"Tell me, Fresco. Tell me what you saw." The cardinal extinguished his cigar against my bare thigh. It seared my skin, but I only heard the sizzle. Physical pain is now beyond my ability to feel. Of course, I didn't tell him that.
"Well, if that doesn't phase you, we do have other ways to encourage you. You know, don't you, that sharing is the polite thing to do?" The bastard's breath reeked of sewer. He had me tied down, naked, to my own bed. The basement was dark except for a few lit candles along the lone shelf beside me.
"It was my experience. Mine only. You'll have to tell me what the hell is going on, or else I'm not saying piss all." I felt I had the upper hand, seeing as how I'm now immortal, apparently.
The cardinal stayed silent for what seemed like an hour or more. Then, he said, "Perfection will be your legacy, Fresco. It will be your gift to the world. But only through cooperation with the Church is such a magnificent accomplishment possible."
He paused again, this time for only a few minutes, then continued in a slower, lower, more ominous tone. "We've given you the spark. Now you need to return the favor."
He grabbed my throat, not too hard, but just enough to make it difficult to swallow.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret, Fresco. It won't be news to you, of course. You are a man of reason, after all. You know, the cloak of big religion allows men of nobility, men with the greater good in mind, the freedom to pursue the truth. The real truth. The opulent deception, the grand show, is a service to humanity.
"Do you really believe, Fresco, that the Church did not cherish the brilliance of Galileo? Do you not think that maybe, just maybe, we gave him the support he so desperately needed to carry out his most important work? Surely, Fresco, you do not believe that his house arrest was punishment for his ideas about the sun and the pope. The cloak, Fresco. The cloak."
His grip eased. He began tracing my body with a cold finger.
"I suppose I've given you enough to think about. But I will leave you with this: God does not kill his favorite scientists. Their daughters.... Well, of course, that is another matter entirely."
The cardinal blew out the candles, cut the ropes that bound me, and disappeared into the black.
Nails in the Water
I'm not gonna lie. I'm struggling here. I haven't even begun to process my last encounter with the cardinal. But things keep happening. Bad things. Unexplainable things.
For instance, I took a bath the other day thinking it would help clear my head. It didn't.
I fell asleep in the tub. I didn't drown, of course. I can't. When I awoke from under the water, something like two hours later, I howled.
In my bath water were 10 fingernails. Painted fingernails. The color Jo used to where. The only color she ever painted them. Purple with silver glitter. I'd know that polish anywhere. They are her nails. Her nails!
My recorder lied beside the tub. But I didn't put it there. Before my bath, I locked it away in a drawer at the other end of the basement. Someone, or something, left a new recording on it. It's a disturbing mess. But it has a voice, one I haven't heard before.
I've gotta find Jo!
I found this written in blood on my bathroom mirror:
God is a python
God is a dare
God is the coffee spill on your questionnaire
Dry Hints and a Sobering Hostage Crisis
"Who do you trust, Fresco?" The priest came out of the shadows, leaned against the closed door that leads upstairs, stirred a cocktail with his index finger, and made a smacking sound with his lips as he finished sucking off the remnants.
"Did you make one for me?" I asked. This was the first time I'd seen the guy since returning from the Vatican. And, until last week, I'd been polishing the crap out of his favorite statues, hoping that he'd notice and stop avoiding me.
"You're playing right into their hands," the priest said. "Your lack of faith makes it easy for them."
"What's in that? I could use a real margarita," I said. (Being trapped in the basement, as I have been since Monday, doesn't afford me many options for sustenance beyond warm tap water and those awful meebarats.)
"I would try to pay closer attention if I were you," the priest said.
"I bet that's made with top-shelf stuff. Am I right? Nothing but the best for God's collared folk."
The priest threw his glass at the wall beside me, sending shards flying into my cheek and drops of lime, tequila, and triple sec onto my lips.
"Wake up, Fresco! Soon, I won't have to care anymore. But Jo and Adam…."
The priest opened the door and slammed it behind him. I rushed to follow him, but, as it goes for those held hostage by unseen forces, the door would not budge.
"Thanks for the drink!" I yelled.
