Below the fold, my first few days of National Novel Writing Month. If I fail this year, I’ll leave whatever I had done public this time. Have some fiction, my peoples.
The digital clock chimed tinny and small. Ren shook the sleep out of his head, stood up in the cramped space. Time to get to work. He had already changed and assembled his cart, which he wheeled out into the hall. His brown arms and pure white t-shirt caught fire in the light coming through the sliver-like floor-to-ceiling windows. At the end of the hall he slapped the elevator button and leaned back.
The vibration of the elevator’s uncomfortable descent reminded him to music up. He drew earbuds from his shirt pocket and hit play to whatever had been on last – something strident by The Mars Volta. Beautiful, but too much for the moment. He tapped next. Some mildly jarring sonic daydream by Bosnian Rainbows? That’s the thing.
The elevator let him in. Fake wood paneling around, vague blue-white light above, floor tiled splotchy avocado to match the hall. The elevator let him out, a familiar bump as the cart crossed the stainless steel threshold.
Ms. Moira first. He tugged the earbuds lightly and knocked on the door. A quiet sound, more affirmative than negative. The door opened and he stepped into the light. The room was more hospital than home, most surfaces empty and sterilized.
To one side there was a dresser with an old stereo system and a few crates of records on top, bathroom door right and closet left. To the other side, a small and mostly unused kitchenette, and a folding card table with an open suitcase. The bed dominated the room – the only surface designed for human comfort, holding the room’s only human up like a queen.
She raised her eyelids slowly but ending with a snap, like video played backward, looking straight at him. She wasn’t as ancient as she looked, some unspecified health problems etching lines into every inch of her pale, spotted skin, withering the flesh beneath and clarifying veins and tendons.
Her hair was at least half yellow, bunched delicately around her head on the pillow. Her face was that of an unusually kind rhesus monkey. She said something he didn’t quite hear. “… you think that you are?”
Ren popped the music out of his ears as he wheeled the cart in. “Morning, Ms. Moira. Were you saying something?”
“No, it’s fine. Come in, Lorenzo.”
He was already in. “Would you like me to put on a record?”
“Not today. It’s going to be difficult to focus.”
“Oh?” He stepped closer to the bed and studied her face. “Are you feeling OK?”
She nodded. “Don’t worry about it.”
“If you say so.” He turned away to tend her room, still talking. “Do you mean focus with your eyes or your mind?”
“I know what the problem is. Not my health, just a distraction.”
“Oh, that’s good. Or is it bad?” He cinched the seal on the medical waste bag and replaced it in the bin with an open one.
“Good… Lorenzo, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
He was only half paying attention since the potential medical situation hadn’t materialized. “That’s a funny thing to say. I’m a man, I try not to be bad, I guess.” He still wasn’t looking as he gave a little cleaning to the room’s surfaces.
“Sure, sure. You are a man. But you do what your told.” Her voice was quiet but carried well.
“Heh, well, I guess I’m not very rebellious. What’s this about, Moira?” His own voice was quiet – not as quiet as hers – but fuzzy like cotton, not as clear.
“I appreciate it. So many people resent having to conduct themselves as anything short of savages. Do you just like to live peacefully, or is it about principles?”
“Huh? Um… Live peacefully. My brother skipped school and everyone had to argue about it. I didn’t want to go to school either, but the arguments were worse.”
“You like to live peacefully, or do you have principles?” He glanced at her with a gentle smile before turning back to his work, now pushing a broom around the floor.
She smiled back. “I only have principles for necessity. I suppose we’re both savages at heart, same as the rest.”
“But I still appreciate your demonstrated kindness, whatever your nature. And I’d like to reward it.”
“That’s OK, Ms. Moira. I am paid enough.”
“When you clock out, are you rude to others you meet? To the grocer, to your family? Consider this payment for that uncompensated labor.”
He froze over the dustpan, wondering for a moment if she was about to do something untoward.
She laughed, and when she started speaking again, it was in pure gibberish that still sounded somewhat like English. “Oeznerol, raw ooey tathe kneeth ooey ood nehu tsudge.”
“Oh no.” He turned to look at her. “You are having an episode.”
“No, I’m not having an episode. Perhaps I’m enchanting you. I’m going to offer you something. Not something physical.”
“What is… What do you mean by enchanting? What were you saying?”
“You’ll understand those words, don’t worry. I want to share with you a secret. Something very few know, something beyond anything you’ve ever known.” Then quietly, she spoke the strange language again, “Tire tess eeb lihu dlerou ethe, puh kayu ooey nehu. Tih tah cool ooey nah neednep-ed, oun tire. Neepeelse rouy nehu tine-oot, neem yah.”
