A Catalogue of 21st Century Monsters
We met sporadically, in a hotel room, in a bar, at an airport, and she would recount to me all that she had encountered. All that is left are the stories she told me. An oral tradition continues, to this day. And, appropriate to tradition, I am recounting to you these stories filtered through my own memory, imagination, and obsessions. I paid close attention to every word she spoke to me; I have always been a keen listener, a listener to the sounds of words, to the melody of a cough, a sigh, a string of sentences without periods, and her words were symphonies. She spoke in whispers, with a slight curl in her mouth, as if she were always about to laugh. And while you may not trust me to faithfully recreate the experiences she had based on the words she told me, I am here to dispel any doubt.
Her words were alive. They did not sit stagnant in the air and drone like some silent cacophony. Everything she told me became vividly alive, in technicolor, in surround sound cinema glory. And everything she told me quietly seeped out like a drunken secret, from what she had for dinner the day before to her more shocking experiences, which will undoubtedly be shrugged off by many as made up, as metaphoric, as mad.
Naomi Grace was anything but mad, though her work and her persistence did take their toll. She always appeared older than she actually was. I first met her when I was 21; she was only 30 years old but her face was marred with the cracks of someone who painfully noticed everything. Her brow was permanently furrowed, the skin around her eyes prematurely wrinkled, her hair, she once told me, began graying at the age 16. When I met her, it was dyed her former natural brown, but as the years went on, and she became too consumed with her project to care about her own personal appearance, those few pretenses went away. After one year into her approximately four years of research her hair was completely gray, almost white. Yet she could not cease to be beautiful. When one looked at her, they saw a short, squinting woman who always seemed to be smirking, as if the inanimate objects around her were telling their own little private jokes. But as anyone who spoke extensively with her can testify, she glowed in conversation. She listened to every word you said, and more than that, she watched your every action. She watched as you wiggled your foot nervously. She watched as you tapped your fingers, scratched your nose, blinked your eyes more times than necessary. She heard you crack your knuckles or your neck. She registered your pauses, your sighs, your cocked eyebrow or curious gaze. She understood the secret language of silence and she saw everything. There would be no better person to go out into the forgotten shadows of America, the hidden recesses and cracks of the 21st century, and discover the unknown mythologies being born, fresh out of a disturbingly new mindset.
She set out to discover, catalogue, and analyze the distinctive folklore newly emerging. She quit her post at a prestigious university and began a trip that would take her to all corners of the United States. I remember clearly one of our early conversations, drinking wine in a small stucco hole near the ocean, the American ocean washing up against an American city, its lights twinkling on the sea, the stars too far away to even imagine.
“We think it’s all dead. We think we’ve killed our gods,” she told me, rocking her head back and forth, hiding a smile, pointing to her glass of wine as if that was the only thing she was talking about. “But we haven’t. We still worship the sun, the stars, the heavens, and the earth. We take the stars and pull them out of the sky and put them in our cities. We brought the stars right down to us, lit up the streets with them, washed out the sky with them so that we could forget those old, meaningless stars of the past. We brought down the sun in huge neon signs, spread it out over parking lots, trapped it inside of supermarkets. We built up to heaven with our buildings and pushed heaven down to us with our light. Every day we’re building new heavens and hells. And there is no difference any more. Heaven is hell and hell is heaven. Our cities, our suburbs, our roads and highways, concrete reenactments of heaven and hell, same thing. We’re trying to build a utopia that tortures us. Heaven and hell. Same thing.”
I asked her what she expected to find. The next day she would be off to New York City, the supposed mythological center of America. The next day, her project would begin. “You expect to find heaven and hell combined?”
“I can see that already. It’s everywhere. I guess…” she paused and looked out onto the stars twinkling in the ocean, the stars of the hotels and billboards, the shooting stars traveling along the highways. “I guess I’m looking for the stories, the inhabitants of this world, those hidden little somethings no one is talking about because we don’t, and you’ll appreciate this, we don’t have a language yet to speak of it.”
“Do you intend on inventing a new language?”
“I intend on translating their language.” She was smirking. Remember, she always smirks.
“Who is ‘they’?”
She shrugged and took a gulp of wine. “The invisible heroes and villains of a new age.”
That conversation occurred on January 12th, 1999. Her hair was still dyed, the wrinkles were still localized yet prominent, and she glowed. She would never stop glowing.
New Years Eve, 1999: The Static, the Light, and the Silence.
Naomi and I met at a small road-stop motel where truckers stretched and yawned. In many parts of the country, people were celebrating, drinking, shouting, singing, and forgetting about the nonexistent bugs waiting to theoretically destroy all of our technology, forgetting about the usual simulacrum of monsters that come out every millennium. But, as Naomi related to me on this night, as we had our own personal celebration with a 24 pack of cheap beer and four packs of cigarettes, there were real creatures elusively haunting our world. These were the 21st century monsters: bodiless, amorphous, and abysmal.
