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Reality, Interrupted

a short story
by Jason Erik Lundberg


I.

Blue sipped at her hazelnut-flavored Italian soda and glanced at her Mickey Mouse watch for the third time. Short arm on the twelve, long arm on the three. Goran was late again. Lack of punctuality was one of Blue's pet peeves, and she got increasingly irritated with each subsequent tick of Mickey's tail. She had witnessed human beings systematically attempt to capture time throughout the ages, measuring in ever-finer increments of micro, nano, pico, femto, but as those measurements grew increasingly exact, it seemed to Blue that people found more and more ways to be late.

The other patrons of the Brooklyn coffee shop chatted and devoured mocha lattés or other espresso drinks, oblivious to Blue's growing frustration. Leather-clad students in the corner discussed Baudrillard. Three men with nearly identical shaved heads and biker tattoos lamented their slow wireless networks. A man and a woman in spiky purple haircuts whispered intently, close enough to taste each other's breath. Shopping bags littered the floor next to all the trendy footwear, bags from Beacon's Closet, Century 21, Daffy's, Keith's Organic Produce, 7th Avenue Records, Straight From the Crate, and as Blue looked at these people, she didn't see their diversity, but instead saw a roomful of corpses. She saw their deaths, some sooner than others.

Goran Velickovic was eighteen minutes late upon his grand arrival through the front door. He swept into the café with a flourish, his long black leather coat billowing out behind him like a cape. Everything about the man was bigger than life; he tended toward Armani and Gucci, and when he laughed, each person within a square block could hear it. He almost always wore an enormous smile, which he had to bleach periodically to remove the stains from habitual clove cigarette use.

He dropped into the seat opposite Blue with a dramatic sigh. "I am tardy, I know," he said, a waft of sweet-smelling cloves drifting across the table. "These fucking subway trains, yeah?"

"Sure, Goran. But I still managed to be on time."

Goran flashed his famous smile, the smile seen weekly on national television, the smile made eternal by that toothpaste commercial, the one with Heidi Klum, the smile that led to admittance into any club in the city, the smile that charmed the pants off of whatever young-lady-of-the-moment he happened to be chasing. It was a smile that made most people, especially women, forgive him instantly. Fortunately, Blue was not most people.

"It's not going to work, Goran," she said.

"Vrlo dobro, draga," he said. Very well, my dear. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged. "I apologize for being late. Please excuse this most grievous transgression."

Despite herself, the corners of Blue's mouth turned up. The man was damn charming.

"Apology accepted," she said. "You want to order anything before we get to why I called you here?"

"Yes indeed. I have been craving a chai since this morning." Goran pushed himself up, slid out of his leather coat, gently placed the coat on the back of his chair, then glided over to the counter. Blue watched the muscles in his back move underneath his grey sweater while he fidgeted in line, and was reminded of how his muscles moved without any clothes at all. They had been lovers only briefly, a two-week fling amid the falling bombs and scattered gunfire in the last days of Slobodan Milosevic's reign.

After a moment, Goran walked back over to the table with a slice of chocolate espresso cake and a cup of steaming chai, and sipped liberally at the tea. "This shit," he said. "They do not know how to make chai in this country. Kod Konja in Belgrade, now there was a place could make you think you were drinking Heaven." He sipped again and made a face. "Fuck." A sigh. "I met Milena in that café, you know."

Goran normally didn't talk about his dead wife. "Really?"

"Yes," he said. "I never told you this?"

"No."

"Well, it was long ago. We were both very young, still at university. I went to the café after class to meet some friends, but was early. She sat two tables in front of me, so beautiful in the sunlight." Goran sighed and took another sip of chai. He smiled briefly, an involuntary reflex, and continued. "She wore a pony's tail back then, so her hair was out of her face. But I remember one piece hanging down, here." He motioned to an area around his right eye. "She was looking out the window, her eyes so sad. If I had brought my camera, she would have been a masterpiece."

Goran sat silent for several moments. "It was not meant to last," he said. "A car crash with a drunk driver and I am made single again. But for six years, we were happy as anyone I have ever known. You remind me of her sometimes."

