15 April 2011

The Scroll of Hours (a Dez Marlowe story)

Dez Marlowe found the scroll in a glass case of a curio shop. It was unassuming, a simple scroll of vellum next to a rusted dagger, some arrowheads and old coins and a scratched silver cigarette case. The proprietor of the shop—a balding man, skeletal, parchment-like skin, smoking a long cigarillo—could only say that someone had sold it to him many years ago, for one hundred dollars. He had given it a cursory examination then forgotten it until Dez walked in and saw it. “I’ll let you have it for one-fifty,” the proprietor said, “I don’t have any idea what it is, or what the writing on it means. It could be rare and valuable, it could be a list of farm tools. I had a linguist look at it once, a few years back. He said it was no language he’d ever seen before. So, one-fifty, and good luck.”

Dez asked to see it, and as soon as he had it in his hands he knew he had found what he was looking for. The scroll felt heavy in his palm, heavier than reality, whispering to Dez in a susurrus audible only to him, he knew.

“Don’t you wanna open it first?” The shop-owner asked.

Dez shook his head and left, holding the scroll close, cradling it against his chest. “Weirdo,” he heard the proprietor say as he left. Dez didn’t know how to tell him what he was feeling as he held the scroll in his palm. He couldn’t define it himself. He was afraid of it, drawn to it. He had crossed continents looking for scrolls and books like this.

He walked down the street to his car and drove back to his hotel room, glancing at the scroll sitting on the passenger seat, waiting for him to unroll it. Dez resisted. Setting it gently on the bed, Dez kicked off his shoes, sat down next to the scroll, reached for it, stopped. Not yet. The desire to unroll the scroll was beginning to dominate his thoughts, and he didn’t like that. He didn’t know what the scroll was, exactly, but he recognized the feeling it engendered within him, the sense of premonition, the warm tingling creeping sensation like static electricity crawling up his flesh when he touched it. He had found several other texts like this one. He always found them in small, out-of-the-way bookshops and antique stores. None of them were ever the same, and few had ever amounted to much. He was searching for information that would explain what had happened to him at that bus stop back in Detroit. So far, all he had discovered was a plethora of legends and myths and stories about Djinns and Ifrits, but next to nothing that would truly explain the terrifying, incredible being he had encountered, or what had happened to Dez in the months since then.

In the hotel room Dez opened his newest acquisition a few inches. The markings on it were a mixture of Arabic cursive lines and dots, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Hebrew runic shapes. Dez stared at the shapes, trying to make sense of them and failing. Then the writing began to blur and shift, as if Dez was staring at it too hard, yet when he looked away and back down, the markings were still trembling and distorting. He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, pressed his fingers to his temples, yet the bizarre writing only increased their inexplicable dance. Nothing like this had ever happened before in any of the texts he had found to date. They had all been in Arabic and he'd had to have them translated. He'd thought the tingling warmth when he'd held them had been his own excitement, but now he wasn't so sure.

Dez rolled the scroll closed, stood up and went out to the balcony of the hotel, lit a cigarette and held the scroll in his hand, staring at it and wondering what it would do.

“Screw it,” Dez mumbled to himself. He clamped his cigarette between his teeth and unrolled the scroll, waiting for the glyphs to rearrange themselves. Around him, the evening air grew warmer. He unrolled the scroll further; the sun seemed brighter, somehow, despite the late evening hour when it should be setting. He looked up, and noticed a few odd details: a few souks, which had been closed for the day, were now open, a shadow cast across the market square by building had moved backwards across the square. Dez glanced down at his watch: 6:59. He was been sure the alarm clock in the hotel room had read 7:15. Maybe not. It had been a long day, and the sweltering heat of Jordan had taken its toll. Dez dragged on his cigarette one last time and tossed off the balcony, opened the scroll further. This time there was no doubt...

The sun lifted upwards in the sky, shadows rolled and lightened, crowds swirled and reversed in time-lapse, the watch on Dez's wrist counted backwards, 6:36...6:12...5:56. Dez slumped against the rail of the balcony, light-headed, still holding the scroll open. He pulled it open an inch further, and instantly time rolled back even further, his watch now reading 5:35, the sun well above the tops of the buildings now.