“I was somewhere,” she began, already drunk, waving around her cigarette in the air, punctuating her sentences and dashing across misplaced words with her smoke, “in Nevada. Or Utah. It doesn’t matter. A suburb of Las Vegas. Or Salt Lake. I don’t remember the name, I don’t remember the date, but it doesn’t matter. Someone had told me, this guy, all black beard and bushy hair, of reoccurring black-outs in the suburbs, but they weren’t black outs at all, he said. He lived there, with his son, and no one quite understood what was going on, but it was not a black-out. It was static. He called it just that, he called it, ‘The Static,’ and his voice went low and his eyes went narrow and he leaned in real close to me and I could hear the alcohol on his breath and smell those stuttered words clumsily articulating the unutterable. ‘It’s a horrible noise, a scream that travels from house to house. My neighbors can tell you, everyone in this neighborhood can tell you,’ he would say, shaking his head like some doomsday prophet. And I was enthralled. I went to check it out, not quite knowing what to expect. Described officially as black-outs, described by one drunk man as Static, as a screaming howl, a ‘screaming fucking howl,’ were his exact words, and for days I stayed in a cheap motel close to where this was all happening. I would go out at night and wander around the neighborhoods, but nothing happened. All was idyllic and calm, sprinklers, late night gatherings, televisions that someone had forgotten to turn off. I found a church in the middle of this neighborhood that took in the homeless and I stayed there, and while none of the people running the shelter would talk about it, as if they couldn’t, they could only say, ‘yeah, blackouts,’ and the priest could only say, ‘Yes ma’am, we’ve had a few black outs,’ some of the homeless there told vivid stories. An old woman described it as a howl you could hear coming from far away, and as it grew closer, as it became louder, your vision blurred and shook, colors blended, melted, faded. Your vision fragmented, and it was like darkness not because it was darkness but because it became so unlike anything we could ever possibly see that the only way to describe it was darkness. And while this was happening, you couldn’t think, she told me. You couldn’t think at all, there was just this noise that was, and these are her exact words, ‘it was a noise like every scream from every thing that isn’t alive.’ But I never saw it, I never heard it, I never experienced it. I stayed for over two months and nothing happened.”
Naomi finished her beer and opened another. “I shouldn’t have left, but I got the distinct feeling that whatever it was, it was already gone. And another person at the shelter, this old toothless, street stained man, who managed to run out and follow it, the Static, he liked when I called it that, he said he followed it as it went from house to house, screaming, turning off everyone’s brain, freezing everyone’s body, and then disappearing.” She looked up at the ceiling. I encouraged her to move on to other stories.
“There was the Light.” She emphasized her smoldering cigarette. “The Light, so aptly named by a quiet housewife, mother of two, living in a two bedroom apartment, a single mother, barely making ends meet, in this real rundown part of town--”
“Where?” I asked.
Her smirk shined over her entire face, the corners of her eyes smiled, and she leaned in towards me closer than she already was. “America.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I stayed with this woman for a while; I offered to help out around the house and buy food if I could live there, I told her I was doing research, I was actually pretty upfront and straightforward, though I didn’t go into detail. Her son was too young, barely one, but her daughter told me about the Light as well, she was much more willing to talk about it. She said it crawled in under the door, a white light, seeping in like water and then spreading, climbing up the walls, covering the furniture. It would surround you and everything would go quiet, that’s how she described it, though when it happened…” Naomi let me hear her cigarette burn. She let me hear her pop one knuckle. She, in turn, watched me put an indentation in my beer can with my thumb. She listened and noticed everything, and she shared, she made you listen. “When it happened to me, quiet isn’t the right word. The Light was so bright it made noise. The Light was so bright it couldn’t just be blinding, no, it had to be deafening too. The Light was so… pervasive, so… maddening… torturous… you could feel it.” She always smirks, but here, she stops. “It burned. But, no, burning is a sensation. This was a lack of sensation. A vacuum. The Vacuum burned. You could smell the Light, but it didn’t smell like anything. You could see it but it didn’t look like anything. You could hear it but it didn’t sound like anything.” The smirk returned. “It’s a language I have yet to translate.”
The conversation veered, it moved down alleyways of my bored relationships, it curved through roads of stories involving her disgruntled bus and airplane co-passengers, and it headed toward Silence. “There was another time,” she said, pausing between each word, her smirk disappearing and reappearing. “I was told about a small town, way out in the middle of nowhere, the Middle of Nowhere USA, not quite, the Edge of Nowhere, with a movie theater but no chain restaurants, with telephones, but no Internet cafe. Not then anyway. This young kid, a teenager really, told me that every so often, the entire town would go completely silent. And he was an observant kid. He used the word ‘silence,’ loosely, and by loosely, I mean accurately.” I smiled at this.
“Complete silence. The Silence. Nothing works, cars stop, water stops running out of the faucets, music stops playing out of radios, you clap your hands together and nothing happens. The wind didn’t blow. The televisions went white. No one could say a word, he told me. No one could hear their footsteps, they couldn’t turn on their microwaves, they couldn’t turn on their lights if they were off, they couldn’t turn them off if they were on. Everything simply stopped, as if frozen, and he told me about walking around Main Street with cars stopped in the middle of the intersection, the engines off, the radios off, the birds gone from the sky, the clouds not moving, the leaves not falling. He stared at a pool of water. It didn’t move. He touched it and not a ripple would appear. It wasn’t frozen though, he could stick his hand right through it, he could slap it with his hand, but the water didn’t react. There was no splash. Doors wouldn’t squeak. Dogs futilely threw their jaws open, silently crying. The walls were silent, the water, the air. No airplanes in the sky. No hum of generators. And everyone would just wait, in utter unutterable fear.” Silence. “He told me that he didn’t know if everyone was afraid that the Silence would last forever, or if everyone was afraid that it would go away. And after it was gone, they couldn’t talk about it with each other. I was the first he told. I never found this place. I don’t know where it is. Anytown USA. It’s everywhere. It’s right here.” She looked at me, right into my eyes, and I saw her blazing blue youth behind the wrinkles. I had nothing to say.
May 5, 2000: The Words.