"I do?" Blue was fairly certain she couldn't pass for Serbian. If anything, she appeared Chinese. It was a look that had served her well in recent years as the American fascination with Asia had risen sharply.

"Something in the eyes," Goran said. "You express a similar sadness. Your eyes are brown and Milena's were blue, but sadness knows all races equally. It might be this is what drew me to you in the first place."

Blue coughed briefly into her fist. "Goran, the reason I called you here ... I saw you on Young America last week."

Goran clapped once and sat up straighter. "Yes! My newest reality show!"

"Reality-based show," Blue interrupted. "That show is based on reality, and shows only a passing resemblance to it. Anyway, I saw you last week and did some digging. It's the third show you've been on in two years."

Goran nodded and shrugged, an expression of false humility. "Yes. What can I say? The American public, they love my face. They cannot resist my charisma."

The door to the café opened and in walked a tall, svelte black man with a bald head and no eyebrows. He wore a light olive sweater, though the temperature outside was in the mid-forties, and he took a seat near the door.

"Do you remember your life prior to meeting me?" Blue asked.

"Of course, draga," Goran said. "The world did not begin with you, you know."

"How was your love life back then? As busy as it is now?"

"I was married, if you remember."

"Yes, but how long did it take to start that relationship?"

Goran's eyebrows furrowed and he looked sidelong at Blue. "Two years. You know this."

"That's right, it took two years of wearing her down, right? Two years of wooing, of being considered only a friend. Two years before your first kiss."

"She had other suitors. Plus, we were both deep in our studies. Why do you bring this up?"

"Isn't it odd that it took so long to win Milena's heart, when only a smile and wink is enough for pretty blonde things to spread their legs for you now? That is, if the stories you've told me are true."

"Yes," Goran said, "all true. I can almost snap my fingers and a girl is sucking me off in the middle of Central Park. I had not thought on it, but I suppose I assumed it God's compensation for taking Milena from me. No?"

"No," Blue said. "Think back, Goran. Try to remember when your luck started to change, when people began to respond differently to you."

Goran frowned and folded his arms together. "I do not like where this conversation has turned. What point are you trying to make?"

"Just think for a moment."

Goran looked toward the exposed ductwork suspended from the ceiling. Next to his cup of chai sat his slice of cake, uneaten, the smell of chocolate making Blue's stomach grumble. "I suppose it was when I was helping to fight Milosevic. When I met you."

"Exactly. Something happened when we were together, when we were intimate. A part of me was transferred to you. Since then, you've been living on borrowed charisma, sponged natural magic. You've been getting in the beds of young women and on television because of me."

Goran shook his head. "I do not understand."

Blue motioned to his half-empty cup of chai. "Watch."

The liquid in the cup trembled, then began to swirl counter-clockwise all by itself. The swirl inverted and twisted up into a braided cone, which rose several inches above the lip of the cup. A droplet detached itself from the top of the cone and hovered in a perfect milky sphere in front of Goran's eyes. He stood up quickly and backed away, knocking his chair over with a clatter. At his abrupt movement, the chai in the cup returned to its normal placid state, and the sphere dropped to the table's surface with a quiet plish. Goran's mouth hung open.

"How?"

"Goran, sit down. You're attracting attention."

"Me? You are the one who -- "

"No one else saw," she hissed. "Sit down."

He righted his chair, then sank down slowly as if expecting to be burned by it. Sweat stood out on his brow and upper lip, and he trembled slightly. The other patrons were still staring, and Blue smiled to indicate everything was all right.

"How is this possible?" Goran breathed. "This should not be so."

"Like I said, natural magic. In you, it manifested as charisma and self-confidence. But others handle it differently."

"There are others?"

Blue nodded. "Many others. Most of them you wouldn't know about, since they don't go around broadcasting their gifts on national television."

"So." Goran cleared his throat, picked up his fork, then put it back down. "So what happens now?"

"The magic you're carrying? I need it back."

"But ... but if what you say is true, if I return this magic to you, I will no longer attract women. I will lose my place on my show, be kicked into the gutter."