He finished putting the dust away and rose to look at her more carefully. “I don’t know what to say to that. I’m Christian..?” His dark eyebrows were twisted in a knot, his shapely lips parted in slow-burning panic.
“Nothing against that creed in what you will see, if you’ve the bravery to look.” Her golden halo looked too young for her fleshless face, the kindness in her eyes and mouth still seemed fully formed and intentional.
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“It is simple, but you must remember these instructions,” she went quiet to add a bunch of nonsense, “Meard uh tahn sih tih, ooey let lie oose. Eeretsim ethe tayshearppa ooey zneam tih – doog stath. Note rouy nih t’nem-t’noippasid sness yah,” then spoke up again, “Tonight when you are relieved from work, go to the building at the northeast corner of this block. From there look in the direction of Mount Rainier. You will not be able to see it, because of one particular building blocking the horizon. Go to that building.”
“Yes?” He unconsciously twisted his hands around the broom handle.
“Puh kayu ooey nehu sness rome came lihu dlerou ethe. Sorry, do not speak to the security guard in the lobby. It will be as if he does not exist, yes? Go to the elevators and press the button to go up.” She looked like it was taking some great concentration to speak at all, but still the words came fluidly – nonsense and otherwise.
“This part is important. Will you remember it?,” then quietly she added, “Eelt’nedifnocked nah, oathe neeth nuhu yase knack yah. Tathe dess eederlah ooey.”
“OK, I’ll write it down.” He pulled out a pocket notebook and pencil, jotting down the cryptic information.
“Don’t bother to write until you understand me, yes? Flessrouy rofe sleps might nrull knack ooey, tih rofe sairp ethe yape ooey fih, tih keese ooey fih, oun. Might vuh road ethe oorth neeb vooey. Kijam tsi. Press the button for the fourteenth floor. As the elevator ascends, the lights will turn on and off in sequence. As soon as the light for the twelfth floor turns on, press the down button. The elevator will stop at the floor you seek. Go in, and be enlightened.”
“Mm-hm. Is that everything, Ms. Moira?”
She smiled broadly, but then her expression softened into something like confusion. “The spell is cast. Dzoofnuck liddil uh tsudge, knife rouy.”
He knitted his brow in confusion. “I will check in on you later, OK?”
“No you won’t, but I do not mind. Get out of here, Lorenzo. Tih vuh kneeth ooey ood tuhu. Did yah.”
She spoke the nonsense again quietly, looking at him one last time sympathetically. “Veal oot towbud nah might roy rofe neeb vooey. Sroke vuh.”
“Yes, right… OK. I’ll just…” He took up his cart and wheeled out.
He left the cart rolled against one of the safety rails in the hall, and went quickly into the stairwell. At the first floor again, he went into the nurse’s office. “Heey… Hello?”
The room was barely larger than a broom closet, coated in hanging papers and binders and boxes from floor to ceiling. Turning about, he jostled the chair, which in turn threatened to wipe out a pile of paperwork. There were two halls leading off to the rest of the medical slice of the assisted living facility, and he knew he wasn’t allowed back there.
“Hello? Hello? I could use some help. Hello?” There was a security window looking out on the residential hall and he could faintly see his reflection in it. Time to tighten the sides again soon.
Barclay came in from one of the halls with overt exasperation. “I don’t start for twenty minutes and what do you think you’re doing here, Ren?”
“Moira Gaines is talking in gibberish, thinks she is, um… enchanting?”
“Get out of the room and we’ll keep talking.”
Ren went back into the hall and looked in through the security window. “Moira-”
“Yes. If she isn’t hurting herself or others, this will have to wait.”
“What if it’s a… an exotic stroke or something?”
“Go back to work.”
Many grueling hours of distractions and difficulties later, Ren stepped out of the building. He hadn’t been able to get back to Moira, but word had it she was back to normal. It was hard to even call the morning’s odd start to mind, his mind leaden with other stressful events, images of pain and the failure of human bodies, tense decisions relived involuntarily in the periphery of his consciousness.
He needed to clear his head. No amount of shaking his head or rubbing it dispelled the unpleasance. If he played music, it would entangle the good song with the bad memory – not cool. He started toward the bus stop, but then a thought hit him out of nowhere, Is this the northeast corner of the building?
It wasn’t. He’d miss the bus home if he followed the directions to “enlightenment.” He started walking toward the bus again, but it suddenly whipped by, breaking the speed limit but looking almost slow motion at the same time. He saw his hairdo on the only passenger as it zipped away, bending up a hill.
Looking at his phone, the time was already half past the hour. He’d surely stepped out the door only a few minutes after shift end. Did he lose twenty-five minutes walking a hundred feet?
