Here is my first-ever short story, written last fall for a class on “City in Literature and Early Cinema” (hence the borderline-fetishistic focus on the physical character of the city itself). I am just not-ashamed of it enough to post it on the Internet for the world to laugh at. Here it is, so you can laugh at it too.
We don’t to go to the old city if we can help it. No one does. It’s a depressing place if there ever was one, a towering mass of dark metal, with occasional patches of dilapidated property within which are situated the odd, stubby corpses of buildings, slowly growing darker in color and breaking down like rotting teeth. To walk down the streets, during the day or especially at night, feels like experiencing death itself. What few inhabitants live there – the impoverished, the failures, the criminals, and the fanatics – rarely seem to show themselves outdoors if they can help it, or if they do, I’ve only ever caught fleeting glimpses of them in the few times I’ve been there. We don’t know how many people live in the old city, but I highly doubt the number is even remotely proportionate to the sheer size of the place. You’d think that we, the people of the city, the people of society proper, would be eager to know such a thing, if only by virtue of it being unknown, creatures desperate for complete and total knowledge that we are. But honestly, nobody seems to care. We are secure just as we are. The city proper is our stronghold, eternally bathed in light: the shining glass and steel during the day, and the brilliant flashing neon at night. Just as it is never dark there, so is it never quiet; at any given place, at any given time, information is being disseminated, whether through the calm, maternal voice of the intercom network, or the flashing billboards, always eager to inform us of the newest ways to enhance our lives and ourselves, or the babbling mass of people in every space, or the communicators that are nearly as much a part of us as our own bodies. The old city, by contrast, is an old, decaying heap of memories we want to forget.
As a contributor for a certain very fine and respectable publication which, this piece being off-the-record and in fact rather personal, I shall not name, I have had a chance to leave the city – with proper authorization, of course (I am not an affiliate of those sorts of publications) – several times. It’s a hell of a place out there, and it’s not unlike the old city. Much of it seems blasted and barren and alien, and the people I’ve spoken to who work out there are all people who don’t seem to care much for casual conversation. I can see why. Out there is an environment, a state of being, that exists without man, perhaps even in spite of him. I feel unwelcome just staying at one of the rickety, understaffed facilities out there for a couple nights – I can only imagine what it would feel like to live there. The city is man’s place – made by man, for man. It’s where we’re meant to live. I can’t imagine it any other way.
But, I’m losing myself here. Editorializing will do that to you – start asking “why?” instead of “what”, “when” and “how”, and you can’t seem to stop. It’s not good for a person.
It was one afternoon early last autumn that I found myself wandering aimlessly down the streets in the southeast part of town, my mind in a jumble and my senses in a spin as the result of a particularly invigorating night at a certain out-of-the-way hovel for adventurous and well-financed gentlemen such as myself. I go there sometimes when I’m not inclined to take my business to the regular uptown bar, usually because I need to spend an evening without seeing the people from work stare at me out of the corners of their eyes. Incidentally, I wasn’t kidding when I said the place was out-of-the-way. Specifically, it’s a mere couple blocks away from the undrawn line that constitutes the outer limits of the city proper. On that day I was stumbling about without purpose or destination, inebriated and exhausted and underslept, my eyes and ears open yet my senses blind, my mind an ill rush that was contemplating nothing. It was as if I was walking within a dream, though in fact I’m pretty sure I have had dreams in which I’ve found myself more lucid than I was at that time. As is always the case when I am in such a state, eventually there came a moment in which, without warning or precedent, I abruptly woke up. Like a commuter emerging from a long tunnel, all of a sudden I was struck by the vastness and imminence of my surroundings, and I had to stop and squint for a moment as my eyes and mind adjusted to the light. Looking around me, I saw the empty streets, desolate except for the stray bit of garbage crawling around in the wind, and the large, lifeless black buildings looming over me, and the gray sky in turn looming over them. I was in the old city. Around me was total silence, except for the faint, raspy whispering of the wind, punctuated only once or twice every few minutes by the faintest sound of a vehicle’s horn who-knows-how-many miles away. The air was thick; it was going to rain.