“What the hell?” Dez looked down at the people beneath him, but none seemed to notice anything amiss, scurrying across the square and along the streets as if nothing had happened. Maybe it hadn't, to them, Dez realized. Dez returned his gaze to the scroll held open before him. The words were now intelligible to him, some sort of prayer or incantation. He scanned the text visible to him, but it didn't say anything about time, only the will of Allah and the words of Mohammed to the faithful.

Dez rolled the scroll closed and as he did so time snapped back to its original moment, before he'd ever opened it, 7:16 p.m.

This could make things interesting.

Spark of Apocalypse

It all started with a girl, as so many things do. She was young, beautiful, curious, slightly naive and idealistic, and such women have been the downfall of nations. So proved this woman to be. She had a name, once, something ordinary and forgotten. Now, her only name is Pandora. This Pandora, like the one from ancient mythology, opened a box and let evil loose upon the world. Only, this Pandora was the box. The evil she loosed wasn't contained in a clay amphora, no, this box was far more commonplace: the human mind. In the oldest stories, Pandora was given a sealed jar and told not not open it under any circumstances. So, of course, consumed by natural curiosity, Pandora opened it. When she did so, out rushed all the evils of the world.

This new Pandora was a chemical engineering major, back when such quaint things as universities still existed. She found a way to do something incredible, like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Alfred Nobel. It had been said that people only used 30% of their brain, so this girl, being young and idealistic, found a way to unlock that elusive 70%. She tested it on herself, being young and naïve. She was right, in that she unlocked the rest of her brain using her chemicals and compounds, and she was right in that she found herself capable of things far beyond imagination. People had theorized in books and movies what would happen: telekinesis, telepathy, empathy, perfection, terrible and wonderful things.

Terrible, and wonderful, indeed. Telepathy, telekinesis...yes, she discovered these, and found them to be burdens; the weightiest burden Pandora unlocked was immortality. She created the ability to put off sickness, invented regenerative techniques to stave away Death's specter, she developed all this, and more. But, like the ancient Pandora, what she opened couldn't then be closed. She took a lover, our postmodern Pandora, a courageous, foolish man, and together they conceived a child, and that child had control over its entire brain. And so it went. Children born thereafter were able to do nearly anything they wished...except exercise restraint.

The purpose, it became clear, for that millennial restriction on the human brain was to protect mankind from itself, to protect men from themselves and each other: nearly infinite power, but no understanding of the forces wielded...the result was apocalypse. Not by nuclear holocaust, or melted polar caps, or meteoroids, but because of one ambitious girl who thought she could unlock the mysteries of the human brain. So then, men murdered each other with bare hands, with lasers and plasma rifles and fission bombs and empath hunters, with hate and hunger and overcrowding.

See her now: stumbling across a blasted plateau, bare feet catching on bleached bones buried in the soil, hair thick and youthful still, lovely face unlined by age, yet heavy and haunted with grief. She carries in her gut the thickest of gall stones: the knowledge that she wreaked this havoc, she created this hell, the road to which was paved by that commonest of stones, good intention. She cannot forget and she cannot die, while her lover lays long rotted in the wind-scoured soil, her descendants stare out from caves in hillsides, lope through empty streets of skeletal cities, gaunt and gangrenous apparitions. Pandora, who carried in her synapses the spark of Apocalypse, now wanders Earth trailing the ghosts of mankind behind her in an ethereal skein of sorrow, palpable to her senses as voices singing elegies and curses to her ceaselessly. She weeps, and regrets, but she cannot close the box she has opened.

A Farewell Silence

The loft was cold, dark and quiet in the predawn hours. The man lay on his back, one arm underneath his head, covered to the waist by a sheet, a woman next to him on her side facing away from him, hands underneath her cheek.

Neither was asleep. The pillow by her face was damp, her brown eyes glittering with slowly trickling tears; the man, thin and hard-muscled with black hair touched by silver at the temples, sighed. It was a long deep sorrowful expulsion of breath that spoke of grief, wordless and knife-sharp.

“Maybe we can—” he began to say.

“No,” she cut in. “I can't...I just can't go through that again.” She shook her head gently.

“Well, maybe we can just wait a few months, and then when we—when you—feel ready, we can try again.”

