A Novel (in progress!) by Lisa Ebert
“Did you see that?” I whispered. I linked my arm through Peter’s and drew closer, sliding over on the damp park bench.
Peter swiveled his head back my way, his heavy, horn-rimmed glasses catching the glow of the moon. “I can’t see anything at night, darling,” he drawled. “You know that.”
It’s true. He’d been trying to catch glimpses of the Mississippi River far down the bluff, beyond the tangle of trees and weeds below us. He was squinting behind his steamed-up glasses, but I knew he was seeing little more than a wavering, gray ribbon, yet hearing water lapping from the swollen river, and distant horn from a passing barge. We were sitting on an iron bench next to the walking path in Bellerive Park.
“There’s something moving around down there. Listen.”
“Don’t be a ‘fraidy cat.”
“Peter, really. Listen. You can hear it.” I shushed him.
He cocked his head. There was a wet rustle in the dark brush. There was a barely perceptible growl. Peter hesitated momentarily, but then moved quickly.
“Come on, Deirdre,” he said quietly as he took hold of my wrist. He walked in a crouch, as if that would help hide him, and pulled me along, but I looked back. It was big. There was more crackling as it moved slowly out of the brush, and it started following us.
It was not a bear. It was not a wildcat. It was not a dog. It moved stealthily in an inky blob across the slick grass leading uphill to the path. I sped up. It sped up. I was too afraid to keep looking. Peter glanced back and then pulled me forward quickly into a run.
The beast was coming at us quickly as we made for the car, which was parked only fifty feet away in a small gravel lot. Ours was the only car, there under the weak street light. My strides were like in a dream: heavy, slow, ineffective. I could feel the danger closing in on us, and we reached the parking lot. Thirty feet. The gravel underfoot crunched loudly, and small puddles of water splashed under my steps. Peter let go of my wrist as we split off to our respective sides of the large car. Following us was more gravel crunching, the sound of paws kicking through it, and a heavy, deep breathing tinged with the roll of a growl. Ten feet more. That was all. Five feet. My fingers touched the door handle, stippled with shimmery rain drops. Time seemed to be suspended. I remember seeing the chrome of that handle. And then I was in darkness.
And then I was.
In the beginning, there was the pretty blackness like a blanket of comfort and safety, an incredible lightness, and then a growing, warm light pulling me. I wasn’t alone; I could feel the presence of my long-lost dad, and his mother, a grandmother I never knew on earth. No one spoke to me, though, and I didn’t see anyone, and I felt instant irritation. I mused over the anger and spite that had sustained me for 23 years, this anger made flesh, and the flesh begat pain. In my physical cage, my humanity failed, and the flesh failed so many times, and then finally the anger was becoming air once again. And then the anger was joyful, and free, and slippery in its meaningless nature.
Can my anger be happy? My mind turned over the questions as reality slid about, floundering. Why was anger my defining feature, anyway? In that darkness, there were warm, kindly hands reaching out to me; I could feel them gliding over my person. But not my person: the flesh was behind. Good riddance! I was nothing more than a growing white ball now. And then I realized my new muddled quest, laid out before me: finding a stairway to heaven and a way to shed my earthen anchor. It was so much the way everyone describes it as happening. Or maybe I was hallucinating.
There were also the living hands working frantically on my physical body back in the surgery room, and I considered them with a detached curiosity. So sad. So futile. If they knew, they wouldn’t bother, those doctors and nurses. What waited beyond was so much better. I wasn’t sure what I was returning to, but it felt like going home.
The white ball that was me was giving me sharp pain suddenly, and I wanted to scream, but I had no voice. I could suddenly see a metal table above me; I was hiding below it, again arms and legs curled up, trying to make myself as tiny as possible so they couldn’t find me, those medical people with their sharp, clicking tools. Why were doctors and nurses always a part of my life? There was an apron of legs to every side of me, attached to panic-stricken voices barking out orders and directions.
