This writing was accepted for publication
in an issue of Down in the Dirt magazine:
The Light in the Sky
Damien Miller jolted out of bed and tore open the curtains. He whipped off his shirt and stuck out his chest so the Light could enter his heart. The Woman’s voice he had heard in his dreams commanded him to do so. The Light warmed the core of his soul like a cup of hot cocoa after hours of playing soldier in the snow. As soon as his heart began to overflow with memories of Adirondack summer nights camping with Dad and the feeling that everything was going to be okay, the Light retreated. The suddenness of its withdrawal left Damien in shock. It was as if his spine had been yanked from his body. He punched the hardwood floor without feeling pain. God’s Light had left him and he doubted it would ever return.
For the next six hours, Damien sat on his bed rocking back and forth. At six-thirty a.m., he heard his mother knock on the door.
“Good mo-orning!” she cooed. “Come get your breakfast.”
He slogged out of his pajama pants, pulled on a pair of jeans, socks, and a shirt and wedged his feet into his two-tone Converse knockoffs.
There were two corn muffins waiting for him on a Fiesta plate next to a glass of cranberry-apple juice. He took a few nibbles of muffin and decided he wasn’t hungry.
“Don’t forget, you’re staying after school today to catch up on your graph assignments,” Mrs. Miller dropped several quarters into a plastic baggie. “Here’s your lunch money,” she handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he snatched the baggie and sighed.
Mrs. Miller glanced at the wall clock. “It’s quarter-of,” she said. “The bus will be here any minute,”
“Okay,” Damien rose slowly, hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders and pushed open the creaky side door.
The sun had barely risen. Clouds sailed across the orange sky like battleships. The air smelled crinkly and foreboding like autumn. Although it was only September sixth, the atmosphere had already begun to reek of pumpkin innards and hay mazes.
A pair of blinking yellow lights down the road caused the gears in Damien’s head to turn. Hardened erasers and hallway bullies couldn’t stop the processes of puberty and identity formation. Would he be Damien the Demon Boy this year? Fated to massacre the entire school with adamantium spikes jutting from his knees? Or would he disguise himself as a time traveler from 1992? An affable slacker from an era when underground music still had integrity and flannel shirts were sold at the Gap for two hundred dollars apiece. Perhaps he could charm one of the Beckys in his English class by shrouding himself in mystery and forming a band. He’d play the cardboard box in a jazzcore band called Mystery Peanut Crematorium. ‘M.P.C.’ The abbreviation had a nice ring to it.
By the time the bus pulled up to the driveway, Damien had forgotten all about the Light. What he did not realize was that, despite not being able to grasp the Light’s message cognitively, his body had absorbed and comprehended all of it. His homeostatic and central nervous systems had experienced faint sensations of a future where he could act like a wild gorilla and not give a single fuck. Primal urges tugged at his ripcord. Why couldn’t adulthood just happen all at once like a peeled bandage or a bomb threat? And why were girls’ budding breasts so damn sexy? Argh. It made him want to stomp the fuck out of a juice box. He could sneak one out of the cafetorium and bring it to the loading dock after school where he and his buddy Mike could leave a big, red, sugary picnic for the ants. Fuck the school and its protocols. Damien grinned. We gonna get ants all up in their shit.
The day’s second miracle happened as Damien boarded the bus. A flash of Light from somewhere in the back! That was where the preppy kids sat; smacking their gum, texting their besties, preparing to guzzle Keystone and have unprotected sex while flunking university business classes. Damien scuttled down the aisle and took a seat amongst the gel-flips whose eyes flashed ‘loser alert!’ No sign of the Light anywhere. Huh. He slunk into his seat. Perhaps he could get in a few Z’s during the half hour ride to the middle-of-nowhere school.
As he counted the trees whizzing by, something reflected in the glass caught his eye. His heart leapt. “Could it be?” He turned around.
