Contributions by Marc Cohen, Andrae Bergeron, and Andy Lawler
At midnight I decided to leave my wife. I lay there in our bed, thinking about the life we shared together. Two years of relative happiness. We worked well together and the sex was good, but it just wasn’t enough for me. I left our home at dawn, when the sun was just creeping over the horizon encroaching on the boundaries of a world still consumed by darkness. The air was crisp and cold complementing the dew perched on the grass. Our neighborhood was a quiet one; the type of place that epitomizes suburban America. It was a collection of anonymous individuals hell-bent on keeping the status quo; of superficial politeness and apathy, knowing faces but not names, seeing people but not personalities, hearing salutations but not stories.
It was easy to vanish into the unknown.
Emptying my bank account a week ago was the right choice. I had done well for myself in this life and I thought it would be a shame to let that money go to waste. I packed light and drove off the pavement as quietly as I could, leaving a house I never truly lived in, leaving a wife I never truly loved. I drove for hours and then stopped at the nearest motel. It was a shitty, one-story establishment, with the rooms all facing the street in the way that prison cells face the catwalks they share. The paint that was originally plastered on the building had been worn away years ago, exposing the bare, wooden walls that ached from a millennium of existing. The parking lot looked as forgotten as the building: an eclectic mix of cracks and chips that screamed out a cacophony of neglect.
I pushed the door inward releasing a myriad of groans and creaks as well as the scent of mildew and carpet cleaner into the morning air. The main lobby was not as derelict as the exoskeleton of the motel but still reeked of sadness. A disinterested receptionist sat behind the withered counter top, glued to his phone. A collection of keys hung up on a rack desperately stood behind him, waiting, pleading to be picked.
“40 bucks a night,” said the receptionist without looking up from the screen. I threw a wad of hundreds in his lap. The receptionist looked up from his device when he saw the cash.
His name, according to the tag on the shirt, was Mark. Mark slowly rose from his seat and picked a random room key and handed it to me.
“The vending machine doesn’t work. The Wi-Fi is shitty and the TV’s don’t have fuck all on them except for the news,” Mark told me in a subdued manner, never flinching or expressing emotion, just moving along purposelessly. A forgotten man in a forgotten motel. I thanked him and left the lobby, banking a right to my new room, to my new life.
The room was in surprisingly good condition, considering the state of the rest of the place. It was moderately sized, with a single bed in the center. There was a window on the wall next to the door, offering yet another view of the apocalyptic parking lot. The wallpaper looked as if it had been peeling for decades but stood firm in its place, not quite ready to acquiesce to the ravages of time. The carpet was clean and rough and covered the entirety of the floor. The TV was a relic and really didn’t have fuck all on it except the news. There was a side door that opened into a bathroom with a shower, toilet, and a mirror as cracked as the parking lot. All of the lights in the room flickered sporadically as if they were communicating a warning in Morse code. My new room; my new life.
I sat in the room for hours, staring at the antiquated wallpaper, pondering the decisions I had just made. I had never truly felt anything in my entire life. No love or animosity for my parents, who raised me as well as they could. No excitement or lasting attraction for women. I viewed sexual encounters as experimental and physical, engaging only to experience, not to enjoy. No anger, no guilt, no shame, no regret, no fear, no sadness. I wonder sometimes if I am what Hollywood would call a sociopath, but since the meaning and connotations surrounding that word have been subject to a constant metamorphosis over the past 50 years, I usually just settle for “asshole.”
The only things I ever did feel was physical pain from the extensive amount of fighting I did in my adolescence and fleeting euphoria from drugs. I can’t say with certainty that I’m an addict. In order for that diagnosis to be accurate, I would have to feel the primal, compulsive need to reuse. What I can say for certain though is that I have tried everything. Cocaine, pills, weed, LSD, heroin, morphine, and the list goes on and on. Most use drugs as an escape. A way to escape the constant pressure of everyday life, to feel something other than stress or fear or heartbreak or disappointment. I just use them to feel. To feel anything other than the constant nothingness that grips every fiber of my being. To feel a world that is vibrant and effervescent, not just see it. It’s something to feel complete and utter hopelessness and despair every waking moment of your life. It is something entirely different to feel nothing at all.