We met again, at an airport in the corpse of the night, planes soaring off into the slate starless skies, traveling toward blank heaven, the expanding cosmos. She sat, sipping her coffee, bags under her youthful eyes, skinny hands slightly shaking, her body frail and nearly abandoned. She glowed. She smiled as I sat down, and told me about her flight, staring out the window, looking at the sprawled out dots of buildings and cars below. She glowed.
“Have you ever flown in an airplane at night?” she asked me. I had arrived early in the day. I had never been on an airplane in the night.
“I looked down at the tiny dots of light below me and the tiny little dots of light quivering along that invisible horizon, quivering above me,” she let out a little laugh, an audible smirk. “You’re flying through space. The stars are above you and below you. There is no ground. It’s a bit frightening. You’re flying through outer space.”
I had a can of soda in my hand. The smell of her coffee reminded me of things I wanted to forget and she could tell. Maybe she read my mind. I remembered being a child and my mother brewing coffee in the morning, staring out the window, waiting for someone who would never show up. She was always waiting, by the door, in the car, on the couch as the television blinked. My mother rarely said anything, but I learned to read her plain, white-cheeked face. She stared and waited and expressionlessly spoke, her motionless hands lamented. He was never coming back.
Naomi hid the scent of the coffee from me. Her lips smiled and her eyes frowned. She looked down. “So, what do you have to say today?”
“Nothing much. I’m hoping for more stories of silence and static.” Speak. Please, speak.
Her shoulders sighed. Naomi had a newspaper by her side, but aside from the pictures, there were no words on it, only blank gray paper and pictures of politicians, local heroes, flora and fauna. “Words.”
She began her story. “Someone found me. A young girl, in her twenties, a pretty little girl, brighter than her pouty lips and slight clothing would suggest. I was doing some research that went nowhere, supposedly haunted woods, supposed demons eating children, all nothing, fake terrors to cover up real…horror. Someone, people knew I was looking for…whatever I was looking for.” She staggered more in her speech. She was tired, drained. She kept looking over at the people walking by, dragging luggage, looking at the ground.
“So, she brought me a newspaper, not unlike this one, absent of any words, with just pictures. Odd, I thought. A weird misprint. A mistake at the newspaper factory, at the newspaper birthing establishment. Where the information is born. She told me that the newspaper came to her house, as it always would, full of stories about puppies and murders and the weather and foreign war. She was inside, eating some toast, reading the paper when, quite abruptly, she couldn’t understand what she was reading. The letters, she described them as switching places. The words switched places, the letters inside of the words switched places, and then, the lines of the letters themselves, the curves would straighten, the lines would curve, new lines would appear, until all of the writing took on an entirely new shape. She said, and I quote, ‘It was like looking at a new language, a new alphabet really, and I thought, maybe I didn't get enough sleep. Or my vision’s getting worse. Or something like that. But it kept happening. My books for school, I couldn’t read them, it was like hieroglyphics. I really thought I was losing it. I couldn’t read the labels on my cereal box. I went outside, thinking I needed fresh air, I drank some coffee, you know, thinking, wake up, wake up. The road-signs outside were gibberish. The little flyers stapled to telephone poles, flyers that I had already read, telling of…I can’t remember.’” A pause.
“And there was panic in her voice. Something had reached in and taken her memories. Some…thing had dismantled some key aspect of comprehension.” Naomi's voice changed. She spoke this girl’s words. Her voice quivered and quaked as this girl’s voice might have. Tears bubbled inside of her throat and were choked down. “ ‘I knew what things said. I went to this poem I had memorized for a class, but I wasn’t even sure if it was the right book. I guessed, from the color, from the picture on the cover, but the title was gone, it was just, these letters, I didn’t know what they were, the numbers too, different, not numbers, I don’t know. I couldn’t read anything. I couldn’t remember what was on those flyers the second I looked at them. I was going over the poem in my head before I found it, I knew it, you know, I knew it. But when I opened the book, I couldn’t remember.’
“She was speaking, she could barely breathe and I told her to stop. I asked her where she lived and if this had happened to anyone else. ‘Yes. My whole school. The whole community college. We walked around not knowing where to go. I could barely find my way there, find my way home. The street signs, I mean, it doesn’t make sense. I know my way to school. I…’ and she trailed off, every word trailed off.” Naomi stopped.
“And now the paper is blank?” I asked.
