard the creak and pop of a century-old house and felt in my joints a compounding stiffness and an electric sear of pain from a nerve in my shoulder. For what seemed an eternity I lay there straddling the borderlands of the real and the unreal with a half-shout echoing faintly, truncated, cut short abruptly in a manner that both troubled and alarmed me. Cocking my head toward the sound I waited and inventoried a long list of whom it might have been, whose voice so brutally snatched away, and when it came to me I rolled over in shock and the pain from my shoulder shook me awake. Faintly in the distance I heard a quavering who? of a barred owl and not for the first time wondered how the present bleeds into our nocturnal otherlife.

I waited for a reply as the owl waited and when none was forthcoming it called once more.

And listening, ears strained, while the outlines of a room spread around me with dim sunlight filtering through slatted blinds and blue paint peeling in brittle curlycues on the plaster walls. Other uniformed men walked around me while I turned toward the doorway and held my breath.

“Did you hear that?” I asked a man standing nearby.

He shook his head.

I walked to the doorway and peered out. An alleyway led in both directions. Opposite was another doorway, open to an unrelieved darkness. On the step an Asian man sat watching me with a look of hostility. I tried staring him down and couldn’t, and shifted my eyes toward the street. When the cry came again he stood and hustled off without a glance. My eyes bored into the open doorway.

There is/was always a moment, a split second of time, preceding a terrifying act where you suffer almost suffocating loneliness and the surreality of your situation is weighed against the sure knowledge that within mere yards the world goes on without a thought, cars driving by, people walking down the street, the banal underpinnings of civilization utterly divorced from your new circumstances. Life slows to a crawl, an elasticized thud of a heartbeat, while your senses become heightened, sensitive to all sounds, all motions. Your hands sweat. Your own fear taints the air like the musky odor of an animal.

I stared in dread at the doorway and though I wanted to run took four steps crossing the alley and stepped inside the threshold. What little light entered was swallowed up though I made out a hallway leading into the building. Tentatively, each step a struggle, I made my way down the hall until I was near-blind, feeling my way with one hand touching the wall for guidance, the other poised near my holstered pistol. The hall finally opened into a larger chamber whose far walls were lost in the gloom. A trickle of water echoed hollowly, beneath whose reverberance was a silence as deep as the darkness.

Fighting panic, I staggered back down the hall and into the alley. 

The owl called, nearer this time. I threw off the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up.

“Are you all right?” Lori asked.

“I don’t want to go back there,” I said. She didn’t ask where there was.

I walked downstairs and swallowed several aspirin and asked my reflection in the mirror why I couldn’t be normal, why my dreams were more real than reality. It didn’t reply so I climbed the stairs and crawled into bed and shut my eyes, and immediately found myself back in the alley, directing the others to grab more ammunition and weapons and to follow me back into the chamber.

It may seem impractical, but I always go back.

As once upon a time I always did go back, and it was a point of pride that I did. In many ways it defined who I was, or who I imagined myself to be, for we’re rarely certain that the person we think we are is genuine and not a figment of our imaginations, our faults and shortcomings veiled by biases and conceits inherent to our natures. We are mostly strangers to ourselves. And it came to me, after the terror of the chamber jolted me awake for good, that my past career was indeed the catalyst for my nightmares, and that perhaps in some way I cannot decipher I’m still struggling to prove myself.

I remembered a dark warehouse in lower downtown Denver where mysterious noises coming through a steel roll-up door left me with no good choices. Not wanting to make any sound or give myself away, I backtracked outside and tried my keys in all the locks along the street, and when they wouldn’t fit I knew I had to go through the steel door, that when it opened any element of surprise would be lost. For a while I stood beside it listening to the noises, trying to determine what they might indicate, and then unsnapped the chain from the keeper and hand over hand cranked up the door with an ungodly shriek and rattling of chains.  Beyond was only more darkness punctuated dimly by a few emergency exit lights. Crouched beside the entrance with my flashlight off, I listened for the sound and heard only a louder silence. Wiping my right hand on my pants, I drew my pistol and moved fast into the room sweeping it with the light. Fifty paces beyond the light flickered and died; my batteries were dead.

Step by step I backed from the room and retrieved fresh batteries from the truck. And then I reentered the room as I always did and searched it, fruitlessly, it turned out, for the origin of the noise.

Was this the chamber of my dreams? It seemed a familiar landscape. There were so many, though, it’s hard to tell. 

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