Fiction - Stained Windows

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I USED TO BE INSANE.

I got better.

The cure is worse than the disease. Cures are terrible things. They’re not chicken soup or twelve-step programs. Hello, my name is John and it’s been seven months since I last flayed a vagrant to see if monsters were hiding under his skin. I also have a drinking problem, but it’s not my worst trait, and it’s not the point.

This is the point:

I used to be mad. But I got better.

The Orient Express rocks. I’m in a corridor. Must have lost myself staring out a window into the rushing black. I shake my head, humming the tune to a half-forgotten song that might have gone something like: “The fireflies jarred us all up.” How did I get here? The scenes of my life always just begin, but I fumble for what came before. Lost transitions. Fugitive hours.

The woman. The girl in green. Half a carriage ahead. Every step is a sway of her dress, the green of the deep sea, and a defiant bounce of her scarlet hair, cut in a flapper bob. How long have I been following her? I find a notepad in my pocket, but can no longer decipher the scribblings, the pages traced over with spirals, the nib of my pen stabbing, bleeding black ink through—page on page—the echo of spirals.

“Hey, aren’t you—?” A man squeezing by in the corridor. Australian from the accent. He uses my name, not the one on my passport. With a wink, he introduces himself as a fellow scoundrel in the brotherhood of larceny. If we had a secret handshake, this is where we’d perform it. We don’t.

“Pulled a few jobs myself,” he croons with onion breath. “But nothing like you. Can’t believe it. The man himself. The gentleman thief.”

He rambles on as she rambles away. He’s followed my career: the famous diamond in London, the bird statuette in San Francisco, the paintings from the impenetrable mansion of a French nobleman. Amazing! Brilliant! He even saved a few newspaper clippings. He asks for my autograph. We both chuckle. She’s getting away.

“What’s the secret?” he asks.

He means the big cons, the grand jobs—the flare and panache, being both famous and anonymous, a celebrity shadow—and vanishing from jail the one time it managed to embrace me. I try keeping the girl in green in view as she enters the next coach. All these encounters feel repeated, rehearsed. Everything is déjà vu. The universe teeters on the tip of my tongue. I mutter something about misdirection.

“Ah,right,too right,” my fan says. “You studied with them magicians and escapists, eh?”

“Escapologists,” I correct. I also studied with a voice actor, a contortionist, a professor of Japanese wrestling, a chemist, a forger, an art historian, and a pearl diver who could hold her breath for eleven minutes—all part of my methodical apprenticeship, years of self-discipline to be in all ways different from the thug looming before me. All he ever studied was the requisite force to make a club crack a skull.

I extricate myself from the brute. He nods, pointing at his nose conspiratorially. He’ll tell his friends he now knows the secret. “Misdirection,” he’ll say, which isn’t any more insightful than saying, “I know how it works: it’s a trick.” I smile encouragingly. He’ll be sleeping in striped pajamas within a month. He’s the guy they always catch to make society feel better, because they can’t catch me.

Misdirection is a truth, but it’s a tiny truth magicians let slip to feed the brains of laypeople, to make them fat and content. The dupe who thinks himself clever ceases the effort of being clever. See? The illusion’s the thing.

The real secret isn’t sleight of hand. It’s timing. To have the maneuver done before they perceive it’s doing—in the casual moments before: an opening joke, an introduction, or while taking off a jacket. Then comes the heightened instant. They hold their breath, cease to blink, knowing your hands are moving too fast for them to perceive. They try to figure how you slipped the poison into the lunch in front of them, when you’ve already put it in their breakfast. All that gaudy patter, pageantry, and spectacle—they just drown in that, and it does not matter how sharply they dissect it. Their intelligence is being used against them, in a circular motion, as they concoct complex plots and skullduggery to decipher.

But it’s already done. Already too late.

There are other secrets. deep secrets. In my most recent performance, I stole a book in Istanbul. A special book. There are people after me. I really should not have opened that book. I saw the nighted worlds lurking in its pages. How, then, can I be sane?

I found the cure. I saw something. What did I see? Cures are horrible things. Cures is an anagram for curse.

But please understand: I used to be as insane as they come. I used to stick thumbtacks through my tongue so that I could better explain the Truth to the weeping children whose beds I hid under.

I quicken pace in the wake of the girl in green.

*   *   *

Down the corridor. So many doors.

I like trains. All these disparate people—the diplomats, gun-runners, and spies; the somebodies, everybodies, and nobodies— from the world over, nothing in common but a rocketing roof for a mayfly moment.

Every door is a window, every window a story. Some leave their doors a hair open, and I feel obliged to look. Voyeurs. Aren’t we all?

A cracked door. A young couple argues. Newlyweds? A secret affair?

Another door. A woman sprawls in a chair, head thrown back with opiate moans, syringe gleaming in her hand like a dead pixie. A closed door. Behind it, someone mutters, “The anachronisms. Oh, the anachronisms are compounding.”