Naomi nodded. “I went to her neighborhood, to the neighborhood around the community college, and to the college itself. Trees lined the roads, little parks stood out in yellow grass retention ditches. The street signs were blank. The name of the school was gone. No one could remember it. I tried to check into a motel in the area, but they were all closed. I checked into one nearby, in an area unaffected. The next day, all the signs were back to normal, but the people who still had the newspapers, they were still blank. The papers attached to telephone poles, the flyers around the college, the pamphlets handed out by those religious folk that stand on the corner, they were blank. Textbooks were fine, personal, individual libraries were fine. New papers arrived, and they were fine. I had this girl’s paper with me, in the motel room, blank. I had a new one I had just bought. There was no mention of what had happened. Everyone was hesitant to talk about it. Or they didn’t know. They forgot. I couldn’t find that girl again, or I don’t think I found her…but… I wasn’t quite sure what to do…or what I did… or what might have happened next. I think… I stayed in my hotel room, writing my notes… on… something… this, trying to make sense out of all of this, glancing at the newspaper now and again. And then,” she shrugged, almost happily, but with an arc of melancholy. Her voice scratched. "It happened. I was writing, and suddenly, I couldn’t tell what I was writing. I didn’t recognize the letters I was drawing. I couldn’t recognize the words on previous pages. The newspaper did the same thing, and almost immediately, I… I panicked. I just panicked. I couldn’t read a single thing I had written. I kept leafing through the pages. Miles.” She rarely called people by their name. “Miles, I couldn’t remember what I had written.” Her eyes were oceans, leaking slowly across her cheeks. “I remember this, and I remember things happened before this, I remember…there are other stories… but… but… they’re gone. I tore through my notes as all the letters just turned into this indecipherable… little… little meaningless symbols and scribbles, and everything, stories I’ve told you, I think, stories I haven’t, gone, and I realized, I have to stop, I have to just keep it in my memory, I can’t look at this, I can’t. The telephone book. It was sitting on the night stand. It was like it was from another time, another place. I… I stopped but it was too late. I remember the Static. I ripped through that fucking phone book, not a single real number, real word, lines and slashes and scribbles and curves. But I remember the Static. That’s all I remember, because I refused to let myself go back and try to read my notes on it. But…. Words… shouldn’t do that. Words shouldn’t take… words shouldn’t take away thought. That isn’t their job.” She sat up straight, returned to her smirk, which had, at some point, vanished and was, now, forced. “So. Now. You tell me, before we move on to any other topic of conversation we may move on to. Tell me everything I ever told you.”
I sat there, relaying to her what she had relayed to me and what I have already told you. I told her about the Light, and the Silence, and she looked at me the way I imagine I had looked at her: in disbelief, in awe, in fascination. Wide eyes, closed mouth, her fingers entangled. She watched my words with her eyes, she looked down into her own memory and I could tell, she couldn’t remember. But I told her.
“From now on I tell you everything. I’m going to call you everyday. I’m going to tape-record my notes, I’m going to take my notes, I’m going to fucking make comics if I have to.” She laughed a desperate laugh. “So now, just in case, tell me everything I just told you now.”
September 29, 2001: The Graveyard of the Living.
She hadn’t called me in over a year. She hadn’t written me a letter. I had lost touch with Naomi Grace. On September 21 I received a letter in the mail with a plane ticket attached. The letter simply stated, “Meet me,” and was signed by Naomi. I imagined her drained bank account. I imagined her trembling hands. I stared at the nearly blank letter and imagined my face in the mirror. I imagined my mother’s face. Naomi was always so verbose. She should not have left such an empty page.
“I’m surprised you came,” she told me as she met me at the airport and we walked, luggage-less, both of us, to her rental car.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Short notice.” She shrugged, staring straight ahead. I can remember all of the seconds of silence, stretched infinitesimally. I had to force myself to notice the empty airport. People were afraid to fly. Those who were there were as blank as an empty page, as empty as the face of a son. I spoke as often as I possibly could, but my expression was always wordless. Her face glowed. Even now, in her silence, she glowed, though her smirk was now a bitten lower lip and an aimless gaze. “I’m going to show you something,” she whispered.
I tried to begin a conversation in the car. I heard myself stuttering and thought it was her. I avoided my reflection and looked at her profile. She answered in nods and sighs the questions I asked and forgot about in mid-sentence. I wondered if she could see the stop signs, the telephone poles, or the birds in the air. I couldn’t. There were no birds.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said as we got out of the car. She parked along the side of the road and began walking into the woods, her feet crunching over the dead leaves, the wind moaned through the arthritic twigs and branches. I followed her. There was no path, no road. She just walked. “I wanted to call, or write, or something, but… it’s all… there are, you know, there is…” a sigh, “monsters.”
“No. We are not monsters. You and I and the entire human race. A human being cannot be a monster. We make choices. We make our choices and live with them. That’s not what I’m talking about, that’s not what I’ve seen. There is no choice. These… creatures… act without conscious, without motive, without choice. No heroes. No villains. No black and white. Only monsters. I can’t even bring myself to say…. I can’t even bring myself to say.”
Her eyes moved. They followed the curve of the trees and the path of the air. The breeze blew haphazard melodies through distant wind-chimes and cried through the cracks of dead wood. She had to speak. Please. Speak.
“I’ve got it all, in notes, tape-recorded, organized and hyper-organized and catalogued like science. But it's not a science.” Finally, the smirk returned and she looked at me. “You know, I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. I’ve…I’ve been worried. I’ve been bored too. I’ve been bored with worried. So where are we going?”
We walked through the woods, past one gnarled tree after another, each tree curling around, grabbing at the air, moving closer to the others, stretching up to the sky and tearing into the rustling ground, breathing like muscles. The ocean of orange, red, and black, black leaves, submerged beer cans, discarded microwaves, bottles and boxes floating and sinking into the leaves, the black leaves, the black ocean. None were left to fall from the sky. There were no birds.
“This place reminded me of when we first met, at that department picnic. That was a stupid picnic.”
“Yes it was.”
“No one was drunk.”
“So where are we going.” She repeated my question. “I can’t tell you about the things I’ve seen. I just can’t bring myself to say it out loud. In a sense, I have, you know, into a tape-recorder, but that doesn’t count yet, it doesn’t count until someone hears it, and I just don’t think… it’s not that you shouldn’t hear it but I just can’t bring myself to tell anyone yet.” Naomi moved her hands as she talked. Every few words she would shake her hands as if rubbing the syllables.
“Maybe that’s understandable, but considering what’s happened before…. I really don’t know. I would have liked it if you had written just to say you were still…going.”
