That dream of the unicorn running through the forest didn’t really make any sense until you came home to collect her/ him from your apartment and found the origami replica.
The past year since had been ideal. Far away from the dark, rainy and polluted Los Angeles you had grown accustomed to, Trinidad was a nice change of pace. That is, until the gradual decay began to show and the locals would return your weary, dead-eyed glances with suppressed horror. And then, the worst: You find her/ him on the beach as gulls circle the body overhead.
Each day is spent remembering the best days here in paradise, applying makeup to cover your deterioration and trying your best to finish your memoirs before the inevitable pulls you into the island dusk forever.
As these strange summer days drag on through a blinding haze of chlorine, sweat, alcohol and [other], you find solace only in the short hours where the night air hesitantly forgives you for the legendary string of bad decisions that have played out in the tragicomedy that is your entire existence. Dreams rarely allow escape these days and the blur between feverish, yet banal nightmares and a dizzy waking life seems to be growing more dense. You think that you’ve finally run out of options and that eager, charming creativity that has kept you relevant and interesting for so long seems to have reached its nadir.
That is, until he/ she walks into the Donald Wexler home of your agent, dressed as some sort of summertime vampire for another of these silly Palm Springs theme parties you’ve come to despise (but never miss). You begin to shake with excitement, but though it’s only 7pm, you are in no shape to carry on an intelligent conversation. Luckily, there are plenty of people here who can help your condition, so it’s not long before you feel your rubbery legs walking over to him/ her, disguised as a tropical replicant. Won’t he/ she be surprised to see you, you think, and then immediately realize that this is your last chance.
Your little black 924 is kind enough to die just before you meet Raphael, who delivers your keys on horseback. As you wrap the cashmere scarf around your Clubmasters and head toward the small adobe structure, you glance back one last time at the 924 and see that it’s already being engulfed by the dunes.
When you get inside your first action is to check the cabinet for a bottle of tequila. It’s not there because Raphael did his job. You came to the desert to dry out. Water will have to do.
You pull off your shirt and then your shoes and dump the sand into an empty goldfish bowl and walk over to the desk. Raphael has already loaded a fresh sheet of paper into your Adler Universal 39. You sit and stare at that blank sheet for the next 7 hours before reaching into your pocket for the small tablet you remember had been left there the night of his/ her birthday party - the last night you saw him/ her.
You quickly pop the tablet into your mouth and down the glass of water that has been untouched the entire day. You begin walking through the dunes in the cool night air past saguaros that become benevolent alien beings on the surface of Mars, welcoming you to their strange world. You see the rock formations develop from the depths of ancient history, first underwater and then emerging into amorphous landscapes that flow through your dreams and onto the astral plane.
Everyone who has gone away returns, holding hands, their knowing visages reflecting your own in floating mirrors and morphing into mythological creatures before blowing away across the dunes.
When you wake up in the hospital 3 days later, unable to move, your lips sealed together by sunburn, you remember floating over a single set of footprints that were not your own.
Raphael is never seen again and the skeleton of his horse reveals a pair of vestigial wings.
You’ve tried your best to turn over a new leaf, though you know a leopard can’t really change its spots no matter how hard it may try. But then again, you don’t really try that hard, do you?
You were the first one at the mirrored bar of the Flamingo Lounge and you are the last to go. But, as usual, you’re not leaving alone.
It’s a good thing your connection came through or he/ she would be insufferable as he/ she babbles ad nauseum about his/ her transition from stage to screen. You stare blankly at the moon’s reflection on the pool below the balcony. By the time the high finally peaks, you have convinced yourself, not only that you’re interested in what he/ she is saying, but that you actually have some sort of feelings for this absolute stranger.
That won’t be the case when you wake up late in the afternoon to the whirring of the housekeeper’s vacuum in the room next door. Luckily for you, there’s no trace of him/ her, save an indentation on the pillow and a small white pill that transforms a massive headache into a fluffy pink cloud floating over the city, then a mountain, then the sea, and finally into space and across the cosmos.
By the time you finally catch up to him/ her you realize he/ she is not alone and that you’re obviously too late. So, you drive past and into the darkness beyond all traces of city neon until you reach the canyon. You consider, for a moment, launching over the jagged embankment and into eternity.
You glance at your swollen, wet eyes in the rear view and laugh to yourself about how ridiculous this notion is. You never cared for drama much and if truth be told you only became interested when you knew you couldn’t get what you thought you wanted.
You check your watch, but the battery has been dead since he/she gave it to you. You do the things you always do to get straight and head back toward the skyline to do the things you always do to get through yet another night in this place.
You wince at first when ‘Boys of Summer’ pushes its way through the static and into the leather cockpit. Slowly, you relax, light a cigarette and drive on.
You’ve been making promises to yourself that you just can’t keep and you’re fed up. You punch your own reflection in the mirror and bloody your fist, but at least you feel something and the shattered visage brings a twisted smile to your weary and puffy face. You hope he/ she didn’t wake up in the next room, because the last thing you want to do is talk to him/ her again.
