The following is full of graphic, disturbing imagery, violence, and language.
Mature audiences only.
Slum is a place I've dreamed of for more than thirty years.
The dreams--nightmares--are deeply disturbing and affecting.
One of the reasons why is that they do not feel like regular or normal nightmares.
They have a suchness and realness to them, and are deeply detailed.
Also, unlike normal nightmares, I don't forget them.
I've detailed them in the book above.
There are three additional ones not detailed in it,
including the one below. I will edit them fully and eventually include them.
This vision-nightmare, which I had more than a year ago,
and which is still only roughly edited, I've titled ...
These dreams stick with me. The one I’m about to relate I had more than a year ago. I remember it like it happened just last night.
That’s one of the freakiest things about Slum. The way it has permanently insinuated itself into my mind has, in the past, led to panic attacks and other health issues, including crushing depression that has led me in its worst manifestations to become suicidal.
My regular dreams are forgotten often before I get out of bed. Not Slum dreams, which is why I hesitate to call them dreams. As I’ve stated many times already, they don’t feel like dreams. They feel like visions. Dreams one forgets. Visions? Unless you are totally inured to your own being, and to those around you, you won’t forget them.
I’m standing in a stairwell, one that looks very much like the one I remember in the high school I graduated from many (many) years ago. I’m at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There is another flight to my right, going up, and another, to my left, going down. Double doors at the top and bottom lead out.
The bottom stairwell is rank like a sewer, and the vertical rectangular windows in the doors are black. The stairs leading up smell like pencil shavings and musty old books, and the windows have at least a little weak light in them.
I realize that I’m back in my high school. I find that very odd considering that in my entire life, even when I was a student in this place, I never dreamed of it.
I hated high school. I hated the herd behavior of my classmates. I despised the A-listers and those who labored daily to be included in their despicable groups. I loathed the waste of time it represented. I couldn’t stand the teachers, who, with the exception of only two, weren’t worth a good goddamn.
It isn’t hard to see by my sentiments that I was an outcast or a “black sheep” or whatever label people use to put persons like me into a box. Knowing this, I decide that this is a nightmare, and to prepare myself for whatever lay beyond the doors, either above or below.
Which should I take? Which way should I go? I think of my classes. I had equally awful ones above as I did in the basement. The teachers suck no matter which way I go. I choose the top floor and make my way up the stairs, mostly because it doesn’t smell like shit, as the basement very much does, and because I can see light coming through the windows in the doors. I hold up when I get up there, then push open the doors and step through.
It doesn’t smell like shit. The hallway is empty. Across from me is a closed office door. Above it hangs a sign:
OFFICE OF REPURPOSED IMAGINATION
Dolores Manuel, Director
Dolores Manuel, Director
Beyond being puzzled about what an “Office of Repurposed Imagination” is supposed to do, the director’s name makes me laugh, because I recall before falling asleep thinking of Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, and a man named Manuel whose daughter I tutored in
for several years. San Diego
“D’ya got a dollar?”
I turn to look. A man is sitting next to the doors. He doesn’t have teeth. Spit runs from a corner of his mouth. His clothes are threadbare, and his cheeks sunken, as though he hasn’t eaten in days.
I reach into my pants pocket and pull out a ripped dollar half. I reach in again to locate the other half, but it’s missing. The bottom of my pocket is wet. Somehow I know it’s his saliva.
I check the left pocket. It’s dry—and empty.
“I ... I don’t. I-I’m sorry,” I stumble, disgusted. “You can have this if you want.”
I hand him the ripped dollar half. He takes it and licks it like it’s some sort of food. “The other half’s in there,” he says, pointing with the hand holding the money. “I seen her with it. She tries to hurt me with it.”
I glance over my shoulder at the closed office door. “In here?”
“Doris A-bitch-u-el,” he croaks. “She’s a harmer. The other half she’s got.”
My pockets ache. That sounds weird, I know, but it isn’t my leg, and it isn’t my hip or groin, either. I gingerly reach back into the right one, then the left, hissing each time with the sting. There is something lumpy in the right one now, and something stringy, too. When I touch the stringy thing, something unpleasant moves in my gut, so I decide to leave it alone. When I touch the lumpy thing, agony flashes in my right jaw. I take hold of the lump as delicately as I can and gently pull it up so that I can take a look at it.