The woman rolled over to face him, laid a thin delicate long-fingered hand on his chest, familiar and loving. “No. I'm sorry. I...I just can't.” Her face was like her hands, thin, delicate, beautiful in a fragile, angular way. “Please try to understand, Mark. I've wanted this more than anything, to be able to give you this. I know how much it means to you. I love you, so much. I just...couldn't bear to lose another one.”

He reached his free hand up and pinched the bridge of his nose, wiped his face as if trying to scrub the riot of emotions away. “Melanie...” He turned his head to look at her, hard sad features softening. “I know. I shouldn't even ask you to. I couldn't bear to lose another one either. I feel like something has been torn out of me. Like I was given my deepest desire and had it snatched away again.” His composure crumpled abruptly and he rolled away from her, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes, almost savagely.

Melanie shifted closer to him, pressing herself against the length of him, wrapping an arm around him. “I feel the same way, believe me. More so, if anything.”

“I know,” he said, heaving another deep shuddering sigh. “I know. It's just not fair. Why us? When there's so many people out there who don't even appreciate what they've been given? They take it for granted, like it's so easy.”

There was silence for a long time, then. Finally, Mark rolled over to his back once more and she laid her head on his chest. “So that's it then,” he said slowly. “I feel like I'm saying goodbye to someone, you know? Someone I've never met...never will, now.”

“Please...don't talk like that. It's not fair. You know all too well how to get me all twisted around, talking me into things, arguing and turning things upside down, and making it all so...dramatic and...final, I guess.”

“Isn't it though? Dramatic? And final?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. I just feel like when you talk like that that you're trying to persuade me into trying again, without sounding like you are.”

“I'm not, I promise. I'm not gonna lie though. I do wish we could try again, but I know, in practical terms, that neither of us can emotionally endure all this again...the joy at first, the hope, the excitement of the plans and buying tiny little clothes in blue or pink, and cribs and diaper bags and...and then the agony when you lose it...him...or her...that unbearable, wrenching pain of loss...”

“Oh Mark...” she sobbed against him, shoulders shaking.

“I’m sorry, I have to get this out, Melanie,” he said, his voice low and heavy, barely controlled, tremors and trembles at the edges. “I'm the last of my family, you know? Dad died last year, Mom when I was a kid...they were both only children, and their parents were gone before they even met each other...I have no one but you...I just want to leave a legacy...a baby to carry on some part of me...it doesn't even have to carry on my name, I just want some portion of myself to go out into the world. I feel like if I die some spark will be extinguished. You have your brothers and sisters, and nephews and nieces, and your mom and dad and everyone...but you're all I have. I can't risk you again, I can't...there was so much blood this time, I thought I was gonna lose you and I couldn't survive that...If I lost you I'd just stop breathing, heart-broken and dead inside. But I've wanted a baby for so long...”

“I know you have...and I've tried so hard to give a baby to you. We've tried everything Mark...and we've lost them all. This time was the worst, making it to twenty weeks...And it gets worse every time for me, physically.”

“I'm not blaming you. How could I? I know you want this as much as I do. I guess I'm just grieving, because I know we just have to give up.” He groaned, a ragged growl of heartache. He didn't say anything for a long time.

“I'm saying goodbye,” Mark said, finally. Melanie couldn't respond, she could only clutch harder to him, kiss him through her tears. Outside, the sun had fully risen, welcoming a new day. The loft was quiet then, filled with a farewell silence.

The Djinn (a Dez Marlowe story)

Dez Marlowe adjusted the earbuds and shrunk lower in the bus seat, trying to block out the garbled babble of the drunk old man sitting behind him: “Hasn't it, hasn't it. Coming, coming, soon damnit. Not enough time, it's all busted flat. Cave in. Where's it all going, where's it all going. Have's and have not...”

Dez thumbed up the volume on the iPod, but still couldn't drown him out. It had been a long day in a hot, greasy, loud restaurant kitchen. Two stops left. What a pain in the ass the guy was. Every night for the last week he'd gotten on with Dez and sat behind him, mumbling and babbling. The bus lurched to a stop, let a few people on, let a few off, then rumbled on and finally halted at Dez's stop. He stepped off and stood in the lee of the shelter to light a cigarette. The wind was sharp and cold, cutting right through the black-and-white checkered chef pants and hooded sweatshirt.