You wake up alone in the early evening in bloody sheets and soon realize your cat has died. The beer you have for breakfast isn’t bad, so you have five more for dessert. Nothing is on television. A wolf howls in the distance from beyond the expressway. Hungry. Time to check out.
The fantasy world had always been so easy to slip into and eventually she never left it.
When it finally stopped moving and they were confident they had killed it, they moved closer to inspect the smoking armor. There was nothing inside.
It became a leopard, then a horse, then an eagle. When it finally became a man, it stared at its reflection for a few moments and then smashed its face through the mirror.
Many tried and failed. They tried and they died. Their limp, flamboyantly-costumed bodies could be found floating in the sea, drying out and decaying on the sandy white beach, torn and eaten by shadowy cats in the jungle, burned and hacked apart by death machines in the labyrinth and riddled by bullets in the courtyard - strewn across the steps leading up to the palazzo and even the grand front threshold. There was blood smeared along the columns of the facade.
Only one was successful, though her Barbarella costume was bloody and ripped to shreds, revealing a glistening and supple form beneath. He answered the door himself in an ornate kaftan and allowed her in. She was nineteen and had come all the way from Shanghai for his mystical and all-consuming ‘candy’. He bathed her and dressed her wounds and put her to bed with the sounds of a harp being strummed down the corridor. She was to be his bride and he knew, also, his assassin.
We floated across the calm waters and a breeze blew softly through the wispy branches ahead. Mother and Father were there with me, speaking serenely as we approached what we thought was an island. There was no earth, only strange trees that grew from beneath the surface. I told Father that I’d like to fall asleep and float away. He said he had done that once and enjoyed it, but had been dragged away by the heavy current.
I floated away from Mother and Father in a different direction than the one we had approached from. The water became clear and I could see the ones that swam naked through it, many of them golden-haired and beautiful, and they all seemed so natural and without the need to come up for air. From the corner of my eye, I watched as one of them passed by, her long legs, hips, breasts, lips and hair all in perfect rhythm with the flow of the water. Her stare burned into me, and though I felt ashamed, I did not look away.
As I approached the land, I could see that there were a series of channels and streams that cut through the swampy mud and bare roots. I gradually worked my way into the streams and moved higher up the face of the embankment until it was difficult to stay in water. I had to hop from muddy patch to muddy patch on my little flotation device and soon I desperately wanted to return to the water, though this proved impossible.
I made my way into a large brick channel that seemed to be a corridor into some underground interior. There was a control box posted near a gated, though open, entry. Before I could discern its function, a worker of some sort appeared and turned a metal wheel, releasing a rush of water that filled the channel with such force and violence that I was knocked over and carried away, deep into the labyrinth within the earth.
When the motion ceased and all was again calm, I realized that I was floating above what seemed to be a glittering city skyline. My eyes were filled with such clarity though they were open underwater and I realized I had no need to return to the surface for oxygen. That was when I saw them return and I understood. I followed them down to the city below.
She swallowed the remaining liquid in the bottle and stuffed all of the previous year’s memories inside, both the lovely ones from a romantic, golden summer of friends and fun and the dark and lonely ones chilled by the silent gray of winter. It was a necessary sacrifice she thought, and threw the bottle over the rocky cliff into the sea.
As her eyes followed its path, farther and farther out, the sun began to rise. The bright, warm beams penetrated them, turning the dim hazel of the irises to a magnificent emerald. The stream of tears had subsided.
I awoke to the scent of cinnamon and rubbed my blurry eyes. I pulled aside my Empire Strikes Back sheets, slipped on some furry Alf shoes and hustled into the bathroom for a quick, excited pee. Without looking, I could sense that there was fresh snow on the ground. I hurried into the kitchen to see if the snickerdoodles I’d left out the night before had been eaten, which they had, then confirmed my weather predictions as I gazed out to the white landscape beyond the fogged glass of the window above the sink. There was warm, fresh eggnog waiting, so I poured a little into my favorite Pac-Man glass. It was very sweet and I wanted more, but I was focused on the morning’s activities, which I had been obsessing over for weeks. I would sit in class and daydream about this very moment until the teacher reprimanded me for not paying attention.
Heather and little Jack and I were not allowed into the den where the tree and all of the surprises were. We would usually have a hurried pancake breakfast at the bar while Dad played seasonal music on a small boom box. While we ate, Mom would be in the den, both guarding entry and inspecting what treasures had been left there overnight.
Though Dad’s small radio was turned on and playing the familiar songs of the occasion and there was pancake batter sitting in a Tupperware container near the stove, I could not detect any activity or movement in the house. All that could be heard was a distorted Spanish guitar rendition of ‘O Holy Night’, whose radio signal seemed to be struggling with some type of interference that sounded like a deep voice chanting in a low register.