I can only get it near the top. Pain makes it impossible to do more. I glance down at it. It’s a bloody tooth.
I release it and reach for the one in my mouth. It’s still there. It doesn’t hurt when I touch it. In fact, the pain has gone completely away. The poor man is mumbling and kissing the dollar half. He has forgotten about me.
Should I try to retrieve the other half? Will it make any difference? A dollar won’t even buy him a cup of coffee. And
Doris “A-bitch-u-el” doesn’t
sound like someone I want to tangle with.
Then again, it’s only half of a ripped dollar. It’s worthless on its own, so why won’t someone want to part with it?
“I’ll be right back,” I inform him. I don’t know if he heard me or not. He has leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, and is mumbling. I can’t understand what he’s saying.
I open the door and go in. A woman is sitting behind a counter.
I close the door and go to the counter.
“Excuse me. Can you help me?”
She’s rifling through documents and doesn’t look up. She’s upper middle-aged, with dyed auburn hair arranged in a safe corporate do, and wearing black-rimmed glasses.
After an extended period of waiting, I decide she must not have heard me, so go to voice my request again. She cuts me off.
“You’ll have to see Pocahontas down the hall.”
How the hell would she know what I want? I decide that there is no way, so press on anyway, choosing to ignore what is likely blatant racism.
“I’m just looking for a torn dollar half to give to the gentleman outside.”
That stops her. She looks up with a glare. “You want to give it to him? To him?”
I can’t stop my angry retort. “It’s a dollar, lady. Seriously!”
Her glare reddens. Her rifling becomes furious. She selects a document, stands, marches to the counter, and slaps the paper down. I notice to my horror that the closer she gets, the more she resembles my natural mother, who is one of the nastiest people I have ever known.
“You listen to me!” she demands. Spit flies from the slight gap in her two top teeth onto the form, which is line after line and box after box of black ink. “I don’t have to answer to you, do you hear me? Tom was hit by a drunk driver, and was the only son I ever loved, and you obviously worship the devil! You want that ripped dollar half for that worthless bum? Fill this out and give it to Pocahontas down the hall! Now get out!”
“You were never a mother,” I grumble. “So fuck you!”
She turns purple. “Devil worshiper! I’m glad I got rid of you! Get out! Get out!”
“No problem, lady.”
I slam the door on the way out. I can hear the bitch already on the phone to my half-sister, who didn’t know about my existence until she was nineteen. I can’t hear what’s being said, but I’m certain it’s bitter and condemnatory—from both ends.
The bum sitting on the floor across the hall has peed himself. I can feel the warmth of it trickle down my legs. I glance down between them, expecting to see wet streaks, but don’t. Puzzled and angry, I approach.
“I’m really sorry,” I offer. “She gave me this form. I have to fill it out and give it to someone she called Pocahontas.”
He snorts back what sounds like a gallon of phlegm. Listlessly, he lifts his hand and points down the hall. “See-ar’s in the bathroom.”
“ ‘See-ar’—? Uh ...” I shake my head, confused. I want to get out of here, so decide to press on. “I need a pencil or pen. Know where I can get one?” I motion behind me. “I can’t go back in there. I didn’t see one on the counter.”
He shrugs and licks chapped lips. Mine suddenly feel baked and cracked too. “Blood’ll work. Just no smudgin’. See-ar’s in the bathroom.”
“Yeah. Okay. Thanks. I’ll get you that other dollar half. You ... uh ... just sit tight.”
“Yeah,” he murmurs lifelessly. “Yeah. Okay.”
I make my way down the hall. It’s just as I remember it (save for the office I just left: there was no office there from what I recall of the building): classrooms on the left and right. Most are empty and dark.
I notice then that there aren’t any lockers. Not real ones, anyway. I walk to the left wall and touch what appears to be an elaborate chalk drawing of the lockers. The same artist drew lockers on the right wall as well. The drawing, like the hall, recedes into the gloom.
It’s gloomy because the hallway lights aren’t working properly. Many of them aren’t on; a few flicker fitfully. The result is an uneasy, deep shadow.
