Memento Mori: Eleven – Don’t Save Us From The Flames
Alone With the Dead:
by Andrea Speed
Eleven – Don’t Save Us From The Flames
According to Dante, there were nine levels of hell, which each one very specific in its punishments and the rules for those who would dwell there. Of course he was a fiction writer with a strong sense of Catholicism and an infatuation with a pre-pubescent girl, and Gryphon didn’t believe in any sort of afterlife like heaven or hell – some kind of fabulous or terrifying kingdom where you got to frolic with angels or get anally probed by imps – as it was such fairy tale bullshit he couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind bought for it a second. Still, he did believe there could be types of hell, such as the things Human beings did to one another, because, as Jean-Paul Sartre so rightly proclaimed, hell was other people. Gryph knew that one personally. But he also knew that hell was sometimes your own mind.
Whether it was deliberate, or an accident of chemistry or biology or genes, a person’s mind could be a horrible place, a weapon and a sentence, and never was that more true than in a mental institution. No matter that it started around the turn of the century, and the things that got these people locked up for “insanity” were often not so much “madness” as things that could be ascribed to gross racism, sexism, and superstition. Although, not all of them; some of them were indeed mentally ill, naturally disturbed or driven bugfuck by this place and the things done to them here.
If hell was a concept, then it was a concept that was killing him. It was like drowning in gray water, in a sewage overflow, dirty water going down his throat and up his nose, filling him and not giving him a chance to breathe. It clogged his head, backed up in his windpipe, pooled in his gut and his lungs like a faulty drain. He may have been drunk, but he wasn’t drunk enough for this not to hurt, and not to sweep him away in a torrent of dark thoughts and black emotions, in memories he would give anything not to have ever again. He tried to let them sweep by him, over him, but it was coming in such a torrent that it was hard not to see it, to feel it, to be torn and cut and broken by the sheer weight of it. Hell; hell by definition was his life. He was the purgatory where the restless souls came to waste their time. He choked on bile, on the stale taste of pain, blood, the metallic tang of fear and adrenaline thick on his tongue.
He may have vomited, but he wasn’t sure, as he wasn’t sure he could feel his own body beyond some random sensations at periodic times. He wasn’t even sure if he was looking out of his own eyes or not. He was lost, dying in a sea of other people … or maybe he was other people. Did he know who he was exactly? Did he know he was a he? Maybe he wasn’t really anything at all.
In the blink of an eye he found himself sitting on a lawn chair under a pale sun, looking at a birdbath full of marbles surrounded by Grecian style plastic urns full of herbs and mints. His limbs felt heavy, and he wasn’t sure he could move. “You were getting in a whole freaky area there,” Hugh said. He was lounging in the neighboring lawn chair, wearing nothing but loud blue surfer shorts with a little green and yellow palm tree pattern on them, and black wraparound sunglasses. He had a tulip glass in his right hand, full of some slushy yellowish goop, with a slice of pineapple skewered through a red straw resting inside the glass. Hugh was very confident in his masculinity, but then again, he was also bisexual, so it was an odd dichotomy. “I told you not to come in here.”
“But I needed to.” He couldn’t, for the life of him, remember why that was.
“You come from a good home, don’t you?”
He let his head loll to the side so he could look at Hugh. With his well muscled bod and nice tan, he could have been a male model on holiday. “Huh? Are you goin’ somewhere with this?”
“Yes. You may joke all the time about your hippie, Renaissance Fair loving mother, but clearly she raised you well, and your home was happy, if eccentric. See, if you were from a really fucked up home, you’d know living with crazy people makes you crazy after a while; adapt or die. Ideally leave, but many people just don’t go for door number three, even when they damn well should.” He calmly took a sip of his pineapple daiquiri before continuing. “So imagine having a whole gaggle of crazy people living in your head, no matter how brief the time span. Did you really think you’d remain sane?”
He thought he could feel other people pounding at the walls of his mind, probably running through the halls and getting mud on his carpets. He was either shit faced or bugfuck himself, and wasn’t sure how you told the difference anymore. “I’m pretty sure that’s why I got drunk; I think I thought it would make it easier.”
“Doesn’t seem like it, does it?”
“Nope.” He slurped his daiquiri, and Gryphon was jealous. Didn’t he get a daiquiri? This was really his mind, after all; Hugh was just renting a corner.
“So how do you know about crazy people? Don’t tell me some kinda firefighters’ manual covers that, huh?”
He chuckled, but it was dry and almost bitter. He reclined his lawn chair all the way, so he was now staring straight up at the sky, and he put his drink down on the roof. Gryph wondered if he could steal it. “As much as I wish there were secrets between us, there just isn’t, is there? No matter how hard I tried. My mind to your mind, and all that Star Trek bullshit, right? You’re me, and I’m you, and we’re all together in a yellow submarine.”
He puzzled over that for a minute. “Did you mix a metaphor, or just spin completely out of control?”
“I’m not sure. That sounded a lot better in my head.”
“Must’ve.” He turned over on his side, curling up and looking at the edge of the roof and beyond, out into the unglamorous downtown part of Denver. Gryph knew that Hugh was referring to his fun childhood, which was as dysfunctional as all get out, but not something he liked to talk about. His father was an unbalanced, occasionally violent alcoholic, who was probably bipolar but never got properly diagnosed because he hated “headshrinkers”, and his mother was a moody co-dependent who was strangely needy to her children, who generally had to take care of her. Hugh and his sisters got out of their home as soon as they could – one ran away at sixteen, and never came home again – and when asked, Hugh usually said his parents were dead, even though they weren’t. His father eventually died of cancer, and his mother ended up in a home, but Hugh only put in a perfunctory appearance at the funeral, and was high on painkillers he got from a fellow firefighter. He felt he knew crazy, because both his parents had been crazy, and he was pretty sure he and his sisters were no better. “How’d you find me and pull me in here? I didn’t even know where I was.”
