Friday night . . .
We left Rupert feeling a bit awestruck. This book—the Book of Sighs—it was pretty important. If it was real, that is. And we had no way of knowing for sure. But something told me that it was legitimate. That this wasn’t a fake. No prank here.
Ricky agreed. Why would Ms. Josephine have given me a fake super-secret book that nobody can interpret? Something else struck me, too. Ms. Josephine had said that I would eventually be able to read it. Perhaps all of this seemingly nonsensical research was toward that very aim. I mean, who could resist the temptation of figuring out what some 1,700 year old book was trying to say?
What was Constantine trying to keep secret . . . but was important enough to have three copies of it?
Lots of questions that none of us, even salty old Rupert, could answer. Ricky thought we should take much more care with the book, even recommending that we get a safety deposit box for it. It wasn’t a bad idea, but I was worried that without the actual book, maybe I wouldn’t be able to figure out any of the coded pages. We agreed to sleep on it. Literally, sleep on it, until a better idea arose.
Two hours later I find myself flipping mindlessly through a National Geographic. On page 79 there are a series of photos from the Typhoon damage in Burma. And these pictures are so, I don’t know . . . sharp. Edgy. Grainy, just to the point where you can actually feel the black mud underneath your fingernails.
As I went from one glossy page to the next, seeing dead bodies next to collapsed buildings, I felt very greedy and arrogant, and ashamed. Here I am, I got a little pop on the head, and the state is shelling out gobs of money, care, and personal attention so that I can cope.
These people, with their broken lives, their crushed cities, places that look like they were destroyed back when Atlantis disappeared—they’ve been left with nothing. Just pieces of broken concrete, and rusted rebar, and shards of glass and trees . . . and death everywhere. This is beyond catastrophe. In the blink of an eye, 100,000 people ceased to be among the living.
Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did they not have faith? Or did they have the wrong faith? Is this the world that Constantine was trying to build, or the one he was trying to protect us from?
Or is it all a dice game?
There were a few black-n-white photos of a family—all kids—huddled together holding a small dead child. There wasn’t a parent to be found. All of the kids looked like they hadn’t eaten a good meal, ever. And they have this blank look in their eyes. This empty stare that says, this is just the way it’s supposed to be.
Like they expected it.
Like they deserved this devastation.
And those pictures, those pixelated, grainy, black-n-white photographs, I stared numbly into them as if they were just more Rorschach Inkblots. I was waiting for impressions. But I’m so used to faking it, that my mind doesn’t know how to actually interpret this level of sadness. I am actively trying to empathize with these people, but it’s difficult.
Where is the humanity in that?
Where is the divinity?
And then I glance over at the book, sitting on that same wooden chair that matches the other three chairs in my apartment. That fucking book.
The sky had turned blue and peaceful, growing closer to black with each minute as the sun hurries away. Ricky would say we were between dogs and wolves.
It’s quiet in here. My apartment has a low hum. It’s a mixture of all the different appliances and lights and the air-conditioner all strumming along together to create their unique collaborated sound. But all of it kind of cancels itself out. It makes the world some foreign place beyond the protective borders of my balcony and the front door.
So all is as quiet as it will ever be.
I close the National Geographic, my fingers a bit sticky as if those children sweated ink onto my fingertips. And I take a deep breath and lay back. I’m guessing that at some point, I should feel the drummer’s beat inside my chest, and that I will suddenly be able to read this book. But nights, quiet nights like this, they have taken on a far more foreboding nature.
Nights like this are when I see the spooks.
So, I decide to change the way I have been handling all of this. I make the choice to just sit back, alert and aware, and study them, just like Dr. Smith studies me. The same way that Rupert studied the minutiae of fine details on the book’s cover, distilling from it knowledge.
I lean back and relax, taking my slow, deliberate breaths . . . just the way Dr. Culligan said I should when I need a time-out.
And I’m breathing, in 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . out 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .
Positive pools of warm energy.
I’m using my thumbs to lightly massage my temples. Then the top of my eye sockets. My eyebrows. The upper part of my nose.
My palms press and circle around my cheekbones. Then I make soft imaginary rivers of energy from my temples, to the area just in front of my ears, and down to my lower jaw. All of it just like the good doctor told me.
It beats self-medication, I guess.
And in 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . out 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .
Positive rays of healing power.
I open my eyes, expecting to see things that will get your average guy locked away for a long, straightjacketed time. My eyes work their way slowly and tentatively, starting from one corner of the room to the other, studying each and every shadow. I don’t want to miss anything.
The black outside is beating out the blue, and it no longer looks peaceful and kind. The sun is running for cover, afraid of something. And my eyes continue to scan. Under a table, beneath a chair. To the corner where a lamp sits idly on a small end table. And I know, out of my peripheral vision that something is going on around the chair where the book is. But still I don’t rush my eyes there.
I have to be a scientist about all of this.
I need to be an objective observer.
I must be a detective. Todd Steele.
In 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . out 4 . . . 5 . . . holy shit!
My eyes skipped past a dresser, and right to the chair where four spooks are gathered. My heart rate, maybe it jumped up a beat or two per minute. My mouth, perhaps it was dryer than it had been recently. And the little hairs on the back of your neck that tell you things are not as they should be, those hairs are all standing at attention.