“I really am sorry.” I could hear an airplane in the sky, alone. I could hear the cars echoing down the road. I could hear the wind chimes singing their melody. She could as well.
“It’s a song. Ding dling dling ding cling king ding cling ding dling ding. Ha. Cracks in dried mud.”
“There are canyons and there are cracks in dried mud. I don’t know if I just want to close my eyes, but then you get those stupid flashes, tunnels, fireworks, like poking the corner of your eye, staring right at the back of your own eyelids, but with eyes wide open people still can only see big black holes. I can’t see the forest through the trees sometimes.” A gentle mist surrounded us. Water fell from the sky onto the stripped branches above, water dripped from those branches onto us, water dripped from us onto the dead leaves. The world quietly flooded.
She was smiling. “I use to sit outside on my porch when I was thirteen or so. Twelve. I would sit there and watch it rain. It smells beautiful. It smells like rain.” She laughed. “How else can I say it? And you know, a sight can be so loud it can drown out noise. A noise can be so loud it can make you blind. I think I’ve learned this. You’ve taught me this.” She had taught me that. “And I would listen to my parents yelling and not be able to see the rain. All I could see were their voices. Screaming. Nonsense. So I’d concentrate. I could see the rain, but couldn’t see the drops. Just sheets, sheets of water dropping like panes of glass, panes of glass coming down uniform and shattering into puddles, sparkling like stars on asphalt. Could I concentrate on one drop? I did. I tried, and I did. I saw one drop, I looked up, and it fell and it went away, melted into the gory pool of a thousand other drops, and I looked up and I watched one single drop, it hit, and it was gone, and then another drop over and over. I couldn’t hear them screaming anymore. I could only see one drop at a time. I can’t ever see it rain anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“We could fit trillions of little bits of information into the largest canyons but all of the important things are in tiny cracks in dried mud.”
“Maybe that’s true.”
“Maybe it’s not.”
“But someone has to be paying attention just in case.”
“Who fucking notices the color of the stripes on someone’s socks?” She did. Mine were stripe-less. She knew this. “Who fucking cares how one tiny strand of hair hangs down while the rest are slanting sideways?” She was describing her own white locks. “Who fucking cares that my voice scratches like a thousand cigarettes. You can hear every cigarette if you listen closely enough. Listen. Listen. Echhhh.” She laughed. I laughed. We hadn’t laughed together since she spit beer in my face to prove a point about poetry.
“Not all sounds are beautiful.”
She dropped her smirk. There was stillness in the sky, not a single bird. The wind chimes faded away. The garbage had disappeared into the depths of the sea. “This place we’re going, it’s a monster. This place makes no choices. This place destroys without meaning or need. It creates… emptiness without purpose or consciousness. A human being has nothing to do with it. This place is a monster. Everything I have seen, all monsters. They don’t care. They can’t care. Fuck care. They move like miniature hurricanes. It’s a new nature. Monsters. 21st century monsters.” She looked right into my eyes and reminded me of looking into the mirror at my own eyes and shuddering, as if I had just seen something I wasn’t supposed to. Through the mirror I could see past my own face, my own flesh, the decaying little cells that make up every little feature. It was not a soul I saw. It was eyes. Eyes looking. Eyes searching. Eyes examining. Eyes judging. Eyes choosing. Eyes thinking, sitting on this landscape of thoughtlessness. Still cheeks. Mute eyebrows. Tight lips. Terror.
The trees stopped and the mist descended. The leaves surrounded the perimeter of an asphalt square in the middle of the forest. Not a single leaf touched the gray and black ground. It was an empty parking lot surrounded by trees that all seemed to bend away, their branches twisting in screams, grabbing at each other and fleeing. The white lined parking lot, with no road attached to it, no building next to it, stood there, housing no cars, no trucks, nothing but people. People stood all throughout the parking lot, motionless, looking straight ahead and not saying a word. Naomi and I walked among them, and they breathed, their chests moved in and out, but they did not blink, they did not notice us, they simply stared, each person in a slightly different direction, as if together they had a perfect view of everything, every angle was covered, no detail could escape them.
I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. I looked into their faces. A red haired woman’s eyes didn’t shift as I gazed into them. Her rosy cheeks stayed frozen, her hands held a brown purse, she did not shiver in the cold despite her thin, frail black dress. A man stood in a suit, his face was cleanly shaved and healthy, his eyebrows thick and black, his lips slightly chapped, and his eyes were tiny dots. A child stared, a little girl with short blond hair, her lips were almost smiling, her eyes barely open, her muscles tense, and freckles spotted her cheeks and nose. A young man stood there, his head turned, his pupils curious, his hair stuck in a tattered position, strands bunching together to go one direction, other strands bunching together to go another. His neck and cheeks were slightly scarred with acne. His face was a grin. I could see the fog of breath escape his nose. I could see it lift up from everyone there and disappear into the mist. Their breath was the mist. The breath of nearly three dozen people hung above our heads and dampened the sky.
“How… how did you find this… what is this?”
“They’re alive. All of them. I don’t know how I found this place. I just walked here. They can’t move. They’ve been like this for… it’s been over a week I think since I found them.”
“Is this… are we…”
“I stayed here for over a day and this didn’t happen to me. I laid right on the ground at their feet. I studied their shoelaces. Tattered. New. Black. White. Round. Flat. The tips frayed. The threads coming undone. In perfection condition. They don’t move. They don’t move.”
I saw myself shaking my head. I saw myself trying to crawl inside of a nightmare. I saw myself crying.
“I don’t know. It’s a graveyard. It’s the Graveyard of the Living.”
