I spent the entire day in bed staring at the white ceiling. If you stare at it long enough, it begins to sweat. Mother always said I was an “overthinker.” When she remembered me, before Alzheimer’s. Before the inevitable change where we all wither. I never believed it until now.
I scrolled through my phone searching for the app that controls my life. Since my remote’s been lost in the abyss of my apartment, I needed it to tune in and tune out. It was an ungodly hour. I could tell from the pulsating tangerine glow of the streetlights on my white curtain blinds. During particular times in the night, they malfunctioned. I used to think microscopic cameras were inside snapping pictures of me. Aliens sending morse code. Or, that I was subconsciously controlling it with my mind, trying to send myself a message from within. A myriad of paranoid fantasies. I take pills now. I’m better now. I don’t think as much.
After sliding my feet into two-year-old brown slippers, I grabbed a bowl, a box of cereal, and a questionable bottle of unspoiled milk. I sat near my oscillating fan, listening to the sound of my teeth crunching the cereal. Unsatisfied, I made some room on the floor by shifting dirty clothes and piles of unopened mail. I proceeded to do push-ups until my arms gave out. I did seven.
I took a shower and cleaned my bathroom immediately after. I scanned social media, methodically, searching for rabbit holes. I played a game of chess against myself beneath a single light bulb that hung from a string. Stalemate. Nothing worked. At the forefront of my mind was a recent memory. I saw something . . . and it won’t leave me alone.
Last night on the way home from work, I took a different route when I departed from the bus. I spent the entire ride without people watching, which is instinctual for me. Except, lately, the eyes staring back cause great panic. So I put my focus on the floor, the poles, empty seats, the ceiling. I watched my shoes grow, then missed my stop. My street slopes downhill, and in the background was an oasis of metropolis life. I’m frightened by the roar of the living. I never subscribed to and entered the vein of modern existence. I tried once; it was an amicable breakup.
My mother would say that I transformed myself into a walking ghost. She was right, trauma transforms. I wished the world could pass through me. Unfortunately, bounded by the flesh, I found myself brushing past a group of degenerates near the lavender hue of a sex shop. Several types of hookahs, tall and small, were displayed behind the storefront glass.
I declined eye contact with the Muslim shopkeep in the corner store when he handed me change for the items I’d purchased. A 40oz. bottle of malt liquor, hand lotion, and assorted candy bars. He commented on a stain on my gray hoodie that had been there for over a month. In response, I nodded my head, and with the gracelessness of a snail, found the exit; the bell chimed above my head, and I entered the block that my home was built on.
Habitually, I keep my keys in my left pocket because I’m left-handed. But last night they were in my back pocket, with the change in my right. I forgot why. There’s a permanent fog in my short-term memory. When I went to enter my apartment, momentarily, I felt like a different person. Someone with a life worth living. The streetlights were still working.
A spotted black and white cat rubbed against my leg. In the backdrop of stars in the night sky, one fell. The cough I’d nursed for a week disappeared. In my left pocket, I found a twenty-dollar bill. I decided to drag my newfound auspiciousness to the park.
Down one of the trails, I saw an old woman throwing pieces of bread on the ground. Two couples, reeking of marijuana, pointed at me, sniggered, and walked towards the edge of the street. I debated if their laughter was real or not. While contemplating, I located a space between the trees to be alone. The still water by my feet housed dragonfly nymphs. Through the leaves above I was able to see the crescent moon. I twisted open the cap on my beverage, drank to the loneliness. The passing of time was measured in how much liquid remained in the bottle. It was nearly gone, and while enveloped in an unnatural city silence, I saw it. A human-shaped object flying in the sky.
I dropped the bottle into the still water, contaminating it. Then walked back to the path near the lights. Not a soul in any direction. It felt as if I’d entered the twilight of a dream, at the edge of degradation. I squeezed the rail beneath the bridge that blocked off the huge lake that split the park in two. I watched it fly by again. A blur. An unwarranted laugh bubbled inside me. With ripples at its feet, right above the water’s surface of the lake, the thing hovered a few feet away from me.
It was undulating and luminescent. I’d never seen such beauty. Its eyes were like jewels and its curves were like stone. No defined features to specify sex. I haven’t been able to sleep since. There were moments where I blocked out all external forces. Except, at times, I wasn’t aware that I was communicating with the external world. My mouth moved for me.
“Are you sure you’re not a cop?” the near-naked prostitute whispered into my ear. A combination of tobacco smoke and burnt plastic filled my nose.
“I need to relax.”