Monster Sex Part Deux
Pleasure arrived early Friday morning. It came in the form of a booty call by another silken blood drifter. This one was a little rougher than the first, but a lot more generous too. I thought I'd written off such interactions with the female variety, but, well…it's been awhile. Plus, you know, being trapped down here makes a person just crazy enough to go for it.
I won't get too much into the truly gory details except to point out what she whispered in my ear shortly after…um…arriving at the top of the mountain.
In her sweetest, softest growl, and what I think was a French accent, she said:
Music is to follow
As a pill is to swallow
Believe in the Godless
Or walk through the darkness
Trust is hard to fathom
If you don't know Adam from Adam
With that, she was quickly gone. But as she disappeared into the parmesan stink of another world, I noticed she left behind another painting.
If a Pill Is to Swallow...
I've been staring down this shit-stained horse pill all week. I noticed it on the nightstand shortly after my oh-so-good encounter. The thing is huge, like the size of my thumb (and I ain't no little person). Etched into the wood was this message:
Sweet awakenings, you gorgeous swine.
I've seen those movies where the dude takes a pill and ends up in some hellhole of a reality. So I'm not exactly excited to try it out, especially now that I've had a taste of such places. But, at this point, I have no other choice. The cardinal can kiss my ass. So can whatever is holding me here. And the priest? Please excuse me while I vomit.
Every minute I stay trapped in this basement is another minute they could be hurting Jo.
Therefore, down the hatch she goes. Don't wait up.
Cacophony in My Closet, Darkness in My Head
I have only a minute more until everything goes black again. Clarity is now a rare occurrence. But I was able to capture a taste of what I've been experiencing in the world beyond, a place I must get back to if I am ever to find Jo.
Where once I could see that world, now I am blind. I have only the discordant sounds of the blood drifters to guide me, but I cannot pick out a single direction or melody. My recorder, however, was able to pick up the jumbled mess of sounds bleeding into my closet from beyond and isolate what seems to be a single guitar toward the very end.
Now I just need to train my ears to do the same thing. Then, maybe, I can tackle the problem of darkness.
A Thing That Cannot Be
Belief in a thing that cannot be requires proof enough for me to see. The only thing this blindness gives me is faith in my near-term insanity.
Stuffed Apostle of a Coming Resurrection
“Stop clinging to it. It's the only way you'll see.” I woke up whispering those words after two days of sleep. But I suspect they were placed in my mouth by someone else. My monster girlfriend, perhaps? (I couldn't miss the new painting staring at me from the foot of my bed.)
A day later, after just 10 minutes (I think) of thrashing blindly about while trying to follow the music in the discordant world beyond, I stumbled back into the basement. Perched upon my pillow was a black teddy bear. A bloodied white ribbon held a golden bell around its throat.
Engraved on the bell was this:
Jesus arose, and so shall I. But I shall do it better. —A
Easter Morning Terror
She looks about nine or 10. Too scared to talk. She tried huddling in my closet, but the jumbled melodies of that other world were bleeding through. So now she's under my bed. She won't speak to me. If I get too close, she screams.
She came tearing through the door that leads upstairs. The same door I can't open or bust down. Even now, it still won't budge after slamming shut again. She may be trapped here with me.
I don't know what happened above us. She does. She must. It had to have been terrible. It sure sounded that way.
Chaotic thumps and scurrying tap-tap-taps and high-pitched screams and low voices and a million other harrowing sounds I can't describe combined to make the most disturbing echoes I've ever heard. I very nearly pissed myself.
I've never liked Easter. The Church hijacked a celebration of spring and fertility and wonderful feminine power and turned it morbid with its grotesque patriarchal tale of a tortured man rising from the dead. Now it's been made even worse.
I'm hoping this girl will talk. I doubt I can provide much comfort to her, though. I guess we’ll see.
In the meantime, I did capture a bit of the noises coming from upstairs. You might want to put on a diaper.
The Silence Provokes
"He came back. Brought me rabbits. But then…my dad. I think he's…." That's all she would say. All week I've been trying to get her to talk, to tell me what happened up there.