"Not exactly. In order for me to get the magic back, you have to die."

Goran lurched to his feet and shoved his arms into his leather coat. "I do not accept this. However I got this gift, it is mine now. Have I not earned it for all the suffering I have seen?"

Blue leaned forward in her chair and touched Goran's fingers with her own, looked him dead in the eyes. "It doesn't belong to you. We can do this easy or hard, it's your choice. If you give it back willingly, we can make it much less painful, blissful even. If we're forced to track you down -- and we will -- I can't guarantee anything other than unimaginable agony."

Goran took a step toward the door, breaking contact with her touch. "Goodbye, Blue. I do not think we shall speak again."

Blue sighed and nodded to the bald black man at the door. "No, Goran, we won't."

Before Goran could take another step, small green flames sprouted from the toes of his expensive shoes. He yelped in surprise and attempted to stamp the flames out, but they grew and traveled up his legs to his torso, his arms, his face. The eyes of the black man seated by the door blazed as green as the fire engulfing the shrieking Serbian. Several customers leapt out of their seats -- the purple-headed duo, one of the bikers, two of the students -- and tackled Goran onto the floor in an attempt to smother the unearthly fire, but were consumed themselves. The remaining patrons screamed and fled the coffeehouse. Blue sighed again as Goran and the good Samaritans were immolated in front of her, then took the fork off the table and cut a piece out of the cake. The combined flavor of coffee and chocolate tasted like regret, power, and inevitability.


II.

A confusion of colors, swirling, twirling, bursting apart then fusing back together, a Jackson Pollock gone horribly wrong. A hundred thousand cans of paint splattered over the canvas of Goran's existence. No eyes to speak of, but a part of him marveled at the kaleidoscopic display to which he was the sole audience. That eruption of yellows and oranges: the bombs and explosions in the skies above Belgrade. This slow languid dribble of purples and reds: the profile of his dead wife before he introduced himself in that café. The intense inertia of the greens and blues: the form of a man and woman hurrying away from a building fire that they caused. All other colors faded away, and Goran could feel whatever part of him that still existed being drawn toward the green man, or perhaps dragged behind him.

The violent screeching of uncountable nails on chalkboards, the rustiest of swing sets, the white noise of an infinite number of television sets and clothes washing machines. A cacophony of every sound ever created, all at once, assaulting Goran, penetrating the fabric of his being, a hellish mechanical malevolence. The crackle of flame, the piercing shrill of police sirens, the blat of car horns.

And then, abruptly, the sounds softened and the colors resolved. Goran drifted roughly twenty feet above the striding form of the bald black man who had killed him. A translucent umbilicus originating from the man's head reached up and connected somewhere in Goran's midsection, though he could not perceive exactly where. His own body remained hidden to him, though he could once again sense his arms and legs. As he concentrated, other vinelike threads became visible, sprouting upward from the bald man's head like a forest of writhing translucent tubes, extending upwards into the space surrounding Goran. The air shimmered as from the heat above a bombed-out car. Shapes drifted in the haze of his peripheral vision, but dispersed when he attempted to focus on them.

Below him, the bald man was speaking. "That seemed a bit excessive, my sister. Are you sure it was absolutely necessary?"

The woman walking next to him turned her head. "You know it had to be done, Dane," Blue said to the black man. "You're not getting squeamish, are you?"

"Of course not," Dane said. Goran could smell the faint acrid tang of smoke emanating from the man, as if it lived in his skin. A dim green glow surrounded his body, flickering and wavering, giving the impression of a low fire. "Just a shame, that's all."

"Well, it's one more down," Blue said. "I would have been happier had he given it back willingly, especially since it would have meant sex with him one more time, but you saw his reaction."

Goran wasn't sure how he could hear them so clearly, but discovered that the same was true if he concentrated on anyone on the street below him. The street vendors, the pedestrians, the self-proclaimed asphalt preachers. People he originally would have thought talking to themselves were in actuality having conversations with ghostly interlocutors that no one else could see. Ghosts were everywhere in fact, whispering in ears, tripping up feet, lifting up skirts in an imagined breeze, talking incessantly, the street and sky packed with spirits, choked with the dead.