He visited the northeast corner of the block. The horizon was salmon pink beneath a sky of deepening purple, skyscrapers forming pillars that connected the dark sky and ground, bars holding back the diminishing reddish band. One that wasn’t even especially large cut in front of Mount Rainier from that vantage point. Of course one did, that didn’t mean Ms. Moira had left her heretofore unmentioned cult’s religious literature on the thirteenth floor of it.
He walked a few paces in its direction and was startled by a bus pulling to a stop beside him. It was headed that way, and he had coincidentally walked by one of its stops. Well, he thought, this is it. Toda la energía fluye de acuerdo a los caprichos de la Gran Imán.
The bus driver didn’t even look his direction and wasn’t very visible herself in the dark corner of the front end. He went amid mostly empty seats covered in grey leatherette and claimed one. In the brightly lit bus interior, it was hard to see the world outside. Perhaps he’d miss the building and end up downtown. A pain, but he knew where to catch a bus from there straight home.
Ren turned sideways in his seat, looking at his reflection in the window across the aisle from him. The way the sliding glass was structured, his reflection was doubled into uncomfortable overlapping forms. His black cowboy shirt was less reflective than the rest of him, punching a hole in that double-Lorenzo through which the amber Seattle streets became slightly more clear.
At a distance he had recognized the building, with its ’80s architecture of black plexiglass and sharply slanted roof. He’d been in the neighborhood of it before for various reasons and would recognize the streets – if he could see them.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t bring himself to look. His head rested against the window, pummeled softly by the bus’s crappy shocks. He was under a heating vent that blasted hot air over him from above and he started to drift off. He was struggling to breathe through his mouth in the miasma of human waste, the old man cursing and barking about death, the nurse glaring at Ren like he was the problem. He shook his head and signaled for a stop.
Stepping down to the sidewalk, of course he was at the right stop. It was just going to be that kind of thing, until it wasn’t. The bus pulled out of the way and he looked up at the old modernist building. It was nothing but a blurred reflection of the older brick building across the street from it, until it tapered up into a blacker reach of the city night.
He jaywalked and, once out of the street, put on his earbuds. “How Soon is Now” by Mozz. Around the pebbly low wall, up the old stained stairs to the glass cube of lobby. One slab of wall glowed fluorescent within, and together with pinkish recessed lighting, was the only thing giving form to the building’s interior. He went in, ignoring the guard, straight to the elevator lobby.
He could see himself more clearly in the black marble here, that indio nose shining in the dim light. He wiped his face, disgusted at the thought of oil there, but it felt dry enough. Weird. When he pressed the button, the door opened immediately.
Inside, he tapped fourteen as instructed and watched the lights. He could feel the motion of the elevator and the hum of its works in his body, but couldn’t hear anything but Morrissey. It occurred to him the enlightenment might require ears and he popped the buds out again.
Twelve lit and he tapped the down arrow without ceremony. To his surprise, the elevator whined to a halt, nearly knocking him off his feet. The door opened and he stepped out into another elevator lobby.
There was a reflection of himself on the shiny metal elevator door across the hall, but he was distracted from it by a strange tableau in peripheral vision to the left, and walked that way.
He stood before a couple of guys in safety orange prison jumpsuits. One was stripped to the waist and getting a tattoo. They paused to look at him.
The tattooist asked, “Whad’re you lookin’ at?”
The tattooed man said, “He wants some.”
“Some dick?,” the tattooist asked.
“No, something to remember the moment by. Ink is forever, man.”
Ren folded his arms and looked at them with mouse eyes. “No thanks.”
The tattooist was a pink-faced white man with a shaved head and nazi tattoos. He said, “What kinda Messican are you, not havin’ prison tatts?”
“I’m a senior care provider.”
“Hey,” the tattooed man said, “Look.”
He leaned a bit closer and tried to make sense of the tattoo through the smeared blood and ink. It was the back of a head, with his hairdo.
“Now look away,” the tattooed man said.
He looked back to the elevator door with no small amount of confusion, to see that reflection of himself there. So clear he could see a few acne scars on his neck like an ancient vampire bite. Suddenly, the reflection spoke!
“Gneeveal my, tih stathe.”
“Holy shit. You’re more than a reflection. Are you me?”
“Ood eehu douche tuwh, segg ya. Ood ya douche tuwh, tish!”
“That’s what Moira sounded like. What is this?”
“Touw gneekeerf ooey raw eyahu! Touw gneekeerf ooey raw eyahu. Nolk uh eeb dluke ooey. Ayoo-uh nuhr douche ya.”
“Why is this here? Is this…? Is this hell? This doesn’t feel like enlightenment.”