“You want a motel? It’s the best way without a car. Out here,” she scanned the inner-city we both found ourselves in. “The streets have eyes.”
“I don’t do this often,” I lied, she saw through it with fake eyelashes and mascara.
“Whatever helps you sleep, right?”
“That’s my problem.”
The motel was one I’d frequented before. I’d memorized the layout, the pricing, the filthiness of the pool. Lying on the bed, I watched the ceiling sweat. A faucet was abruptly turned off. A door creaked open. The silhouette of a woman’s naked frame presented itself in the shadows. A stack of money occupied the corner of a desk. I was straddled.
“Do you need anything?” she asked, close to my ear. “Alcohol, drugs?”
“I don’t think so.”
The physical touch landed on dead limbs. She took notice and rolled over, sparked a cigarette. In the glow of the flame, I saw boredom tattooed on her face.
“No refunds. We can just lay here. Talk, I suppose,” her tone of voice grew brighter. “I’d prefer that.” She glanced at my crotch. “Happens more often then you think.”
“I saw something.” A confession escaped.
“Don’t we all?” she offered a cigarette. “See stuff.”
“It was . . . beautiful.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’d you see her?”
“Flying over Hillside Park. Then . . . standing on the water.”
The following night, I began sketching furiously. On paper towels, napkins, the walls, any surface. I drew it. Different poses. Flying, swimming, holding my hand, angel wings. My voicemails were filling up from work messages that I didn’t care to hear. I was tired of pushing a broom, with barely enough to pay for my prescription. The streetlight started to pulse again, sending me messages, ideas. I listened. I decided to reenter the park, retrace my steps.
The unnatural silence hugged me. I stepped into my spot between the trees. However, when I looked up between the leaves, there was no moon. I waited. The night grew colder. The frigid, cutting breeze awakened deep thoughts. Epiphanies. I felt as though I spent too much time not making memories. Swathed in isolation.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” a voice whispered near the path. “Are you waiting?”
“Yes,” I answered loudly, approaching a homeless man sitting on the bench near the lake. “I need to see it again.”
“Me too,” he rubbed his beard and looked towards the sky. “What does it look like to you?”
“It spoke to me once.”
“What did it say?”
The homeless man stretched his neck and sank his shoulders. “I don’t know . . . I couldn’t make out the language. I . . . I’ve been coming here ever since. Hoping to see it. Praying for it to speak again.” The homeless man showed me a notebook filled with numbers and letters deciphered into half-finished sentences. He was decoding.
“Sixty-five days. Or six-hundred and five days. I’m not entirely sure.”
Before long, the night transitioned to sunrise. I had cramps in my back from lying on the grass. I had fallen asleep by mistake. The homeless man was gone. A familiar jogger stared at me as she passed. I’d seen her before, but when? The shirt I slept in was a different color than I remembered. My stomach was angry. There was a 60-day eviction notice on my door. I found ants crawling in my hair. Luckily my key still worked. I thought about the thing in the shower, as accumulated dirt filled the bathtub floor. When I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, I realized I had lost weight. There was darkness in my eyes. Blotchiness on my skin. Pimples on my arms. The price of worship.
I collected the drawings, lit a candle in the center. I kneeled before it. I prayed to it. Then I smudged the house with sage. Garbage occupied every corner of my living room. A stench of last week, maybe last month? I grabbed a notebook and began writing the story of my first encounter. My handwriting was similar to the homeless man. Scattered.
The next night, snow covered the ground by three inches. I waited for the streetlight to blink. With the drawings in my possession, I went to my place between the trees. A shadow moved next to the frozen rivulet that once was still water.
“It hasn’t come,” the homeless man said. There was a clear weight loss in his appearance, even under the heavy clothes. “I figured out what it was saying.”
His entire notebook was filled past the margins. Arrows were drawn chaotically. I stared at it until the pieces fit.
“It says . . . I am family. It is a part of me. A father, or cousin, or sister even,” he revealed. “It knows I am alone. It wants to save me.”
Jealousy kept me warm at that moment.
“Why have I not heard it? Why have I not seen it again? I love it just as much,” A weakness hit my knees, and the homeless man broke my fall with his arms.
“It requires much sacrifice. You must believe,” he said. “I will stay with you. We are chosen.” He leaned over to peek at the drawings and curled his bottom lip upward. “Although, we are not the same.”
I awoke the next day perspiring. The sun was right above me. Nearly everyone around me was wearing shorts, tank tops, and hats. The still water was now a rivulet. When I walked back to my apartment, the key didn’t work. The security guard did not recognize me. The street seemed to stretch when I walked back to the park. My mouth was dry, lips cracked. I felt as though I was in an inverted world. Where instead of me people watching, the whole world was staring at me. Mocking my commitment, waiting for my testimony. The homeless man was where I left him. He handed me a cold can of beans.
