Ms. Josephine’s Shop, Deadside.
Moments later . . .
She told me to tear into the light . . . and that is exactly what I do. I reach my arms into the light and pull myself outwards. The bright light, it blinds me at first, but I keep pulling until my head is free. Then my chest and stomach.
Then my hips and thighs are out.
And then my legs escape and I fall to a hard surface. Suddenly, I am embraced by both cold and gravity. This place is so cold I can’t explain it.
As my eyes adjust I notice that the bright light is little more than a dim blue glow. I get to my knees, squinting as I look around. I am still in Ms. Josephine’s shop, although the colors are gone. The brown and white symbols on the wall are grey and greyer. The candles, they burn a soft greenish-blue.
The furniture, it is twisted and bent. Like her words as I was drowning, chairs and bookshelves are stretched and elongated. Every thing is off. There isn’t a perfect 90 degree angle to be found. I am the only thing in this place with symmetry—at least, I hope I’m still symmetrical.
I stand, still unsteady from my time in the water, and I look around. I turn and I see the barber chair. And I see . . . me.
I’m still sitting in the chair, my arms at the rests, my head lying back with my eyes closed. My shirt is still off, but all is not the same. There is this giant opening in my body, the gash formed by the Gatherers as they cut at me, tugging at my soul.
“Ms. Josephine,” I say, “. . . where are you?”
“. . . I’m ’ere, child. I’m right ’ere . . .” Her words, even though they’re clear, it’s like they’re having a difficult time finding me. Bad reception.
And I don’t think AT&T gets coverage here.
“. . . Can you see me?” she asks.
I’m looking around her shop but I can’t find her. I can’t find Ricky either. Are you still there, I ask.
“. . . I’m ’ere, right beside you. Ricky’s ’ere, too . . .”
I turn back around, looking at the gaping hole in my body. I have the urge to throw a towel over it so birds don’t land in it and build a nest. But then, there probably aren’t too many birds in this place.
As I look at me, I notice two faintly glowing orbs, just beside and behind my inanimate head. I squint, blinking several times. “Ms. Josephine, is that you?” I walk closer.
“. . . yes, child . . . I’m ’ere . . . right beside you . . .”
I want to touch her, I want to hug her. To feel something warm and alive. Every part of me is saying, this place is dead. And always has been.
“. . . Look at your arms . . . are da marks still dere?”
I raise my arms, looking at myself. And those spider-gut, chicken-blood emblems, they’re glowing. I turn towards the front of her store, towards her darkened windows, and I see the glowing reflection of me.
I am not my face, or my pasty arms.
I am not the bags under my eyes, or the scar on my head.
No longer am I that guy.
“. . . Are da talisman still in place?”
Oh, yeah. They’re here, alright. And they’re glowing.
As I look at the reflection of the dead me—which is a version of the half-dead me—I notice that I am more solid. My body, this body, is without age and fat. This body is lean and efficient, like a sprinter. This is the best version of me.
The newer edition.
Faster, stronger, better than before.
The glowing symbols and markings all over my arms and chest, they glow a cool bluish-white. My pants are my only clothing. My boots are still on my feet. My skin is dark grey, almost the color of shadows.
And my eyes, they’re the only part of me with color. That same brownish-green. I like this me. This me is formidable. I bet I could punt one of those little spooks about 200 yards with this me.
This is a real multiple-personality disorder.
“It’s time for you to go outside, John . . . you need to see da world as it is, there.”
John. She called me John. Over here, I am John. This could get confusing.
So that’s what I did. I walked to the front door of her shop, unlocked the bolt, and pushed open the door. I walked out into the place between dogs and wolves and sharks, and I stood on the sidewalk.
The sun, it was a big dim green ball in the sky. Darker than the moon ever is. There are no cars. No airplanes. And my assumption about there being no birds, it is accurate in that I don’t think the things in the air are avian in nature. But large flocks of some kind of creature are gliding through the distant sky. Actually, swarms may be a better description.
The buildings all around, that used to make up Deep Ellum, now they’re contorted and off camber. The roofs and windows seem crooked and wrong. But I’m the one who’s wrong. My world—the Earth plane—it’s long gone, now.
On the streets, there are few things. Some trash bins, though there’s nobody to empty them. And there are bits of old rags and paper blowing here and there. This is a ghost town, of the real Deep Ellum—which was a ghost town of its former self.
A skewed copy of an old copy.
The world through death-tinted glasses.
What I don’t see are any people. I expected to encounter monsters and goblins, but I see nothing. Just empty streets. The wind is cutting down between the buildings and it’s howling as it does so. I wonder if I’m going to suddenly be attacked by a mob of zombies. Or if they’re all watching me from a distance?
I wonder if they knew when I was coming. I suppose that if a dead girl named Kristen could hunt me down from this place, then it’s possible they could have planned all of this out.
Part of me wants to call out for anyone that can hear me. But another part of me—the part that tells me not to walk into oncoming traffic—it says keep your trap shut. When you’re taking your first steps in a place called Deadside, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
The same little voice that says, don’t feed the tigers at the zoo by hand, it’s telling me to get my back to a wall, and carefully observe the scenario. That’s the Todd Steele way. So, back-to-a-wall it is.
Ms. Josephine, I whisper . . . there’s nobody here. This place is empty.
“. . . only by comparison,” she answered. “Remember, of da billions of people livin’ on da Earth plane, only a tiny fraction of dem will be on Deadside. Only dose dat ’ave been taken.”
More comforting words.
I made my way to the corner, and I had a brief flashback of last week. When some guy in a red truck asked me to please get out of the street. Actually, the words were, “Get out of the way you homeless piece of shit!” But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, now I missed that. I missed the energy of the living.
This place, with its cold and bellowing winds. With its infected structures and green sun, it’s lonely. It’s starved of energy. I bet I couldn’t even find a piece of bacteria here. It’s been sterilized of humanity.
Along with the color, they also sapped this Land of Sorrows of its life-force. I’m not sure what remains. If it’s just an empty wasteland, then I’m not certain where I fit in to all of this.
I look around the street, a couple of blocks in each direction. As I walk the wind is biting at me, and I am starting to feel very cold. Like my fingers are freezing.
I curl my hands into fists as I walk. The next time I come, I’m bringing a coat.
“Ms. Josephine,” I say, “this place is empty.”
And then a voice startles me, “Almost empty, John . . . almost.”