Archive for the ‘Supernatural’ Category

The Complete Works, (so far!)

Hey there, and many thanks for stopping by. On this site you’ll find a collection of my short stories and screenplays for your enjoyment. Please feel free to leave feedback both good and bad – as Plato once said –  the worst thing is to just be ignored!

Even better however, would be if you could find your way to actually purchasing one of my published books using the links below, that way I may continue to dodge bullets and bailiffs with your help. All books are available online, in all reputable books stores, E-books… and no doubt soon, all local Charity Shops.

Hope you find something here to enjoy….

Best Wishes,

Mike   x

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“SPRINGBOARDS”         – A further collection of original short stories, short scripts and feature screenplays.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Springboards-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1291060103/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1369732955&sr=8-2&keywords=michael+zealey

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“BUM NOTES”          – A collection of eighteen original and diverse short stories:

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1447839889/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=103612307&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=1447823931&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=0G9A7XND7E5NS8XMQ3Z1

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“DIFFERENT STATES”           – One Man, One Credit Card, One Continent… No Plan. A travelogue from East to West Coast USA.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Different-States-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824245/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366284192&sr=1-3

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“MOLEHOLE”            – Essays on the Human Condition. The story of one man’s dark and lonely three year journey so far up his own ass that he arrived out his mouth to recount the tale to a deaf world.  (Not suitable for minors or miners.)

miol

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molehole-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824113/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332168305&sr=1-1

Thanks awfully x

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Snake Eyes

‘Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more, my love.’ (Donovan, Riki Tiki Tavi.)

 

20:30pm. Backstage, Live Animal-Handling Restricted Area. Excalibur Casino , Las Vegas, NV.

About one year ago…

The sharp fangs slammed down on the plastic cup and Jared helped the venom out by gently pushing down on the serpent’s head. The hot ejaculate squirted out in angry bursts through the puncture marks, staining the side of the sealed beaker with white milky streaks.

Jared was aware how much his hand was shaking as he carefully put the viper back into the cage. He looked at the clock on the wall counting down to Showtime. He’d only just had a drink, but darn it if these shakes weren’t getting worse and he still had two more mambas to make safe before curtain up. He shot a quick glance at them curled up under the cage’s heat lamp. They seemed especially pissed at him tonight and Jared had to admit there was something in the air. He felt it in the gamblers seated at their tables as he’d walked through earlier, sensed it in the waitresses keeping them lubricated with complimentary drinks. No free drinks for him this evening. He was earning every cent.

Shaking the jar of venom he watched as the deadly poison splashed up the sides. There was enough behind that concave plastic to kill a man forty times over. Jared reached with his free hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his hipflask, shaking it too in an attempt to gauge how much vodka-venom remained to him. The sapphire eyes of the silver cobra engraved on the flask twinkled back at him, hypnotizing him to drink deeply and kill the noxious thoughts. But there was backwash only remaining, not enough to last the night and certainly not even enough to kill a man once, especially not on this sweltering August night deep in the Vegas stink. Another quick look to the clock, he knew the time anyway but wanted to second guess himself, looking for a reason to justify what he knew, sure as eggs was eggs, he was about to do. Well for hell, he could make it, just one quick nip out back in the lot, out of sight of the CCTV, it couldn’t hurt any to take the edge of the shakes and snakes to tide him over until he could skedaddle out at half-time to the liquor store across from the Denny’s store.

Jared opened the Stage-Door deep in thought, a couple of showgirls hurried past extinguishing their cigarettes under sequined shoes, their feather boas and brightly coloured plumage startling him as they brushed across his stale three day old chequered shirt leaving a delicate scent. This place was as hectic as Grand Central station, how he longed for some cooling and contemplative silence. Vegas had no heart. Empty vessels and all that, on the surface it was the biggest smile on earth, but dig deeper and it ain’t a smile, it’s a maggoty wound that won’t heal as it’s always being cut by freshly broken dreams. He held the door for the last of the dancers before stepping out. As the door closed on its hinges he instinctively looked over his shoulder to see if the last showgirl was checking him out. At thirty-three he reckoned himself still in with a chance, but the drink had bloated and ravaged the edges of what had once been a strong jaw-line and most days he wanted to hide in a swamp along with all the other croaking toads. She didn’t look back and he turned dejected to the night. It had sure been a long while since he’d gone wild, he was always milking other people’s snakes and had neglected his own. The hot desert air hit him full in the face but he knew his sweat wasn’t due to heat, but a deep thirst which no amount of air-conditioning could quench.

Making sure he was out of sight of the Eye in the Sky CCTV, he nipped freely from the flask, remembering how optimistic he’d felt on first arriving in Vegas all those months ago and finally outrunning his orthodox Christian upbringing. As he stood in the car-park swigging his whiskey he laughed at remembering how within the first week he’d been pulled over for speeding on Fremont Street and the traffic cop had issued him with a fifty dollar fine. Jared had thrown him a hundred dollar bill out the window and told him to keep the change as he was coming back the same way tomorrow. Such optimism. Such arrogance. He’d had to sell the car soon after, but he’d only been heading in one direction for a while now anyway, and he didn’t need an engine to go downhill. Even the stage manager had told Jared he was digging his own grave with his mouth swigging that shit day after day. But he was great at milking the snakes so he let it go. Taking the poison out of them somehow balanced the poison he was putting into himself. Guiltily he knew that for a long time now he’d been putting in much more than he’d been taking out. Maybe he should just cut out the middle man and drink the milky beaker back there on the table and be done with it? But he knew it wouldn’t work having been brought up in the flatlands of Texas as part of the Snake Handling Church of Mesquite. Even though he knew it now to be ridiculous, a small part of him still felt sure no serpent would harm him, protected as he was by God. God…

God the fucking time! Jared kicked the metal stage door with his boot and barreled back into the room. Despite the cushioning of the booze he felt a sudden stabbing fear as he looked over at the empty cage, the heat lamp shining down on a vacant floor. Almost simultaneously Jared heard the roar of the expectant crowd through the tannoy linked to front of house and he knew he was too late. Something was gonna get bit and chances were, it would be his Vegas career. No longer caring who saw, he took out the hipflask and drained it whilst through the speaker he could hear the audience’s screams of joy turn into fear and panic.

 

 

10:40pm. Desert Plains Mesquite, about thirty miles north of Snyder, Texas Panhandle.

Present Day.

‘Fucking snakes’ll be the death of me, I swear it.’ Jared kicked the small brown rattler away from the wheel arch of his pickup truck and pulled the tarpaulin over the open back. It didn’t look like rain, but things changed quickly out here in the desert. He talked to himself as he yanked on the rope, securing it on the hook:

‘A man is changed by the desert, they said. Go out and be tempted, they said. Face those demons. Look ‘em square in the eyes and say: enough. Repent…’ He caught his finger on the sharp metal of the side of the pick-up where he’d had a minor scrape the week before, drunk and with no recollection of whether he’d hit possum, person or Porsche.

‘Fucking repent they said. I’ll fucking resent.’ Jared hated being back amongst his family. It didn’t seem fair. Life had kicked him in the nuts once again. It had taken such courage to go against them and seek his fortune in Vegas and now what busted his balls the most was how the community hadn’t even viewed his return as a failure but as a prodigal son seeing the light and returning to the fold to help with their evangelical touring ministry. Selling yourself for money was one thing, selling your soul was a whole different show. How could he in good conscious preach something he knew to be false?

Even though the sun had been down a full hour it was only now starting to get cooler. He could feel the sweat on his shirt starting to freeze and stick to his back causing a fine shiver, barely detectable over his alcoholic shakes. The not wholly unpleasant sensation acted as a reminder and from the back of his jeans pocket he pulled out the cobra hipflask and gulped down the warming whiskey, telling himself he was just keeping out the cold desert night.

Jared was thirty miles in to the barren desert and about as many years deep into the arid and parched hinterland of his own existence. ‘They’ figured out this was his time and chance to get back. Confront himself and the empty desert head on. Trouble was, he thought, as he struck out into the black emptiness, ‘They’ were a bunch of pussies. He made camp in the shadow of the table top mountain that was still just visible as darker against the threatening sky. Throwing down his rucksack he walked five measured paces away from it, then using his left leg as a point of compass, he dragged round the right leg and surrounded the sac in a dirt circle as he’d been taught by the Native Americans growing up. Happy with his sacred space he walked off into the brush to gather wood for a fire. Kicking around in the undergrowth he drew together a collection of kindling with his boot and checking for snakes before picking it up he returned to his circle. He dropped the wood and raised his fist to the circle, spinning on his heel and keeping it neat.