Had he known about this constant claustrophobic profusion of ghosts in the everyday world, taking up any available space, chattering endlessly to those who seemed not to listen, he might have gone mad. As it was, he was now one of them, floating helplessly behind his murderer, wishing he could pass into the afterlife and be with his beloved Milena again. He was abruptly and overwhelmingly furious at Blue for destroying his life, for passing her magic to him in the first place. He still would have had many years left, and there were places he wished to visit, no longer possible to see. His rage was a palpable thing, boiling out of him, a physical force, and the air darkened around him and sparked with electricity. He howled his anger and impotent rage, and the dogs below pissed themselves involuntarily and whimpered at their masters. The eruption from his unseen and unfelt lungs brought the world further into focus, more solid, more real. And in that moment, he was jolted from his helpless floating position and drawn past dozens, hundreds of other umbilici, pulled inextricably to another connected soul, a formless shape which quickly took the form of a small man, the two of them drawn together like opposite magnetic forces, together and through and within.

Goran was within the other man's soul.

He stood in the middle of a small rustic library, aware again of physical corporeal sensations. He wore a Hawai'ian shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts, an outfit he never would have comprehended while he was alive. But they suited him here, in this place. Apart from the books on the shelves and the carpet on the floor, the room was bare. And he had a hard time describing the objects that were there in his mind; adjectives eluded him. The books were neither tall nor short, red nor blue nor yellow; they were simply ... books. The carpet under his feet was not plush, flat, mangy, or comfortable. It just was. Goran glanced at the titles on the shelves in front of him, but could not read them. The letters were standard Roman type, but the words they formed were gibberish, no language he had ever seen, the alphanumerics shifting positions as he looked, constantly changing meaning.

A door behind him opened, and he turned. Into the room walked a short hairy man, wearing identical clothes. But where the colors and patterns on Goran's clothing remained static, on the small man they moved constantly, dizzyingly, a hundred lava lamps thrown together. The small man smiled and opened his mouth to talk; out poured what Goran imagined the written type he had seen on the spines of the books would sound like out loud, an innumerable amount of voices all talking at once. Goran winced and the small man stopped talking. He beckoned Goran forward with his hands, motioning for Goran to follow him.

They stepped into the hallway outside the door, and followed it until it ended, at an identical door. It opened onto an identical hallway, which they took to its end. This door opened onto another identical hallway. Goran and the small man entered hallway after hallway, their path discretely linear, though after forty or fifty doors, Goran began sensing a direction change, a constant turning of rights. Time had no meaning in this place, in this immortal soul; they walked on and on, always another door, always another hallway, until Goran felt he had never been anywhere else. He had always existed in this space, the hallways were all that ever were.

Goran touched the small man on the shoulder and stopped. He turned around and walked back to the door through which they had just passed, which had closed behind them. There was no reason not to expect that another hallway would lie beyond, but Goran turned the knob anyway. The door emptied into the library they had started in, but it was different this time, more familiar. The room smelled of the must and leather of his father's study in Belgrade, and the overhead light shone more softly. When he looked at the books again, he found that he could now read them, tome after tome written in beautiful Cyrillic, and he was momentarily overcome with homesickness.

"I knew you would figure it out."

The small man was smiling again, his teeth slightly discolored. On his clothing, the colors were now still. He emanated a slight fragrance of the clove cigarettes Goran used to smoke.

"What did I figure out?" Goran asked.

"The path to understanding. To travel along the circle, and then to realize that sometimes to go forward, you must go backward."

"Circle?"

The small man nodded. "It is the geometric structure of this place. You felt the right turns as we traveled?" Goran nodded. "If you circumscribe a circle with a polygon of infinite sides, a series of seemingly straight lines can form a curve. The angles between the sides reduce to an infinitesimal number, and in effect can connect in a circular pattern."

"Is that why we can communicate? Because we circumnavigated this circle?"

"Partially. The circle realigns your perception of language."

"But this isn't Serbian we're speaking. Or English."