I pass an open classroom on the left. It’s the football coach, who is also an English teacher. A few years after I graduated he was fired, I believe, for beating his players. He is working one over in the corner. He kicks the boy’s head between bouts of writing feverishly on the blackboard. “This is an adjective! ‘Worthless!’ He kicks the kid again, whose head slams against the cold tile wall. “Here’s another one! ‘Weak!’ He kicks him again, then stomps on him, then goes back to the board. ‘Soft!’ ”
The kids seated in neat rows dutifully and silently take notes, their heads bent. The school nurse pushes past me and rushes into the room.
“Take care of this pansy!” the teacher roars. “Get that? ‘Pansy’ is an adjective!”
The nurse goes to the boy, hikes up her lily-white skirt, and begins peeing on him. The boy moans and opens his mouth, trying to drink.
The teacher spies me and starts for me. I go to run, but at the door he stops. “Swimmers!” he bellows with disgust. “Buncha fairies!”
He slams the door. The sound echoes down the hall.
Heart pounding, I continue on my way.
“You got that? ‘Fairies!’ ”
More rooms. The hallway suddenly seems much longer than I remember it. On the right is a closed door. The voice of a civics teacher I hate comes from it. She always used to say, “It’s time to mold these young minds!”
I hear that now: “It’s time to mold these young minds!”
A girl screams.
The sounds of something like wet clay is being vigorously worked. “This young mind needs lots of molding! Lots!”
The girl screams again.
I glance down at the crack at the bottom of the door. Blood advances through it. It has bits of brain in it. “That’s the right answer, Candy!” yells the teacher. “Good for you!”
Blood surrounds my shoes. Disgusted, I step over it to dry floor. It’s then that I notice that a new office has formed seemingly by magic in the opposite wall. The sign reads:
OFFICE OF EXPECTATIONS
Ann Haselmaier, Director
I come up under it. “What?” I murmur, even more disgusted. “What?”
Ann Haselmaier was the girl I dated in high school, and for three years after. I broke up with her because of her staunch, conservative, fanatical Catholicism (I was a Catholic too), and for something she yelled at me one night after a particularly contentious date:
“If money isn’t coming in through the door, love flies out the window!”
She yelled that in response to my decision not to pursue an engineering degree, but to finish a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. There was no money in mathematics, according to her. I was throwing my life away and pursuing what she called a “worthless” degree.
I rightly took offense at that, and a few months later dumped her. We’d been together almost four years at that point.
Three months later she was engaged to an Air Force cadet who was finishing a degree in engineering.
I bring my furious stare down to the door, then grab the doorknob and march in.
A mousy older woman—not Ann—sits at the desk behind the counter, which looks identical to the counter of the other office. “Well hello!” she says, smiling. “What can I do for you today?”
I look around, unsure. To the left, in an ornately crafted hollow in the wall, is a statue of the Virgin Mary. A lit candle in a decorative holder before her softly illuminates her prayerful visage.
To the right are chairs. People sit in them. There isn’t a free one available. Like the bum I met at the beginning, they appear to be threadbare and very hungry.
My tummy rumbles.
“Oh, my!” the mousy woman exclaims. She stands and hurries to the counter. “I heard that! Come on up and get some food! Please!”
I approach. The groans from the people increase. They’re starving.
“They get what they deserve.”
The statue of the Virgin Mary had spoken. I wheel about to stare at it.
She looks so beautiful, so compassionate. The candlelight makes her fairly glow. Her voice is angelic and each syllable bursts with righteous certainty.
I’m outraged. I point at the people as my stomach grumbles more. “Who? Them?”
The mousy woman in the meantime has cut off a huge, tasty-smelling hunk of pot roast, dished up some carrots and potatoes, and is filling a glass with red wine. “Please, Shawn! Come and eat!”
She unrolls silverware from a fine crimson cloth napkin. “It’s been cooking all morning just for you!”
The smell is wonderful. The people groan more as I take a step towards it.
“God favors those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” comes the angelic voice.
I glance at the people, then turn to face the Virgin Mary statue fully. “Do you see any of them wearing boots?”
She smiles compassionately. “They are a drag on society. If you do not work, you do not eat. So saith the Lord.”