A cart fell over, sending loud metal tools and droplets of blood across the cold, linoleum floor. A doctor growled, “dammit” and “get that now.” The operating table over my head vibrated, a body thrashing upon it, its muscles twitching involuntarily – was that my body? The doctor ordered, “Again,” and there was a zap of energy, and a bucking. “She’s lost too much blood.” White sneakers ran across the floor, doors swooshed open, and the person called for back-up. The floor was splattered with red droplets, the seeds of my life, and I kept silently screaming, and I cupped my hands over my ears so I didn’t have to hear myself, and then I jumped.
The top of me – my head? – crashed through the metal table, slid through my own fleshy body, and floated up. I was in wingless flight on the last breath of air that streamed out of my mouth below, a tiny and weak puff, but enough to spiral me away from the bloody mess. I went up into the ceiling, past innards of colorful electrical wiring, up through a cold, quarry tile floor and into a lounge. It was a quiet room where a sagging nurse in pink sat at a dining table eating a sandwich. Tiredly, she chewed, paused to pull her cardigan more tightly about her, and she trembled. I, unseen by her, continued up through a storage room of industrial shelves packed with plastic-wrapped medical products: syringes, tubes, monitors, bags. And then I was going up again, through roaring, dusty air ducts, and a layer of sticky black tar, until I was outside, above the roof, and shooting into the blue-black night.
I was spinning like a top, dizzy in a pleasant way, as if I’d had too many turns at the school picnic rides, that sick, childhood delight. I faced north, then west, and east, but south at last: South St. Louis. There was never any other choice. My flight was crazy, a loopy gait at first, like a blind bat in the sky, but I smoothed it out, thought of myself as a raven instead, and it is so. Just like that. I got away from the hospital complex on South Broadway Street and headed for home.
Down below were pinpricks of red and white light moving slowly on the roads, trails of vehicles underneath me. They guided me and steadied the way; if I continued above Broadway, I’d be led home to my neighborhood, the Ivory Triangle. It was a sensible plan.
The wind sent me suddenly upward, and then there was a splash of drizzle; then it was gone, but it left me with the happy realization: I was able to feel. I’d been in that place before, briefly out of my flesh, but those times left me numb, unable to touch. Each time was a brief, frustrating slide show, like a movie reel full of riches, tastes, textures, none of which I could grab. Then always, those crucial seconds would pass and I would be sent back there, back to my body.
This time felt different.
There was Minniewood Park, and the fast food restaurant, the stores, and soon the Mississippi River glistened to my left, another familiar beacon. A highway bisected Broadway, and the noise of its traveling vehicles was thunderous to my ears, a loud whooshing and whizzing sound, a violent sound, and I crossed over it, continuing along Broadway, glad to be away from that. There was my pretty Bellerive Park with its wrought-iron fixtures and its dark pathways by the river. I played there as a child, and as a teenager hung out there, and as an adult ate mushrooms there with Peter, but the memories were suddenly too melancholy, and somehow that park was related to my death. I traveled on to the riverfront industries with their barges and docks, and the sound of water lapping on the banks, frothier than usual, the water levels high. Almost home.
Up ahead, I could make out the faint lines of River des Peres where it met the Mississippi, and that was the last landmark I required; I veered west sharply, coasted casually down, lower and lower, the small lights of the Ivory Triangle beckoning me. My little community, so near and welcoming. I touched ground, but then – as I rather expected –there was that familiar, violent yank backwards.
“Not this time!” I was going to fight it. Something urged me not to fight, but yes, I did.
The sky began sucking me back up, like I was nothing but a stupid rag doll without a spine, the cobblestones slipping out from under my feet as I ascended, and the darkness threatened to overtake me. I grasped for an anchor, flailing my arms about, touching nothing, until suddenly my ankle crashed into hardness. It was the stone cross on top of St. Boniface Church. I reveled in the ankle pain; it told me I was still among the living. I wrapped my arms and legs around the cross and pressed my eyes shut in juvenile defiance. There were more sickening tugs, and a chorus of voices calling me upward, but I wouldn’t listen. I don’t know why. I guess I thought they were all just fooling with me, and I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t go. I was baby in my crib again, having a tantrum.