"That's right. We're communicating through logos, what some might call the Word of God. All language is representative, an approximation of the world around us. A book in English will be livre in French, boek in Dutch, buch in German, biblio in Greek, libro in Italian and Spanish, et cetera. So many words to describe one object. Logos is the True language, the basis for what all those other languages hope to translate." The man smiled again, proud of himself. Goran wanted to sit down.

He lowered himself into a plush leather chair that hadn't existed a moment ago. Had he conjured it by thought?

"Yes," said the man. "Thought equals action in this place."

"So since we're speaking the Word of God, does that make you God?"

"Not exactly."

And as abruptly as an eyeblink, they were no longer in the library, but on a wharf at the edge of some seaside city, the salt and decay a physical presence in the air. There had been no sense of the time of day in the library, but out here it was nighttime. The moon shone waxy and jaundiced overhead, remarkably free of craters; the lunar illumination that filtered down through a haze of clouds cast a sickly pall on the piers, the few sloops tied to the dock, even the water itself. Goran's clothes had changed. He now wore a charcoal-grey suit made from a material finer than silk. It fit him perfectly, a second skin.

Goran's guide stood next to him on the wharf, still clad in his inscrutable outlandish clothing. Even the colors on his shirt were dulled and dirtied by the diseased lunar illumination.

"Where are we now?" Goran asked.

"Borstalle-Purgatoire. A city of lost souls." He turned away from the wharf, toward the city. "Please, follow me. I will answer all your questions, but I'm craving a chai."

"Chai? That is my favorite drink."

"I know."

The man led Goran off of the wharf and into a warehouse district. Block after block of grey rectangular brick buildings, overgrown with lichen and shelf mushrooms. The smell of decomposition was stronger here, as if the city were rotting from the inside. Acorn-style lamp posts lit their way, casting off an almost greenish light. The night was humid and permeated by particulates of dust and spores. Goran coughed.

Their destination was the Café of the Asphyxiated Borough, a smallish coffeehouse and bar on the edge of the warehouse district, decorated by a sign in blockish script next to a woodcut of two disembodied hands strangling a donkey. Inside, the café was filled with customers who spoke in melancholy whispers. The air was thick with defeat and resignation.

The guide ordered two chais at the counter, then he and Goran sat at a table in the corner. On the walls around them were shelves after shelves of old books, dusty and disused.

"So what exactly is this place?" Goran asked.

"A café."

"No, the city."

"This is the place we go who are killed or fundamentally changed by the elementals."

"Blue ... she was from the elements?"

The man nodded. "Water. She is a trickster, the first Trickster, in fact. She can change her appearance to serve her needs, even change her gender. She sprang forth from this place, where all the world's magic originates. It encompasses a vast terrain, and Borstalle-Purgatoire is just a bump on its surface."

"So we are not ghostly balloons connected to our killer's head in the real world?"

"We are, but we also exist here. The afterlife doesn't constitute a single place. Look," he said, "look at those six men over at the bar." Goran looked. They all seemed haggard and withdrawn, as if they had suffered enormous hardship, six different versions of Job.

"All of these men were blighted by the Trickster, as was everyone in this place. These six were the most recent before you."

"So how am I supposed to be of help?" Goran asked.

"We, all of us," the guide said, "are able to pool our energy and send one person back to the real world. The elementals are on their way to a used books store, and it is this place where we will send you. They are far too strong to fight, so instead you will trap them."

"How?"

"There is a book, one capable of sending them away forever. It has been there, among its brothers and sisters, for some time, enchanted so that no one will ever pick it up. You will know it when you see it, and you will know what to do with it.

"The catch is that you will no longer be able to die. You will banish them, and set all of us free, but will never be able to see Milena again. As guardian of the book, it will never leave your side, not even when all the stars have burned out."

"Quite a price for being a hero," Goran said.

"It is," the guide said. "Which is why no one else has been brave enough yet."

Goran gazed at the assembled patrons of the café, broken down, miserable, trapped in this limbo against their wishes, in despair, the apotheosis of depression. He thought about that first magical meeting with Milena, the way she fit so perfectly into his life for the short time they were together. He remembered his rage at her death, and how his anger fueled his rebellious activities against Milosevic. That rage, that anger was sparked anew by his recent murder. How could Blue have done that to him?