Marrying my soon-to-be ex-wife was something I thought I would never do. I never loved her, even though I told her otherwise every day for the past two years of my life. We met in college. Neither of us had many friends and we both had no idea what we wanted to do with our lives, so, naturally, we decided that marriage might give us purpose. We bought a house in the suburbs, worked nine-to-fives, paid our taxes and went to church. The American dream, or as close as most Americans get to that immortal mantra.
She was never a huge fan of my drug use, but never really openly opposed it. Just a look that she would point my way when I was off my ass on the latest experiment. The look of a woman who has given up on pursuing any dreams she once had. The look of disappointment. The look of disgust. After two years, I thought it best to leave. She became increasingly weary of my antics, and I was looking for something new.
The sun had set across the land, enveloping the world in darkness. I decided to leave the desolation of my new home and see what opportunities this new life, this new night, had to offer. Perhaps not surprisingly there was a strip club nearby, not in the derelict condition that plagued my motel but certainly on its way there. An aging woman sat behind a glass window in what most closely resembles a box office, smelling of cigarette smoke and apathy.
“$10 cover charge, no exceptions. If you don’t like it, take it up with Barnwell,” the woman croaked.
Barnwell stepped forward when he heard his name. He was a massive human being, standing at damn near 6’8” and probably weighed more than a Smart car. I looked up at Barnwell and smiled queasily, hoping not to anger the demigod that blocked the entrance. He glared with an incomparable intensity that pierced every existential level of my being. It was a fundamentally paralyzing stare fueled with a furious inferno behind his eyes that rivaled the deepest depths of Hell. It was something I had never seen before, and something I never wanted to see again. I looked back at the decrepit figure behind the glass.
“Don’t worry, it really is no problem,” I blurted out and pulled out some cash to pay the fee. Barnwell seemed satisfied and returned to his gatekeeper post at the front door, allowing me to enter physically unharmed, but psychologically shaken. The interior was dimly lit and doused in neon, hairspray, and hand sanitizer. There was a main stage that formed in a T-shape on the main floor, with four poles maintaining positions on the edges while a fifth manned the middle. Various chairs and couches surrounded the stage area in a proscenium formation, forcing the audience to look at the stage, and the stage alone. Unbearably loud dance music filled the air, shaking the foundation of the building every second that it played, Women in clothing that more closely resembled loincloths than functional underwear strategically walked around, asking patrons if they would like to exchange their money for a dance. There was a bar in the middle with attractive bartenders pouring drinks for customers, and two pool tables near the restrooms, occupied by men who looked to have more tattoos than brain cells.
I took a seat that hugged the wall near the front and took in my new surroundings. I have always been intrigued by places like these. Not for the more physical fascination that most men have with the employees, but more for the ideological principle behind the establishment itself. A place that absolves itself of any guilt or constructed social morality. The 21st century has largely been a time dedicated to walking on proverbial eggshells. People and corporations alike have had to watch what they say and how they say it for fear of a retributive diatribe carried out over various social media platforms by anonymous users. But in a new era of political correctness, strip clubs have continuously stomped the fucking eggshells apart, continuing to allow women of all races and backgrounds the ability to showcase their physique for the possibility of raking in exorbitant amounts of cash every night. And while the world of day continues to hold firm to its propped up social norms and morals, a whole new batch of possibilities open up when the sun sets. Possibilities that I would very much like to explore.
My brooding was interrupted by an enchanting voice. “You look lonely.” I craned my neck upward to see a woman staring at me. She was a vision. I was convinced in that initial moment that I had not seen anyone that beautiful in my entire life. Her hair was the color of raven and rested upon her shoulders in a way that looked as if God himself had put it there. Her ethereal skin radiated perfection and her eyes. Her eyes. They were a hypnotizing, soul-piercing shade of emerald that could annihilate any iota of confidence in the hearts and minds of men. I must have had quite the bewildered look on my face because she let out an angelic laugh.
“I said that you look lonely,” she repeated smiling. “I suppose it is hard to hide such a thing,” I quipped back, matching her smile. “Would you like a remedy for that?” she responded seductively, tracing the outline of her right breast with her index finger.
Her words hung in the air of their own volition, as if they knew that they were birthed by a supreme being, unworthy to be forgotten so soon.
“What did you have in mind?” I replied, laser-focused on the journey that her finger was taking. “For the right price, I believe I could cure your ailment,” she said, keeping up the medical metaphor.