February 2, 2002: The Cry of the Inanimate.
“All of this glass will shatter.” She leaned in close to me, yelling into my ear, but the yells were whispers under the music, the clank of bottles, the shuffle of feet, and the people laughing and shouting. “The walls will crack and crumble, the floors will shudder, the roof will cave in, our clothes will come apart at the seams and come unraveled, the stools will disintegrate, the couches and chairs will tear themselves to shreds, the windows will implode, and the television sets will crackle and explode. And everything will be screaming.”
Naomi’s smirk was revitalized. Her body was frail, barely there. Her skin was pale, wrinkles cracked her face, yet her hands were smooth and youthful. She glowed. Even in the dim lights of the bar and the dark corners floating around us, she glowed. She was out of money but didn’t seem to care. I bought her a gin and tonic. I drank my beer. She smoked a cigarette and the tainted breath of dozens of people floated around our necks and feet.
“I was told about this creature, this monster that infested everything lifeless. I don’t mean dead, I don’t mean dead plants or animals or anything of that sort, I mean lifeless, always lifeless, born lifeless, dead lifeless. Inanimate objects. That watch on your wrist, this glass in my hand, that necklace on that girl over there, the one that looks like bones. Inanimate objects would become animate and be tortured. I was told this by a middle-aged woman living in a trailer, her yard overgrown with weeds, little bits of metal, broken car parts, lawnmowers, plastic yard decorations, miniature windmills spinning in the breeze, beer cans and cigarette butts, blah blah blah. So, here’s the story she told me.
Naomi’s voiced changed, twanged and lowered, her eyes narrowed, her hands went wide and she still smirked, blowing cigarette smoke in my face. “ ‘So I was just sitting at home, you know, watching the T.V. Paul was at work, my kids, Millie and Paul Jr. at school, I had that newspaper open just circling pointless jobs, and I didn’t really give a shit, this job, that job, it won’t be going nowhere. I was minding my own business, essentially, no where else to go, nothing else to do, whatever. And then, from nowhere all suddenly and shit, everything begins shaking. I go look outside and the grass is still. Our old beat up old Ford's just still as night, hasn't worked in months and ages, but there’s air still in those tires, see, and there's still juice in those engines, and it, this tremor, this rustling like some beast tunneling through the underground, it just comes shooting out across the weeds. The windows crack, the doors dent, the truck shakes and all the metal begins bending in and bending out, like something's gone and possessed it, some demon, God be my witness, some hellish thing. I could hear it, moaning, like in pain or some such God awful thing. And I saw a hubcap laying in the grass, it went and bent down the middle and folded up like an omelet, and our lawnmower next to it, the screws came shooting out, the blades spinning, they start tearing at each other like a fight of twisted metal, little green bits of machine flying this way and that.
“‘Then the window I was looking out of all stunned and frozen, one little crack formed. It went around like it was spelling words in the glass, words I couldn’t for the life of me read, and I swear to holy God I could hear the glass talking, like it was trying to tell me something, like it was trying to plea for help, the glass was trapped in pain. You got this one crack traveling round the glass like it’s going somewhere, like it has a mission, and then the whole thing just explodes in my face, all these tiny shards stabbed at me and screaming bloody murder, I could hear them scream, I swear, and it was, God as my witness, the most terrible thing. My coffee table split in half, the soda and beer cans spilled on the floor and crumbled, crushed themselves and moaned and cried like dying babies. All the windows, the crack just jumped from one to the next till they all caved in and shattered and the glass is just dancing and jumping on the floor, little bits of carpet unravel, frays everywhere, fabric like twisting and tearing, and the ceiling fan, oh the blades go shooting off and humming like they were singing a terrible sad song, whistling right through the air, and the cracks in the windows jump to the walls and the walls begin to split, pictures falling on the ground, folding in half, faces of my family splitting down the middle.
“ ‘I look down, and my shirts coming undone. I don’t mean it’s coming off, no it’s ripping apart. And you must think I’m crazy, cause that’s what I’m thinking, right, I’m going crazy. But my friend a few streets up said she had the same thing happen to her. She had her dishes go and split and her bed go and eat itself apart. My shirt’s ripping up and my couch, the insides are pushing out and spitting into the air, the kitchen faucet’s bent, like gone and tied itself into a knot like no man should be able to do, the screws holding on the handles to all the cupboards, they're flinging across the room, scratching at my face, and all of this is so loud, so noisy, such screams, like no object makes those noises, it's not just the noise of breaking, of cracking, but voices, alien animal little voices of ungodly pain. All these little things, my antique lamp that was my grandmother’s, been in the family that long, I could hear it crying in sorrow, I swear by Christ, the lampshade tearing like someone’s pulling at it but there ain’t no one there but me. The metal’s snapping off and curling up and the light bulb just goes and explodes, and the lamp’s crying, I’m telling you, it’s crying invisible little tears. Everything’s crying, screaming, like it can feel something. And this went on for a few minutes until it all just stops. My living room, my kitchen, it’s all ruined. I suppose it don’t matter much, we don’t got that much of value but my grandmother’s lamp, but we had to fix the sink, we had to fix the windows, the wall's still cracked, the carpeting all torn to hell, the tiles all crumbled like we been in an earthquake or something. But there ain’t no earthquakes out here, and this was no earthquake. This thing moved. Like something was going from here to there, moving, torturing it, then moving on. And I ain’t the only one, God help me if I’m lying or if I’m crazy, but my friend says the same thing, and she says she knows someone, and it’s everywhere.’”