A door opens. A dwarf peeks out, the metal submarine shape of a kazoo held between his lips. He looks one way, then the other, before his head flashes back inside. The door closes. The clicking of locks always sounds like a whispered dare to me. I can hear the membranophone nocturne playing within, ridiculous and sad.

I like windows. Fragments without context. In medias res. I remember my dream-plagued childhood, the hours staring out the passenger window of automobiles. But never stained windows— no—I recall the long Sundays at church, and how I hated the colored glass—pretty and opaque and stifling. I longed to hurl my hymnal through the painted panes and see what lay beyond.

A porter knocks on a door and delivers a carafe of mineral water to an old, regal woman in furs.

“This train, it goes in circles, always in circles,” she says in a thick accent. Exiled Russian nobility?

“Madame, I assure you, our train runs in a straight line,” says the porter with a congenial smile. The old woman takes her water and slams the door in his face. I give the porter a sympathetic nod.

“Do you have the time?” I ask.

“It is eleven past eleven, sir.”

A.M. or P.M.?”

“Sir?”

“Never mind. Travel is playing havoc with my sense of time.”

“Perhaps my time piece is malfunctioned, sir. Chronography is not our specialty.” His smile never changes, his facial muscles like pressed glass.

I move on, following liquid green memories.

An open door. Inside, a squat, old man in a tall top hat. A German doctor. Have we met? He opens a large, mysterious cabinet, revealing a gaunt, pallid young man, eyes closed and hands folded, sleep-standing. The doctor urges, and the sleeper speaks in a somnambulist trance, “Wir ertrinken alle in der Flüssigkeit, die uns nicht sterben lässt.”

A sluicing sensation, behind my eyes. I shake my head. What is happening? Things used to be easier. I used to be insane. I used to stare at piles of feces, for hours of monomanic fascination, finding all the hieroglyphic secrets of the cosmos in the coils and bumps.

Down the corridor. More doors. Lots of windows. Lots of stories. No clocks, but there is a countdown, and I don’t want to be on the other side of the chime. Yet curiosity is my oldest vice.

Into the dining car, crowded and opulent. The infamous and the anonymous fill large, cut-velvet armchairs. A famed dutch dancer draws admirers closer with the slow, exotic motions of a carnivore plant. A Brit pins and mounts the specimens of a butterfly collection right at his table. I barely catch the meaningful glance between the collector and the dancer.

All those arthropod limbs and wings give me an inexplicable shiver, so I turn to admire an art deco frieze, Bacchanal figures worked in glass—a man in the center and a woman on each side, all nude. The man plays a flute to the sky. The women hold great clusters of grapes.

Sitting beneath the frieze, the lady in green smiles at me. “From your wanted poster, I thought you’d be taller,” she says. “Well, I try to be,” I say, taking the opposite seat.

I tell her my name. She tells me hers.

“Pretty name,” I say. “Unusual. Reminds me of the Latin word, ululare.”

“Oh,”she coos in three syllables. “Latin. You’re a fancy flimflammer. What does it mean?”

“To howl or shriek.”

“I like that.”

“I like your eyes. They’re the same color as your dress.”

“I like your eyebrows, they arch sly like wary black cats.” She reaches across the table to stroke my right eyebrow. It arches.

“Maybe we should run a tally, then let each other borrow our best parts.”

She bites her lower lip. My toes curl. “Maybe we should have a drink first,” she says.

“Don’t know if that’s a good idea. I’m in AA.”

“Is that your room number?” She looks confused.

“No,” I chuckle. “Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Really? They started a few years back and . . . I’m an alcoholic.”

“I pegged you as a Scorpio.”

I lean in closer, over the table. “I have the oddest feeling,” I say. “Like we’ve known each other a long time.”

She leans in closer still. “I’d say that’s a line, but—”

“But you feel it, too.”

“Yes.”

“We’re dancing around it.”

“What?”

“The point.”

“And what is the point?” she says like a dare, like a clicking lock.

We take each other’s hand. The momentum is too strong now, a centrifugal force pulling us together. I use both eyebrows.

“I used to be insane,” I say.

She squeezes my hand. “Me, too.”

“But I got better.”

“Me, too.”

“That seems . . . unlikely.” I grin.

“It does.” She smirks.

“I mean, I was deranged. I used to shove mirror shards into my eye sockets, like razor monocles, so curses would reflect back on others.”

Her foot pokes mine playfully, under the table, as she says, “Applesauce! I was crazier than a shit-house rat. I used to eviscerate Teddy bears with a scalpel, yank out their fluffy innards. Then I’d fill the cloth husks with grave worms, sewing it all up. I hoped the bears would rise and walk and keep me company on lonely nights.”

We both release a long-held breath with a hiccuping laugh. “It’s not the worst thing I’ve done,” she says, playing with a steak knife.

“Same here.”

“We have so much in common.”