‘Kill or cure, they said. I’m that fuckin’ clinical tonight, that fucking clinical. I’m not leaving this circle before it’s one or the other.’ As if to prove a point to the desert he flipped the bird round his dirt circle. ‘Come on then, let’s see ya Booze Demon step inside my circle if you dare. Face me, bitch.’

Jared immediately felt troubled by the lack of response. The silence, tapped him on the shoulder and worked itself into his ear unbalancing him. He reached into the army surplus rucksack and fished around for a can of beans he knew to be there, but as he’d secretly hoped his hand felt the phallic tip of the whiskey bottle first. Who could eat at a time like this anyhow?

‘Holy spirit, Teen spirit…’ he unscrewed the cap and smelt the contents, ‘…smells like white spirit’. He gave a rebel yell out into the gathering dark and knocked his head back.  A coyote moaned in reply, it’s sickly cry mimicking his own as the whiskey kicked out the back of this throat. Jared built his fire desert style, short and tight, fashioning three of the larger twigs he’d collected into a pyramid from which to hang his crock pot over the tidy blaze and, retrieving the can of beans, he poured the contents in.

 

 

04:20am. In the shadow of Acoma mesa. Forty-two miles into deep desert.

He was proper drunk. Drunk even by his own standards. The fire had grown ridiculously large, far bigger than he needed it, but each time it had burned down to a red ember glow the shadows had come, strong and long against the ancient native American rock and he’d felt like an unwanted intruder. He felt the presence of spirits disturbed by his own uninvited presence. The pleasant smell of cooking refried beans had long been replaced by the acrid stench of charring matter but he was in the grip of his drinking and had totally forgotten. He wandered over to the crock pot, now stained black by the hours of hot fire and beating back the smoke he picked up a large stick which poked out of the fire and nudged the pot. Like a jack-in-the-box a flurry of black streaks jumped out at a rainbow of angles like launched missiles. Jared watched them hang in the air before descending around him, thudding to the ground and writhing round his boots. Hot smoking black snakes, their molten hisses sounding like steam. Jared stumbled backwards and watched in horror as they slithered around his dirt circle like a cyclone. He threw his arms out wide in fear and with the burning twig he shooed them off into shadow beyond the fire’s reach.

Jared shook his head. That hadn’t just happened he reassured himself, and within moments he believed it. This whiskey was making him blind. He was rocking on his centre of gravity, and felt he’d either fall forward into the fire or backwards into the colder night where the snakes were lurking. Maybe he should try to walk the booze off, step away from the fire and let his face cool down a bit from the searing heat and mad thoughts. His head still lolled on his shoulders like a bowling ball and after only a few steps he collapsed to the ground, rolling around in the scorpions and scrubland like an octopus with epilepsy. His was a blue desperate drunkenness, with no one else to mitigate it or take it out on he felt absolutely alone.

The fire seemed a long way off. All he could see in front of him was a large cactus looking as alone as he. Jared slapped its side, his hand digging into one of the sharp spikes and drawing blood. He looked at his palm and pulled out the bloody spine like a crucifix nail. The blood dripped onto the desert floor, immediately absorbed by the parched earth.

A voice came to him from somewhere nearby but he couldn’t quite locate it, at first indistinguishable from the wind but gradually forming into distinct words: ‘…A fire burns in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it…’

The voice was incredulous and now loud enough for him to pinpoint. It was coming from inside the cactus. Jared allowed himself to forget the drunken absurdity and went along with it, hoping to get a better fix on the origin, ‘Well that’s gotta be biblical I’m guessing?’

The cactus gave an almost imperceivable nod in the warm night breeze that had swirled up the ground dirt and Jared brushed away the desert tumbleweed that had collected in the arch of his legs. He realised he was outside of his sacred circle.

“Remember, If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.’

It was definitely coming from inside the huge cactus. Jared poked the tough green skin between the fearsome spikes. Somewhere way up above them on the mesa an eagle screeched and dislodged some pebbles which came cascading down a few feet away from his fire.

‘And what does it matter if a man wins the world but is himself lost?’ Jared stood up and faced the cactus.

‘Sheet, it’s just like they said’ Unbalanced by the drink he immediately fell forward again onto his knees and as he did so the hipflask fell out the back of his pocket and began leaking onto the dirt floor. Despite his religious upbringing he instinctively scurried round on the ground trying to collect up his precious holy water. He turned back to the cactus, shaking the flask to assess the loss and feeling more guilty than ever.

‘You’re here to tempt me, aren’t ya?’ he said.

The cactus bristled in the wind. The voice soft and mellow.

‘No, I’m here to help you. What’s the point in tempting you, you’d choose give in immediately anyway.’

Jared reassured himself there was still enough whiskey left by taking a long pull. If this was to be his breakdown hallucination, he may as well charge up as much as possible.

‘I’m a good person, I’m deserving of love, ain’t I, Mr. Cactus?’

‘So what? Deal with the fact life isn’t fair. Compare The billionaire New York banker to the three year old girl in the African famine, do you really think the world views both their lives as equally important? The best piano player ever born lived in the Favelas of Sao Paolo, he lived and died without ever seeing a piano in his life. What’s fair? Even tomorrow hasn’t been promised to you? Why do you feel such a sense of entitlement?’

‘You don’t sound like God?’

‘Neither do you.’

Jared noticed that the spines of the cactus were beginning to glow. He rubbed his eyes to clear away the alcohol but the fat green buttons had undeniably begun to look like a lit Christmas tree. It had finally happened, he reassured himself, all the stress, all the booze, all the years of mental torture had finally come home to roost and ripped a whole through his brain. He was having a breakdown, a perfect and complete psychotic episode. Go with it, don’t fight it. Accept the madness, it can’t be anything worse than he’d seen in his time on The Strip, he reminded himself. At a loss as what to do next, he quickly traced round another circle in the ground with his boot and sat down in the centre of it, cradling his hipflask between two open palms.

Jared looked around him at the new circle, there was a shuffling in the early dawn, a scraping sound subterranean around him disturbing the ground more than any wind. They broke the ground as one following the circle, a large circumference of snakes each biting onto the tale of the one before it, slithering round him their eyes turned inwards upon him. He feared they might attack, but they continued their circumvention as if unable to cross into the sacred space. The dark glow of the cactus had begun to register against the dark desert background looking at first like a bruise on the soft green skin, but gradually growing in strength, pulsating and throbbing. Jared felt drawn in as the skin became translucent and he could see veins and cloudy red light coming from within. It was as if the cactus itself had become a womb, growing a secret internal life, sustaining it. Jared was aware of the voice continuing, now with a lisping and breathless delivery as if each word was being immediately whipped away by the wind and carried to him with the tumbleweed and gecko scales. At the centre the cactus opened, like a slit in a serpent’s belly with a white light slicing through the dark green, and from it came a large snake.

The snake flopped out of the cactus and moved towards him. The circle of smaller snakes began to bury themselves back underground, wiping away any trace of the dirt circle with their tails. The large snake stopped by his boot and raised itself up until it was eye-level with him. Jared was powerless to move, he was transfixed by the snake’s milky eyes. But as he gripped the corners of his flask waiting for the coup de grace, the snake bowed its head and his hands immediately stopped shaking, and an incredible sense of peace lay upon him, unlike anything he’d ever felt before, more genuine and heartfelt than any chemical drug reaction in his brain. He opened his eyes and saw a small silver cross caught around the snake’s neck, a scab had formed around the point where the tip of the cross had become embedded into the skin and already the skin was showing signs it was getting ready to slough. The silver cross reflected his campfire way off behind him. Jared leaned in and saw his own face reflected in the polished metal. Without quite knowing why he addressed the snake through booze-chewed words: ‘is hell bad?’

‘You tell me,’ replied the snake, ‘you’re there right now.’

‘I burned my finger once real bad, I was torturing a fly and pushed it inside a plug socket to see if it would be electrocuted, it wasn’t I was. It threw me across the room and I watched as the fly scuttled out and flew out the window. It was so painful and I thought if it is this painful on just one finger, imagine this all over your body… forever. That was my first understanding of hell. But as I got older there’s a different type of hell isn’t there. A mental hell. One that doesn’t burn you up all at once but slowly, leaving nothing but absence as it scorches. That’s why the drink. It puts out the fire… Are you going to kill me?’

