SHIP OF THESEUS: Part 1, Chapter 1
WHEN WE ARE INHUMAN
“Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men....”
— Theseus; from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
I remember it like a dream. In the winter of 2006, my college sweetheart, Sally, died from a heroin overdose. At the time, I was house sitting for Dorothy, my best friend Bruce’s girlfriend, while she was away on business. It was a long walk from Dorothy's apartment to Bruce's. I walked it once and couldn't bring myself to exert the effort again. Her apartment was a third floor walk-up, so there was no way Bruce could get his wheelchair up there to visit me.
You should know that I was not alone in Dorothy's apartment.
Soon after Sally’s death, my brother, Frank, showed up with my old friend, Terry, to check on me. It was good to have them there. Two nights into their stay, Terry had passed out in the hall by the bathroom. My brother and I shared a pint of gin on Dorothy's black leather couch, surrounded by her collection of Bruce’s self portraits. Stroking Dorothy's purring cat in his lap, Frank said, "I never really liked VD." VD had been my pet name for Sally. She loved the films of Vin Diesel. She did not, however, appreciate my nickname for her.
I laughed. Our mother had not liked Sally either. I had brought her over to meet Mom one Sunday afternoon. Sally said hello, face red, hand extended. Mom's stare was a stabbing dagger. Her words were cordial, but her tone was an assault. She said, "Hello." Stab. Stab. "Sally." Her antagonism set the tone for an awkward visit. VD made an excuse for us to leave as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
When I called Mom to tell her about Sally's death, she said, "There was something about her, Wayne. There was something wrong with her, and I knew it as soon as she walked in my door."
Mom was a good judge of character. When I was twelve, my third cousin, Annie, married a man whom my mother was leery of from the get go. Without any knowledge about him, Mom told us, "Don't go around him. Don't talk to him. Don't trust him." Later, Dad found out that the man had once been incarcerated for raping and robbing a seventy year old woman.
Mom’s psychic abilities extended beyond her sense for character. She and Dad would entertain guests by having her call out cards before Dad flipped them from the top of the deck. She was also infamous for making us pull over for ambulances that weren't there.
My siblings and I have all laid claim, at one time or another, to possessing similar abilities, albeit in a lesser form. Our claims have all involved dreaming of events that later transpired. For instance, I remember being little and dreaming of the death of a soap opera character while napping. When I woke, I watched that episode with Mom and Grandma, insisting that I had already seen it. At twelve, I remember dreaming of cheating at a board game while playing with my cousin Annie’s family, and two days later, finding myself living the dream.
You should know that I never have prophetic dreams of any use. They're always inconsequential and usually end violently. The scariest example I can recall happened when I was seven and dreamt of getting up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. Frank stood by the open door to our parents' room, the bathroom door perpendicular to it closed. He said, "Mom's in there, and I'm next." A golden light emanated from our parents' room, and a ghost floated toward us, through the open doorway, all flowing sheet of gold with cut-out eye holes, brandishing a knife. It said, "I am the ghost of the Golden Knife Stabber!” I woke up, sweating, shaking. I had to pee. I found Frank standing at the end of the hall, the door to our parents' room open, the bathroom door shut. He said, "Mom's in there, and I'm next."
During the week of their stay with me at Dorothy’s apartment, Frank and I made Terry watch the Nevada Smith and Cosmic Conflict film trilogies. We watched American Gorgeous. Frank had bought me a live Meat Curtain DVD called What The Third Eye Sees, and we watched it again and again. Everlasting Sunlight of the Stainless Brain twice. Texas Teeth twice. We listened to Blue Eyes, Bliss, and The Scarabs. Frank introduced me to “Tales of the Skyrat,” a superhero video game he had brought with his game console.
Terry was a trooper, never complaining about the indie films and rock music we knew he was hating. Mostly, he sat in silence, smoking or chewing tobacco, wearing his Carolina blue pants, his hat on sideways, sometimes a shirt. This was a typical visit with Terry. After our game of "remember-the-time" had expired, we had nothing to talk about. In his backpack, along with his one other change of clothes, Terry had psychedelic mushrooms.
