Veins

by Jack Logan

 

I see the veins of my city.

The rain pours down for the second day, torrential. The storm came on quickly. From my fourth story apartment I can see down several blocks, a few businesses were left abandoned with their lights still on. No matter how late at night, the streets always carry someone. A homeless man looking for a place to sleep, a few kids coming home from a party, a cabbie looking for another fare. But not in this weather. The streets are empty. I’ve been watching for hours.

It started with just a few glances out the window, a novel distraction from the television and computer. Then the power went out. I listened to music for a little while, but soon grew bored with all the songs I’ve heard before. So I stare out the window.

At first it’s just rain. The change comes steadily. At first it’s something I’m not sure I’m seeing. Like there was a painting, a masterpiece, just at the edge of my vision and I can’t turn to see it. But I stay still and watch. And it comes to me. It starts from the unevenness of the black pavement, rain built up in thin, shining pools and carried up again by the wind. Slowly, I caught on to the rhythm of it all. These thin pools jumped and shined in their own pulse, and I could see them leading off towards the center. The heart.

Just watching becomes maddening. The effect doesn’t change, but with each heartbeat it becomes more impressive and more important. And while I sit still watching, I become more and more of a coward.

I follow off in to the night.

I race down my building’s stairs into the lobby. I stop just in front of the glass door. Deciding, I flick the knob and head out to the storm. I’m soaked in an instant, so wet that the rain no longer matters. I concentrate on fighting through the wind. I run over to where I saw the rain pulsing, wondering if it was all a trick of the mind. It makes so much sense for it all to be a mistake. Boredom and darkness and these empty streets, together they could all warp the mind. Then it quakes beneath me. I’m standing on it. I race forward and turn, following the city’s blood flow.

I think the rain is curving on both sides of me, like I’m running down the middle of a separated ocean. It all comes together at my feet. Along with the wind, I kick up water with every step.

Racing along, I start to understand that the city’s heartbeat is quick, stressed. The faster I go, the more kinship I feel. Poor thing, it must always be this way. It always carries a great weight. Its people, and the buildings and pavement we have laid upon it. Stoic, it never shrugs. The few trees around me whip and crack. They are unnatural too, guided in their growth.

The details, things I should already know about the area, are blurred to me. It’s all a trace, a dull background. The only thing that matters is the twisting, pulsing path beneath my feet. I could run this path with my eyes closed if I had to.

Running through the wet and wild streets;

A broken madman’s howl erupts.

A high-pitched noise, sounding like a man impersonating a sick dog impossibly builds, comes down from above me. The edge leaves phantom scars on my back, I slip and fall into the wet streets. I fumble for my footing, and finally look up. A few stories above me, a shade stands on a rusty fire escape. The thing is folded, partially resting on the rail. Whatever it’s looking at doesn’t interest it too much. I wait for a flicker of a street lamp or a sudden lightning bolt to show me what it is. Nothing comes.

The shade doesn’t move, and a heavy knot ties itself in my stomach. It is fear. The shadow’s stillness, its coy disinterest, and its calm during this storm are all terrifying. My break, my moment to move, comes when I feel the city’s heartbeat once again. It shakes me to my senses, and I flee along its path.

It was a rescue, the city’s tremors. I would have died there otherwise, crushed by the fear, suffocated by the waiting, and unmade by that night terror. I think one more time about its shriek, and I run faster.

A thick passage to step on through;

On the other side, a cold hush.

With enough distance, I start to regain myself. I remember what’s important, why I’m braving the water and the wind. Although I don’t think I could take my feet off their pounding path. But to think about it, to reflect on it, is to not think at all. It becomes instinctual. I don’t know where my feet carry me, I only know that I must continue.

The wind howls, a low, pained roar. The water beneath me kicks up suddenly, drowning me for just an instant. I snort and spit and cough it all out, take a breath, and continue on. Even in my drive, with the road leading me, it doesn’t take long to realize the water is falling thicker.

At first I keep my head down and plow through. I continue on, even through my wavering I can feel the guiding pressure underneath my feet. I keep my hand waving out in front, so I don’t run into anything. A foolish thought, I’m in the middle of an empty road. But before too long, my hand plunges into a cool depth. I look up. There is no rain in front of me. The water is a wall. It doesn’t move, or ripple. It stands tall. I feel a pulse under my feet. I must go forward. Inhale and go forward.

The water’s cool, without any current to fight against. I keep moving, somehow I know I wouldn’t float to the top. The water is thick and hard to move through, but my feet stay on the ground as if I’m wearing lead shoes.

A cool blue floats all around me. When I can force my eyes open, the impassable void surrounds me.

The air in my chest grows hot and expands. My neck tenses, and I start thrashing my arms in hopes that I can propel myself forward. I can’t see an exit, but I can’t except that I’ll die here. The escape will be there when I need it, it has to be. Death here would be utter disgrace.

My hand pierces the liquid barrier. Still all I can see is the blue void, but the air tingling my wet fingers tells me to push. My hand passes through with no effort, but I have to force my way out. I have one last push in me, and it mercifully frees me. I collapse on the hard ground, coughing out water.