He looked down at the underside of his bare arms, the veins were standing out, raised as shadow in the distant firelight. But like the cactus before him the veins seemed to take on an internal glow of their own, powered by something under the skin. In horror he felt his blood congeal in the arteries and begin to slither round his body like a hundred snakes wriggling through fleshy tunnels blind and insatiable. Jared flapped his arms as if trying to dislodge them, but with a growing anxiety he knew them to be inside him. The snake hissed long and slow, it felt to Jared like the release of a pressure valve inside him, the frantic air escaped through his fingertips, taking the memory of glowing snakes with them. Again the sense of unspeakable peace descended upon him.

‘Sit…’ hissed the snake, drawing out the sound like a slowly deflating truck tire.

‘Sure muthafuckin’ thing,’ said Jared, touching his imaginary cap as he collapsed to the earth. This was his breakdown and he was gonna suck it up, goddamn it, ride the bitch and see if he could stay the course without getting thrown. He was so lost in his own thought that he wasn’t even aware of the snake mumbling again in such a soft and seductive voice he had to make an effort to continue his own private and brittle thoughts.

‘The earth is but a little blue bubble in a massive vacuum of nothingness,’ it hissed, ‘Treasure it. Right now as you stand here, all across the surface of the globe there are people engaged in following through on their existence. Some are laughing for joy, some are screaming in agony, some hope this moment never ends, others are looking to the future. Starving, bloated, sick, joyous, some are crying at what they’ll never be while some are crying at what they are.’

‘All of life is being played out now,’ it said, ‘every living thing is breathing in deep from my life-force and exhaling their own reality. Your particular story is as brief as summer lightning, each grain of sand just as memorable and important as you. Enjoy it as much as you can whilst the white-hot energy of life flows through your veins because what you do really doesn’t matter, so long as it is compassionate and honest. Only human arrogance would assume that they’re the most enlightened living creature around these parts.’

The snake took on a mocking southern drawl, causing it’s forked tongue to quiver. As it spoke its tail began to rattle in time with the cadence like a cold-blooded beat box.

‘A peach tree doesn’t think about growing fruit, it just does it. Trust your instincts. You knew how to grow from a baby to a man, trust that you also know how to grow to your conclusion. It’s so very simple, I really don’t know why you, why you all make it so complicated. I’m telling you this now for truth, Jared. Go back. Go back and reclaim the cross. Take it back from those who use it as a totem of suffering and loss. Throw out your arms and accept. Reclaim the action from those who’d remind you of guilt, sacrifice and suffering’.

Jared threw his arms out wide as if being pulled apart by an unseen force.

‘Do it. Stretch your arms out in joy and acceptance, not in pain at having them nailed to a plank of wood. Let the universe flow through you and out the other side. Accept it all. You are it and it is you. Forget about personal sacrifices and feel unified with the one.’

Jared looked up into the sky to see black spots circling in the watery dawn. At first he thought it was dirt in his eye, but as he focused he could see they were desert vultures. What did they know that he didn’t? he thought.

The snake retreated back to the burned out cactus and Jared was aware of feeling connected again to his surroundings.

‘Did you miss me desert, it’s been a while since I’ve come out here. I won’t leave it so long next time.’

The reply came back, rumbling through the canyons and up through the petrified forest lisping, ‘How can I miss you when you’ve never been away?’ The rumble dragged on, becoming more man-made, more like truck tires on loose dirt. sounded more like car tires. Jared forced his eyes to focus. Two white spots were getting larger in the darkness. Coming from the south Jared reckoned it was the Mexican border. Either border police or immigrants. Immigrants probably given early morning light. Out of the periphery of his vision he could detect the Sierra Nevada mountains etched darker against the encroaching dawn. The mountains were lit by hundreds of pinprick small bonfires. The two spotlights grew from snake eyes to car headlamps and were on a direct course to go through his own small fire. Jared stood his ground. He counted seven Mexicans clinging to the sides of the jeep, all freshly crossed from a hole cut in the wire border he reckoned. They screeched to a halt next to his fire, causing the dry sand to shoot over the embers sending red hot sparks into the sky. The driver pointed to his fire.

‘San Juan?’ The men began to laugh as the driver throttled the engine and twisted the wheel to spin off into the promised land.

Jared looked at the date on his cheap Casio watch. Or course. Tonight was the Mexican feast of San Juan where they all jump over their bonfires to wipe out the sins of the previous year and start fresh. He looked back to the snake curled up in the open cactus and he felt a sudden need to wipe his own slate clean. Holding the serpent securely by the neck he took a run at his campfire and jumped as hard as he could, which weighed down as he was by two litres of Wild Turkey and a large rattlesnake wasn’t too high. The heel of his boot caught the tip of a charred log and sent a July 4th of fireworks into the rattlesnakes tail. Jared could feel the snake open wide its mouth in disgust as he held it between thumb and forefinger. Jared landed and twisted round, careful to keep the snake’s face from his to see the cactus burst into flames and set against the dark blue sunrise.

‘Give me a break, who am I? Moses and the fucking burning bush?’ He could see inside the ruptured and burning ribcage what looked like a beating animal heart, still bloody, the fat around its edges beginning to render in the heat. But at its base a dozen snakes had gathered and were edging up trying to catch the fatty run-off. In the half-light it was hard to tell where cactus ended and snake began. Charred flesh and dirt caught in his throat. He reached in his rucksack for his canteen of water, knowing his hipflask to be dry, unscrewing the cap he gulped the contents down.

‘Bah. Turn my water into wine then, King of the Jews.’

Laughing with a confidence that felt fake to him, he took another sip. It tasted like the finest white wine, light and aromatic. He spat the mouthful out onto the cactus, seeing the yellow liquid fizz off the smoking remains.

‘Bah. I only drink red,’ he slurred, eyes flickering on heavy lids.

Jared passed out, his left hand hurling the canteen in front of him, whilst his right kept an instinctive tight grip on the rattlesnake. Within seconds of his head hitting the dirt he was sound asleep, his hold on the serpent slowly relaxing until it was free to slither away or attack him. But it did neither… It stayed.

The sun rose over the canyon gradually warming first his arm, then creeping across his whole body. He looked at the cactus, it looked as if it had imploded from the inside out. He studied it with the intensity and clarity of vision that only a truly epic hangover can provide. He saw the morning dew settle on the snake-like skin and manna forming along the length of the spines. He ate greedily and it seemed to fill him in a deeper place than his stomach. A familiar rattling sound interrupted his feasting and he looked round to see the snake, still with the small silver crucifix embedded in its neck reflecting the sun. Without fear Jared reached down and picked it up, putting it head first into his rucksack and tying a strong knot at its peak.

 

 

06:40am. Encampment of the mobile Snake Handler Church. Snyder city limits. Texas Panhandle.

Jared saw the smoke from encampment’s fire trailing up to the cloud in the early morning sky. Another hot day was promised for all the good it would do them he thought with their faces buried in dusty bibles. Opening the pick-up door he smelt the coffee and the sizzle of hot bacon grease on the breeze. He felt a sudden pang of home-sickness before reminding himself that for better or worse he was home. He walked round to the back of the truck and removed the tarpaulin to carefully pick up his rucksack, he noticed the warning rattle as he put it on his back reassuring him the snake was still healthy enough to be angry, much like his own self. As he strode towards his great-uncle’s trailer he could feel the hipflask in his jeans was totally dry. Of all the times he could do with a hit, this moment was up there with them. Darn it.

Jared pulled on the weather-beaten Formica door and it came open so easily he wasn’t sure if it was unlocked or just rotten. Instantly he heard the clatter of the old air-conditioning unit above the lower hum of his uncle’s morning prayers. He knew he was interrupting but somehow took a perverse delight from the knowledge as he took in his surroundings, unchanged since he’d first gone in their as a child. It seemed even smaller now, claustrophobic. Another reminder of his own failure. Here were all the photos, all the memories, all the indoctrination of everything he’d decided to run away from. Like a rubber band pulled beyond its natural tolerance, he had snapped back to the other extreme: Las Vegas, about as far from the dour caravan as he could get.

Jared closed the swing door behind him with as much noise as the thing plastic would allow. His uncle got up off his knees, a frown beneath his wispy grey eye-brows and moved through to the kitchen area without saying a word, reaching for the same ancient coffee pot, putting it on the stove and striking a match on the wall to light the gas. The coffee smelt like it always had, two day old and acrid. He’d rather drink water from the stagnant creek.

Once the coffee was steaming his great uncle finally turned to him.

‘Mornin’ Jared.’

‘Mornin’ Obadiah.’