On the fourth night of their visit, I was surprised by a knock at the door at two AM. It was Dorothy's neighbor from the first floor, who I recognized from the computer lab at the university where I used to work part-time. She was one of the kids who spent hours in the lab every afternoon playing an online role playing game about vampires. She used to complain about me listening to that Larissa Linn comeback album that Johnny Black produced back in 2004. She said, “Wayne, it’s so fucking loud up here, we can hear you downstairs, through the second floor. You're lucky they moved out. Mary Catherine is getting pissed, though."
I couldn't remember her name. I searched my brain for it. I had always thought she was cute, though she had put on weight. I was drunk. She said, "Jasmine. You remember me, right? From the lab?"
Jasmine. Of course. Jasmine must have weighed three hundred pounds. Still, she had one of those faces, caramel skin, big brown eyes, lips. I said, "Do you want to come in?"
"No," she said. "Keep it down, okay?"
"When's Dorothy coming back?"
"In a month.”
"Who is it?" asked Frank from the sofa, under the four foot by four foot extreme close up painting of Bruce's bearded, long-haired head, like some European Jesus in black wraparound sunglasses.
"Jasmine, from downstairs," she called to him. To me, she said, "Does she know you have company?" She peeked around the dimly lit apartment from the doorway. Her hair was coarse and black at her shoulders. I wondered what it felt like. “You’ve been busy as bees. You should clean this place up.” There were four days worth of mail and a stack of pizza boxes on the table, the garbage overflowing in the kitchen, dishes, blankets, dirty clothes, bottles, the cat box full. Her skin was milk chocolate. Her breasts threatened to burst out of her shirt.
I said, "Do you want a beer?"
She said, "Goodnight, Larissa Linn," and waddled down the hall to the steps.
Frank has the superpower to master any video game. I do not. I quickly become frustrated at the jumps I can't make and foes I can't best. Frank, on the other hand, spent hours in front of the TV when we were growing up, cursing and throwing shit, vowing revenge, staying up all night exacting said revenge. It was a surprise to me that he wanted to leave me his game console.
"I just don't want you to get bored. You get to thinking too much. Your mind is like a labyrinth, complete with a minotaur," he said.
"My mind is a flushing toilet.”
We were sitting on the floor around a Ouija board in the guest bedroom, watched over by Bruce's grayscale paintings of bug-eyed zombies and surreal alien animal portraits set amid other-worldly flora. Frank insisted that the room was haunted by something sinister because the cat refused to enter. I was refusing to play Tales of the Skyrat anymore because I couldn't beat the Berserker level.
"I hate that cat," I said. "Here, kitty kitty kitty."
"I'm telling you, man, she won't come in here," insisted Frank. "That cat has been in my lap or at my feet. Unless I'm in here." I hadn't even seen the cat until Frank and Terry had arrived. "Check this out, man. Here, kitty. Here, kitty kitty."
The cat appeared in the doorway. It sat in the hall and meowed at Frank. "Come here," he said.
"Here, kitty," said Terry.
"Here, kitty," I said. The cat stared at us for a moment, yawned, and wandered away.
Terry said, "I'm afraid of Ouija boards." In his lap was a bible. In his hand was his fifth whiskey and cola.
"Ah, come on," I said. "You’re being flakes. This is important to me."
"I just think it's a bad idea to try and contact Sally," said Frank. "You never meet who you want to meet on these things."
"Come on.” I placed my right hand on the plastic cursor. Frank sighed and followed suit. "You have to believe or it won't work," I told him.
"I believe," he sighed.
"Is there anyone there?" I asked the dead air.
The cursor moved to the "Yes.”
Terry said, "Which one of you did that?"
In the bathroom, the faucet turned on all by itself. My heart quickened. I said, "What’s your name?"
The cursor moved over "S." The cursor moved over "A." I removed my hand.
Terry said, "What?"