I first ran into little Jack’s room. His tiny bed had not been made up and his Lego blocks were strewn all over the floor. A Cabbage Patch Kid sat staring at me near his red plastic rocking chair. I moved on to Heather’s bedroom, but I could barely enter because it was so cold. One of the windows was open and the screen had been removed. I nearly tripped on a naked Malibu Stacy doll as I moved across the frigid floor to shut the window.
I was beginning to get worried, but I remembered how much we all loved a good prank. Hide and seek was a favorite family game and Mom would laugh and laugh if she got the chance to jump out from a hiding place and surprise us. I assumed everyone was upstairs in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, but I had to go back to the kitchen and through the playroom to enter the stairwell. I was afraid that I would get in trouble and ruin the magic if I entered the stairs from the den.
The light inside the red-orange fixture flickered on and off strangely above the carpeted stairs. Dad must have been outside in the snow and forgot to remove his boots because the steps were very wet. Before I could see over the top step I signaled my approach. ‘Mom? Dad?’. There was no answer. I climbed up to the head of the stairs and moved toward their bed which seemed to have a fur coat lying on it. Instead, to my horror, it was Panther, our black Labrador Retriever, lying with his eyes and mouth open, awkwardly on his back, his legs stiff and extended. His gut had been slashed open violently, but there was no blood staining the sheets.
I could barely see through the tears and all was silent except for the sound I would later recall as my own screaming that filled my ears as I slid down the stairs and out the back door, through the snow and on the path to my grandparents’ house through the pasture that joined the two properties. I made it halfway across this field before noticing the odd tracks, machine oil and strange mounds in the distance. My mind seemed to be transforming as I was able to access a well of previously un-recalled memories from another life.
It was as though I was changing the channel from a TV show about a scared little kid to another about a being of pure energy beaming through millions of years, a diamond bullet fired from an ancient gun through the cosmos and into infinity. I could hear the low voice from Dad’s radio speaking directly into my thoughts and now I could understand. They had found me again.
I moved to the odd mounds of snow to confirm the unspeakable atrocity I knew they contained. Of the four, only little Jack had eyes closed and even seemed to be sleeping. I turned my face away to look at a pale sun that hovered somewhere behind a curtain of gray.
I hurried back through the drift and into the den. Stockings were bulging with candy, toys, socks and new Fruit-of-the-Looms. A Dukes of Hazzard race set had been assembled in front of the tree that was glowing with a beautiful constellation of colorful lights and glittering ornaments. I found all of the gifts marked for Adam and put them in front of me. The packages were wrapped perfectly by Mom, but I tore into them as quickly as my little fingers could work. Each one contained modular sections of what seemed to be a kind of organic metal armor. I snapped the pieces together, pulled off my G.I. Joe pajamas and stepped into the pulsating suit.
I screamed as the suit attached itself to me, piercing my flesh and absorbing me completely. Songs of the Old Ones were burning through my eardrums as a visor melted into my eyes, first blinding me, then bestowing upon me The Sight. I squeezed my palms tightly together, but my hands were now feathered blades. I began to float as the room was engulfed by a hissing, churning fire. Then, They entered, skeletal and faceless, shrieking horribly as their chelae reached out for me.
I hovered above for a moment to witness the full explosion and the blackening of the earth. I knew that survival was always the prime objective, but at what cost? This is what so many had given their lives for and this desolation will always follow me until I finally reach Home.
I am almost certain that, just before I tore apart the sky and burst as a comet into Andromeda, I heard the sound of approaching sleigh bells from the north.
6 September 1921:
Though today began with high spirits and a jovial picnic in God’s perfect splendor, it ended with melancholy and sorrowful empathy for a stranger. We were near the river bend at the south edge of Boddington Pass and I was demonstrating the use of my newly-acquired VPK. I always tell Jean that she is ‘photogenic’ and Harry always asks what I mean by this. He will only step in front of my camera if he is holding a rifle or his beloved Colt!
The deep blue of the cloudless sky above and rich green of the grass we spread the checkered blanket upon created a pastoral scene that begged to be captured by a French painter. Harry, in his boater, strummed ‘Ain’t We Got Fun?’ on his ukulele. Jean held my hand and sang along. It is only in times like this when I find that I can nod off to sleep without dreams of the trenches.
Our revelry was disturbed by approaching strangers: a woman dressed in black and carrying an infant, accompanied by her negro charge. The latter was weeping as they arrived and this caused tears to form in Jean’s translucent green eyes. The woman calmly told us that her child had died of flu because she could not get him to a doctor on the count of her husband being away with government business and the carriage horse’s broken leg.
She asked that I make a photograph of the small child, who was bundled in a colourful afghan that seemed to mock the occasion. I used the remaining stock of Kodak I had and promised to send the woman a print. When Jean and I returned to the studio this evening I developed the film. Only one image of the child survived. Though the mother is expressionless (likely from unimaginable grief), the child appears to be looking up at her face and smiling.