“There’s something else,” I say. Our eyes wander over the rest of the dining car. The collector methodically eats the specimens from his mounting board; a colorful wing hangs from his mouth as he crunches. The dancer is gone, as are her admirers, though their clothes remain in neat piles. We both hold onto something ticklish in our throats, like a private joke.

My lips hover over her ear. “I think everyone else on this train is losing their mind.”

“And they’re getting worse.”

“While we get better.”

“Inverse curves.”

“Sounds sexy when you put it like that.”

“Does erudition coax you to barneymugging?”

“I like brains and legs when they’re attached.”

We release our giggling fits, then catch our breath.

“Something awfully bad is about to happen on this train,” she says. We grin at each other like teenagers. “We should be more afraid than this.”

“We’ve already been mad.”

“It’s strangely calming.”

“‘The worst had fall’n which could befall—He stood a stranger in this breathing world—An erring spirit from another hurled—A thing of dark imaginings . . .’”

“What’s that?”

“It’s from a Byron poem. My father liked rhymes. He’d have me memorize them. A sort of game.”

“Oh? That sounds nice.”

I remember the bump-scrape, bump-scrape up the drunken, dizzying stairs, the rhymes oozing from his reeking lips, the rapping at the red, red door. “No,” I say. “It wasn’t.”

“I am not afraid!” screams a man at the head of a dinner party on the other side of the car. “I can never be afraid!” Thick strands of spittle punctuate his words. The others answer, first with words, than with screams, cursing the International Sleeping-Car Company— then laughing at the grotesque faces they make at one another.

“I get to feeling like the thing that’s about to happen,” says the girl in green, “is inescapable.”

“No such thing,” I say with no small amount of professional pride. Something a little like hope and a lot like audacity swells between us. Nevermind the nightmare slow-blossoming around us like a maggot bouquet.

“Let’s discuss this further over that drink,” she says, and all the universe is her green eyes. “You can tell me how you lost your mind. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

“You’re an enabler.”

“No, I’m a Taurus, and I have a flask of pretty good rye in my room,” she says, getting up. “Compartment C-19.”

“Really? That’s the room adjoined to mine. All this time and the only thing separating us was a communicating door. The latch is broken. I was going to get a porter to fix it.”

“Don’t bother,” she says, leaving in a swirl of liquid green.

*   *   *

 I’m nearly out of the dining car when I look again at the glass art frieze. The man is now sitting on an altar, playing his flute to the sky. The women, on either side, are now holding ornate daggers instead of grapes.

“Admiring the Bacchanals?” says the deep grind of a tectonic voice. A fat man in a red fez overflows from his luxuriant chair like a greedily poured drink. “Fine work, very fine.”

“By Rene Lalique himself,” I say. “Very avant-garde.”

“You know your art, but then, it pays to in your line of work, hmm?”

“Weren’t the women holding grapes instead of daggers a moment ago?”

“I don’t believe so. I do have reason to believe that you possess a certain book and are in need of a buyer.”

I take a seat with the corpulent man. He gives me his name. I give him mine. I notice the bluish silver medallion he wears, pressed with the likeness of the god Neptune. The corpulent man notices my notice.

“Oh, this? A keepsake bauble, a reminder of home. You look pale, friend. When was the last time you saw the sun?”

“No date comes to mind. You said something about a buyer?”

He nods. “Indubitably, friend. I represent parties interested in acquiring your tome.” He gives me a figure.

“That’s generous,” I say. “do you know what the book is actually worth?”

“That, my friend, I refuse to even speculate.” The corpulent man picks at his food, one pinch at a time.

“I have a buyer. Just have to make it to the end of the line.”

“I have reason to believe, dear friend, that you will not make it that far.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No, heavens no, friend, not from me,” he says, shaking his head. His jowls quiver with hypnotic plasticity in a face that barely contains him. “I have reason to believe that there are other interested parties aboard the train, more zealous, less interested in making offers.”

“Tell me about your buyers.”

The corpulent man regales me with stories hatched and cross-hatched with cloaks and daggers, with clandestine encounters, with aliases, cryptic leads, globetrotting chases, near misses, dust-shrouded tombs, back alleys, words whispered from dying lips, convoluted plots, Tarot decks of archetypes, and whole pantheons of MacGuffins. As he talks, the corpulent man feeds, one finger-pinch of food at a time. I try to pretend not to notice that the tiny morsels he picks go not into his mouth, but into his right ear. It is the ear facing away from me in his profile, so I cannot see the food dribbling out, can assure myself that I do not hear chewing under the words, can assure myself that it is a trick of the lighting, that when he talks, there are no odd undulations beneath his shirt.

The corpulent man stops, mid-sentence, tripping over a detail and then another. “No . . . rather . . . I . . . I have lost my place.” He takes my hand, looks to me with watery eyes, voice suddenly higher. “Have we met before, friend, my dearest friend? I feel we have known each other for several lifetimes. Could I induce you to hide within the folds of my coat?” A thick fluid salivates from his ear.