“Please, Shawn, eat! Your food is getting cold!”
“They have children so they can mooch off of welfare,” announces Mother Mary.
I turn to watch a mother offer her starving daughter her hand, who takes it and starts biting into it, trying to rip off flesh. The mother is doing everything she can not to cry in pain and therefore dissuade her. The child hungrily licks the blood off the masticated finger. The mother, weeping, forces a teary, agonized smile to her lips when the little girl looks lovingly up at her.
“If you don’t have a job, it’s because you aren’t looking,” says the statue with infinite gentleness.
“Shawn, please!” urges the mousy woman. “Just take a bite!”
“Give it to them,” I say over my rumbling stomach. It takes everything not to turn and grab the meat with both hands and stuff it whole into my face. “Please. Give it to them. I need to find someone named See-ar. Now.”
I stumble towards the door. I gaze one more time at the poor in the corner.
The mousy woman didn’t feed them, because suddenly they are nothing but dust and bones. All except the little girl. She’s half a flesh-and-blood head licking the ash on the seat and crying.
I don’t recall reaching for the doorknob, but somehow I’m back in the gloomy hallway. I wheel about. The office is gone, and so is the classroom across the hall with the screaming girl and the bloody leaking brains. The child’s weak cries are still audible.
I hurry down the hall, sick to my stomach. My heart’s racing like I’m about to have a panic attack.
I’d folded the form and stuffed it in my back pocket. I pull it out as I jog and glance at it. Halfway down is a big empty blank portion. I read the instructions above it, which say:
As I watch, writing magically appears in the blank portion:
You aren’t Tom!
Math degrees are worthless!
Time is, time was, time decays, time delays, time starves, time weakens, time fears!
For some reason I can’t stop paying attention to that last line. It makes my hands shake. I roughly fold up the form and jam it back into my pocket and continue on.
Another office. It’s a hundred feet ahead, on the right. I can’t read the sign above it. It’s too dark. Much farther down, very near the end, on the left, is another entrance. It appears to be the girls’ bathroom. There is no door leading into it, and I can’t read the sign above the entryway, but I’m certain it’s the girls’ bathroom. Odd muffled explosive sounds are coming from it, one every half minute or so. It sounds as if kids are setting off firecrackers in the toilet.
I walk fifty more feet. Double doors are suddenly to my immediate left—or I just noticed them, transfixed as I was on getting to the next office.
I walk through them and stop short. I’m at an uneven broken edge that drops into total darkness. It’s like the building has been cleaved away.
Ahead is the city—Slum. I’m sure it is.
Dark shafts outlined in indifferent orange pierce a low-overcast night sky. The air borders on chilly and smells of open sewage between occasional breezes rank with industrial pollutants and oil refineries. The city’s distant roar is malevolent. It’s the first time in years that I’ve gotten such a close-up view.
“Basement,” a tinny, hollow, deep voice issues from the darkness to my left.
I jerk my head in that direction. I can’t see anything.
“You’re looking for the basement, aren’t you?”
“I’m looking for someone named ‘See-ar,’ ” I answer quietly. I’ve turned completely to face the voice.
“I think you’d rather stay stupid than see her,” it offers with an evil chuckle. “Why grow up? None of it matters anyway. It’s why you refuse to figure out her name.”
The chill of doom settles like a disease through me. I’m suddenly terrified—not just for myself, but for “See-ar.” I can’t figure out who “See-ar” is.
I hear wooden thumping, and metal scraping on what sounds like a dish brush. And then the thing in the shadows appears.
It isn’t a man or woman or child. It’s a worn yellow broomstick with a rusty silver bucket over the broom end of it. It walks like one of those Disney broomsticks, except upside down and by hopping along a couple inches at a time. Some of the bristles of the broom stick out from under the bucket. They move like thin fingers, scratching a rust patch and causing red flakes to fall into darkness.
I feel compelled to laugh, but also to draw away in horror.
“What happened to you?” I demand. “Were you cursed to be this?”
It hops a little closer—thunk! thunk! thunk! “You want the basement.”
“It’s just the torn half of a goddamned dollar bill,” I retort. “What the fuck do I care?”
“Exactly,” it answers.