The old man heard the rattle coming from Jared’s rucksack. He lit a cigarette and his nostril hair caught fire in the lighter. He breathed up quickly to extinguish the nasal blaze and began sniffing out the debris.

‘Do ya ever smell pork when you burn yourself?’ He flicked at his nostrils, dislodging the charred hairs. Jared remained silent, silhouetted in the doorway with rucksack. His great-uncle rubbed his nose and pointed to the squirming bag.

‘Is this to be an assassination then, J?’

‘Not today old timer. I wanted you to see something.’

‘What ya got in there then son? Sack ‘o serpents instead ‘o spirits for a change. Both as deadly to ya, boy. Did ya learn anything out in the desert?’

The coffee-pot whistled with him. He fixed himself and Jared a cup.

Jared’s hand was shaking again as he put it on the door frame to enter up the steps, ‘Got anything stronger?’

His great uncle ignored the question.

‘I was just thinking about my pa. Strange that you should come a-calling now.’

Jared sat down on the stained sofa and rested the bag between his legs. Leaning forward he unzipped the rucksack and cautiously peered into its black depths.

‘My grandpa? I never knew him…’

The uncle poured the coffee into stained floral cups, unaware of Jared’s timid investigation.

‘Of course ya didn’t, died before your time. Your granddaddy was like John the Baptist, he went out into the desert, lived on locusts and wild honey, came back with a bucket load of serpents that would never bite him. He lasted about forty days out there. How was your forty minutes?’

It was Jared’s turn to ignore the question. The old man treated himself to a rhetorical cackle and before continuing.

‘Ya granddaddy spoke with a lisp that pretty much made him sound like a snake, and what with those eyes of eyes, all yella and serpentine, hell, the deal was done. What else was he gonna do but preach out here? He was special, touched. After all he said we really thought that someone was coming after him, someone great. But shucks…’

The old man rummaged through the cupboard above the sink, its door hanging forlornly from one hinge. Disappointed he turned back to the two mugs and carried them towards the seating area.

‘We was sorely disappointed… sorely… Your daddy was about as much use as a bull with tits when it came to snakes. He got bit and stayed bit, far as they were concerned. But you… you had a talent. And what do you do with it? Ya haul ass to Vegas to whore out ya talent. But, it seems fit to the lord that he’s brought you back to us. Saints be praised.’

Jared looked at the windowsill to see a neat row of green peaches ripening in the sun.

‘That ain’t how ma tells it… she said he got bit holdin’ up a Snake Farm in Jefferson County…’

The old man threw the plastic coffee mug into the sink, slamdunking it off the draining board.

‘That was never proved, you shouldn’t listen to too much of what your ma says anyhoo…’

Jared looked at the peaches ripening on the sill. He shivered as he remembered how his great-uncle treasured that old peach tree out in the yard growing up, how he’d picked them like rosary beads each autumn and always placed them in the window, turning them every few hours to ripen each side, religiously like it was a penance. So desperate was Jared for a drink he checked each peach to see if his great-uncle’s forgetfulness had allowed any to ferment. None had, but he went deeper into memory as he sipped on the gravel coffee, recalling an afternoon long in the past when a few peaches had fermented and he and Ronnie Graham had got his older sister to do their Tarot card reading. His great-uncle had caught them and beaten him within an inch of his life because his god was a god of love who didn’t deal in witchcraft. It dawned on him for the first time, maybe that was why he’d chosen Vegas to make his line in the sand. Jared poured the steaming coffee out of the window, covering a few peaches in the overspill. The old man’s lips curled up dryly around his receding gums.

Jared stared him down, ‘Won’t you just leave it, hey?’

The old man sized him up, Jared was a hulk of a man now and there’d be no whipping today. He backed down with a soft voice. ‘Just saying that’s all. Don’t get all bent outta shape about it. Hey, what ya got in that sack then?’

Jared looked at the old and hunched man, broken by the years, tortured by a self-inflicted life on the road preaching the good word and daring the devil serpents to bite him. Jared felt pity at a life wasted without daring to look at his own. In the early morning light his horizontal pupils, a family genetic defect, looked more like a snake than ever. Jared consoled himself that his ancestors had been snake faith handlers for so long, he was sure there was probably a snake out there with human eyes, so much blood, sweat and tears had been exchanged on both parts.

‘Yeah well I never got bitten by the religion bug, did I? I heard my daddy talkin’ ‘bout the parable of the seed and only felt that stony ground inside me.’

‘Bah’, shouted the old man, ‘Even if I had a million dollars, I’d still be sitting here preaching, that’s the difference between you and me boy, you got no heart.’

‘I’ve had a gut-full of you already,’ muttered Jared under his breath, ‘Look at this,’ he said, reaching into the rucksack with his right hand, straight down, unafraid. From inside the warning rattle could be heard, dry and crisp. Nature’s maracas. Jared yanked it out and brought the rattler’s head to his own eye level.

The old man drew a sharp breath, dislodging the catarrh in his ancient Marlboro country lungs. The snake fixed its hypnotic eyes on Jared and stopped rattling, choosing instead to wrap its tail around his neck. Once again it bowed its head. The alcoholic shaking in his Jared’s hand immediately stopped.

‘See, I don’t need a drink so long as I can do this. What you think about that. Am I cured or what?’

The old man squinted at the brown rectangles on the snakes back. ‘You didn’t catch that round these parts… He’s a copperhead, and a big bastard at that.’ The old timer began scratching his arse, tentatively at first, but then really getting into it. A dust storm had begun to whip up, thick sand battered the thin plastic door, the thinner granules penetrating and collecting in a dagger shape on the rug.

‘Have you found it yet?’ asked Jared sarcastically.

‘What?’

‘Whatever’s up your arse?’

‘Hell, not yet boy. Doesn’t your arse ever get so sweaty and itchy it feels like a baby’s toothless mouth chewing on peanut butter?’

‘Oh man, that’s fucking disgusting. No my arse gets a diff’nt type of sore – on account of all the times the Man has stuck it to me, know what I mean?’

Jared shoved the snake towards him and the old man snapped back against the wall.

‘Where’d you get that, boy? You tell me now, and don’t give me no monkey-shine about no Mesquite plains, I’ve been trampling this route for years, you don’t get rattlers like that this far northeast.’

Jared brought the snake even closer and the old man’s hand went for the hot coffee pot.

‘Watch it, they’re the meanest most vicious snake you’ll see, darn poisonous too. If it bites ya somewhere integral and central you’ll have about an hour tops. I’ve seen these bastards hold a grudge and actually hunt a man interstate.’

It was then he saw the small silver cross embedded in the snake’s neck. The old man let go the coffee pot and made the sign of the cross.

‘Mary mother of god, let me look at that.’

His face turned as white as the silver cross.

‘As I live and breathe’ his eyes narrowed and he looked suspicious. ‘Alright, the jig’s up. You’re playing a trick on me, ain’t ya. This is your granddaddy’s cross. You cooked this up with your ma?’

‘What you talking about?’

The uncle could clearly see from Jared’s open expression this was no set-up. He looked the snake straight in the eyes.

‘Cyrus? Is that you? Oh Cyrus… it is you, ain’t it?’ The old man reached out for the snake and gripped it safely under the jaws with his left hand. He took the snake and turned the head back towards Jared.

‘I told him he really gonna catch the devil if he kept messing round with those snakes, it was unnatural, like he’d become one of them. One night went to bed with stomach pains, and in the night he went to the outhouse and shit out an egg. He kept it in there, secret, telling everyone the shithouse was broken and he was fixing. Then one night there was a commotion and a snake came out. Soon after he disappeared, he just went clean out of his head. Ran off into the desert, probably to talk to the cactuses.’

His great uncle looked deeply into the snake’s milky eyes.

‘We found him a week later, dead. At his request we gave him a heart burial, you know, where the body is buried one place and the heart is removed and buried in another. We buried his heart in the snake pit not far from here. You can hear them at night, the half-breeds I call ‘em, crying at the sun going down, losing the heat they need you need your sour mash. This beauty’s getting ready to slough off his skin.

Jared looked paranoid out the window, feeling his heart beating in his chest. He checked the peaches in the vain hope one might have fermented some.

‘The old man leapt forward with a sprightliness unfitting his years and shoved the snake full up into Jared’s face

‘Say hello to your granddaddy, son.’

‘You’re insane old timer. Has that rancid coffee finally curdled your brain? I worked in Vegas remember, don’t try and fool me with this old shtick. You’re just an unsuccessful wannabe celebrity, with your snake-charmer’s show’.