I take back my hand and stand. “I have a prior engagement, but I’ll think about your offer.”

“Yes. do. But think quickly. Time and tide wait for—”

“Do you have the time?”

The corpulent man pats his pockets. “Eh, no. My apologies, friend. My fob watch stopped.”

In the glass frieze, the women have plunged their daggers into the man on the altar as he plays his flute to the sky. I slip out of the dining car. There are no clocks, but there is a countdown.

*   *   *

Down the corridor.

Muffled fragments of a man’s voice from compartment B-67:

“. . . experiences few men have ever had . . . plenty of nourishment. . . nothing to fear . . . All transitions are painless . . . When the electrodes are disconnected . . . especially vivid and fantastic . . .”

The door opens, and a young, urbane man, fashionably dressed, with dark mustache, emerges.

Down the corridor. Static and feedback hiss from the door on my right. A familiar voice swims in the static. The Mocking Voice says:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.

My mouth tightens. I quicken pace. Two doors down, on the left, the static hisses and the Mocking Voice continues:

He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.....

I run. The Mocking Voice follows. How long has it chased me?

Every door is its mouth:

For though my rhyme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain-beaten,
Rusty and moth-eaten, If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.

Down the endless corridor. Rhymes and rhymes and the Mocking Voice calling my name. One thousand years later, I knock on the door of C-19. 

*   *   *

She pours our drinks, while I try and fail to recall the opening of the door. She puts a record on a phonograph, and something jazzy plays out of its blunderbuss mouth.

“Coffin varnish?” she says, handing me a glass.

“I really shouldn’t.”

“Don’t be such a Missus Grundy!”

“What decade are you from?” I ask.

She smiles and shrugs, and the rye burns good all the way down.

Then she sways. Oh gods. The way she sways—so elementally ever-present in her skin, reveling in every molecule. Some people go their whole lives without enjoying their own body half so much as she delights in a single sway. She takes my hand, and then we’re both swaying to the music.

I twirl her, and she leans into me, back to chest, carrying me away on the tide of her hips, and I ask, “So, what was yours?”

“Mine?” she says. “Mine was a cult.”

“A good cult or a bad cult?”

“Ba-a-a-ad,” she brays like a she-goat. “Every last one of them was a wrong number.”

As we dance, she tells me about her roaring days, and falling in with a crowd seeking starry wisdom.

“I gazed into a stone, in the dark, and something the size of a planet slid greasily into my skull. And that was that.”

My hand finds heaven in the inches of the small of her back, as I pull her closer, she whispers to me, voice vibrating against my neck, “And what was yours?”

“Mine was a book.”

“That how it goes with you?”

“Yeah. It’s either women or booze or books.”

Booze and the blowens cop the lot,” says the Mocking Voice in the static of the phonograph.

I flinch.

“What was that?” the girl in green asks.

I shrug. We sway. I tell her of my love of books, leather and spine—how my brain claptraps every little factoid of the rare editions. Of all the treasures I pilfer, I prefer the rustle of pages to the clink of coins. One day, I dared to filch the rarest of tomes. In a hotel, in that choking room with yellow wallpaper, I opened the book like a door, and brain pathogens in its grammar opened an event horizon in my head.

“And that was that.”

I remember that first night perfectly. An officer of the police came into my room, and I sang a prehistoric lullaby that ate him in the dark. I tore into the night, into the geomancy of the city streets. I came upon a man working the graveyard shift of a newsstand. I slaughtered him. Sobbing, I begged his severed head to make it all make sense again. He looked sympathetic. All the howling nights after that bleed together.

“I still have the book,” I say as we sway. “There are people after it. After me.”

“I think mine are after me, too,” says the girl in green, with a semi-embarrassed scrunch of her face.

“And here we are dancing.” “I’m no canceled stamp.”

We let the motion of the train grind us together. I wonder what she was like in her bedlam nights. Had she ever degloved someone’s face?

I dip her and say, “Two recovering lunatics romancing each other.”

“Tale as old as time.”

“The Gershwin Brothers should write it as a musical.” “Who?”

“Nevermind.”

“You ever feel guilty about your line of work?”

“Misers live in terror of losing their hoard, and I liberate them from their fear.”

“You rationalize even better than you dance.”

“The criminal is the creative artist, the detective only the critic.”

“You even stole that line, didn’t you?”

“Everyone’s a copper.”

She laughs, and it sounds like victory.

Booze and the blowens cop the lot,” repeats the Mocking Voice from the phonograph mouth.

“That’s not supposed to be on that record,” she says.

“It’s just a voice that’s been giving me the tail.”

“Oh,” she says with a nonchalance that makes me wonder what’s been haunting her on this train.

The Mocking Voice straddles the music, saying:

Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

I try to ignore the voice, to talk over it. I tell her how I inherited the entire estate of my father’s disease with drink—how alcohol, when combined with the accelerant of certain kind of women, made me combustable.