“It won’t even buy him a pack of fucking gum.”
It scrapes more rust off. I get the sense it’s studying me. The bucket angles a little to the side.
“What the fuck do you care?” it says.
“Why am I here?”
“You’re here because you hate people. You deserve to be here.”
I stare at it. It waits, tilting its bucket back and forth. “I hate people,” I yell, “and yet I’m the only person trying to help that homeless man?”
The moment dissolves. That’s the only word I can think to describe what happens next. Everything grays out for a moment, like I’m going to faint, and then comes back.
I’m back in the dark hall. I wheel about, woozy. The double doors are gone.
I turn back. I’m standing in front of the office I was hurrying toward before taking that diversion. The door is closed. I gaze up to read the sign hanging over it.
MOMENTS IN THE SUN
I take the three steps necessary to reach the handle. I turn it, push the door open, and step inside.
The same counter as the other offices greets me. But there’s no one back there, at least from where I’m standing. There isn’t a Virgin Mary statue in the wall, and the waiting seats are empty. The door closes.
I hear a small cry, and then a garbled noise, like a burp. And then, from everywhere, I hear laughter, as though from hidden speakers set in the walls and ceiling.
I approach the counter. There is no one at the desk. It’s clean of everything except a bottle of what looks like bourbon.
I hear another cry, and then another burp-like noise. It’s coming from just behind the counter.
Again, from all around, laughter. It sounds like adults, maybe six or eight of them, mostly men.
I try looking, but the counter is too tall and too wide. I push myself up and over, and peer down at the foot of it.
It’s a child on an overturned tricycle. He’s passed out on his side still clutching at the handlebars. His knee, under the seat, appears broken. What looks like bone sticks out the side. He’s wearing shorts.
He has thrown up. He cries and burps again, and again laughter sounds out from unseen adults.
I know who the child is. It’s my brother, Mark.
When he wasn’t even five years old, my father, ever the vile bully he was, gave Mark bourbon whiskey at dinner parties, then laughed when he passed out. My mother, too sick from a rare form of adult muscular dystrophy and in bed, was too weak to stop him. She’d yell at him to stop, of course, but he would only berate her and laugh at her for her efforts, especially when his friends were around.
Mark died a few years ago from acute cirrhosis of the liver brought on by a lifetime of alcoholism. My father just turned ninety years old, and has lived an opulent, wasteful life of riches and privilege. He is a living, breathing example of evil flourishing and going entirely unpunished.
When I think that, the invisible adults laugh again.
“Why don’t you fucking die already!” I roar at the ceiling.
I thrust both middle fingers into the air to more laughter and storm out of the office, slamming the door behind me. I can still hear laughter as I march down the dark hall.
With that in mind, I stop, surprised, at a flight of stairs in the right wall—the south one—that lead ... up?
The stairwell is well-lighted. There are no double doors to access it, which makes me wonder why I didn’t see its light spilling across the dark hallway. It was just abruptly there, as though the only way for me to see it was to come across its landing, where I’m standing now.
The cheery yellow-white light seems more malevolent than the uneasy gloom surrounding it. I glance left at the girls’ bathroom at the end when I hear another muffled explosion. I think I now hear gurgling just before, but it is too faint for me to be sure.
A shadow emerges from it. Just its head and shoulders, peering around the corner. I can’t be sure, but it looks like a man—thin, even bony, medium height, long hair, moustache, pointed goatee at his chin. I can’t see his eyes. He looks familiar, but again, I can’t be sure. He watches me for a few seconds more, then goes back in. A few moments later I hear another tiny gurgle and another muffled explosion.
Something tells me I should investigate what’s upstairs before I attempt to ratchet up the courage to see who the hell he is and what he’s doing in the girl’s bathroom. I step into the light of the stairwell and begin my journey up.
It isn’t a long climb—maybe twenty steps in all. The stairwell smells like a hospital—hyperclean and sterile, hermetically sealed and sickeningly still. At the landing is another set of double doors. I push through the left one and step into darkness. The only light shining through comes from the doors’ vertical rectangular windows. The beams shine across to a closed door and the sign hanging above it:
ABOUT NOTHING ADO
Shawn M. Helbert, Director
Shawn M. Helbert, Director
I cross the hall until I’m standing under the sign, as if doing so will somehow change it, and the disbelief, at seeing my legal name. But the only change I become aware of is the almost inaudible sound of clicking, like a hundred people are inside sitting at computers.