Naomi continued. “I don’t know if God could help her though, you know. I don’t know if this is God’s territory anymore. Not the God she’s talking about anyway. There was a church near this trailer park that I stayed at, though they were hesitant to let me, I played the old research card, ‘I’m doing research, it’s the kind of research you’d like, I’m looking for signs of the divine.’” She laughed and so did a dozen other people at a dozen different things. “My father would be so proud.” She lifted her glass to that and took a long swallow. “God saves the drunks. More please.”
“Of course.” I ordered more, for myself and for her.
“When I asked the minister or priest or whatever he was about these incidences, and I did research and there were numerous incidences all throughout the area, though it seemed, so far, confined to this relatively poor area, there wouldn’t have been a motel for me to stay in even if I could have afforded it, when I asked him, he had nothing to say. I mean, he simply wouldn’t believe it. I had this sense of déjà vu. He had this cross on his neck that looked exactly like my mother’s before she lost it in a bar. Your mother wasn’t a religious woman, was she?”
I shook my head. “No. She was too… I don’t know. Having faith meant potentially losing faith. She hated losing things. She wasn’t one for making investments. I wouldn’t say she didn’t believe in God though. I think she probably hated God.”
“I think your mother and I would have gotten along quite well.”
“No, I think you would have hated her. She… didn’t really believe in anything. She stared at things all day long.”
“So do I.”
“She stared so that she wouldn’t have to notice anything.”
“Why do you stare?”
“I try not to,” I darted my eyes around purposefully. “I try to be as visually schizophrenic as possible.”
“Verbally as well.”
“I’m a failure mostly.”
“No you aren’t. But this priest. He couldn’t see the forest or the trees. The drops of water or the panes of glass. The silence or the noise. He talked about the science that proved creationism, he talked about evidence of God in the design of the universe, but he couldn’t talk about this. He couldn’t talk about a monster possessing inanimate objects and causing them to scream with pain. He talked about mental disorders and possession and exorcism as if it were all something to read about in a medical dictionary. In many ways, he was very forward thinking. But we didn’t speak the same language. I could barely understand a word he was saying and he couldn’t understand anything I was saying. I might as well have been a vomiting.” Naomi then let out such a joyous desperate drunken laugh that it surprised me. “The whole church crumbled to the ground.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone who reminded me of Naomi at a younger age, when we first met, when we would meet at a bar on a Thursday night and talk about weighty intellectual things: mythology, morality, farts.
“That woman’s description was perfect. The glass screamed. The pews crumbled and cried, they sobbed, the stained glass windows yelled, the organ let out this low shriek until it was dead, the pipes twisted and tore on the floor, the keys scattered about and shattered like paper. I watched them, writhing on the floor like burning worms, ripping apart like ash and letting out little high pitched squeals. I saw the rafters above me crack and speak, faintly, helplessly. One would split down the middle, then the next, then the next, and I could see the ceiling quivering, little bits of plaster falling on top of me. I left the church. I watched it crumble to the ground as my clothes came unraveled. I was… I was surrounded by the sounds of a tea kettle, a whistling tea kettle, it was the fabric of my shirt, my sweater, my pants, unwinding. My shoes ripped themselves apart and gargled like the gargoyles that moaned when the stone erased itself in dust with ease from an easy wind, a gentle blow, no, this was no earthquake. I stood there in my underwear and knew I had just witnessed a godless monster tear apart something for no reason what so ever.
“The fact that it was a church meant nothing. What is interesting is that he, the minister or pastor or whatever the hell he was, he was there and didn’t see a thing. He couldn’t believe it had happened. He said something about seismic phenomena. Tornado? Dirt devil? Devil. Little devils. This monster had a heartless orgasm on top of his palace of God and he couldn’t even see it.”
“Does this mean something?”
Naomi put her chin on my shoulder and breathed smoke and alcohol into my ear. “I imagine he could have been a hero in another age. He could have spoken its language. But no one does. I’m still translating, dear Miles. I’m still translating and I’m still drunk, so if you could help me to the bathroom, I need to throw up.”
January 17 , 2003: The Voice.
Even over the telephone, she glowed. Hundreds of miles away, I could hear her glow seeping out of my receiver. Beneath my wireless static and the traffic outside her window, I could hear her glowing.
“I don’t know why I’m calling.”
Silence. Static. A car horn. The wails of an ambulance. Someone shouting.
“I don’t know why I’m calling, Miles. You’re miles away. You know that. You’re always miles away.”
“Always. But… at least I can understand you.”
“I hope so.”
“You’re decipherable. Somewhat. Mostly.” Rain on the window. Tires screeching. Static. Her voice was faint blue, fading, as bright as the sky through a window screen.
“I try not to be too cryptic.”
“Do you remember everything I’ve told you?”
“I think so. Yes. Certainly. Of course.”
A pause. A pause in the rain, a pause in the static, a pause in the hum of countless heaters and car engines.
“You don’t? Did… did something happen? Something like before. Do you know…”
“The notes are ruined. The tape-recordings. I can’t listen to them. The more I listen to them the more I can’t hear. Miles.” Fog. Rain. Mist. “The sound in the tape-recordings isn’t my voice anymore. I don’t know what I was doing. Something. I remember… all I can remember….”
“Speak. Please, speak.”
“Just tell me.”