This bit harsher than any snake-bite and he threw the snake back at Jared.

‘It’s not snake-charming, it’s a goddamn act of faith,’ he immediately held his finger to his lips, ‘forgive my cussing, oh Lord.’

‘Yeah it’s an act for sure.’

‘Talk to me about celebrity? Why ya back here with ya tail between yer legs? I understand though, you couldn’t settle up in Vegas so you had to settle down.’

For only the third time in his life inside that caravan Jared cursed, it just came out like a snap reflex of a snake’s tail.

‘Go fuck yourself…’

The uncle dropped his coffee cup and went to strike his nephew, but as his hand went down the snake curled up, fangs bared to greet the palm. He withdrew.

‘Don’t you cuss in here.’ His uncle shook his head slow like the ticking of a great pendulum ravaged by time, creaking yet still keeping correct time.

‘No, you’ve got it all wrong, son. You think things stay the same. But everything with a beginning can be stopped. When you think of being seventy six, you imagine YOU now at seventy-six, but you change. You change.’

Jared began to feel the night’s excitement upon him and looked at his watch. The alcohol was rendering out of him and he nothing to replace it with till the parish shop opened in two hours. He was scared to sleep, but suddenly just as scared to stay awake.

‘Being back here is just a retreat for me, you understand? This isn’t me. This isn’t me at all. It’s just that out here in the desert you can really strip things back to basics, to the bone and see what’s really what without the complications of the daily grind. And believe me… it fucking grinds. That’s something you don’t know about old timer, something you can’t lecture me on. I had the cojones to poke my dick above the parapet – you just hide in here with you dusty books.

‘Yeah, you poked it above the parapet all right – got it clean shot off too, didn’t ya?’

Again Jared felt the fangs dig into his heart, and the response came like the recoil of a cobra.

‘You wanna dance? Really? I tried… at least I fucking tried…’

‘Go back to your Gomorrah then and whoop it up if you miss it so much, high-tail it round town with some whore… oh but excuse me…you can’t can ya, you ain’t got a red cent. I’ve got chickens out in the coop with more credit than you…’

Jared leapt to his feet and squared up to the old man hunched against the Formica worktop, towering over him to such a degree that even in his red rock rage it still felt like an unfair fight. The old man felt that the wave of anger had broken in his great-nephew and the moment had passed. ‘At least ya still got some fight left in ya, son…’

Jared crumpled back over his rucksack and sunk into the cushions against the window. The rattlesnake made a beeline for the corner of the room away from the noise.

‘It’s going to take so much to get me back into it though,’ Jared whimpered, ‘Like I was saying, you can cut it to the bone out here, but once you want to get back into the game you need money for rent, money for romancing even for relaxation. Out here I don’t miss it, but if I went back I couldn’t even pay the tip on my existence. I’d just end up all resentful again.’

‘Just like your old man. You’re a goddamn pussy. So you ain’t even gonna try?’

Jared looked at the snake curled in the shadows of the broken wooden flooring. He felt a quiet optimism as delicate as desert dew.

‘Yeah I’m gonna fuckin’ try… get off my back, old timer.’

His great uncle moved past him and off towards his prayer area. He reached for the upturned book resting on the rug and turned his back to Jared.

‘If I had a dog as lazy as you I’d shoot it. And that’s for truth…’

Jared reached under the skirting and pulled out the snake which came without trouble. Putting it back in the sack he took a last look at the old man bent over in prayer.

‘What you gonna kill me with? Your book of poison or your fuckin’ poisoned coffee?’

Forgetting his years, the old man instinctively leapt again at his great nephew striking him on the left cheek with the back of his gnarled hand.

‘Now git. Ya hear me…? Get…’

Somewhere deep inside himself Jared knew he deserved that one and let it sting unchallenged. He slunk out the door and back towards his own tiny trailer down by the creek on the edge of the camp. Opening the door he immediately saw the previous morning’s emergency bottle of J&B Whiskey on the breakfast counter.

Jared felt his hand begin to shake as he reached up to unhook the serpent from his neck and set it down next to the bottle where it immediately curled its tail around the glass base. Was he going to drink or leave it? He wanted to leave it, but the shakes were already beginning to make the snake edgy. Jared reached for the bottle, the snake let off a warning rattle. He could see the nostrils flaring in and out and noticed the eyes were opaque, ready to slough its skin. Once more his hand stopped shaking.

‘Steady as a fucking rock.’ Jared ran his dry and cracked hand over the snake’s skin like he was rubbing a phallus, he expected it to be slimy and cold but it felt warm and dry. The snake hissed appreciatively, it’s forked tongue wiggling in ecstasy. Carefully, Jared reached behind its head to where the tiny silver cross was embedded and pulled. It came out without too much resistance and the snake continued to wiggle it’s tongue without distress. He studied the smooth metal.

‘Aw, you drunk skunk, don’t start believing your own bullshit.’ He sank into the giving sofa and let the cross gradually slip from his hand as a final sleep descended upon him. The snake began to rub itself against the splintered leg of the sofa, dislodging the dead skin as if peeling a banana.

It was late evening when Jared finally came to. His face was burned in strips from lying in full glare of the day’s sun through his blinds. He touched the painful red flesh like it was streaky bacon frying without enough oil. About the same time, he wondered why his leg felt so warm despite still being in darkness and leaning up he realised he’d urinated down his inside leg. But all this was lost on him as he looked to what lay just beyond his boot. The snake was nowhere to be seen, but on the floor was a huge empty casing, a sloughed skin as thick and translucent as bubble wrap. The discarded skin was in the perfect shape of a man, sprawled out on the rug as if the police had drawn his outline in chalk.

Jared stood open-mouthed staring at the enormous rice-paper skin, it felt as dry to the touch as his own tongue. The plastic door of the mobile home flapped open and closed in the morning’s sweet scented breeze. Jared picked up the whiskey bottle from the table and leaning out on the step, he poured it away onto the parched earth. He reached across to the broken handle and closed the door behind him, securing it by the old boot lace. Something had left in the night, and he hoped it wouldn’t be back any time soon….

 

 

Going Down in the Drinks Elevator

 

21:43. A Thursday two weeks after Mardi Gras. Decatur Street. French Quarter, New Orleans. Present Day.

With the job gone everything else had followed with a certain inevitability, like a Louisiana mudslide gathering speed and swallowing everything in its shit-coloured path. To Saul Barstow it had seemed more like a car crash in slow motion only he’d long ago taken his hands off the steering wheel and petulantly folded his arms in defiance to the gods. When the impact of how he’d been living finally crashed home, Saul found himself without an airbag or insurance.

In the days that had followed him walking out on his job he’d initially felt a certain rush of freedom, but this was soon replaced by a lethargy. He told people who asked him, less and less now, that his get-up-and-go had got-up-and-left and he couldn’t be bothered to go look for it. Despite the absolute freedom that came from being answerable to no one he found he still needed a routine. But after the first year even maintaining that came to feel like a job. It was so boring buying the same old things each day, milk, bread, something for dinner, it became like a treadmill. Do the washing up, just more to do tomorrow, have a shave, the stubble always grew back. The absolute futility of it all! Why did it always end in lost these days, never found?

So he just stopped. He stopped looking, he stopped it all.

Only there was one thing he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop…

‘Hit me up again, barman, the booze is flowing like molasses round here…’

It was round this time he discovered The Drinks Elevator. It was usually to be found in the Apple Barrel, a bar half way down Decatur street, but these days he could mostly find it anywhere. He didn’t have long tonight, he had something to deliver. He picked up the massive rucksack and slung it on his back. He hated it, stuffed full as it was with unpaid bills, unfulfilled dreams and the general detritus of life washing round in a stagnant harbor like so much fetid flotsam. How much heavier the backpack felt when he thought of it in those terms. He became Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, but his only progress recently had been paying off his outstanding tab at the local liquor store. The nylon straps on the rucksack had become twisted and now cut into his shoulders as he prepared to leave the apartment. Hang it all he needed a drink! Now the weight was on his back again, he knew it’d be a miracle if he could remove it without one.

‘Fuck it. I’ll treat myself to the elevator. It’s a smoother ride and I deserve it today.’