Sitting in the seat across from him was a girl in a white dress. She seemed about his age. A leather-bound book was open on her lap.
“Hello?” Damien called to her. “Are you new? I don’t remember seeing you on this bus before.”
The preps were busy texting. They didn’t seem to notice her.
The girl closed the book and cocked her head. Her eyes were like above-ground pools with black inner tubes in their centers. The rims of the pools shined like golden coronas generating tunnels of Light. The tunnels connected themselves to Damien’s eyes. It was as if he was staring down the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun made of Light.
“The Light!” he held out his open palms in a gesture of humility and acceptance. “The Light is coming from your eyes!”
Damien’s skull was blown to pieces. Blood, bone chips and chunks of brain tissue spattered the preppies’ hair and clothing and the backs of nearby seats.
Despite this ‘death,’ Damien’s consciousness remained intact. It was as if he’d not been injured at all. He moved his head from side to side and even felt the familiar tickle of his bangs against his forehead. He studied his reflection in the bus window. The remains of his face hung around his neck like a lobster bib. Where his head should have been was an orb of Light.
The girl took his hand in hers and began to peel the skin from his fingers. He yelped in pain, but she didn’t stop. As she tossed strips of skin and muscle onto the floor, she spoke softly to him.
“Do not fret, my love,” she tore off the skin of his right hand like a glove. “The ear of sweet corn needs to be husked before it can be tasted. You have desired from birth to become part of the Light, and I am here to reveal to you the good news. You are the Light! You and everyone on this planet are beings of Light imprisoned in husks of matter. It is my duty to reveal this truth to all and to free individuals from the bonds of their flesh.”
“But why me first? What about everyone else?”
“I have chosen to free you first because you are the single human who most desires this freedom. But don’t worry. Everyone else will yearn for it in time.”
She lifted his hand to his face so that he could see. There was no hand anymore, only a glowing mass of Light.
“There are no such things as me, you or others,” She tore off her face and hair like a mask, revealing the Light that was her true form.
“All are Light and the Light is One. Plurality and multiplicity are illusions. The dividing lines between forms and events in space-time aren’t actually real. The boundaries are completely arbitrary. There are only three states: Oneness (which is disguised as Plurality,) Null, which is Paradise, and Nil, which is total absence and therefore shouldn’t even have a-“
The world went dark for a second.
And then it returned.
The girl was gone and Damien’s body lay sprawled across the bus seat, head blasted apart, limbs mutilated. A bug-eyed sixth grader alerted the bus driver, who immediately stopped the bus and waddled to the back in order to confirm the fact that a student had been killed. The police were called and the rest of the kids on the bus were evacuated.
Forensics could not figure out how on earth his head had been blown to bits as if by a shotgun. There were no bullet fragments and no evidence that anyone on the bus had brought a gun with them. Regardless of the facts, the authorities would have to frame some quiet loner kid or lower class underachiever in order to keep the parents and politicians at bay.
A funeral was held for Damien the following week and Mrs. Miller laid magnolias on his grave.
The final canto of Damien’s (as well as the Universe’s) epic poem began in what some would call a ‘charming’ café in Paris, France. The reincarnation of Damien, a twenty-six year old university dropout, sat alone in a booth chewing on espresso beans. A Woman of about thirty-five who smelled like oregano sat down across from him.
“Hey there,” she said, smacking her gum. Her teeth were like translucent Legos. “Whatcha doin’ all by yaself?”
Her accent annoyed him. It sounded like New Jersey had swallowed Long Island and taken a dump in a Yankee Stadium bathroom. “Um...” he tried to speak, but his espresso jitters were making his voice all quivery. “I-I’m sitting here, a-and you can s-s-sit here if you want to, but-but if you don’t want to, that’s okay ‘cause I’m per-perfectly fine here by myself and I-I-”
“Oh, come on,” she said, standing up. Her red afro grazed the rafters of the ceiling and her legs were covered entirely by striped tights. The fragrance from beneath her skirt widened Damien’s eyes. He even felt it move.