I reach for the door handle after a long time and twist it.
I step inside, but I can see nothing except the same counter that was in all the previous offices. Small portions of it are lighted by the light coming through the windows. The clicking is much louder and nearer, as though those sitting at computers in the dark are just a few feet away, within touching distance. It doesn’t sound like a hundred people sitting at computers, but thousands. The clicking feel like insects crawling over me. I turn to escape, but accidentally kick the door closed.
Cold corporate lights flicker on. The office is revealed.
People sit at computers that run along opposing walls. The computer screens are black. The people are clicking madly. They haven’t noticed me.
I step closer to one and look at his face. He looks about ten years old.
I had freckles then, and neatly parted hair, and wide, innocent hazel-green eyes. They’re brimming with tears. He doesn’t notice me, so entranced is he at whatever’s happening on the black screen.
All these people ... they’re me! They’re me at various points in my life!
I gaze down at ten-year-old me.
I can’t see what he’s seeing! I can’t—but I can feel every ounce of his desperation. It tears at me. I touch his shoulder. I’m nauseated by how fragile my ten-year-old form feels.
The ten-year-old me doesn’t look up, but he does respond. “He’s blowing her up!” he cries. “Please stop him! Please!”
“I don’t understand,” I offer in my most soothing adult voice, the one I wished I had when I was his age. “Can you help me understand?”
Ten-year-old me clicks furiously and cries, “He waits till she’s a baby again, and then he puts his pee-pee in her mouth and makes her blow up!”
I can’t get him to look at me. I try grabbing him by his shoulders and spinning him around, but horrendous revulsion and terror sweep through me, forcing me to release him.
“Who’s blowing who up?” I demand. “Where is he at? I want to stop him! Help me!”
But ten-year-old me isn’t listening anymore. His mouth is half-open in petrified disgust. “It’s about to happen again!” he cries. “Please help her! Please!”
I release him and back up. He begins clicking madly again. I make for the door, ready to run around like a headless chicken if I must, anything to help the ten-year-old me and to get out of this horrible office.
The door is gone. The office has extended to infinity. Computers line both walls left and right—forever. Versions of me sit at computers, clicking madly, staring with manic resolve at the black screens before them.
The image of a man blowing up an infant by sticking his dick into her mouth churns my stomach. I can’t get it out of my head.
I leave ten-year-old me and hurry along the wall, hoping that one of the black screens will show me what the various versions of me find so insanely compelling. But none does.
The versions of me are seated in haphazard order, no rhyme or reason. The hairstyles of my life, including the mullet I wore for two years in the late 80s and early 90s, are themselves a horror story. I stop at what appears to be the seven-year-old version of me as he frenziedly works the mouse and cries.
It isn’t difficult to guess what’s he crying about. When I was seven, my mother collapsed from the onset of a degenerative illness that would claim her life fifteen years later. My father, the monster he was, went crazy and beat his children even more frequently and mercilessly than before. The seven-year-old me is clicking and clicking, trying, as I’m sure the rest of them are, to change it.
I try to reassure him. “It’ll be okay. Look! I’m still here! I made it! It wasn’t all that bad. We survive. You survive.”
I back up and try to reassure the infinite versions of me. “It’ll be okay!” I yell, holding my arms up. “Seriously! You don’t need to freak out anymore! Look! Here I am! Look!”
At once, they stop clicking. Silence descends like an anvil. It’s crushing, terrifying. For a long time they sit like robots who have all been switched off at once. I can’t even tell if they’re breathing.
At once, as though precisely choreographed, they point in the same direction. The mass sound of it is alarming. They re-freeze, their arms straight and stiff.
They are pointing at a computer and an empty chair before it. I walk cautiously towards it.
The numberless versions of me don’t blink. The ten-year-old version of me stares, tears spilling out his eyes and running off his chin. It’s then I notice many other versions of me are crying.
No. That’s not correct. All of them are crying. Crying and pointing.