Miracles are to be found in the little things he told himself as he tied the laces on his pumps. They don’t have to be thunderbolts or old men parting the sea with heavy stone tablets. Miracles happened everyday if we could only stop to look, but most of us were too busy or self-absorbed to ever notice. This thought always made him feel glad he was without gainful employ. He had the time to stop and look and catch a glimpse of the divine plan in the overlooked cracks. He recalled an incident from his childhood growing up on his parents homestead in the Ozark mountains, a frog was being eaten by a snake. He’d been darkly fascinated, unable to look away like the urge to rubberneck a car-crash, not really wanting to see the smashed bodies but transfixed all the same. It hadn’t been a fair contest, the snake had the frog bang to rights clamped between its reticulated jaws, and was slowly digesting it. The frog was reversing down the snake’s throat and each time it squeezed on the frog’s belly the amphibian let out a squeak much like a dog’s chew toy, getting more desperate with each life-draining squeeze. It wouldn’t be long now. The meal was taking place in the long grass at the back of the homestead, no-one else on earth was supposed to see this. Then for no reason the snake seemed to sneeze and let the frog go. The frog kissed its teeth to the snake and hopped off towards the mangrove swamp. A miracle for the frog, but of no real importance in the scheme of things, but a miracle nontheless. This was how he viewed the Drinks Elevator, it was his own little miraculous secret, his second chance away from the serpent’s jaw.

He walked towards the Art Deco elevator admiring as he always did the ornate doors. His phone began to ring, he didn’t need to look at the screen: whoever it was he didn’t want to speak to them, not now he had set his mind to the wheel. He pressed the button to call the lift, there was only a down button, there only ever had been a down button. With a groan of cables and badly oiled cogs the lift gently rose to meet him.

Inside, the attendant reached eye-level with him, touching his cap in respect and resplendent in his neatly pressed shirt and collar with jacket buttons so polished that Saul paused to check he hadn’t left any turkey sandwich between his teeth in their reflection.

‘Good afternoon, sir. A little early today aren’t we?’

Saul swung the backpack as he got in, intentionally hitting the man for not minding his own business.

Going down I assume sir?’ said the attendant, pulling shut the grayling. The interior was spotlessly clean, with paintings of great historic battles on each side surrounding a central relief of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

The elevator descended to the next floor and came to rest with an almost imperceivable bump. Through the grail Saul could see his ex-work colleagues busying themselves in what looked like a hotel banqueting suite. He could hear the chink of crystal glass and the deep murmur of convivial bullshittery. He didn’t usually bother getting off at this floor anymore, finding it far too formal, but he managed to swipe a large glass of white wine from a passing waiter without even having to step fully out of the elevator. The lounge speakers droned out a Burt Bacharach beat and the whole thing just screamed flakiness at him from his vantage point safe inside the cage. Those that were dancing did so in nervous jittery movements like the spasms of shot deer, all the while trying to hold on to their drinks and the next conversation, never really listening, using the time the other person was speaking to think about what they were going to say next. Saul didn’t feel up to mingling with any of them and instructed the elevator attendant to speed on down to the next level, resisting the urge to go straight to the basement, knowing that may well come in time.

As they rattled down to the next level the light became softer and the music more relaxed. Saul visibly exhaled with relief as he saw three of his acquaintances leaning against the bar. He exited the elevator and headed over to the polished wooden counter. He hadn’t seen any of them in a while and quickly fell into an easy conversation once the ice had been broken with a few swift shooters of Jameson’s. At the appointed time he returned to the elevator with a spring in his step, bouncing into the carriage so that the floor yawned on the metal cables.

The attendant was leaning against the picture of Venus, collar undone and buttons seeming a little less reflective.

‘Feeling a little better sir?’

‘Jack, I’m feeling a million dollars. Take me down to the third floor immediately.’

Saul took his phone from his inside pocket and rested it on the horizontal metal bar of the lift. He reached his left hand out to the room in front of the lens as if trying to grab all his friends and everything else in that moment, freezing time.

‘Good luck to you, sir’.

‘Luck’s just the door, you got to come in through the window.’

‘Well said, sir’, the attendant seemed to hiccup as the last syllable trailed off into a burp.

Saul felt like he was flipping a silver dollar whilst having his spats cleaned on the corner of Chartres Street as he’d seen his father do when they used to go to the races on a Saturday morning. Saul’s phone started ringing again, only this time faint from inside his pocket like an embarrassed cough, inconsequential, the signal fading as the lift descended.

Saul had become talkative and barrel-chested. ‘I’m like a stereo see? And the booze and the drugs are like my graphic equalizers, I adjust them up and down, trying to find the perfect alchemy of buzz with which to get stuck in to the action.’

The attendant moved Saul’s jacket out of the way of the closing doors. He flipped down the pulley lever and the elevator once more began its descent.

Saul heard the musical baseline before he could see his friends dancing in the dimly lit club. Green and blue strobes shone through the elevator door to cast strange shadows over his face. The air was thick with weed and tobacco.  Fairground music and gunshots.

Saul ordered up another round of shots and tried to dance. He almost convinced himself he was having a good time, but something felt missing. The more he tried to hoof it, the emptier he felt. Instead of feeling loose he began to feel a pitching queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He looked up at his friends who were gurning up at the strobe lights. How could he be feeling so separate right now? He could feel the hot salty lava building in his osophegus burning its way up, hellbent on an eruption. No, what was this bullshit? It was far too early! He hadn’t even drunk that much as far as he could remember. He tried to tell his friends that he was feeling a little off colour but they just seemed to look straight through him lost in their private dancing, only wanting to know about the next round of drinks and happy stories. Saul knocked back a large one for the road then on the excuse of finding the rest room he instead found the elevator. The attendant seemed surprised to see him back so soon.

‘Everything alright sir?’

‘Take me down Jack, life should be lived on the knife’s edge but I’m feeling as soft as rancid butter all of a sudden.’

‘Perhaps you should slow down a little sir? Take some water on board perhaps?’

Saul waved him away with his hand.

‘Fuck it. Don’t tell me my business. You’ve been doing it all evening. What are you, my wife now?’

The attendant didn’t answer. He simply closed the sliding door and yanked on the down lever. With his back turned to him, Saul couldn’t see the sly smile on the increasingly aging face of the elevator attendant. Saul was looking into the reflective glass of the elevator doors. Not for the first time he didn’t recognise his own reflection. He stared into the bloodshot eyes and didn’t get any flash of self. How he imagined himself to look in his mind’s eye was at total odds with the reality now presenting itself. When did he get so old? Some haggard version of his father looked back through the frosted glass as the outside neon lamps streaked past as the elevator fell further.

His heart always skipped a beat as he approached the fourth floor and saw the orange sunset strike him in the ankles like a welcoming searchlight through the slats of the elevator door, gradually ascending to his thighs, then his chest and face as it reached level. He saw her silhouetted against the sun coming through the roof-terrace, vines thick with succulent grapes and her looking like the most succulent of all fruits. Saul’s feet left behind the sticky metal floor and touched pampas grass. The Mexican evening felt hot on his bald patch as he walked towards her. He was suddenly overcome by nerves, he hadn’t planned on stepping off at level four tonight, he’d felt too self-conscious and worthless to delve into this memory, and yet, here he was, walking towards her, the sound of the ciccadas mixing in his ears with his own pumping heart, but as he got closer he fancied it was actually the croaking of frogs.

She was pouring some of the new season olive oil onto an end crust of the morning’s bread now hardened in the dusk. Her usually jet black hair had found the heart to melt to a russet in the strong sunset. He walked across the veranda and pulled back a metal chair making it grate on the dirt floor.  He sat down, facing her, feeling the bougainvillea wrap itself around him as he lent against the fence.

He stared straight into those blue whirlpool eyes, he knew she saw him even though she continued to stare off across the valley munching on the oil-soaked bread. Feeling keenly the inadequacy of words Saul tried pure telepathy. He looked at her and tried to find the honesty of himself to connect with the honesty of her.

‘We couldn’t even be in the same room to begin with, do you remember? It was so strong, the electricity between us, it was like bringing two lightning bolts to a magnet, the whole room would get so electrified people’s hair would stand on end when we kissed.’

He studied those eyes trying to see a flame get started, but all he saw was his own memory of the two of them intertwined like a medicine snake in those black pupils, from that black past. Nothing more. Fuck it, now he had a new medicine and a new snakebite he didn’t need her. Time to get back to the thing he could always rely on. Memories were lies anyways, like old movies he could re-edit again and again in his mind choosing with each viewing what scenes to leave out until they played perfectly, according to his iron will.

He walked quickly back to the elevator unhappy with this surge of unwanted emotion. The attendant was there as usual with a kind word:

‘I wouldn’t dally here if I were you, sir. Time is a-wasting’.