"I'll do it," he said.

"You understand the costs?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure? There is no turning back."

Goran took a breath, held it, let it out.

"I understand. Do it."

The guide leaned forward, stared into Goran's face, and began speaking, softly and rhythmically, barely above a whisper, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat ... " Chanted, a mantra, the words, the nonsense words filled his body, his brain. The sound was coming from all around him now, and he could see every man and woman in the café, all turned in his direction, all speaking in unison, eyes wide, desperate, pushing their words into him, permeating the air with language. Goran's vision doubled, trebled, multiple images of the mass of humanity overlapping, intersecting, growing bright, intense, so intense, their internal light blinding him, transforming him, transporting him, a cacophony of hope and longing, a dissonant polyphony, a beautiful destruction --

Goran blinked. The café, the voices, the damp atmosphere were gone. He stood before a massive bookshelf in his grey suit, his hand resting, lightly, on the spine of a slim book at his eye level. He pulled the book from the shelf, and it felt powerful in his hand. No author name adorned the cover, but the title proclaimed, in bold white letters, Lies and Little Deaths. He felt as if he was always meant to hold this book.

A quick glance around, at the tall bookshelves, the narrow aisleways, and he knew where he was. The Strand. Manhattan's block-long used books store. He had visited several times, always able to find obscure books as presents to friends, to lovers. He was in the basement, among the miles of hardcover review and advanced reading copies. The book in his hands, in its pristine untouched condition, felt very out of place down there.

He cradled Lies and Little Deaths in the crook of his arm, and made his way upstairs. Every time he had previously visited the Strand he had barely been able to move, pressed in on all sides by the multitudes of book lovers. But when he emerged from the basement of the store, to the main level, it was nearly empty. He slowly tracked his way through the aisles, seeing only a becapped teenager in the Science Fiction section, and an attractive redhead in Art History. Goran made three careful circuits through the store before remembering the Occult section.

Blue and her brother Dane pored over a large dusty-looking tome, their backs to Goran. If Dane was given time to react, Goran knew that the store would go up like kindling, the yellowed paper and old glue of eighteen miles of books the perfect fuel for the blaze.

Goran opened the book.

He wasn't sure what he expected to happen. At the very least, he imagined a sudden rushing of wind, a micro-tornado right there in the aisle, howling, a disarray, books flying off the shelves, hair blasted back, perhaps some lightning, Blue and Dane looking at Goran simultaneously, eyes unbelieving, mouths open, screaming, "Noooooooo!" a primal shriek, barely heard over the roar of the windstorm, incredulous, in shock at the fact that not more than an hour before they had seen, absolutely seen his body erupt in green flames, aghast that he had found the only way to defeat them, knowing they were trapped, tricked, doomed forever to their own purgatory, their bodies losing cohesion, molecules sucked into his book, their screams amplified to godlike intensity, the sound bursting Goran's eardrums as they were pulled, drawn into the book, the wind, the wind --

But none of that happened. He opened the book, heard a pop of displaced air, and then Blue and Dane were gone, vanished, disappeared. That was it. He was a little disappointed.

Goran retraced his path to the front counter and paid for the slim book. The cashier, a young guy wearing a Hawai'ian shirt, unusual for this temperature, this time of the year, familiar though Goran couldn't place where he might have met him, this cashier rang up the book, took Goran's money and said, "Thank you."

As Goran was about to exit the store, to step out into his new immortal life, he felt a hand on his arm. The beautiful redhead from Art History smiled up at him.

"You're that guy, aren't you? Goran something? From that reality show?"

"No," he said, "I'm not that guy. You're thinking of someone else. I'm sorry."

He turned from her pretty and disillusioned face, his new book resting comfortably in a jacket pocket, opened the door, and stepped out onto the crowded streets of New York.


© Jason Erik Lundberg 2005, 2006.

This story first appeared in TTA (summer 2005) - a magazine still going from strength to strength under its new title, Black Static.



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