My first thought was to call a cab and get a ride back to my apartment; I didn’t like paying for cab fare and, to be honest, I didn’t much care how unhealthy it is to stand in the rain, but all the same I was wearing my favorite jacket today and paying a little money was a preferable alternative to having it ruined by rainfall. While still (for some reason) shuffling along the sidewalk, I reached into my pocket to pull out my communicator and input a cab request; I felt a seizing grip in my chest as my hand entered the abyss and found nothing. I frantically grabbed around in my other pocket, then in my jacket pockets (all four of them) and, hell, even my breast pocket just to be absolutely certain. There was no doubt about it; the damned thing had slipped out last night at the hovel I mentioned earlier. I could try retracing my steps back there, but in truth I had been wandering now for a good hour or so and no longer quite knew where, exactly, I was. (In the old city, who would?) At this point, it seemed like a safer bet to try and see if there was a spot with decent shelter within the next couple blocks, and worry about finding my way back after the rain had cleared.
I staggered along the sidewalk in a daze, taking in my surroundings with half-focused eyes. It all seemed to me a mass of brown, gray and black, all of these colors bleeding into one another beyond the point of recognition. I walked to the end of a block, turned, walked down another, rinse and repeat. It was an odd place, the old city – unlike the residential districts in the new city, the buildings were not uniform in design, which struck me as unnecessary and awkward, and yet by all being in roughly equal states of abandonment and decay, they were far more indistinct than the buildings in the new city. Everything looked dusty as hell (I have rather severe dust allergies), and most of the buildings were fenced off.
After a while I was no longer in the residential district, and instead was in what appeared to have once been a center for business. Faded signs hung above sealed-off store windows, the best-preserved of which displayed faint traces of long-forgotten names, and the worst were little more than rusted slabs of metal. In a few places, windows and doors stood open, naked amongst their covered-up comrades; these had likely been the temporary abodes of squatters, gangs or cults or fugitives or whatever, and perhaps still were. These made me uneasy, though it’s hard to say which I feared more: the possibility that there might be people somewhere near me in this empty, lawless wasteland, or the possibility that there might not.
All the while that I wandered, the sky was growing darker and more threatening. I knew I had to pick a building in which to shelter myself soon, but some inscrutable force within me compelled me to keep going onward, just to see what was around the next corner, and the next after that. I told myself, at the time, that I simply wanted to find a place that didn’t look so damned dusty.
Eventually I found myself in a region beyond both the residences and the stores; I suppose the place I was in now must have been an industrial district at one time, or maybe another sort of business district. To be honest, I don’t remember the specifics of the place that well, perhaps because my line of sight was no longer at the ground level; my eyes were fixed straight upwards, gawking at the giant, thin black buildings that stared down at me from above, with the imposing dark mass of sky just beyond their pinnacles. Unlike in the previous districts, here colossal tower seemed indistinguishable from the last, and there was little space between them giving each side of the avenue the impression of being a continuous wall, making the street a great hallway through which I was proceeding to an unknown destination. It was as I stopped to stare at these buildings that the first droplet of rain fell, as luck would have it, directly in my eye. I immediately doubled over and pressed my hands to my eye socket, the pain searing through my eyeball like fire; the rain was especially bad today. When the pain in my eye subsided enough for me to regain my bearings, I realized just how bad a situation I had managed to get myself into; it was starting to rain, now, and it would be even harder to find an accessible entrance in one of these towers than in the other buildings. Maybe I should’ve just tried to find my way back to the hovel in the first place. Maybe it would’ve taken me less time than I had thought. Maybe I could have avoided all this in the first place.
Such thoughts were of little use to me now. I turned my unblemished eye (the other one was still tightly shut in discomfort) to the ground level, scanning my surroundings for an open or openable entryway, or a broken ground-floor window, or something. I started sprinting, going down to the end of the street, but the tall black towers seemed to stretch out forever, with no end in sight. The rain was still only dripping now, and every minute or so I could feel the slight burning on my head or hand of a droplet hitting skin. Eventually I needed to stop, simply to catch my breath. I seemed entirely pretty well out of luck; I realized I might have to ruin my prized jacket simply to shield myself from the rain. It was then that I noticed it: a large, awkward gap between two of the towers, a square of land that seemed to stand out from the rest. I could glimpse the very edge of what looked like a modestly-sized building. Still breathing heavily from all the running I had done to get here, I began to hastily walk over to it; I knew it was my best shot.