“Tell you what, Miles? What is there to tell you? What have I been telling you? Nothing. It’s all erased. None of it happened. Pages and pages of writing, notebooks filled with gibberish, with code, with little symbols, I don’t know what the fuck they mean, and I listen to the tape-recordings, and it’s not my voice, but it’s a voice, some voice, low and rumbling and backwards, but not backwards, it does nothing to play the tape backwards, or speed it up or slow it down, it sounds the same no matter what, in any tape player, in anything, it’s just this voice, speaking, and I remember listening, as a last resort, and I knew it was a mistake, but I couldn’t say why, and I would go over and over in my head, I would recite… it… something… but the more I would listen the less I could remember. The Voice, it was like the sound of a machine, gurgling, churning, it was like oil, a thick deep abyss that I just couldn’t help but stare into, this sound, this sound was endless, so I would just try to say, over and over, to recite… something… whatever it was I was trying to remember, everything, but when I spoke, it wasn’t my voice. It was darkness. I would say a word and then that word would be gone, that thought, I couldn’t remember, and it was always the same voice, the Voice, outside, the street signs a mess, like I was going blind, and everyone on the street, the radios in people’s cars, it was the same voice, a deep rumble, like it was coming from inside my stomach, or from underground, or from under the air. This was… this was weeks ago, Miles. I couldn’t remember your number, I could barely remember your name, I could barely remember mine. Naomi Grace. I didn’t say it. I dared not. I stayed silent eventually. I just kept it in my head, but it was… impossible to keep but the simplest things there. This is so hard to explain. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It was a voice? It… spoke to you?”
“No, it spoke away from me. It… took away speaking. It was a Voice that… erased.”
“Like the Words.”
“In your notebook, from the papers before, you don’t remember do you?”
“No, Miles. My notebooks did the same thing though. Everything did. I couldn’t read them, and even if I knew exactly what they said, even if I memorized them, I would read… try to read it and I would forget, like the words…”
“Words shouldn’t do that. Words shouldn’t take away thought.”
“They did. That’s exactly what they did.”
“This has happened before.”
“No. I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“No, I’m telling you Naomi. This has happened before. To you.”
Silence. Static. She glowed. Light, blue and white. The reflection of the moon in her dead blue sea eyes.
“But you didn’t say anything about a voice before.”
“There was. There was this terrible voice. Coming out of the mouth of everyone. Coming out of radios. Coming out of my own mouth. I would try to ask people… I don’t… I would try to ask them… I can’t even say what I tried to ask them. I can guess. I tried to ask them for help? I tried to ask them… if they knew what was going on? But all that came out was noise. A language… that erased whatever thought I was trying to express. And I knew I was forgetting. I knew that the voice on the tape recorder had taken away something. So I tried to hold it in. I sat down. I tried to go over these things in my head and found myself speaking out loud, and then I couldn’t recognize my own voice, I concentrated, I shut the hell up and I kept these thoughts in my head, but, you know, an internal monologue… it was inside… the Voice crawled inside. I couldn’t think at all. Anything I tried to think about would be inside of my ears, ringing in this terrible Voice, saying something else, invisible chaos, twisted words that made it all just… erase. I had to stop thinking completely. I couldn’t think of you. But I knew that. How can I stop myself from thinking of something without thinking of it?”
“But you remember me.”
“Now I do.”
“And you remember who you are?”
“I think so.”
“I woke up in a motel room… my throat was slashed open. I… went to the motel room… back… but I didn’t know where I was going, I think. It was all stone and light and little ripples on my fingertips and gasoline and blood, the smell of blood, and flesh, and rain in the air and mold and flat walls with little cracks and reflections on glass and the ground changing elevation and light moving, here, there, and…. I woke up with blood pouring out of my neck and hand-prints all over the walls, red hand-prints.”
“God. Naomi. Are you…”
“I’m fine now. It wasn’t a deep cut, it was barely a cut, just across the skin, but…”
“Why would you?”
“I think I did it to shut myself up. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I stayed in the motel for a few days, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, and they kept wanting me to pay more, I hadn’t paid enough or something, and I didn’t know where I had money, so I just ran away.”
“Where are you now?”
“Naomi, you’ve got to come back here and stay. You can stay here.”
“Things came back. Images. I remember glass falling from the sky. I remember the smell of rice cooking, boiling water, and my parents yelling. I remember the forest we use to go to and walk your dog, and how she would jump from boulder to boulder and I remember your face neon red in our bar with some guy barfing in the background and loud music playing,” her voice was dark blue and soaring, “and you were a little drunk and I said I shouldn’t be hanging out with someone so young, a student, and you told me….”
“Tell you what?”
“I don’t remember.”
The phone disconnected.
May 5, 2004: The Invisible.
I found Naomi Grace in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in San Francisco, in New York City, and in Los Angeles. I found Naomi Grace in Asheville, in Springfield, in Charleston, in Jackson, in Peoria. I found Ms. Grace in Washington, in Lincoln, in Jefferson, in Madison. I found Grace in Kansas, in Arizona, in Nebraska, and in Texas. I found her in motels, in hotels, in truck stops and in diners. I found Naomi Grace in an unlocked room, the bed torn apart, the mirror shattered, the lights burnt out, the windows open, the television static. I found her among the screams and hollers, the horns and bird chirps and airplanes flying through the starfields. I found Naomi’s notes in ashes, her tape recorder disassembled, black tape cascading from one part of the room to the other like frail thin vines. I found this Grace among walls painted red with blood, covered with words that didn’t exist, messages I could not read, a language I did not know.
I found Naomi Grace in a bathtub filled with blood, her neck slashed open, her tongue torn out, her eyes in her palms. She glowed. She would always glow. “Speak. Please. Speak.”