She's barely eaten. (Can't blame her for that. All I've got are these nasty meebarats. I told her they're like gummy worms, but she isn't buying it. Especially after experiencing their nauseating jiggles over her tongue and down her throat.)
All things considered, though, it's been a pretty peaceful week. Aside from that turbulent world beyond the closet, we're trapped here with nothing to do but stare at the walls and at each other. But I'm not risking this girl's life to go chasing after Jo's.
Not yet, anyway.
But the external calm of this place masks my own internal storm. I need a target.
Something's gotta give. And soon.
Love in Chains
I never should have become a father. I wasn't cut out for it. I'm still not. I've failed miserably at demonstrating my love to anyone I've ever cared about. Nobody knows this better than my daughter.
Is it ever enough to love somebody completely if those feelings stay trapped within you, without tangible expression?
I miss Jo so much. But I know I can't be with her. I may never be able to rescue her, either. Maybe it's for the best. We only ever hurt each other when we're together. Even before her mom's death, we struggled. I loved her. She loved me. It didn't matter. It wasn't enough.
This girl, her name is Chloe. She is slowly opening up. But she only makes my pain worse. In her eyes, I see my baby's. I've discovered no answers there.
If I ever find Jo, what will I tell her? Will she even want to hear it? Will she care that I was trapped in God's basement?
Questions for another day.
Meanwhile, another gift from Lucy arrived with its usual stench. How loving.
Adam's Rabbits on the March
Chloe finally let loose:
"The rabbits followed him inside. They filled the living room. And they didn't have ears. Just like before.
"My brother's hands were bloody. His feet too. And he had scratches all over. He was naked."
She paused, looking embarrassed. I told her nothing she could say would shock me. "Tell me like it is," I said.
"My dad was yelling," Chloe continued. "He kept screaming about Satan and sinning and unholy children who don't listen. He wanted to know where my brother had been.
"He tried to reach for his favorite knife on the lamp table, but he couldn't move. The rabbits were all over us. I couldn't see anymore.
"Then.... My dad screamed like he was hurting.
"I couldn't breathe. But the rabbits started leaving. They followed my brother outside, hopping up the street behind him. It looked like a parade.
"When they were gone, I looked for my dad. But...."
"It's OK," I said. "What happened? Was your dad there?"
"No. Well, just his bones. I think just his bones."
She cried like Jo did after losing her mother. I held her, hugging her tightly for an hour.
"I didn't want to be there anymore," she said. "So I ran after the rabbits, all the way into the church.
"My brother was flying. He was in the air. But he looked...sort of...dead. All the rabbits were going crazy, jumping on all the people. Doors were slamming open and shut. We were locked in.
"Someone else was there. I couldn't see him. Just heard his voice. He laughed. I saw more blood. People disappeared.
"I tried to go back outside. But I could only get here."
How in the world do I leave her now?
The Godawful Rhyme That Ate Mother Goose
"You're boring me, Fresco." The voice with the darkness of an abyss resonated between my ears. Chloe heard it too. She said it's the same one from Easter. We were playing Go Fish, the only card game we both know, while also trying to shake the ants out of our pants. Literally.
Truth is, this couldn't have come at a better time. This girl is sweet company, but I'm bored out of my skull and ready to escape this drab and dreary scene. Any way. Any how.
"Do you have a Queen?" I asked Chloe.
"Go fetch your recorder, you bastard!"
The voice (yeah, that voice) thundered from her lips, throwing me onto my back and paralyzing me with disbelief.
"What the hell was that?" I shouted. Chloe started to cry while scurrying toward the bed. "Why are you yelling at me?" she said.
She was trying to hide.
"You told me.... Chloe, you.... Never mind." I looked into her eyes and knew she didn't remember what had just happened.
So I fetched my recorder. Then I pressed play.
It sounds like a wannabe-Satanic-hip-hop artist from the Milwaukee suburbs trying to exorcise the demons of Mother Goose.
Is it a warning for me? I'm not exactly a little boy.
Failed Alchemy of a Phony Heathen?
It's become too much. The moment I allow myself to stop and reflect on what's happening, I panic. I'm not in control. How can this all be? Things just keep getting worse. Or else I'm getting crazier. I don't know how to distinguish between the two.