Saul tried the same telepathic look into his eyes, but they were opaque and emotionless, like a snake about to slough it’s skin. He suddenly felt like a frog unable to escape the jaws of the elevator. He allowed his gaze to lose its intensity and fall down the attendants uniform. It was looking bedraggled, what buttons hadn’t fallen off were now sullied, none of their proud sheen remained. They were unpolished and unloved; yet so was he. Damn if he didn’t need another drink already. The sweat had broken out on his forehead and he tried to rally the woozy attendant.

‘I like your style Jack, respectful. You know what, I’m gonna tip ya right now, just send me down quick, uh?’

Saul rooted around in the pockets of his slacks. Feeling nothing folding he moved to his jacket inside pocket and pulled out a cheque book. The cover had been torn into neat rectangles from the rolling of numerous joints. He flicked open what remained to find nothing but stubs.

‘I seem to be a little light tonight, I’ll get you on the way back up.’

The attendant continued to stare blankly at him.

‘Ok then, good… I always say…’ Saul’s voice had been battered down by the booze to a mumble and he gripped the handrail to steady himself. Caught in the sickly glow of the elevators strip lighting he cut a broken figure, cowed by every bottle he’d ever drunk being smashed over his head in the morning.

‘…Just take me down the drain, Jack…’

The eyes of the attendant flickered open like a TV screen being switched on. He reached his hand up to the lever, now carved in the shape of a snake’s head and let it hang over the snout.

‘Are you sure sir? It’s still early. I was told you had business to attend to?’

‘No, the basement is best ways tonight, Jack, the game’s not worth the candle.’  .

The attendant’s legs buckled as he raised himself up on his haunches to depress the lever.  He still looked a little queasy round the gills but a good belch seemed to correct it enough for normal service to be resumed.

‘Mind the doors please. Going down.’

He reached for a rope cord hanging  from the wooden slats and yanked. The meat-packing service lift closed horizontally. And as it slammed shut, Saul saw that the attendant was now just wearing an off-white vest. the hairs on his sunburned back turned silver in places.

The elevator felt like it was free-falling snapped loose from controlling cables. It shot down to the basement with such force that it knocked Saul off his feet and into the air where he and the attendant hung for an instant as if strange Cosmonauts engaged on a sling shot round the Sun. When the metal cage slowed to a bumpy halt just before the smash, Saul found himself on his hands and knees. There was a silence. He could hear the burb rising in his throat before swallowing it back down, feeling the need to remain straight, in front of the attendant.

Until it had stopped he hadn’t even been aware of the tinned music in the elevator, but now it was gone it was almost like there had been another person in the room. On his knees Saul heard the tinkle of soft harpsichord notes, as if plucked on a metal wheel.

The elevator doors remained closed and he looked over to the attendant slumped on his corner stool, sound asleep. Saul called out to him to open the doors, no response. He got up and shook him by the lapels, still no response. Feeling justified in the circumstances he slapped the attendant round the face, softly at first, then harder. He remained stone unconscious.

Saul smelt he’d reached the basement before his eyes caught up. A heavy scent of rich myrrh, cigar tobacco, opiates and just enough astringent disinfectant to add an undeniable piquancy. He felt he was home again. As if loaded with explosive charges, his backpack jettisoned off his back and shot against the door control lever. Like a troll’s sickly yawn the elevator doors creaked upon horizontally. Saul rubbed his sore shoulders.  It sure felt a lot easier without that weight on his back. As he left the elevator he hoped that whatever had been in the sack wasn’t important or urgent, he couldn’t remember now, but no matter, he comforted himself with the knowledge it was usually there neatly stacked by the elevator in the morning.

The attendant was slumped in the corner without the strength to lift the elevator shutters. Saul yanked on the cord and stepped through like a child in a sweet shop.

He gave a last look over his shoulder to see the elevator’s shutters transforming into the metal jaws of a bear trap. They snapped shut like a robotic mouth on a breeze of necrossing halitosis. He moved through the wooden cellar, the smoke so thick it was as if everyone inside were fish being slowly smoked. To left and right the kippers were kipping, stretched out on their opium-den stained mattresses, stained with the life force of all who’d rested there as it had been sucked out of them, never to be returned. Saul sucked in the thick chocolaty air. He was back amongst his people.

He found his personal corner, decorated with the posters of all his ego’s past triumphs. A small crystal screen was embedded in the ceiling of the four-poster bed, surrounded by plush Bedouin drapes peeling out from the centre  like petals from a rose. The screen intermittently showed flight departures to places he wanted to visit, interspersed with pornographic movies of people he dreamt of laying. He lay back on the cool silken pillow and reached for the tube containing the dark juice. It hung from one of the posts of the bed at eye level like an emergency oxygen mask on a doomed flight, Saul pulled down on the plastic tubing to start the flow of the thick molasses liquid, bringing the suction cup end to his lips he began to gulp down the yoghurty silt directly into his brain stem. He lay back on the soft mattress and released a belch into the sunken world lit by candlelight, as the medicine took its effect, the room felt almost religious but instead of the cold stone draft of his childhood religion this was some priestess cult and her temple was warm and womb-like, pulsating with living tissue. This was the place he really wanted to get to each time he took a sip or gulped a slug. This was always his end game and ultimate destination with everything stripped from him, pared away like the layers of an onion. Here he was at the most basic level, uncluttered, not responsible, just being, uninterrupted by the external demands of a world he couldn’t quite figure out. His right hand slipped off the bed and trailed on the floor. His knuckles felt cold rock there at the bottom.

The plasma screen sparked into life and She appeared on the screen, but not as before, now she seemed perfect to him, like a memory remade as he wanted her to be.

‘There is a silence at the heart of all great things’ he said to himself.   Through the membrane walls that separated each cubicle thin veins containing the juice crisscrossed pumping it into individual areas. From the next chamber a voice could be heard. Saul came back into focus to realise it was addressing him.

What brings you here then, you’ve still got a bit of fight left in you haven’t you?’

Saul answered as if from a warm dream, ‘’I’m like a Faberge egg, see? I spent years making my outside as intricate and shiny as possible, but I neglected my inside and when the hammer blow came the shell shattered and there was fuck all in there.’

A mellow laugh that seemed to contain all the understanding in the world came through the leathery membrane back at him.

‘You and everyone else here I’d guess’, the voice said in mellifluous tones, ‘Don’t sweat it. We all paid the entrance fee one way or another. How long you in for?’

Saul took another long pull on the juice before answering.

‘The night only, my bag will be packed somewhere, ready for the morning.’

Saul turned his head to look through the membrane on his other side, the walls seemed more yellow and stained, the face was a blur but he could still register a spastic movement from within. He felt it was his turn to do the asking,

‘And what brings you here..?’

The voice came back shrill and with an uncomfortable edge that immediately bristled the hairs on the back of Saul’s neck.

‘Hard to remember now, this junksuck kinda blue-rinses the brain after a while, don’t it? I recall it was something to do with not being able to be myself. I was so soft inside like last harvest’s cotton, but I could always hide that and put up a killer front, boy could I sell it to ‘em. Mr. Humpty-Dump, but it was all painted shell, inside there was an empty cold wind blowing round a small, scared kid. The real me, huh? Someone took a sledgehammer to the shell one day and the kid inside wasn’t ready for it. The shell didn’t count for shit.’

Saul sucked on the tube starting to feel absent-minded. The story sounded familiar somehow but he couldn’t place it. The pages of colourful comic books from childhood flapped through his brain. Perhaps that was where he’d heard the story? The rice-paper pages flew from the comic and flapped away like tropical butterflies. Saul reached out with his hand and tried to catch one.

‘I’m sorry for you mister. That sounds a real bummer in the summer.’ Saul caught an escaping butterfly and squeezed its stamen between thumb and forefinger releasing a yellow viscous liquid. He tasted it, all sugar and spice.

‘Bah, it’s just another tale of the bottle. We’ve all got one here.’

Saul brushed the dead butterfly from his fingers, ‘How long you here for?’ he asked.

‘Same as you… according to your medical notes… for all time!

Saul was unsettled by this.

‘I can leave anytime I want, pal. I choose to come down here.’

‘Sure you do. How many drinks has it been today so far? You’ve got to commit to get this deep in my friend, they don’t just give a key to anyone.’

‘Bullshit! I’m the fucking landlord of this place! Look at the walls, this is all my stuff, look what I’ve been over the years, you can’t talk to me like this..!’

The laughter from the next cell was so vile that the membrane itself reverberated like the albumen of a rotten egg, releasing a foul stench into the room. He felt like he was inside the stomach of some unspeakable creature being slowly digested.