“Not even God could cure me,” I stated flatly. Unfazed by my cold rebuttal, she countered. “God isn’t here tonight. Why don’t you let me try?” She was closer now, suffocating every inch of space between her and me.
Her body stood over mine, towering above my apprehensions and feeding into my inhibitions. Her scent was an aphrodisiac. This was not a woman; this was a siren fixated on leading me into whatever rocks that lay underneath the surface. She had cast a spell on me within seconds, a spell that was working.
Shaking, I pulled out my wallet. “What will this get me?” I pulled out 250 bucks and a little baggie of cocaine that I had been saving for a special occasion. She smiled again, this time all the more genuine, and replied, “A life that you won’t want to leave.”
We left the strip club, passing Barnwell which, yet again, sent shivers down my spine. Taking my car, we careened down the open road, heading back to the motel from Hell, which seemed more fitting now that I had a devil with me. Mark was still checking his phone when we got back, his only connection to the world outside, the world away from this forgotten place he was bound to.
“I hope this place isn’t too shitty,” I said, desperately awaiting her answer.
“It will do just fine,” she replied, smiling that brilliant smile once again.
Sex, for me, has never really been enjoyable. I never understood why it is held in such high regard across the collective human experience, which is understandable considering I don’t play well with others and I cannot feel anything other than the physical release that tags along. It is a messy, convoluted and hellacious maelstrom of an act that only ends in complication and disdain, so you can imagine my surprise when I was completely enthralled with the experience that the siren and I had. I tried as hard as I could to convince myself that it was the cocaine working its magic, but I knew it was her.
She was enchanting. It was as if the world stopped on its axis when I was with her, stopping for us and for us alone. No drug, no woman, no fight had ever done this for me. It did not matter that we were in a shitty motel, or that Mark probably heard us through the thin walls. The only thing that mattered was her. I didn’t just want her. I needed her. I felt alive with her.
But more importantly, I felt.
I felt something, something real for the first time in my life. I did not know what was happening to me, nor did I care. The only thing I knew was that I needed her for the rest of my life.
Morning struck, eradicating the world of night that sheltered me. As the sun sidled above the grass and engulfed my room with its blinding light, I woke to find the siren next to me. Everything about her was intoxicating. I had to get away, at least for a moment, to gather any semblance of reason that was left inside of me. I stumbled to the bathroom. I stood over the sink, gripping the edges until my knuckles started to whiten and looked at the kaleidoscope figure in the cracked mirror.
Who was this creature that felt? That was able to fucking feel something? Could there be a soul behind this callous visage? Did I deserve this? The changes in my life had always been the scenery or the people. There has never been something like this. An earth-shattering moment of breathtaking clarity had not only redefined who I was, but what I was capable of. If last night was truly a raw and visceral emotional experience, was I capable of having another? A brutal notion crashed into my train of thought, derailing it almost entirely. Could this new ability be lost as quickly as it was found? Were these feelings forever?
Before I could ponder an answer, another figure entered the distorted reflection. The siren. Every time I saw her, bells rang in my head. Now their purpose, whether to alarm or invite, was much more difficult to determine.
I stared at her through the mirror and asked, “Who are you?” “Good morning to you too,” she responded, still wearing that radiant smile on her face. I whipped around to face her. As mesmerizing as she was, my question needed an answer.
“No, I mean really. Who are you? I don’t even know your name,” I pressed further. She let out a laugh that disarmed me. “What’s so funny?” I sneered.
“You didn’t think that was imperative to know last night?” she retorted. “What do you mean?” I replied. “Imperative. It means impor—,”
“I know what that means, asshole. I meant—.” She held up her hand, as if she was an elementary school teacher calming her students, stopping me completely.
“You offered an anonymous woman money and cocaine in exchange for sex and you only begin to develop a concern for her identity the morning after? I could’ve killed you or robbed you fucking blind. What is ‘so funny’ as you eloquently put it is the fact that you’re just now starting to care about who this stranger in your very humble abode actually is.”
I was dumbfounded. Before I could even begin to think about offering any type of response, she left the bathroom and shut the door behind her. I stared back into the mirror, seeing the kaleidoscope figure once more. There was a look on those many faces. One that I had never seen before. It almost looked like sadness. Like regret. I guess there is a first time for everything.