“Quit flappin’ ya gums and let’s go back to my place,” she beckoned him with a curling finger. “I’ve got some really good movies on Netflix we can watch.”
“Oh-okay, sure, y-yeah that’ll b-be awesome, I can’t wait, I-“
“Relax bae,” He felt her hot, moist breath against his neck as she whispered into his ear. “I’m on birth control,” she gave his earlobe a lick.
When they got to her place, they shed their clothes and explored each other’s orifices with eager fingers and tongues, but when it came time to fuck, Damien just couldn’t seem to land the plane on the runway.
“Nope,” the Woman grunted, “you’re going towards my asshole, aim higher,”
By that point, it was too late. Damien’s hard-on had deflated and all he could think about was pizza.
“I think I’ll be better when I’ve got some food in my belly,” he smiled sheepishly.
“One would hope so,” she rolled her eyes. “I’m gonna take a nap,” she sighed. “Wake me up when the food gets here.”
Damien reached into the pocket of his trousers and retrieved his cell phone. He dialed the number of the one pizza place that still delivered to the nameless housing project dubbed ‘la Tranchée’ by locals.
Two hours passed. The Woman snored and drooled on the lumpy pillow. Damien figured the pizza guy had forgotten their order. He flopped into bed next to the Woman. Her mouth was like a clay pot spilling water into a drainage ditch. He could leave. She wouldn’t care. The place gave him the creeps anyway. She stretched and yawned. Her apartment smelled like cat shit and flies buzzed everywhere. Cat food crunched beneath his feet and stuck to his socks when he got up to use the bathroom. This, he thought, was about as far away from Paradise as anyone could be.
In an attempt to lull himself to sleep, he concentrated on a beam of dirty light shining through a crack in the blinds. He traced it with his eye all the way to its source. Fire, he thought. The source of creation. The key to unlocking the puzzle of this labyrinth is fire.
He sprang out of bed and jerked open the blinds. The Woman tossed and moaned.
“I’m gonna burn this place to the ground.” He looked around, taking in the bleak panorama. “All of this has to go,” he grinned. “I’ll burn down every last inch of la Tranchée including myself and the Woman. It’ll be like burning down a forest to get rid of an invasive tree species. Once the weeds have been reduced to ashes, real life can begin to grow.” He scoured the apartment for flammable chemicals and matches.
“Hold it!” a voice shouted from somewhere.
Damien stopped dead in his tracks. “Who said that?”
“I did.” The Woman’s sleeping form was glowing. It was a different kind of glow than the ugly city light; pure and white, a magnolia’s petals, springtime.
“W-who are you?” Damien felt his chest tighten.
Something in his head had shifted. “What is going on?” His life algorithms were being reprogrammed. “Can you explain to me why I’m having all these bizarre thoughts?” He took a deep breath in. The shakiness of his out breath alerted him to the fact that his mood had tanked far below the danger line. “A second ago, I was going to burn down la Tranchée, now I’m getting cold feet about it?”
That was it! The vision of magnolias triggered by the Light. The Light! The Light had set something right in his head that had been misaligned. “And who is this Woman? Am I supposed to be in love with her? Who was I before I met her? I feel like this isn’t the real me, and this time is not the real time.”
“You are correct in a rudimentary way,” said the voice. “And it’s alright if you’re confused. I would be too if I had the limited perceptive capabilities of a human.”
“But, just what is a human? Who am I? And who are you?”
“Shouldn’t that be obvious?” The voice laughed. “I am you, you are me, We are All, and All is One. This may sound to you like a bunch of oracular mumbo jumbo, but it’s as close to the truth as you’ll ever comprehend.”