Chloe's been taken from me. Time slowed down while it all transpired. She tripped me as I was coming out of the bathroom and stood over me, staring.
Then she laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more. Finally, she said, "Trust is hard to fathom. If you don't know Adam from Adam." And she laughed some more. I remember that phrase being growled in my ear by a sexy blood drifter. How did Chloe ever hear it?
She wouldn't stop giggling. Then she pointed to the door that leads upstairs. Adam was there, wearing the clothes of a priest. He looked well-groomed, not at all bloody or zombie-like.
He approached us. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak.
"You're a pretender. The worst kind of impostor. You can't see another reality because you're really just a lowly man of faith. You deny it, but the proof is in your experience. You're no heathen. And you're definitely no atheist. No, you live with more belief in God than the people you make fun of upstairs. Your prison is self-imposed.
"But I understand. It's hard to make choices. It's hard to let go of the fruitless promises of alchemy. You try it again and again. But, again and again, you fail. Your faith cannot be transmuted into science. Faith will not help you see. It is but a comforting cloud. A convenient shroud of hope that keeps the scary stuff out of sight.
"So, it's time to lift the veil. It's time to make some real choices. Are you up to it? Are you ready to stop being a stubborn alchemist? Are you ready to be a man?"
After finishing his condescending monologue, Adam struck Chloe across the back of her head, carried her on his shoulder, and left out the door.
He came back briefly, throwing me a red rosary. "Maybe you should pray on it," he said.
Once I got my bearings, I tripped again. It was another goddamn painting! Another ugly-ass, goddamn painting!
Left for Dread
A blood drifter came to visit. It was too quick. She placed her beet-red hands on my shoulder and hissed this:
"Consumed by the fetid colors, she's gone.
"Bathed in the rotten perfume of beastly counterparts, she's gone.
"No returning. No way to save her. No heroes.
"Blame the priest."
"Which one?" I cried. But it was no use.
She was already gone.
That Piper's Gonna Pay!
Being trapped. Being taunted. Being toyed with. Feeling sorry for myself.
I'm going back in there, even if it makes me blind. I'll just follow the piper. And kill him.
This is my only option.
Yeah, you should hear the sounds of the piper. I've finally captured them.
The niggling flute that pierces your mind and settles in for a slow meal.
My recording even has the voice of my (once) little girl.
But it can't be Jo. It just can't be.
But it could be.
Into the Closet, Out of My Mind
I stepped through the closet and into that other world. I'll have to find a proper name for it. Anyway, I thought I was prepared for another go. Holy shit, was I ever wrong!
Not only could I still not see a damn thing while there, I also nearly had my face chewed off by some gurgling creature that reeked of, you guessed it, funky-ass Parmesan. It's fair to say my face just got a whole lot uglier.
I guess it could be worse. People are getting chewed up and diced up a lot lately, in our own world. I fear that the side effects of my work are now speeding up with no way to control them.
I've got to get back in there. But I need help. So I'm sitting here hoping the blood drifters will throw me a useful bone. They obviously know how to survive in that godawful place.
In the meantime, people need to watch their backs out there.
I mean it.
Apology for the Coming Attractions
All I know is that you're lucky. For now. You won't stay that way.
My work has opened a seam into a place we should not know. Everyone will pay for my hubris.
I don't know if I can make things right, but I won't give up.
I stepped through the closet. Within only a few moments, I was blind again. And I started hearing things from my past. Terrible things. Things I thought I'd buried for good decades ago. The gurgling screams of my dead wife echoed without mercy. They never stopped. They only got louder as they mixed with random bits of conversation from people I've probably never met.
After a long while of this, I heard the voice of Jo in one ear while my deceased wife spoke in the other. "Open your eyes and rejoice in what you've done," they exclaimed in unison. I didn't want to do it. I only wanted to die.
Any misplaced faith in a loving God I may have been carrying around had already disappeared by that point. My loved ones had suffered. They were still suffering by the sounds of it. And, now, so was I.
With no way out of the sonic assault, I eventually opened my eyes. What I saw I cannot adequately translate. Perhaps that is for the best. You may get your chance soon anyway.