The Mocking Voice continues:

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

I yank the record and dash it against the wall.

“Sorry,” I say.

“S’alright,” she says.

And then it calls my name, the Mocking Voice, says my name, over and over in the static-hiss of the emptied phonograph, says my name the way my father used to.

A man of words and not of deeds—is like a garden full of weeds,” it says. I shiver. That deadly rhyme. I hear father’s footsteps limping up the endless stairs—bump-scrapebump-scrape—the pounding at the red-red door. My hands find my face. I feel lampreys wriggling in my veins. I—

The Mocking Voice chokes to a comic muffle. I look up. A rag is stuffed in the phonograph mouth. My green-eyed girl winks at me with cartoonish exaggeration.

“Jeepers creepers, but I was getting sick of listening to him,” she says, and, just like that, everything is impossibly all right.

We sway again, and she hums her own music—amidst all this, she can just hum her own music. We neck and giggle at the Muffled Voice. She twirls and her dress swishes around her in a slow, underwater swirl.

“I like the way you do that,” I say.

“And here I was hoping you’d love me for just my brain.”

“Gouge out my eyes let’s see where the night goes.”

“Fuck-a-vous! Who says romance is dead?” We kiss, hard. She gives me a dangerous look. “Oh, I’ll cop your lot.”

*   *   *

Down the corridor and up the spout.

Where was I? Oh, right. We agreed to escape. We’ll meet back at her room. We each have something to check out first. We each have our own scabs to pick.

A man stands, like a wax museum display, in front of the door of that imperious Russian woman. It’s the conductor himself. They all look the same to me, the conductor and his porters—mustache, waxen face, and never-changing smile.

“Have the time?” I ask.

“It’s eleven after eleven, sir, on the button.”

He tips his blue hat and we make small talk.

“How long have you been a conductor?”

“Since they took my wings, sir. Now I ride the train. My accommodations are the same as the passengers. I do miss my wings....”

“When was our last stop?”

“Some time ago, sir.”

“Where?”

He tells me the name, but his words buzz like cicadas. I stumble away, assaulted by chitinous vibrations on the inner ear. From behind her door, the old woman shouts, “We’re going in circles!”

I hear knocking and the conductor saying, “I must ask you to please be calm, Madame. don’t make me take off my face.”

*   *   *

The dining car is empty.

Trains are the only confined spaces I enjoy. Claustrophobia and freedom in a speeding paradox. I’ve paid more than one writer to give me a thinly disguised presence in the mystery pulp pages. My reputation says that it was bravery that released me from all those handcuffs, tight spots, and the felon’s cell. But that’s not true. It was fear.

Windows are important. I have to look through them to reassure myself. Objects flicker-flash by in the ever-looping night, like rattling film over the projector lamp. I stare freely outside, yet I feel the noose tightening. I think I know why.

I find what I need on the table. I pray that it will give me answers, but I don’t pray too loud, because you never know who’s listening. An abandoned newspaper. I open it. I turn the page. Nothing. I crumple it and throw it away.

Useless.

I look at menu after menu. I rip each one up.

Useless.

I tear all the paper I can find, cursing. This used to be easier. I used to be insane. I used to be taunted through invisible holes in my walls by incomprehensible demons that weren’t there or woken in the night by rats with human faces.

But I got better. I found the cure.

Now I’m taunted by newspapers and menus.

In the glass frieze of the Bacchanals, the man is laying on the altar. The women have opened him with their daggers. One pulls out his insides, the other is doing things to his remains that would make a cadaver blush. The man still has his face and hands, still plays his flute to the tentacular sky.

Sitting on the floor, the abandoned red fez with a crushed crown offers me no answers.

*   *   *

Why do they all leave their doors open?

Another door ajar. ululating, infant gibberish from within. I peek inside. An old, wrinkly man stares at me, nakedly, from a large bathtub with clawed feet. Water sluices onto the floor with the rocking of the train. He splashes, smiling, the high-pitched baby jabber coming out of his whiskered face.

I close the door.

Another room. Empty. On the desk, a bible, a proper book, leather and spine, hefty and full. That will do. It’s weight feels reassuring. I flip the pages. I flip a few more. I tear out the pages, page after page.

“No, no, no!” repeats a voice in the room, and the mirror over the fold-out washbasin informs me that the voice is mine.

Crackle-bzzzzt-hiss, says the large radio in the room. Crawling out of static thick as reptile afterbirth, the Mocking Voice says:

“A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds.

My father’s favorite rhyme. After a night’s debauch, it was always a race between the rhyme and his heady reek to announce drunk daddy slamming up the steps.

And when the weeds begin to grow
It’s like a garden full of snow.
And when the snow begins to fall
It’s like a bird upon the wall.