“Not yet, not yet...no sir, I don't rightly know where he's at...who's there? It ain't me, no no no...” Dez glanced over his shoulder, sighed in irritation at the sight of the old man, a few feet behind him. The old man wore several layers of clothes: tattered, stained sweatpants under ripped, baggy jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, flannel shirts, an old army jacket with the name “Orson” stitched on the left breast, two purple heart medals on the right. He had a battered army rucksack on his back and untied combat boots on his feet. He stumbled closer to where Dez stood, bumped against him, smelling so strongly of liquor that Dez felt queasy

“Gotta smoke, buddy?” The old man tipped sideways, caught himself against the enclosure. The hood of his sweatshirt fell back and revealed a wrinkled, weather-beaten, scraggle-bearded white face wearing dollar-store black sunglasses. Dez fumbled in his pocket for his pack, pulled out two. The old man snatched them, stuck one his lips, the other in his coat pocket. “Thanks, pal...smoke 'em if you got em...” the old man mumbled around the cigarette as Dez lit it. “Don't let 'em catch you nappin', boys, they'll drop you quick as that...them bastards are sneaky...they'll pop you drop you smoke you while you're smokin'...watch your left, got some Charlie comin'...” he kept a steady stream of words flowing even as he inhaled and blew smoke from his nose.

There was something about the old veteran, though, that had Dez's fine hairs standing on end. He could feel the old man's eyes on him, a steady, searing, lucid gaze palpable through the sunglasses that he wore despite full night around them. Orson smoked slowly, savoring it, cupping the cigarette in his hand, hunching over it greedily.

“Your time has come, Dez Marlowe.” Orson's voice was suddenly sober, steady and stentorian. “The Other-natured seek their own.” As he spoke, Orson seemed to swell, to gain muscle and stature, becoming brawny and ram-rod straight and rigid and noble. The words he spoke echoed, reverberated in Dez's chest, in his brain, in his spine. “We will find you, always find you, wherever you may flee...” Orson's eyes became visible through the tinted plastic lenses, glowing blue like lightning, like fire. Luminous and bright, Orson's eyes were like miniature stars, emitting such heat that the plastic sunglasses on Orson's face were melting, softening into liquid and dripping down his face in rivulets of black magma, then burst into flames, a brief flare-up that died instantly, leaving the wrinkled leather face bare. Dez felt fear and panic bubble into his blood and course through him, and he stumbled backward, bumped against the back wall of the bus-stop shelter.

“You can't get away, Dez Marlowe,” Orson said, his words sepulchral and echoing through dimensions. He took a single step towards Dez and reached out a hand that wore fingerless gloves, grasped him by the shoulder in a grip so fierce that Dez fell to his knees hissing and moaning in agony. Waves of heat pulsed through Dez, singeing his essence, his identity and soul. “Don't fight it, boy. I'm setting you free. Let go.” Dez realized he had been holding on to something, desperately clinging to his death-grip on reality, and now that was being scorched away; he had been cleaving tenaciously to it for so long now, for an eternity, and Orson—whatever he was—had ignited it and Dez knew he had to let it go. Dez sucked in a breath of cold November night air and gave in. Seconds passed but the pain and searing heat inside him didn't fade, but blazed even hotter.

“No more...please..” Dez pleaded, weakly.

“Look at me,” Orson commanded. Dez obeyed, unable to resist. Orson stood over him, no longer gripping him now but holding him up gently. Only it wasn't Orson anymore, but a man-like creature, a fearsome thing of flames and smoke, writhing and flickering and shifting from visibility to invisibility, through dimensions of which humankind had no conception, taller than skyscrapers.

“What are you?” Dez asked.

The thing smiled, spoke in Orson's voice. “I am a Djinn.”

“A...djinn? Like a genie?”

“Pfah!” He—it—spat in disgust. “A thing of stories and silly games. I do not live in bottles and I do not grant wishes...not as you might think. I grant deepest desires, unspoken needs. This is your unvoiced wish, granted.”

With that, the Djinn named Orson burst alight, consumed by hungry blue flames until nothing was left but the bag-wrapped bottle of booze on the bench. Dez pulled himself onto the bench, took the bottle and drank, discovered not beer or wine but some exotic spirit tasting of honey and sunlight and starsong, soothing his soul. Ambrosia, came Orson's voice in Dez's head, drink it.

Dez drank. Some barrier within him was gone. Something inside him had been let loose, and Dez had no idea what it was.