These spooks don’t seem to notice me, not at all. And, come to think of it, they never have paid me much attention. Well, except for that first time, when those Gatherers were digging in my chest. And I’d rather forget all that.
But these spooks, they seem wholly concerned with the book, as if it’s glowing or something. Maybe it is, to them. They’re just crawling around, checking it out the same way they were checking-out that dead traffic cop in the morgue. They look like primitive scientists.
The way they’re all crouched, it’s like they are considering something. Trying to figure out how to open it. How to steal it. They definitely seem bothered. One of them appears to be much more animated than the others.
He, or she, is probably the ring leader of this invisible posse. This spook is circling the chair, very careful not to touch it, even with his shadowy fingers. Like the others I’ve seen, these are short, 3 ½ to 4 feet tall, bent forward and almost crouching as they walk. Their limbs, and especially their fingers and toes are long and curled, as if they have to hang on to trees or something.
I don’t understand why they would need fingers and toes like that, but then I don’t understand why I’m looking at creatures made of shadows, either. I’m feeling braver, now. More confident than I ever have been around them. Not that I’m some expert, or anything. But I’m pretty sure that this isn’t an everyday thing for most people.
I wonder—as they huddle around the chair, gazing at the book—if I sent out some alarm when I felt the name drumming inside of me. Like a locater beacon or something.
A tracking system from the netherworld?
And then another possibility crosses my mind: what if I initiated a pager? Maybe my messing with the book sent out some signal. A call to the other side. And this is their advanced party coming to check it out. If that’s the case, the grim reality sets in that they will eventually come looking for me.
To make contact.
To establish communication.
Perhaps this is the way it’s done. At first you see them for a few fleeting moments at night. Then during the day, when you’re tired. Pretty soon you see them after a set of sit-ups in the park. And when they’re convinced that you’re not going to pull a major freak-out, they make contact. This idea, while it sounds reasonable enough, sends shivers down my spine. I don’t want to get the kind of attention that those other things—the Gatherers—gave me before.
All of the sudden the cold hugs my body and I feel myself shaking. I’m trying to breathe in 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . out 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . but all that’s happening is I can’t breathe at all. My body is trying to stockpile oxygen and I’m starting to hyperventilate. I know they can probably hear me, now. My cover is blown.
Somehow, though, they don’t notice me losing control. And accidentally, I have performed my first experiment. They can’t hear me. Suddenly, the shivering stops, as if my brain told the rest of my body to nut-up! Be a man.
I get a little bold, and whisper, “Hey . . . spooks.”
“Spooks!” I say a bit louder. “Over here you spooky bastards.”
They’re still focused on that book.
I carefully crawl to the edge of my bed and sit, my feet dangling just a few inches from one of them. And in a natural voice I say, “What do you want? Why are you messing with me? Why does this book interest you?”
And those rude little bastards don’t answer. Not only can they not see me, but I’m not sure they can even hear me. “Hey, you little bitches!” I bark.
With an empowered sense of strength and vigor, I kick my left foot a few inches forward, pushing through one of them. And that will go down as one of the dumber things I have done in my 4-and-change months of life.
They all stop what they’re doing and turn to face me. Suddenly the book isn’t so important to them. They are not moving, now. Just looking at me. I can’t see any eyes, but I know from their body positions that their only concern is me. That I am now much more important than some dusty old book.
Those shivers I had before, they were like a massage compared to the sheer fucking panic that engulfs me like a typhoon.
I close my eyes, leaning slowly back, knowing that they’re probably surrounding me. I keep my eyelids shut with more force than the muscles in my face have ever had to exert. I try that breathing in-and-out stuff, but that’s not happening. At this point, I’m just hoping they don’t start hacking at my chest, again.
It could have been minutes, maybe hours, I’m not sure. But when I finally opened my eyes . . . they were gone. The book was still in the chair, seemingly untouched. I glanced at my chest, there was no gaping hole in it. So that was a relief. I looked back across the apartment. Nothing.
Their excursion, or my delusion, was over.
I got up, my shirt was drenched with sweat, and walked to the kitchen where a stainless steel wash basin was dripping water at a semi-constant rate. The drops at the bottom of the sink were like bright pearls, with tiny diamonds around them. So many colors in just those pearls of water and the brushed grey and silver of the basin. All those shades I wouldn’t normally stop to notice.
I ran the water for a moment, and when it was cold to the touch I cupped my hands and splashed my face several times. Each time I felt more alive. More safe. Grounded in reality. Whatever it was that was happening to me, I was learning to control it. If I didn’t mess with them, then hopefully they would leave me alone.
I took a couple gulps of water, straight from my hands. I didn’t much care if that was sanitary or not. I was so thirsty that I didn’t have time to fill up a glass and drink like a civilized adult. The liquid invigorated my body. The coldness crawled from my stomach and throat outward. Kind of like it was charging me.
Stopping to breathe, I realized that, for the first time, I felt good. Really good. I was lucky, even. This, whatever it turns out to be, is special. And that made me feel special. I’m not like the next guy in line at the grocery store. I’m not the same as my neighbors, or the old lady on the bus. I have a purpose.
I am supposed to do something.
I lift my head, cold pearls of water falling down my face, down my neck, and melting into my shirt. I take a deep cleansing breath, and turned around. And a dead girl is standing right in front of me.