I quickly shook the feeling off and walked out of the bathroom. The siren was still here. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, methodically packing her items into her handbag, as if every object had a specific location. She looked up from the bag, holding lipstick in her right hand. The smile had left her face as if it was evicted by a vengeful landlord. I opened my mouth to speak, but the silencing hand rose up once more.
“You don’t need to say anything. I’m not angry. This is just the way my world works. Men come for one thing and leave satisfied. What happened last night was a transaction. There’s no need to attach empathy or morality to it. It just makes things more difficult.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. I sat on the edge of the bed. I craned my neck to look at her. The sunlight from the window was at her back, giving her that angelic glow that she so rightfully deserved.
“Interrogating you like that was supremely shitty of me. It’s just…I’ve never met anyone like you before.” She let out another disarming laugh, piercing the silence that occupied the room.
“If I had a dollar for every time a man told me that…” She stood up and put her lipstick in the bag. “If you are being serious, I’ll be working again tonight. Same place.” She gracefully moved towards the door, looking back one more time. The smile was back, although it looked as if it had taken up a different residence since its eviction. Not quite as brilliant, not quite as bright.
“Wait! At least tell me your name. Please,” I begged. “Valerie. Come find me,” she said, then closed the door shut, taking the life in the room along with her.
This went on for weeks. Every night, Valerie would come to the motel, bringing my fix in tow. Every morning, she’d leave me with the same words: Come find me. The chase was almost as addicting as the drug she brought. Almost. For the first few times, I thought it was just the sex that compelled me to her. That made me feel as I do. This assumption quickly proved to be incorrect. It was her. This wasn’t just a fantasy crafted by physical pleasure and chemical reaction. The more I spent time with her, the more I felt. I felt the sun’s warmth as comfort, not as heat. Joy, sadness, neglect, fear, surprise, love, hatred, all of it crashing into me with terrifying ferocity.
I even felt guilty for leaving my wife. I’m sure she had looked for me, but considering the way I shunned her when I was high, I doubt she was longing for my return. I was worried about her, hoping that she understood my choice. These feelings, these emotions were truly something special. The vibrant and effervescent world that seemed so foreign to me had shown up on my doorstep in the form of Valerie. Letting her in let the world in with her; visitors that I planned on staying indefinitely.
“Have you ever heard the story of Wesley and the Serpent?” she asked me one night, calling out from the bathroom.
“No, I haven’t. Educate me,” I replied, fixated on the door, awaiting my angel to come into view once again. The door swung inward, illuminating the room with the overhead light above the kaleidoscope mirror. Valerie stepped out, radiating her ethereal glow that flooded the room with warmth and brilliance. She sat on the corner of the bed, turning to face me.
“Wesley was a transient, roaming the hills, valleys, and plains of the world, searching for life in every earthly crevasse with the intention of staying when he found it. Unfortunately for Wesley, life had not been searching for him.”
“This sounds unbelievably dull,” I said laughing. Valerie was not amused.
“Do you want to hear the fucking story or not?” she inquired quite virulently. Taken aback, I shrunk a bit and nodded my head.
“Anyway, one day Wesley was walking a battered path when he saw a serpent. It was beautiful. Donning the most verdant greens and the most vivid blues, the serpent moved effortlessly, gliding across the ground as if it was made for the creature. Wesley was enamored. It was as if his quest had finally been completed. How could a being this divine not be the life that he longed for? Wesley knew that serpents were dangerous, that they could kill him even, but he was convinced that this one was different. In seeing the serpent, his purpose had been found. Wesley could now see the world the way it was meant to be seen. It was in this moment, Wesley needed the serpent and needed it with him forever. He picked up the serpent and put it in front of his face, staring his Messiah in the eyes. The serpent moved to the left, to the right, and looked as if it was smiling at Wesley. Wesley smiled back, finally content with his long, arduous journey. The serpent then snapped forward, closing its jaws around Wesley’s neck. The serpent bit down hard, crushing Wesley’s larynx and causing blood to pour out from the wound. Wesley and the serpent dropped to the ground, and in his final moments, Wesley saw the serpent smile back at him one last time.”
“Why did the serpent smile again?” I asked her.