It was an odd little plot of land I saw before me. In the center was a fairly small building, rectangular in shape and mildly vertical in design; it was much larger than a shed but far too small to be an apartment. In front of the building was a set of concrete steps leading to a large set of doors that looked unlike any I’d ever seen. The roof was shaped like what appeared to be two edges of an upward-pointing equilateral triangle. It was a bizarre design that I had only ever seen before in images of the old world. It was practically hidden in the shade of the two massive buildings to its left and right; behind it, there was a huge wall. Compared to the dilapidated, pitiful things I had seen in the residential and small business districts, this one was in surprisingly good condition; the wall and buildings on three sides must have sheltered it from a lot of rain damage – or perhaps someone, or some group of people, was going out of their way to keep the place intact. That in and of itself seemed odd, and I wondered whether I might find myself unwelcome and endangered if I chose to enter the building for shelter. I had only barely got to thinking about this, though, when the loaded silence was torn asunder by a crackle of thunder, and mere moments later the rain changed from a trickle to a downpour. The water was falling all over me, soaking and burning and stinging my skin, and who knows what it was doing to my goddamned jacket. I decided I’d take my chances with this odd little place.
I rushed forward, up the steps, and grabbed the handles of the doors. I pulled with all my might, eventually managing to heave the great doors open. I rushed inside and, feeling the need to ensure I hadn’t done things halfway, slammed them behind me after I did, and promptly collapsed onto the floor, leaning against the wall and staring at the floor straight in front of me. Outside I could hear the furious torrents of rain pouring down outside, punctuated every so often by the pounding of thunder. Staring at the floor and squirming about in my de facto seat, I noticed it was made up of a creaky, flimsy-seeming substance consisting of boards that, despite the appearance of having been polished some time in the last several years, were nevertheless collecting dust and beginning to warp around the edges. I guess they must’ve been wood, which was something all the more unusual to find in such a run-down locale as this one. My curiosity about this old hut was growing by the moment.
Upon catching my breath, I looked around and took in my surroundings. The building was a strange and quaint little place that seemed in stark contrast to any and all of the places uptown. Most of the interior appeared to be one great room, with that semi-triangular ceiling situated a few dozen feet above. On the walls on either side of the door I had entered through were windows; looking out of them I could see that the sky had gone nearly pitch black, with rain falling in great torrents outdoors and flashes of lightning on occasion violently penetrating the gloom. On the walls of the chamber within were windows of a different sort; they were very large (which, in and of itself, was only slightly unusual) and from what I could discern in the dim light, they appeared to be decorated with many sorts of shapes and colors – including, most interestingly, what appeared to be crude illustrations of people. Squinting to make out further details and, between the darkness in the room and the dust and muck covering the windows, failing to do so, my eyes instead turned to the body of the room. On the floor were two long rows of benches, all of them empty, and in between the rows was an aisle leading up to some place in the back; bathed in shadows as it was, I could not clearly make out what was there, so in time I picked myself up and began, as if in a trance, to walk slowly down the aisle in the center, flashes of lightning faintly illuminating the great windows on either side of me and the sounds of the storm making their presence inescapably known outside.
As I passed each successive row of benches, the formation at the back of the room became more apparent to me. It looked like a small stage, and on it seemed to be a table of some sort. Behind that table was a large object, cloaked in shadow. As I reached the table the object became clear. It looked like a statue. I walked up to it. It appeared to be of a person – a woman, or a man, I couldn’t tell. Blackened and dirty, it stood gazing over the great chamber before it, its eyes featureless and blank yet a strange look of serenity about it. One of its arms was outstretched, as if offering up some invisible gift to me, or perhaps someone standing above me. It appeared to be wearing some kind of simplistic, loose garb, like the kind one might see on a girl some nights at the burlesque, or worn by a leader of one of the cults. The statue was situated on a pedestal, and holding my face directly in front of it and squinting in the dim light I could just barely make out what appeared to be letters. They looked similar to our letters, yet something about them was not quite the same. Even looking at the letters I could recognize, the words they spelled out were none that I’d ever seen. I looked back up to its body, and then noticed the strangest thing about it. Protruding from its back were two large appendages, and they looked strangely like the arms of a pigeon, only blown up to human size. The sheer absurdity of it struck me powerfully, and a broad grin erupted across my face; I was almost inclined to laugh. But, in moments, my grin left me.