“You’re back. I’ve protected our valuables,” his eyes darted. “I have a feeling it will return tonight,” he leaned close to my face. “It came to me. A vision,” he whispered.
I balled my fist and attempted to save face.
“Do you have something to write with?”
“Yes.” The homeless handed me a pen with specks of blood on the handle. “Do not lose it.”
I slipped into a dream where the ocean was beneath my feet. I saw someone in the vanishing point. Unable to scream, due to my mouth being sewn shut, I waved my hands. It mimed me, then pointed down. Submerged below was the world I used to know. Cityscapes, commuters, lights, cars, traffic, pigeons, life. A tear lifted from my cheek and floated upwards into an empty black sky. A hand landed on my shoulder. When I turned around, nothing was there. When I looked forward, nothing was there. When I looked down, nothing was there. I was alone.
A kick to my ribs woke me up. The homeless man sprinted to the rail, peering over into the lake. It took some effort to lift my body, malnourishment was taking its toll.
“Do you see?” He yelled. “It has returned to us!”
I squinted as hard as I could and advanced near him. On the lake, bathed in moonlight, a black swan rested, with two small white chicks at its side.
“There is nothing here,” I responded.
The homeless man’s pupils dilated, and his mouth remained agape.
“There is nothing here!” I yelled it again, and the homeless man dropped to his knees.
“Take me . . . free me from this place,” he began to murmur repeatedly. “I am alone. Alone in a world that does not understand me. That does not understand your love. Free me from this place.”
I grabbed his shoulders and began shaking him. “Is it speaking to you? Why can’t I see?”
“He is a heretic,” the homeless shook from my grasps. “He is unable to perceive your mercy.”
Panicked, I reached in my pocket for the pen.
“He is undeserving. I am your child,” the homeless man yelled as I jammed the pen into his neck.
Watching the blood squirt from his puncture wound made me lightheaded. It was as if we were dying together. When his body hit the ground, I passed out. When I woke up I felt pain in my hands. In the center of both my palms was a hole covered in scabs. I stayed awake for the next few days, eating scraps from the garbage, leering at passersby. The homeless man never returned. Perhaps he had been saved. Or, maybe I killed him? I found solace in my drawings. I started chanting what I last heard the homeless man say. Take me, free me from this place.
A sound of crackling leaves emerged from behind. I covered my mouth as a cough escaped. The back of my hand was wrinkled. My arms were stick-thin, and walking became an arduous process. A fresh-faced man appeared, carrying fruit and water. He handed it to me carefully. I went for the water first. Every sip was granting me more life. He sat silent, watching me ravage the fruit, then sat next to me and extended his hand.
“I can bring more,” the fresh-faced man said. “There are others who will come as well.”
“Yes,” he let his gaze rest on the lake. “We need you to be fed, and in good health.”
“Praise be. How long have you been here?”
“Forty-five days, or four hundred and five days, I can’t remember.”
I watched him scurry off in a hurry. The food began to digest in my stomach and I lifted my old bones. I took a solemn walk around the trail in the park, using a long branch for assistance. Peering into the majestic water of the lake, I searched for old memories. But all I found was hollowness. As if my soul was lost in a bottomless cave. The weather felt strange on my skin. The world had passed through me, leaving behind this shell of a believer. An obsessive. A destitute. I placed the tip of the pen to my neck, pressed into a vein. The injury inside my palms stopped me from breaching. I touched the sunken parts of my face. Felt my ribs glide on across my fingertips. Mother always said thinkers are in a lifelong pursuit of searching. I’d reached my end. As I stumbled back to my place between the trees, I saw a lit candle surrounded by all my drawings. The moon was full. The streetlight began to pulse. A dragonfly glided on the still water.
“He has returned,” the fresh-faced man announced. “The Witness.”
A group of strangers got on their knees. Near them were gifts, food, and money. Tears in their eyes. A feeling of togetherness amongst them. A blur crossed the starry sky.
“The Witness,” they all said together in harmony.
A gust of wind hit the back of my neck. I heard a noise behind me. Slowly, I turned around.
Derrick R. Lafayette is The Fictional Café’s 2021 Writer-in-Residence. He’s written four novels and over a dozen short stories, published in print and online. When he’s not working as an IT Engineer or studying chess gambits on the astral plane, he’s reading or writing profusely. You can find more of his work on Amazon.