“Because the serpent knew something Wesley didn’t. The serpent had tricked Wesley into believing that it was there to save him when in reality, the serpent had preyed on Wesley’s greatest weakness. The serpent smiled because it had won.”
She got up from the corner of the bed and moved towards the front door, leaning on the wall, smiling devilishly at me.
“Wesley sounds a lot like myself, and if this is the fable you’ve shared with me, what does that make you?” I asked, standing up, starting to realize the gravity of the situation.
“Hisssss,” Valerie uttered, then letting out a truly malevolent laugh. The front door exploded, sending shards of wood flying across the room. I dove and took cover behind the bed, but before ducking completely, metal from the doorknob cut me deep across the cheek, causing blood to pour down my face.
I looked up when the dust settled. Barnwell was towering in front of the doorway, holding Mark’s mutilated body in his massive right hand. He threw Mark over my head. His carcass barreled into the wall behind me, leaving a brilliant scarlet spatter on the wallpaper upon impact.
“We need all your shit, right now,” Valerie ordered, dusting the debris from the door off of her person. My cheek was still seeping blood. It was on my hands now, dripping from my fingertips as if it were coming from a faucet that hadn’t been turned all the way off.
“Why?” I pleaded, starting to choke up.
“I told you when we met that I could’ve robbed you fucking blind. Unfortunately for you, that day has come to pass.”
“I thought you cared about me. I LOVED YOU!” I screamed, a visceral combination of tears and blood streaming down my face now.
“What could you possibly know about love?” she laughed back. “Weren’t you the big, bad sociopath that was destined to be alone forever? You don’t know a damn thing about the word except how it’s fucking spelled,” She hurled each word with staggering power.
“I knew you were the devil the moment I met you. Why couldn’t I see that, why couldn’t I see that?” I replied, utterly defeated.
“Reason is not something in abundance on this earth. Those who have it seldom share it and those who don’t are cursed to believe they do. You are a part of the latter group, and that is why you lost. But you don’t have to end up like Wesley. Give us what we want, and I promise that no harm will come to you,” Valerie stated, flashing a smile that had lost its warmth.
Her glow had faded. She wasn’t as radiant as before. Wrinkles had now appeared on her skin. Those mesmerizing emerald eyes had lost their spark. The serpent had shed her skin. The veil was lifted and for the first time I finally saw Valerie for what she truly was: unremarkable.
I weighed my options. My life was forfeit at this point. I could never go back to how I was before. This new world, this new life was confusing but exhilarating. I remembered what it was like to be void of everything, and even this earth-shattering, heart-wrenching pain I felt was better than that life ever was, than it ever could be. Valerie may have promised my safety, but I doubt I could promise that if I left here broken. I had to fight.
“Okay, okay, let me just gather my things,” I said. I walked back behind the bed and dropped down. Picking up a shard of wooden splinter, I rose, holding it behind my back. I looked at Barnwell, his infernal glare still as powerful as ever. I looked at Valerie. My fallen angel that has led me to the gates of Hell. I sighed deeply, then charged at Barnwell. He was surprised by my speed and couldn’t react fast enough. The shard pierced his left eye, permanently ending that furious stare that plagued the world for so long. Barnwell crumpled to the ground, letting out a primal howl that shook the very membrane of the room.
I ripped the shard out, blood spurting over my face and neck, mixing in with my own. I must’ve looked terrifying to Valerie. Good. I wanted her to suffer. Sprinting towards her, I raised my weapon, aiming for her heart, when I was stopped by a searing pain in my side. I looked down, seeing a knife hilt buried deep into my body. Valerie pulled the knife out of my side, causing me to collapse to the floor. She brushed her raven colored hair aside, then plunged the knife into my chest. Blood was flowing profusely from the wound. She knelt down and turned my face towards hers.
“Wesley, Wesley, Wesley,” she cooed. “Now why’d you go and have to make such a big mess? No matter, you’ll be dead soon anyway.”
“Why don’t you join me, Valerie? I’m sure the Devil has room for one more,” I coughed, blood and saliva dripping from my mouth. “What the hell are you…?”
I raised my hand and stabbed the shard into her neck, ripping it ferociously across, spilling her blood all over the floor. She fell over, her head at my feet. Looking up at the ceiling, I smiled. As the world of the living darkened around me, I awaited what the world of the dead would bring. My new room. My new life.