Damien began to sob. “Please, please just end the confusion! I don’t wanna be confused anymore. My actions, my thoughts, they don’t even make sense, please God,” he clasped his hands together; “please just allow the world I live in to be coherent, to have a point and a purpose and a solid reason for being. I’m sick of the chaos, the not-knowing, the complexity. I just want to live a simple life as a simple person. And when I die, can’t there just be Pearly Gates and Angels and a vending machine full of Arnold Palmers waiting for me?”
“Hmmm,” the voice contemplated Damien’s request for several minutes. “Alright, I’m going to set the dial of the Creation Engine to its most basic level. The story of the universe will go something like this:”
“Good mo-orning!” Mrs. Miller cooed as she knocked on Damien’s bedroom door.” “Breakfast is on the table.”
“Okay mom,” he schlepped out of bed and into his favorite pair of Lee jeans. In the bathroom, he brushed his teeth and spat into the sink. He popped a large zit on his temple. The pus left a speck on the mirror.
Two slices of French toast drizzled with syrup and butter awaited him on a porcelain plate next to a glass of milk. He wolfed the toast and downed the milk in one gulp.
“Don’t forget,” Mrs. Miller said, “you’ve got to sign up for the spelling bee today.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll ask Mrs. Feinman where I’m supposed to find the sign-up sheet. I have her for third block English, so that shouldn’t be hard to do.”
Mrs. Miller glanced at the Looney Tunes watch she had worn since forever ago, “better get outside; the bus’ll be here at six-fifty sharp.”
“Okay,” Damien extended the handle of his roller-pack and wheeled it down the concrete steps.
The yellow lights of the bus flashing in the distance reminded him of autumn although it was the middle of May. Every blossom that could bloom had flowered. Floral fragrances mixed with the fishy stench of fertilizer created a perfect antipode.
On the night of the spelling bee, the cafetorium was empty save for a few devoted parents, faculty members and the custodian who swung her mop listlessly around the folded-up lunch tables.
The number of contestants had dwindled down to two; Damien and a seventh grader named Lucy Fuhrman. Lucy had just correctly spelled ‘galvanized.’ Now it was Damien’s turn.
“Damien,” Mrs. Feinman smiled. A glint from her gold tooth caught his attention. “Your word is, ‘conditional.’”
Seriously? Damien laughed. An easy word like ‘conditional?’ If this keeps up, I’ve got this thing nailed.
He cleared his throat. “Conditional, C-O-N-D-,” a spear of pain shot through his right eye. He clutched his head and stumbled backward. A blinding, searing, excruciating light reflected off Mrs. Feinman’s tooth. He tried to think of the next letter, but every time he attempted to conjure it, the tooth shined brighter. The pain intensified and the ringing in his ears grew louder. He wrapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Damien?” Mrs. Feinman called to him through the microphone. “What’s the matter? Are you alright?”
“I can...ugh...” his head felt like it was going to explode. “I...can...still...” he fell to his knees. Teachers, security guards and concerned parents rushed the stage.
“Con...di...tion...al” he croaked.
“He’s having an allergic reaction,” shouted Mr. McDaniel, the vice principal. “Does anyone have an EpiPen?”
“Con...di...tion...al...love...LOVE! That’s...it!” Damien’s face contorted in agony. A torrent of white liquid splashed from his mouth. He puked again and again until the vomit ran down the front of the stage, erasing everything it touched like white-out. It wasn’t long before the entire cafetorium was an ocean of white.
Eventually, all that remained to distinguish one form from another were black lines. Then the lines vanished leaving only whiteness and sound. The sounds of confused shouts lingered. The world’s audio track fast-forwarded, rewound and looped around itself, creating a cacophony capable of inducing psychosis in even the most placid mind. The whiteness turned black and all sound ceased. When it became white again, every possible sound sounded at once. The world flickered from black to white, to black again, faster and faster until everything became gray. Tones of every frequency chimed sporadically. The blackness and whiteness recombined and flickered off. Then the world became colorless, odorless and silent. Somewhere, a gray cat smiled.
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