They don’t sniffle. They don’t sigh or breathe. But the tears spill endlessly out their eyes and off their chins. It’s as awful as the silence suffocating everything.
I approach the empty chair. The mouse next to the computer waits. It’s red, not black. It’s the only red one in the room.
I grab the chair and pull it out. The noise is jarring.
I sit and pull myself up to the computer. The noise is again jarring.
They are all still pointing and crying silently.
I reach for the mouse. Touch it.
The black computer screen resolves. It shows a column of green numbers on the right, each headed by a different acronym meant to convey information. In the middle is a green flat-line perpetually traveling across the screen, like a heart-rate monitor that’s trying to pick up a beat from a corpse.
I hear noise now. It’s the sound of someone struggling to breathe. And now a new noise: the steadily growing sound of an alarm, a shrill monotone becoming louder and louder as the sounds of struggling grow worse. And now, coughing.
I recognize the cough. It’s Mom’s cough. There is no mistaking it.
What was I supposed to do? She couldn’t breathe! Mom couldn’t breathe!
Desperate, I click the mouse. In response, the flat line jumps and the sound of a ventilator inhaling for her, then exhaling, replaces the coughing. I hear a familiar moan as the air relieves her torture.
But now the line is flat again, and the sounds of her struggling for air once again fill the air. I click again, and again the ventilator works.
Frantic, I click rapidly for a long time. Maybe by doing so I could build up a cache of them and the ventilator can work without interruption.
It doesn’t work that way. There is no cache of clicks. Only the first one works. I hear the machine exhale and click instantly. The ventilator responds. Mom breathes. When she exhales, I click again. I wait for her exhale.
She’s dying. I can hear her crying. It makes clicking at the right time impossible, and then she starts choking again. I can’t save clicks ... they don’t register if I click more than once, or at the wrong time! She coughs and sniffles, then chokes when I don’t click at the right time.
Right-clicking does nothing. It’s worthless.
I’m glue to the screen. If this is my life, never to look away, never to eat or drink or shit or laugh or sleep or fuck again, so be it. This is all I want to do forever. I just want her to breathe—breathe!
I click and click and click. She breathes. I click one more time, but it doesn’t work. I click harder. Choking, she moans in pain. I click harder. She moans more.
I glance at the mouse. It isn’t a mouse anymore. It’s her hand. It’s cold with oncoming death, and black and blue from the endless IVs she’s had to endure while the disease ravaged her body and mind. The cord that led from the mouse to the computer has transformed into an IV tube full of what looks like blood. Stringy things crawl around in it before going into her hand and out the stump in the back. Blood drips off the edge onto my pants.
She’s choking. I can’t click! I can’t click!
Her hand reaches weakly for me. A finger lovingly strokes my hand. She’s choking to death.
The floor begins sinking.
I scream for her, clawing for something, anything.
I fall into darkness. I splash down in something partly liquid, partly solid.
I’m in a sewer.
The smell of it is so overpowering that everything else goes away, including her. I realize that and cry out for her, but when I do the sewage rises. It’s up to my shoulders. I force myself to stop thinking of her and it stops rising. It starts rising the same moment I can hear her choking and can’t help but think of her.
The form I’d stuffed in my back pocket surfaces and opens. Under EXPLAIN YOURSELF is my writing, in smudged blood:
Who is “See-ar”? Who is “See-ar”? Who is “See-ar”?
I hear Mom struggling to stand. She’s choking. I hear another woman’s voice (a nurse?): “Did you wipe, Kay? Do you want me to help you wipe?”
I hear clanking metal, and then the massive sound of a toilet being flushed. Suddenly the shit I’m chin-deep in begins moving. It doesn’t swirl, but hurries, faster and faster, like a river, to my left.
Somehow I know I’m in the basement, where the broom-bucket-thing wanted me to go.
I abruptly figure out who “See-ar” is. It’s C.R.—Connie Rasmussen, my first love. In fourth grade, the year I knew her, her stepfather routinely incested her. I know what’s happening in the girls’ bathroom now, and why ten-year-old me was so desperate.
The doors at the end of the hall open. I flow out with the shit. In the distance, the cold orange shafts of Slum light the endless dark.