Saul ripped the tube from his mouth causing it to hiss and spit the remaining globules of juice from his mouth where it landed at the foot of the bed like congealed pork fat. He got up and attempted to shake the dream from his unresponsive body, moving tortuously as if suspended in glue. He stumbled back to where he knew the elevator to be. But all he found was a smooth keyhole. He reached for his cell phone to see no signal, both he and the phone were out of range tonight, not possible to be connected at this time.

He banged on the smooth metal teeth until a small slit opened horizontally in the mouth of the shut bear trap. He recognised the sneaky eyes of the elevator attendant.

‘Hey Jack, thank the lord it’s you! Let me in won’t ya? It’s time to go.’

But the bloodshot eyes of the attendant just stared back at him.

‘You can only visit here so many times, sir, before you can’t return.’

Saul shoved his fingers into the slot and tried to open the door himself.  The attendant pushed the metal slit against the chubby reaching fingers like a guillotine.

‘I must insist sir. There’s nothing I can do… it’s the rules.’

Saul retracted his fingers sensing the futility of this tactic. The attendant relaxed a little and stopped his finger execution.

‘Of course sir, you can always buy your way out, but it takes time… forms have to be approved and signed off, payment’s made, you understand? It’s a long old crawl back up otherwise I’m afraid.’

Saul gave himself a near fatal headrush as he leapt in the air,  ‘I have money!’’

He began jumping up and down on the spot, the sound of jangling coming from his trouser pockets. With a new found confidence he reached in and grabbed a rich handful from both left and right, thrusting them proudly into the slit for the attendant to inspect. But again that awful mocking laugh that he’d heard before came from the cubicle way back where he’d come from. The membranes rattled like the glottal of a fat businessman.

Saul looked down at his hands to see nothing but old beer caps, corks and damp cigarette papers falling to the ground in a jumbled incoherent mess.

The attendant slammed shut the slit and Saul could hear the elevator ascending, the un-oiled cage squeaking above the sound of croaking frogs.

Djinn & Tonic

 

I’m a sensible kind of man, a text-book empiricist. If you expect me to believe in things I can’t see then you’ll be disappointed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I can’t prove a thing then I’m completely sure it cannot exist.

However, it being Christmas Eve and me brought up to believe that all oxen kneel on this special day, I’m willing to cut a little slack to my usual rigidity. Perhaps that’s why I feel I can tell you what has just happened without you judging me too harshly…

On the train home from work this afternoon I found myself staring at this pretty girl, I allowed my eyes to glaze over as I began to dream about undoing the top few buttons on her winter coat, the released burst of her perfume, the blush of warm air on my face, but as the train went into the tunnel I looked at her reflection instead, because she’d caught me looking directly at her and I felt embarrassed. What I saw took all sexual thoughts from me like heat from an open door. A grizzled bearded man stared back at me where her reflection should have been. The face was swarthy and Arabic. With typical cliché, I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, feeling the tired jellied balls squelching in their sockets. I looked again just as the train came out the tunnel into daylight losing any reflection.

I put it down to over-indulgence at last night’s office party and made it home to get ready for Christmas drinks at my neighbours house. He was Muslim by birth but being a learned and well-travelled man he’d decided to annexe the good bits and festivals from all philosophies. He had the air of one not quite of this world, I’d mistaken this for aloofness at first but we’d gradually become friends since he moved to the street four years ago and these Christmas Eve drinks had become something of a tradition. But tonight seemed different, there was something in the air. I’d been looking out the window casually but not seen anyone arrive, in fact the whole house was in darkness except for the glow of the fake tree coming from the back room.

Being a worrier by nature, I decided to knock on the door. I raised the knocker and tapped with such non-committal pressure that I was surprised when he threw open the door. He had his index finger to his lips inducing me to keep quiet.

He ushered me into the kitchen and closed the door behind him. His usual calm almost peaceful expression was gone, replaced by a feverish anxiousness. A bead of pure sweat had formed on his forehead and twinkled under the kitchen’s halogen spotlights.

“I’ve caught a Djinn… “

My response seemed to catch him off guard.

“What’s a Djinn? “

“A genie… a fucking genie. “

I looked around the work surface for telltale bottles of tablets or strong liquor.

“Sure you have. Everything Ok, I mean, really?  Gin?“

“Djinn… DJinn. Come look. “

He flicked open the door and flung it wide as if issuing a challenge to me.

“Is this some sort of Christmas charade… I mean you can’t seriously expect me to believe you’ve got a… “

There it was. On the floor glimmering at ankle height, trapped by an upturned pint glass and piece of cardboard like a celestial spider.

“What the deuce is that? “

“I told you… it’s a Djinn. “

“And a Djinn is… “

“Look, in Islamic thinking, Allah created three types of living thing. Angels, Humans, and Djinn. Creatures of fire, neither totally human but neither angelic. They live out of town. “

“Sure, a LONG way out of town. “

“But being spirits they can also live in animals. Dogs in particular. And that’s where I found this one. “

“In your dog? “

“Yep. Haven’t you ever wondered why Muslims hate dogs so much?  The dog had been acting kinda strange for a few days, then I caught it about an hour ago literally coughing up sparks onto the carpet. “

He pointed to the rug in the centre of the room, sure enough there were singe marks on the white surface.

“I looked in his mouth and saw this glow coming up from his throat, so I reached in with my hand and just yanked. And up came our little friend over there… “

He pointed with his thumb at the sparkling Djinn.

I asked for some music to calm my nerves and help me think. The radio played Fleetwood Mac. The Djinn began to writhe around under the glass in abject agony.

“It’s the sound, the sound, turn it off quick. You don’t want to piss it off. “

I slowly moved in for a closer look at the creature whilst offering the best placatory expression I could muster. My mouth fell open – the face of the Djinn was the face I’d seen in the girl’s reflection on the train, and boy did it look pissed.

‘I’ve seen that face before…’

My neighbour didn’t seem overly impressed.

‘Quite likely. Djinn live among us, taking many forms. Sometimes they’re invisible whispering in our ear, temptations and stirring up trouble. Sometimes they possess people and animals. But you haven’t heard the best of it yet. What else are Djinn, or as you know them: Genies famous for?’

It took me a minute but when the realisation came it struck like a thunderbolt.

‘Wishes?’

My neighbour winked.

‘Wishes. Or in this case A wish. One.’

‘You are kidding me?’

‘Nope. I am not. It’s the real deal.’

We spent the next half hour discussing our options. My sensible suggestions of health and long life or limitless money soon gave way to more fantastical possibilities. If this ridiculous world of magic is actually turning out to be true then why ask for something as mundane as money? Why not ask for time-travel? Go back and see the real birth of Christ on Christmas Eve? Go into the future and witness the birth of the next Christ?

To fly? Rush over oceans, the salted wind making you feel alive as continents whizz past?

Or invisibility perhaps? Creep into banks and get all the money you need anyway?

To make any girl you see suddenly be overcome with desire and demand immediate sex?

To freeze time in any moment just by clapping your hands… and have immediate sex anyway?

My neighbour pointed out, not without some glee, that perhaps I just needed a girlfriend? A wank rather than a wish?

This hit a nerve and I pushed even harder for my choices. We just couldn’t agree. My neighbour wanted Time Travel, and I wanted health and happiness for all our friends and extended family. The Djinn seemed to be getting impatient. Having up to this point been remarkably docile, it had splayed its arms and legs out into a Da Vinci star shape and was beginning to rock from side to side, trying to build up enough momentum to roll the pint glass.

My neighbour pulled rank.

“A coin flip. Let chance decide, I mean everything else here is so out of our control we may as well trust in the universe? “

The coin hung in the air catching the light as it spun, even the Djinn stopped in its struggle and presently looked up awaiting the outcome.

The gold pound coin thumped onto the white rug and I immediately stooped over, praying to see the Queen’s winning face.

Triumphantly she smiled back at me. I reached up in celebration, punching the air and kicking out.

My left foot caught the pint glass full on and hoofed it up into the air, smashing against the underside of the fireplace and making the splinters tinkle down like pine needles in a frosted forest.

As if frozen in time we looked on helpless as the freed Djinn made a bee-line for the chimney stack and disappeared up the shoot. On this Christmas Eve we both knew there’d be no Santa coming in the other direction to block its exit.  

From the window we watched the Djinn shoot out the chimney like a champagne cork into the crisp night air, before racing across the darkened sky as if an ascending meteor.