“Tnemnetile-neh kyle leaf tn’zudd sith. Lehh sigh zih. …Sith zih. Reehh sith zih yaw.”
“I should run away. You could be a clone. Why are you freaking out?! Why are you freaking out?”
“Sith zih tuhu. Kile dednouse uh-ryome tuhu stathe.”
“Shit, what should I do? I guess, what should we do?”
“Eem ooey raw. Nitkelfehr uh nathe rome rouy. Tish eelohh.”
“That’s it, I’m leaving.”
He stepped backward into the elevator, still open, then to his shock, the reflection walked right in and pressed the button for the bottom floor. They looked at each other, twisting their fingers nervously.
At the bottom floor, the reflection practically leapt out of the elevator and ran away. Then something even more bizarre happened. Ren couldn’t control his body. He stepped out of the elevator backwards, pressed the call button again, and stood there looking at his hand. His hand wiped his face bottom to top, and then he was looking at his reflection in the black marble.
The earbuds were in, playing Morrissey backwards. He started walking backwards out of the lobby, feet flying off the stairs into unseen territory, popping the earbuds out and jaywalking backward across the street.
As he settled back into the bus – now backing down the street casually, as if that was a thing to do – he considered where this would end. All thoughts returned to Moira. He would see her. He would go through the day’s torments in reverse, and he would come to her room, and he would find out.
Ren was tired but couldn’t sleep, his mind trapped in a body out of control. But at last he was running backward up the stairs to Moira’s room, pulling his cart off the rail, stepping heel first into the light.
She looked at him kindly.
He spoke without thinking, shocked he was able to control his own voice at last, not sure if it was even real.
“Moira, you’re still here. Still here?”
“Of course. You’ve been for your time and you’re about to leave.”
“But how? How am I moving backward? You sent me there, you did something.”
“I did. What do you think of it? Ozeneroll, reehh vuh touw teg. Dnime tahn ood ya tub, tnouw ooey own.”
“It’s all… so wild. I don’t know what to think. Will I be OK?”
“You’re fine, just a little confused. Tsak sih leps ethe.” Her expression moved eerily into a kind, broad smile.
“But how did you do it?”
“Dnetile-neh eebed na, nih oge. Kees ooey rolf ethe taa pots lihu rotaveleh ethe. Nuttub nowd ethe serp, nah snurt rolf thflehut ethe rofe tile ethe za noose za. Snehukees nih fahd na nah nrut lihu stile ethe, zdnessa rotaveleh ethe za. Rolf thneetrofe ethe rofe nuttub ethe serp. It’s magic. You’ve been through the door of time. Now, if you seek it, if you pay the price for it, you can learn time spells for yourself. Seyy, eem dnatsridnuh ooey litnuh tire oot rithob tnode.”
“I… I don’t know what to think.”
“You already said that. I can say one thing though, and confidently,” then more loudly she said, “Tih ribmemer ooey lihu. Tnetrope-mih zih trop sith.”
“Is that it? No. What is it?”
“Puh oge oot nuttubed na zrotaveleh ethe oot oge. Sey, tsizgeh tahn zud eeh fih za eeb lihu tih. Eeball ethe nih drog eetirukess ethe oot keeps tahn ood, eeross. The world will make more sense when you wake up.”
“Is this just a dream?”
“Needlib tathe oot oge. Nizyarohh ethe neekahlb needlib reluykitrop nuhu vuh zockeeb, tih eese oot lbay eeb tahn lihu ooey. Reenyare tnowm vuh nishkerrid ethe nih cool rethe murf. Kalb sith vuh rinroke tseethrone ethe ta needlib ethe oot oge, krihu murf dveeler raw ooey nehu tine-oot.” Then quietly, “I sense disappointment in your tone. That’s good – it means you appreciate the mystery. So I’ll tell you, it is not a dream,” then more volubly, “Snishkuhrtsnih zeethe ribmemer tsum ooey tub, l’pmis sih tih.”
“What do you mean then?”
“I mean, tonight when you’re sleeping. Right now, depending on how you look at it. When you wake up, the world will be set right.” Then louder, “Noke riveh vooey neethy-nuh dnahyeeb neethmuss, own ewf eerev neethmuss. Tirkeese uh ooey thihu raish oot tnaw ya. Eeruh tnode, zdruhu zothe dnatsridnuh looey.”
“So much… What do you mean, ‘How I look at it’?”
“Likiziff neethmuss tahn. Neethmuss ooey riffah oot neeoge my. Ooey neetnachneh my spahh-rep. Dosipeh na neevahh tahn my, own… Just when do you think that you are, Lorenzo?”
“I… uh… God!”
She laughed with staccato inhalations. He woke up.