I had noticed the wall behind the figure. Somehow I had not noticed it prior. Though the building had appeared small from the outside, the wall now seemed to tower over me, as vast as any of the city buildings, and in the dim light I saw that on the wall were… names. From foot to ceiling, every visible inch of the wall had been marked or inscribed with people’s names. Some of the names, particularly towards the bottom, were written over the others where there wasn’t room enough to write them in an open space. There must been hundreds of names there. Probably thousands. There were more names on that wall than names I myself know. Maybe more than I would ever be able to know.
I looked back at the statue. I looked into its eyes. Those eyes, blank and cold and lifeless as they were, seemed to be looking straight into me… as if they could see something about me that I could not see myself. I had to look away. I looked around the room, and suddenly the place seemed to have taken on an entirely different character than that which it had possessed when I first entered it. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed by a sensation that I struggle to this day to find words for. If I had to try, I suppose I would call it a sense of… presence. The room was closing in on me – all of a sudden I felt that I was not alone. I frantically looked over the benches, to the sides of the stage, yet no other human being was in the building with me; only the statue and the windows and the wall of names. Yet this “presence” I felt… it was overpowering. I couldn’t stay in this place. I shouldn’t be here. I had to leave.
I rushed out the door and into the street, the rain still falling around me. I looked up at the towering buildings, with the dark sky just beyond their pinnacles, little cracks of light showing through the grayness even as the rain continued to fall. I could feel the burning on my skin, but I didn’t care anymore. I had to get as far away from this place as possible. I ran and ran, through the endless mass of buildings. Suddenly the great towers felt less like pillars in a hallway than bars in a prison cell. The sky was sneering down upon me as I ran from nothing in a cage of black metal. Everything was all fucked up. I kept running, away from the black towers, back into the barren land of the business district. Now I felt as though I was in the place outside; I was running through a barren world, a place man was not meant to live. I wasn’t the master of this place; I was merely its prisoner. I thought of home, of my roomy little apartment in uptown, but now even these thoughts were of little solace to me; in my mind’s eye, my beloved room warped and transformed into a chamber of solitary confinement, and the bright and familiar city surrounding it became an open range just as lawless and inhospitable as the old city and the world outside, in a bizarre and inexplicable way perhaps even moreso. I was trapped, and I could blame no one for entrapping me but myself. At the same time I realized that I was not alone, and never could be, and at the same time I was more alone than I could have ever realized; and both of these realizations terrified me in equal measure. Knowing that there was nowhere to escape to, I had to escape. I ran and ran in a feverish delirium, these thoughts grinding like a broken gear through my brain, my line of vision fixed in front of me, waiting to spot some sort of light in the darkness. And all the while my skin seared and my clothing began to stick.
I don’t know how long I ran for. It felt like an eternity. All I really remember is that at some unspeakable hour of the morning I stumbled into a building, my entire body aching from without due to the burning of the rain, and from within due to the extreme exertion of hours of running. There were some people there, and they contacted the medical services. I was taken to the hospital and stayed in a ward there, barely talking to anyone and barely doing anything. I still hadn’t got back my communicator. No one knew what the hell had happened to me and I didn’t know how to explain it, so I didn’t try. After a couple days they got me out of bed and gave me a psych test, which I passed, and then sent me back on my way with some lotion to treat my burns. I needed it, because those damned things tormented me for weeks. It took a couple days after I’d gotten back for me to leave my apartment, after which the first thing I did was force myself to go back and try and find my communicator. Turns out by that point, someone had pilfered it, and it was probably on the black market already. I had to go to the communications center, wipe the device, and apply for a new one. It was more of a pain in the ass than the damned burns.
Nearly a year later, here I am, composing this in my apartment. It’s the first time that I’ve made any attempt to talk about where I was or what I did that day. No one else knows – the couple of people who are close to knowing believe that I had an unfortunate experience while under the influence of mind-altering substances, and those who might have been in a position to terminate my employment were generous enough to sweep the incident under the rug and never speak of it again. So, things haven’t really changed. I’m still running the same job, still talking to the same people, still going to the same hangouts. But in my mind, I can’t help but suspect that some intangible change has taken place – some valve has been opened, some bolt has been unscrewed, some gear has run awry. I haven’t gone back to the old city since that day and I don’t plan to. But I feel as if there is something I must do, though I could not for the life of me tell you what, and perhaps I will, against my better judgment, act on that irrational impulse at some point down the road as the future sprawls out like the tracks of an endlessly turning wheel before me.