The air around me was a funnel, shrieking and pulling, and then it stopped. Just like that. I kept hugging the cross, certain it couldn’t have been be so easy. My ridiculous body must have finally given up the ghost, died, kaput. I was finally free. Or so I thought.
From the sharp peak of the church’s roof, I could see all the world. The many lights emanating from buildings dotted the dark landscape, twinkling in a mad dance — for me. There were strange bits of energy moving around me, through me, zipping playfully about in the sky. Clouds? Tufts of smoke? I was cradling this cross so tightly that a piece of it snapped off, just a small concrete corner of the left arm, and it tumbled down the clay tiles, bounced off the gutter, and shattered on the pavement far below.
“The world feels me, too,” I mused, delighted. Oh I was so happy just then. So full of myself.
But those things flying around me: some of them were dark. They put a coldness in my heart, trying to make me sad. So I went down then, to escape them, vowing to get stronger, and I settled my little feet on the paving stones of the sidewalk. What next? Did I look for a sign? A guidepost? A golden stairway? I felt a strange trembling below the sidewalk, deep inside the earth, as if a volcano was rumbling. I knew, without reasonably knowing, that there was a limestone cave down there. The locals didn’t realize it; I surely didn’t know when I was alive. It was buried fifty feet down, and it was the size of several city blocks. I was able to feel its energy.
There was energy, too, in the life aboveground. The sights had a sharp edge to them, shimmering awfully, and it took a few moments to be able to cast my eyes on everything. The sounds were amplified: I heard voices from far away, the subtle click of insects in the earth, birds twitching in their nests, watching me, the newcomer raven.
And there, I spotted my first person up ahead. She was irresistible, and I know her: Valerie. She was walking alone, playfully twirling her umbrella in the wind and the drizzle, laughing, holding her big mouth open, trying to catch droplets. It just figured I would see her first. It was cruel that she was so damned happy. I couldn’t very well pass without leaving my calling card, could I? With no effort at all, I was right behind her, as if I’d been magically transported by my own will. I showed her I was there by shoving her fat butt into the street. That would teach her to cross me. She skidded over near the curb and landed with a plop into gathering water in the gutter.
Such power I had! Such a joy!
Near the tavern ahead were the good-old-boys. I knew them. They’d just put in an honest day’s labor, and they were ready to party. They were friends and brothers, maybe with a woman or two in the group. They walked like comrades in their flesh, in their ugly desires. They smelled like sweat, food, detergent, blood, sex, and other aromas I didn’t recognize. Yet. They didn’t look at me as I stood there watching them by the green art-glass door. No one even paused.
It was a rocking Saturday night, and I watched through the windows. The bar was filling up; the stage was set for a rock show, instruments arranged and waiting for their maestros, and black electric cords snaking about, criss-crossing in a menacing way. I could hear conversations, unimportant chatter about nothing at all. The people tossed their heads jovially, bared their sharp teeth that positively shone, and cradled in their hands their fizzing and popping drinks.
I was never really a part of their world. I was always somewhere on my own, cowering in a dreamworld of silence and art, and then later forming my own tight little circles. I didn’t make friends easily, can count them all on one hand. The customers at the bar enraged me; they never wanted me, did they? My own community. My own people. They shunned me and my crazy family. They crossed me in many ways. I was anger again, incarnate, and it gave me strength. I sat down on the curb to ponder it.
A lady looked my way. Was it possible? Did she see me? She was an outsider, not of this place, her unease palpable. She looked at me another moment, and then went into the bar.
I decided that anger could be just as happy as any other energy.
I should have been looking for my stairway to heaven, but right then, what I really wanted was a little bit of fun.
(Chapter one of The Ivory Triangle won second place in the Missouri Writer’s Guild 2016 First Chapter Contest in the category of Horror.)