Bump-scrape. He’d limp-lurch up the stairs. Bump-scrape. The drink turned him into a hopping, bulgy-eyed frog-man. Bump- scrape. I’d clutch my blankets and pray.

And when the bird away does fly It’s like an eagle in the sky.
And when the sky begins to roar It’s like a lion at your door.

There would be a pounding at my red-red door. Sometimes he finished the poem. Sometimes the red-red door gave in.

“And when the door begins to crack—”

I tip over and slam the radio down. “Jiggers, fellers!” whines the static. I kick the radio. I flip it over, face up.

“What’s up, doc?” says the Mocking Voice.

“Who are you?” I interrogate the machine.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis. Ain’t I a stinker?”

“Who are you?” I punch the machine.

“Don’t kill me, doc. I’m just the message.” “You mean messenger.”

“That, too. And you are all the enclosed. You are all just ghosts drowning in meat.”

“Who are you?”

“You know me, doc. I’m the rhyme, and I’m coming up your steps.” The Mocking Voice laughs, and all of the Orient Express laughs with it.

And I’m running, and I’m running, and I’m running.

*   *   *

Room B-68. When did I come in?

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” says a bearded, grizzled man.

On the desk is a ghostly bust of Milton, a phonograph with a dictaphone attachment, and several waxen cylinders of the kind people once used to make voice recordings with. He tells me his name. I tell him mine.

“You’re an escapist?”

“Escapologist. Actually, I’m a thief.”

“You break out of systems. Very good. Please, sit.”

I get comfortable. The train rocks. Red drops pitter-patter on the floor.

“I used to be insane,” I begin. “And now I’m not.” “You want to know why?”

“Yes.”

“What would knock the sane mind mad and the mad brain mended?” He shifts thoughtfully in his armchair, his handsome robe sliding enough to reveal the red spirals etched into the flesh of his body—I imagine they cover every inch. As he talks, he carves a new spiral into his forehead with a penknife.

“Tell me the first early memory that comes to mind now,”he says. “Catching fireflies.”

“Go on.”

“I’d put them in mason jars. I’d carry them with me on summer nights, till their lights went out. The cicadas were so loud.”

“Cicadas?”

“Yeah. I’d nearly forgotten. My mom had this thing. She didn’t like me sitting out too long, at night, listening to the cicadas. She didn’t think their buzzing voices were entirely . . . wholesome. She’d nag the way some mothers nag their kids to get out of the bath before their fingers prune. It was hard not to hear the cicadas. They were as loud as gas-powered chainsaws.”

He asks me about my vocation. He begins a new spiral on his left cheek. Lines of red form in his white beard. He hands me maze puzzles on sheets of paper stained red. I take out my fountain pen and solve them all with a rapidity that excites him.

“Very good, very good,” he says. “Maybe you are the one to escape. I suppose it doesn’t matter in the end. There is nothing beyond the train.”

“You sound like the institutionalized. Nothing outside the joint, eh?”

“And you think your brain is free?”

“I believe that reality is just the high-water mark where some other asshole’s audacity gave out.”

My mind was always free. I was always good at getting out of things. I could escape ruts, obligations, and self-identity traps—all the I-dos that map out a person’s life from birth to death. I deftly stepped out of commitments, some of them I regret, but I’m good at escaping regret, too. I just slip out of the noose. I escaped them all and dashed across the world, pissing in the eye of the tyrannous stars.

The man with the stained beard nods.

“So you, you’re some kind of shrink?” I ask.

“An alienist? Oh, no. I’m a folklorist from Vermont.”

I lean forward in my chair. “You said something about the whys.”

“Oh yes. The spirals.”

He points to all the spirals he’s scribbled about his room, explains that the shape of the universe is the spiral. The spiral repeats, from snail shell to hurricane, from galaxies to the tinniest building blocks of all matter. It is the flight path of carrion birds. Everything is the spiral. What if, posits the man with the stained beard, the spi- ral is a pictogram, drawn by the universe, under manic compulsion, over all reality? The runic story, the only story, of how everything tries in vain to escape the gluttonous gravity of the horrible thing at the center of all. The decaying orbit. The tightening circle.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He taps the dripping penknife against his teeth. His eyes loose focus. “I . . . uh . . . That is . . . rather . . . It’s getting harder to . . . You . . . Certainly you’ve noticed the anachronisms. I, for one, don’t have the foggiest notion of what a gas-powered chainsaw is.”

“What? What is this train? Are we all dead?”

“Of course not. We are . . . rather . . . all alive . . . or . . . uh . . . what theoretically and mentally amounts to alive. I’m sorry. I just. The orbit decays! I can’t . . .” He trials off and holds his head for several moments. “It was good to talk to you again.”

“Again?”I leap out of my seat. Nostalgia flows through my ventricles as deadly as air bubbles. The universe teeters on the tip of my tongue.

“do you think this is the first time we’ve had this discussion?” asks the man with the stained beard.

“What—what are you talking about?”