I was suspended within impossibly vibrant colors and rapidly changing patterns. Mutants swarmed around me. Ugly, vile creatures with the dripping and distorted body parts of different kinds of animals. They grabbed and clawed and wheezed and huffed.
I really believed I would be devoured. But they did everything just short of that. It felt like a lifetime of torture, times two.
I'm not sure how I got out of that mess. I remember hearing music. Perhaps the blood drifters brought me back.
In any case, the drifters left behind another gift. And it's now clear to me that each of these paintings depicts some of the visual elements of the world from which they came. Still, what exactly is being expressed? We have to know.
But time is not on our side. I'm so, so sorry for that.
A Warning From the Candy Man
"You should have left when I gave you the chance." Father Ambrose stood in the doorway, the one that leads upstairs. He shook a box of Junior Mints, popped a couple into his mouth, and sent one my direction with the flip of his thumb. "I've been praying for you," he said.
"What have you done with Chloe?", I said. "And what's become of my daughter?"
The priest began whistling the Star-Spangled Banner, tapping his foot out of rhythm. "I'm hoping you'll celebrate with me, Fresco. The fireworks should be spectacular this year."
"Goddamn you!" I lunged toward the priest with the intention of making him choke on his candy. But I ran into an invisible wall. I could taste blood running down the back of my throat. My vision blurred.
"It is too bad, Fresco. About your head, I mean. I could help, if only you'd let me." The priest munched on his candy, exaggerating the sucking sounds. "I'm so glad you turned me on to these," he said.
"Anyway," the priest continued, "I want to give you a second chance to leave, to save your soul. You really must go."
"What have you done with them?" I said. "The girls. Chloe. My baby Jo."
The priest, crumpling up the empty box, stood silent for a moment. Then he said, "You are a fascinating fellow, aren't you? I don't know of whom you speak. You are delusional. Always have been."
"And you are a two-faced liar," I said.
"But you are also one of God's children," the priest continued. "And I am a man of God. Who better to trust, Fresco?"
"And the cardinal? What of him?" I asked. "Are you working for that vile piece of flesh that also calls itself a man of God?"
"Fresco, you don't really know me. That is your fault, not mine."
"Who are you working for?" I demanded.
"It is your choice, Fresco. He is coming back. You could be rid of your problems if only you'd leave. But you haven't got much time."
"Who? Who is coming back?"
"The one in red, of course."
The priest slid his index finger horizontally across his throat. He then closed the door behind him.
I sat on the cold floor, paralyzed.
Now I have to prepare.
He knows I'm waiting for him. He's been taunting me from just outside the door. Day after day, I hear the same cold voice repeating the same incoherent poetry:
the battle stops.
God takes back
from the forgotten flock.
In His sleep
gifts make their play.
For men who decide
not to fade away.
When he finishes spewing this nonsense, he rattles the doorknob. He wants to keep me guessing. He won't let me sleep.
When he finally comes through that door, one of us will surely die. Or so he imagines. If it's to be me, though, he'll have to figure out a way to counteract the "gift" he's given me.
But I've made other preparations.
And so I wait.
The Best Laid Plans
The crazies are out in force, and they will only grow in number. Your plans have little meaning now. Forget about normal. From here on out, life itself will get more and more compelling for many of you. Not always in a good way. You might even be one of the crazies already. You just don't know it yet.
(And, yeah, I might be insane. But it's more likely that you just haven't been paying attention.)
My own recent scheming was mostly for naught. Power to this basement was cut. I heard the cardinal laugh. Shortly after, I must have passed out.
I awoke yesterday. My clothes had been torn away. Shallow incisions grace my whole body. They number more than I can count. Probably hundreds of them. The cuts are clean. They sting horribly. Like a thousand paper cuts.
As I staggered toward my bathroom, the shadow of a large bird fluttered along the walls. But I could see no actual bird flying. It spoke to me in a commanding tone. I'd even call it condescending in nature.
"Do it," the shadow said. "Send him to the darkness."
It then stopped flapping, resting above the doorknob of the closet.
"You're welcome," it said.