”It's lying. I'm done.” I turned off the faucet in the bathroom and went back to the dining room to finish off the pizza. Frank followed me out and laid on the couch.
He said, "Want to try that Berserker level again?"
I said, "Fuck off."
When they left, I was overwhelmed. I watched them drive away from the sidewalk in front of the building, considering my options. I thought about walking to Bruce's and telling him that I couldn't watch Dorothy's place anymore. I could check up on the cat periodically. Or maybe I could call Frank before he got too far away and tell him that I wanted to go with him. I could let Jasmine check on the cat.
Back on the third floor, I smoked pot and drank, staring blankly at the painting of the hippie stringing his guitar next to the TV, my mind swirling, narrowing, darkening.
My first love was comic books. From the beginning, there was Strongman, sole survivor of planet Xenon, whose emblem I let my drunken skinhead cousin, Joey, tattoo to my left arm when I was seventeen, utilizing a sewing needle wrapped in thread and dipped in an old jar of India ink. It was the second time I had been scarred by my love for Strongman, the first occurring when I was three and tried to jump over the coffee table from the couch, clad in my Strongman pajamas. I smacked my chin against one of the coffee table corners. The scar is still there, complete with tiny pock marks where the stitches had been.
Strongman always put others first, forever sacrificing himself for the greater good of Megalopolis and humanity. Between Strongman, Sunday School, and my responsibilities at home, looking after my siblings, I developed my own moral code and used it to further alienate myself from my peers. Dad oftentimes said that I had no sense of adventure, but that wasn't true. I just preferred mythological adventure to the real thing.
As a teenager, I related more to Skyrat. I liked the fallibility of that character and could see something of myself in his nerdy secret identity, Scott Turner. Like Strongman, Skyrat also sacrificed his personal life for the greater good, but it was easier to relate with Scott Turner, who also looked after his kid brother. Unlike Strongman, Skyrat regularly got his ass kicked, his costume fucked up, and in one famous issue, failed to save his two-dimensional love, Samantha, from death at the hands of Berserker.
You should know that I couldn't fucking defeat Berserker either.
In the old school comics, Berserker was a musclebound thug, Orson Mayfield, a paranoid schizophrenic bank robber who wore a silly purple mask and lobbed purple grenades. The game, Tales of the Skyrat, however, portrays him vastly different. Berserker resembles a massive inhuman monster in this incarnation, complete with scales and a demonic face. The goal at his stage in the game is to chase down the villain as he rampages within the walls of Green City and to dodge the grenades he lobs at you. This was nigh impossible for me. I became confused anytime I made a wrong turn or got hit by an explosion. "Video games are all repetition," Frank had told me. "You just have to figure out the patterns and learn from them."
I was busying myself with the chase for the eighth time or so one day, when Jasmine showed up at the door. She said, "What's up Larissa Linn? Dorothy just called. She wanted me to come over and check on you. Why aren't you answering the phone?"
"I'm not comfortable answering someone else's phone.” I had turned the ringer off. My own cell phone had been cancelled for nonpayment.
"Yeah, but if you don't answer the phone, people will think you've died up here," she said, moving around me to stand in the center of the living room. "I thought someone was going to clean this place up? It stinks in here."
I shrugged. "I've been writing.” I was lying. I hadn't written a thing. "Everything will be fine when Dorothy gets back home."
She started opening windows and picking up bottles. "Get me a trash can," she ordered. "You can't let this shit pile up for two and a half weeks." I did as I was told. I picked up my dirty clothes and took them to the hamper in the bathroom, under the nude portrait of Dorothy as a Goddess, Bruce's masterpiece. She was leaning in a doorway, right forearm across her belly, looking away with a sublime smile. There were two other smaller portraits of her in her bathroom as well, the only paintings hanging in her apartment that actually belonged to her. The others in her collection came and went as Bruce rotated them in and out of galleries.
Jasmine came in behind me and took the overfilled bag from the bathroom's trash can. From my angle, I couldn't see her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She was in jeans and a bright yellow tank top over a black bra, cleavage.