He stabs the penknife into the center of his forehead. “I would like to think that if we drew a radial line outward—” he rends the line through the spiral in a gory gash of exposed bone “—we would find an encounter where I was the lucid one, and you the gibbering madman.”

I want to shake him like a radio, make him make sense of it all. But, with perfect suavity, he bites out his own tongue and spits it at me. He sings a song, but I’ll never know the words. It’s all blood and vowels. 

*   *   *

Down the corridor. I can’t hear my own footsteps. I get to my room, and notice the door is just a hair open. Trained senses scream a warning. I kick hard—my legs are well muscled—and the door swings open, slamming something with a wet umph! It swings back again, dangling on one hinge like a hanged man’s neck. Liquid red pools on the floor.

A yellow-robed cultist lays behind the door, sad as a broken Jack-in-the-Box, an obsidian dagger driven between his ribs. A red circle spreads through the yellow fabric. He had been hiding in the shadows, because that is what cultists do. Everything is entirely too archetypal. I think I know why.

“There’s no true excuse yet made for the bungler at his trade,” I taunt down to the dead man. Oh, the familiar rhymes. I’m becoming my father.

Under the robes, the cultist’s naked flesh is wrapped in strands of barbed wire. A short, spastic tale extends from the end of his spine, still curling and uncurling posthumously. Nothing in his pockets but space and questions.

Was I too late?

I yank out my large trunk and open it. Beneath the clothes, inside the false bottom, I find the book. I sigh. The book that started it all. It’s as heavy as I remember. I have to use both hands to lift it. Ancient, of course, it smells like a dead pharaoh’s taint, bound in leather that feels like no cowhide I ever touched. It promises chthonic wisdoms. The night I stole it, when I first riffled the pages with my thumb to listen to the quality of the vellum, I heard the distant moan of omnipotent mollusks like the sea in a shell.

My hand shakes.

The book that drove me insane. I open it . . .

My mouth twitches. This shouldn’t surprise me. I mean, I already knew. But the rage comes on all the same, and with a strained curse, I lift the weighty tome over my head and bring it down on the dead cultist. I slam it down again and again, with a meaty squelch, until all that remains is the rhythm and a memory and a stain.

Panting. Now.

“I used to be insane,” I say to what’s left.

My violence must have knocked my pocket watch, hanging from its special hook on the wall, because it swings like a descending pendulum.

11:11

11:11

11:11

The book lies open like an accusation.

“Nothing,” I spit. Nothing! No answers, no wisdom, not even any madness. None of the Mesozoic calligraphy that stretched the suture-cracks of my skull and boiled my brain in cuttlefish ink. No words! Just empty pages and perdition, just like the bible, just like the newspaper, the menus, and all documents on this train. In this place, text does not exist. Sunlight does not exist. Glass friezes move more regularly than the faces of clocks and conductors.

My mind sloshes. None of these plots track. I think I know why. I—

I look about the room. It is a mess, but all the mess is mine. The cultist did not so much as overturn my pillows. My trunk’s false bot- tom is clever—true—but he didn’t even search. Maybe he wasn’t here for the book.

I leap up and tear open the communicating door adjoining my compartment to room C-19.

*   *   *

The girl in green is handcuffed to the pipe of her sink. Black tendrils of mascara slither down her face. A fresh spiral is cut, angry and red, just beneath her collarbone. I think she’s gone, like everyone else, but she looks up, and her green eyes are clear.

I say her name. She says mine.

“You came back?” she says. “There’s no way out. No way out. No way.”

“Really?” I say. With a flourish that Philistines might call over-dramatic, my fingers dance over her manacles, and they come undone. It can take up to six seconds for me to get out of that particular make and model, but I really want to impress her.

“This is screwy,” she says. “You don’t even know me.”

“I know that we’re riding the raggedy edge, and all you wanted to do was dance,” I say, wiping the inky tendrils off her cheek. “I know that all of our collective damage and fuck-ups fit together like key teeth on tumblers.”

She hiccups a laugh and says, “Yeah, I’m goofy about you, too.” And everything is impossibly all right.

Then two vice grips crush my shoulders and slam me into a wall. The conductor has me by the scuff, looking at me with his waxen smile. “Sir, you are being a disruption, and we must have a modicum of calmness for this journey.”

I slip from my jacket, like a snake out of his skin, but before I can get away, another hand—where did it come from?—grabs my throat and lifts me off the ground.

“Be calm, sir,” says the conductor. “Please don’t make me take off my face.”

That’s when the bottle caves his head. Full wine bottles don’t break like they do in the movies. But skulls do. He crumples to the floor. My girl in green stands behind, bottle held like a cudgel, the look on her face is . . . well, many are the fights I saw in school, and the scariest scraps were between the girls.

I want to say something clever, but the conductor crawls toward us. His smiling face hangs off him, and something writhes beneath. “Sir!” he says. “Madame!” The voice is a buzzing drone.

“Let’s dust!” she says.