I altered my course. As I approached the closet, the shadow vanished, and the Parmesan stink of that other world mangled my senses. I had to kneel down for a moment to regain my composure. When I did, I noticed a new painting at the foot of my bed.
I returned to my feet and took several deep breaths. Opening the closet door, I heard the rattling of metal as well as a muffled scream.
There sat the cardinal. Bound in chains and gagged with a piece of his own red robe.
My heart fluttered. Then I puked all over him.
In my left ear, I again heard the shadow's command. "Do it. Send him to the darkness."
I've been thinking about it. And I think I will do exactly that. I will drag him backwards to that other place.
But not before I get some answers.
A Sermon to Make You Gag
I wiped my puke from the cardinal's face with a clean part of his robe. He winked as I finished. We sat staring at each other for three hours. I kept him bound and muzzled.
Then he winked again. I removed the cloth from his mouth. And I slapped him hard.
"Speak the truth," I said. "I'm listening."
He responded with the following (I didn't interrupt):
"I know what you want, Fresco. But I had no part in what has happened to your daughter.
"Some people take actions for noble reasons. Others act for pleasure. It is a lost soul who cannot distinguish between the two.
"Those who know His secrets are under no obligation to reveal them. And when you've been given a great gift, as you have been, it is up to you to use it. You must choose to uncover some things yourself.
"Temporary numbness should not be mistaken for a lack of pain. As you now feel the hurt again, you know this to be true. Great gifts come with great fluctuations in the way they manifest themselves. One can never be absolutely confident.
"Those who seek perfection are not your jailers. You cannot wish for the freedom of certainty without also seeking perfection. We need to unite.
"The Kingdom of Heaven must come down to Earth. Do you not think that a noble goal?
"But God controls the heavens, and He provides the challenge for us to take up. He reveals this destiny to a select few who will listen.
"You must have some faith in my nobility or you would have killed me by now. Threats are only threats. But fear provides a direct path to God and His plan.
"You must always share what you know with those closest to Him. His creation of you demands it.
"Holy men like me know things you can't even imagine. Of course, the reverse is also true: you know things we do not. That is the whole point. It's why we gave you the gift. We must work together.
"You need me, Fresco. Who else will believe your stories?
"You can scream out to the world, but is the world home? You will find few people with souls open enough to become your audience, let alone your apostles.
"Haven't you noticed this yet?"
That was all of it.
I didn't say a word. I just kept turning the same question over and over in my mind.
Why would God, if "He" existed, choose to speak only to a select group of narcissistic assholes like him?
Poisoned by Wanderlust
A sweet toxin pulses beneath my flesh. It teases me with the candied aroma of freedom while leaving behind the bitter taste of isolation.
The cardinal is gone. Where? Just gone. Escaped.
How? I don't know. But I suspect he came more prepared than I gave him credit for. I feel drugged. Badly strung out.
It's been days. Yet, I only remember a few things. None involve the cardinal.
I awoke in the middle of a desert. Just sand, stretching to the horizon in almost every direction. But against one edge of the world stood a massive wall of glass, barely shimmering under the haze of a yellow sky. It was like a giant mirror.
Another time, I awoke in a burning forest. Towering candles of flame and smoke surrounded me. My lungs felt full of razor blades. But just before passing out, I noticed a black bird, the same kind I've seen before. Only, this one was at least ten times larger.
As I opened my eyes this morning, a girl's voice spoke into my ear while my aching veins pulsed with hunger for travel.
It was Chloe's voice. She said, "A teacher must teach, no matter the time."
But it was only a voice.
Head trip or not, I need to know why I'm being taken for this ride.
Madness in the Afterglow
She came from under water.
She took me by the hand.
She shoved my head below.
And showed me things I didn't know.
The trees sparkled.
The trees gave fruit.
The trees covered a pond.
That gave birth to new lives beyond.
Her kiss melted my fears.
Her kiss gave me hope.
Her kiss came with subtle pain.
As her teeth transfused new jitters into every vein.
She looked like a blood drifter, but she was darker. And she knew me. Really knew me. She knows I would end the ride. If I could. I feel like a mouse being toyed around with by a cat that knows nothing of mercy. Is that her intention?