She said, "Come on, tell me the truth: Do you jerk off to that painting?"
"No, of course not," I said, hoping my face wasn't red.
She laughed. "Why's your face turning red, Larrisa Linn?"
Later, at the Ouija board in the guest room, she asked me, "How often have you had to turn off the faucet in the bathroom?"
“Twice a day, sometimes more.”
"Aren't you afraid?"
I said, "Sometimes. I don't know. I get afraid when I'm coming up the steps. For some reason, I get this terrible sense of dread every time I climb the stairs, like something's behind me. This shit has always followed me, though. I'm kind of used to it." I told her about my childhood apartment where our dog wouldn't go into the laundry room. I told her about the ghostly storyteller who visited me when I was a kid and about dead relatives visiting live ones. I told her the story my parents told me, about the time the Ouija board fell from Dad's teenaged hands and stuck in the ground like Arthur's sword after it suggested that he murder his family.
"I don't believe in Ouija boards," she said.
"You don't believe in Ouija boards?" This was disparaging news. "It won't work if you don't believe.”
She touched the fingers of her right hand to the cursor and warned me, "I don't think it's going to work."
I placed my own fingers next to hers and said, "Is anyone there?" No response. I asked again. Nothing. Jasmine pushed the cursor over the "No" response and said, "You got anything to eat?"
She offered to buy us a pizza, and we waited for it on the couch, under the extreme close-up self portrait of Bruce. I taught her to play Tales of the Skyrat, and it absorbed us for the next forty five minutes, swinging through Green City with glee as Skyrat, eating pedestrians to fulfill our never ending hunger and tossing cars at helicopters as Rat’s playable nemesis, Chupacabra.
We had just begun an attempt to best the times on the various Time Trials found throughout the game when the pizza arrived. Plating up, she asked me, "You play a lot of video games?"
"No," I answered. "Not usually. I just like Skyrat, you know? I used to love comic books when I was a kid.” I didn't bother telling her that the first time I saw the Skyrat movie in theaters, while the opening credits were rolling, I was fighting back tears, hoping that Frank wouldn't notice.
"I was more into role playing games.”
"I like the mythology of comics,” I told her. "Plus, I think it would be cool to have a superpower."
She asked me, "What would yours be?"
"I'd be able to alter probabilities. That way, I could do anything if the dice rolled in my favor."
"Would you actually use dice to determine whether or not you could do something?" The dungeon master inside her was excited by that prospect.
"I hadn't considered that, but probably not. What would yours be?"
Without hesitation, she said, "Most vampires can transform into wolves or wild dogs or a bat or something, but I'd like to be able to transform into other people. Flying would also be cool." On her neck, above her aorta, was a little tattoo of a vampire bite.
I asked her, "Do you still play that vampire game?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and said, "Dorothy is the queen of our Hive."
"That's right, our Hive. Downstairs. We can only come out at night, but because Dorothy is our Queen, she can roam freely in the daylight. She protects us from those who would do us harm while we sleep."
I laughed. "She says she’s my Muse. You should know I’m a writer, but I’ve been blocked. Dorothy said I’m supposed to use my time here for writing.”
”Do you know her boyfriend, Bruce? He says she's his Succubus."
"Oh, yeah, I know Bruce. He's my best friend; that's how I know Dorothy. I didn't even think she was real until I met her, which was an accident."
It occurred to me that I was in a position to learn something about them until Jasmine said, "When you figure those two out, you let me know. Would you say they compliment each other? He scares me kind of... I think he's crazy. I guess that's why she loves him so much; she's just as crazy, in her own way.”
"She's amazing," I blurted out. Jasmine smiled but didn't reply. We ate pizza until it was gone, and then I said, "Do you really think Bruce is crazy?"
"Absolutely fucking insane," she answered...
Shiny Red Nothing is proud to present Ship Of Theseus, a genre-nuking novel that pits a troubled young writer named Wayne Bird against his own demons before rocketing him 150 years into the future to meet Skyrat, the superhero he created when he was a little boy.
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