The exploded soul, thrown and hung;

The bleeding of reality;

Concrete and power unchained.

I reel but I stand. While the air is damp, no rain falls on the other side of the city. There is no sky. A solid looking greenish-grey hovers in the air where clouds and thin air should fly. There are no buildings here, but thin panes of glass shoot up and scrape the edge of this world’s barrier. I get close to one. Inside, the glass is haunted by the dull reflection of a man asleep on the subway. The colors are all dark and his skin is mostly transparent, the man is mostly an outline. He bobs up and down, rocked by the phantom train he rides.

With a voyeuristic fascination, I go to look for another panel. They’re all around, but walking to them is no easy task. Familiar concrete slabs line the ground, but they are elevated and spaced out. Looking between the gaps, this land is built on dirty metal and pistons. The metal hisses at me, steam breaking free from the rust and sludge that clogs the underground layers of this strange slice of the world. I take care when crossing each gap.

Other than the glass and the concrete, it was a barren plane. A few trees were scattered around, all in the distance. They lacked leaves, just burnt black sticks jutting out into the world.

The window panes were not scattered at random. They were placed down like dots that could connect into circles. Each circle was smaller than the one before it, fitting inside in proportion. I couldn’t see the center, but I walked towards it.

Each pane I passed gave me another glimpse at diluted life. People eating, sleeping, talking to one another. All their movements seemed very deliberate, like a puppet on strings being guided for an audience. Was it for me, I wondered. Or did these shows have a purpose without anyone watching?

Closer to the center the steam starts getting hotter. I watch the hot mist gush out at its whistling pace. Paying close attention to my steps, it takes me awhile to realize I know the pace. The steam comes out in tune to the city’s heartbeat. The thing I followed unquestioning like a lunatic is once again presenting itself to me. Hot steam jets out. I’m getting closer to the center.

The world drops down. The center is a large pit, and I’m a step away from being able to look down in to it. My curiosity and my caution are split evenly and locked. It might’ve stayed that way forever, but I have nowhere else to go anymore.

I look over the edge. A thumping, mechanical muscle is tightly wedged into the pit. It scrapes against the walls as it expands. There is no soft flesh here. The bulk of it is made of shining steel and mirrors, all of which is littered with black cables plugging in and feeding it. Every beat is signaled with the moan of heavy steel being bent back and forth. A thick blue sludge seeps out of the pores of the heart, seeping right through all the imperfect cracks. The heart contracts, and hot steam shoots out all around the world.

I look down, mesmerized. All sorts of distorted reflections can be seen. I recognize the famous buildings and statues of my city immediately, even in the warped glass. These mirrors, which lie a great distance beneath me, highlight the details of their images. In one small panel I spot a varnished statue I must have passed a thousand times. A man on horseback. And for the first time I realize how fierce his eyes are.

Eventually, in this sea of images, my eyes drift to the reflection in one piece of glass, standing askew. I look down and see myself. I am an intruder.

The metal bends sharply and a hot wind rushes out of the pit. Irresistible black cables snag me and pull me down into the heart. Through the cracks, my underarms brush against the blue sludge. I am dragged through one of the cracks, stopped when I’m brought to the center, inside the heart.

I gaze up. My time spent looking down was so meaningless. Here I see my city explode out all around me from my godlike view. I see the streets I walk every day, and see how they really run together. I see the relationships between the streets and the people—some symbiotic, some parasitic. I see all those huddled at home, hiding from the storm. And then I hear the noise.

Car horns, trains rumbling, children laughing, couples making love—all the sound hits me wave after wave. But I sense what the noise will become as well. The car horn will bleat and not move an inch. The train will never stop rumbling. The child’s laughter will turn to crying without an explanation. The couple will wake up the next morning and forget they made up last night. These noises, and infinite others, repeat over and over with no pattern and no hope of escape. The symphony of cataclysm.

The cables that bind me tighten. That blue sludge starts to burn at my arms. And slowly I am being enveloped by a green growth, a fungus that looks like it belongs under a leaky pipe. This is agony, but my thoughts are of sympathy. This entity, so large, so fractured, can’t decide how to dispose of me. I look up, at what is sure to be my last sight. In that great, big mirror I can see the storm in my city is starting to pass.

A near-dead husk is returned;

A terrified life moving on.

A pair of hands beat on my stomach. On the hard filthy sidewalk of my city, I puke up water. I can taste it this time, a metallic taste. Shivering, I grab on to the man who looms over me. “Looks like you’re going to make it.” He wraps me in a warm blanket. “Jesus. What were you doing out here during that mess.”

I think hard, trying to catch my brain up to everything that happened to me. I realize no matter what I say about my experience, it won’t be believed. “I just lost myself.”

“I guess so,” he said. “Come over to the car. We’ll take you home.”

I step into the back seat of the police car and we drive off. I peek under the blanket at my arms. My once pale forearms are burnt a crispy brown. The green fungus drips beneath my fingernails. I look out the car window at all the familiar streets.

The ground beats beneath me. That heartbeat crawls up my legs and pushes down on my own chest. I suffocate. I know I will never have another full breath.

 

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