I take her hand. And we’re running, and we’re running, and we’re running.

*   *   *

Down the corridor.

There are pleasure sounds, in the long night of the train, and what might be construed as muffled screams. Lots of stories. Lots of paths. No matter where each began, they all go bad on the vine. It comes down in waves. In synchronized patterns. The countdown is done.

Flashes of images. Smiles. Blood. Hair. Leaking fluid from an open eye. Whispers. Chewing. Ragged nails, dark and dripping in the moonlight. Hair covering a jabbering face like a creep show curtain.

The girl in green and I run. Coach to coach, to the back of the train. We’ll leap off the caboose if we have to.

All the compartment doors are open. All these windows.

An open door: A room crowded with people surrounding a paralyzed man in bed. They pass around a dripping knife like a party favor. Everyone has a turn.

An open door: A man holds a severed woman’s arm, injecting it with a green fluid from a large syringe. The dead hand twitches, stroking his cheek comfortingly.

An open door: A young debutant tearfully scrubs at the outbreak of pimples upon her face and shoulders. Each one pops, hatching a new eye.

They are gaining on us. I can hear their footsteps, only they don’t sound so much like footsteps as horn scraping hard rubber or splintery wooden shoes shamble-rattling over a polished floor. We run, but the train is endless—carriage after carriage.

An open door: A mother picks the last stubborn strand of flesh from a little boy’s head. “There,” she says, “was that so bad?”

An open door: A man sits up in bed, pale flesh pocked with barnacle sores, wriggling growths, and sea cucumber discharges. He watches as competing colonies of coral battle for primacy of his chest, spitting up their digestive enzymes in time-lapse warfare.

The train never ends. Ten thousand years later, we arrive in front of the door to my room.

“Impossible,” I say.

We duck inside, close what’s left of the door, and barricade it with my trunk. The conductor and his porters batter the red-red wood, and through the jagged cracks, I see too many sets of limbs, segmented and crustacean-like, and trembling stumps that may have been wings at one time. Their voices buzz in a cicada cadence.

“We’re getting out of here!” I yell.

I lift the heavy, bloody book and hurl it through my window. The glass shatters. Everything shatters. The girl in green screams. 

*   *   *

I think of the pickled punks you can see at nickel sideshows. I think of fireflies in mason jars. I remember the cicada voices whispering to me in the darkness, one summer night. I see stars. The gulfs of space. The wells of night. Green sloshes over everything.

Their great wings catch the aether. Pink crustacean bodies. The arthropod angels carrying us. Their faces are not faces, but masses of tendrils that glow in alternating colors, and I can see the syntax in their blinking, a never-ending string of Christmas. Beyond counting. Flying in formation, an endless train. Several pairs of arms each, and in each arm, a cylinder of strange metal, and in each cylinder: a brain. I see them, through their little windows, floating in the green nutrient soup. Some cylinders contain organs of a non-human shape.

The fireflies had jarred us all up. They carry us through the mindless void, past time and matter, into the idiot vortices.

The closest cylinder to me is marked C-19. I’m glad I get to be close to her. She dances and twirls with impossible liquid slowness— so graceful—my girl in green.

I hear her scream my name. I hear them all, through the network, but their voices sound metallic and flat. The conductor says, “Istanbul! Budapest! Vienna! Munich! Strasbourg! Chalons! Paris! Istanbul!”

We’re going in a circle, a ring around a nuclear chaos at the center of all. It mutters. Its radiation poisons the dream train and all of its dreamers. The closer we get, the madder they get, the more lucid I’ll become. I found the cure.

We must get closer. The gravity is irresistible. Our orbit decays. The spiral is absolute. Louder and louder—the thin whining of cracked flutes.

Right now, I’m just going to look out my window on the night drive. I’ll eventually go back to sleep. I’ll rejoin my fellow guisers on the dream train, our little plots repeated in each rotation, our follies in endless loop. They’re mummers plays, a shadow puppet show, a Punch and Judy delight for the audient void. I can almost hear the silent, mocking applause of the thousand-thousand hands that are not hands.

____________________

Joshua Alan Doetsch is a sentient word virus spreading across the collective unconscious through the vector of human language. He's taken on many forms as short stories, coalesced as the novel Strangeness in the Proportion, and shaped himself into an anthropomorphic guise as Lead Writer of such video games as Age of Conan and The Secret World. He also writes for tabletop games like Vampire the Masquerade and Scarred Lands and occasionally does voice acting. Help him spread the weird by visiting his Patreon, for stories and audio fiction, at patreon.com/joshuadoetsch. You may also summon him, with offerings of cuttlefish ink when the stars are right, at joshuadoetsch.com or @JoshuaDoetsch on Twitter.

"Stained Windows" © copyright 2014 Joshua Alan Doetsch. Originally published in Madness on the Orient Express, edited by James Lowder, Chaosium 2014. Reprinted with permission.

 


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