“Hey, I’m trained to find people in the midst of bad shit, and drag their asses out, remember? Fire or crazy dead people, doesn’t matter either way.”
“Good point.” He was tired, groggy, but he wasn’t sure if it was the booze or the insanity or all of it. “If I fall asleep, don’t take me over and get outta here.”
“Kid, I don’t think anyone can take you over now. If three’s a crowd, three dozen is a Human tidal wave. I’d be surprised if even you had control over you after all this was over.”
He just had to mention that, didn’t he? But rather than worry about it, he closed his eyes, and felt the warmth of a remembered sun on his face, slightly better than the real thing. This was a situation where he knew he might never wake up, but he wasn’t sure if he was all that sad about the prospect.
He woke up on the floor, the sound of voices in his head like the chattering of crows in the distance, and once more he felt heavy and feverish, like the meningitis had come back with a vengeance. Unless it was the booze. He just couldn’t tell anymore, and he found it hard to move. It was like he was swimming through semi-solid Jello. And, knowing his luck, it was the gross kind with marshmallows and celery bits in it.
He propped himself up on his hands and knees, the dusty floor over the former asylum betraying no telltale streaks of sunlight, so he couldn’t have been out for long. Something woke him up, he was sure something had, but maybe it was the incessant babbling in his own overstuffed head.
It was then he noticed how cold it was.
The temperature had dropped quite precipitously, enough that he was surprised his breath wasn’t coming out in clouds, and he thought he could feel frost on his arms. A chorus of voices suddenly started screaming Trespasser! in his head, loud enough to make him wince, and he sat back against the thin wall as a feeling of static electricity began to build in the room. His skin prickled, like he was being jabbed with a thousand tiny needles, and he could taste blood and bile in the back of his throat. With his new heavy limbs, he wasn’t sure he could stand, so he simply waited for the inevitable.
Was this like his dream? In a way, it was. The door was shoved open, leaving a track on the dirty floor, and the man who stood there was just a void, a negative shadow of a person. But even though he couldn’t quite see him in the dimness, he could see him, mostly because of what Laurel had given him. He had a face like a knife blade, sharp and angular, with cheekbones that could have cut glass, and eyes like piss holes in snow. His hair was thinning in the front, but he grew it long in the back, giving him an oddly messianic look, like a monk who could only shave his head so far before he gave up.
“You’re the one?” he said, in that smug, slightly contemptuous voice. “You’re just a boy. For all the trouble you’re causing, I expected more.”
Just like his dream. How did he know he wasn’t dreaming now? His head was full of crazy people, and Hugh did have a point – it was hard to remain sane when you lived among the inmates, but especially when you shared their minds. “What the hell kind of trouble am I causing, Louis?” He asked, just to see if he could change this scenario at all. “I haven’t slaughtered my family and scared the shit out of the dead.”
The static electricity was increasing, warming the room, and the rage building in his mind was black and terrible, the previous chaotic nature of it given laser focus by the arrival of Louis Stanhope. Gryphon just didn’t understand why, and none of these people could tell him coherently.
Louis chuckled, coming farther into the shell of the building. He wore all dark clothes, like a burglar – or an undertaker. “Thou shalt be no false idols before me, boy, and that’s what you are; a false idol.”
Oh fucking great, the nutball royal flush. He was a religious wacko, the lethal version of Ned Flanders. “I see. And why am I false, exactly? ‘Cause I fell into this? ‘Cause I fucking hate it?”
He could see Louis now, and it didn’t help. His face was stark, his expression haughty and superior, like he had just walked into an auto showroom with the intention of buying the most expensive Porsche on the lot. “Because there can only be one god.”
He glared at him, too gobsmacked to be anything but annoyed. “You can’t be serious. You think you’re god?” And here the fucker who tried to kill him only thought he was the angel Gabriel. Apparently he was just a minor league serial killer, or he just wasn’t aiming high enough. You had to have goals.
Louis cocked his head and raised a single eyebrow, examining him like he might an insect he found in his tuna salad. “I have the power to liberate the dead, to bring them into my kingdom … among other things.”
Gryphon suddenly felt himself slammed back into the wall as if hit by an invisible truck, the force pressing all the air out of his lungs and making him see stars explode before his eyes, fragments of white phosphorus skating over his corneas. “You see? You, boy, have no idea what you’re doing. You’re giving them false hopes, false endings, damning them all. I, on the other hand, bring them into the light. You are an agent of the devil; you are doing more harm than good.”
When he could get his breath back, it was Gryphon’s turn to chuckle. In his mind, there was a lot of churning, a rising dark tide, and the voices began to coalesce into a single one. He’s a slaver, a cannibal. He eats the dead. They couldn’t have meant that literally, but it was still disgusting to contemplate.
His laughter ticked Louis off. “What’s so funny?”
“You. You sacrifice your family for this power, but you fuck it up, so you have to start over. Where? In Utah, or just along the way? There’s lots of deserts in Nevada; a lot of good places to hide bodies, to let them bake and get torn apart by animals. How many did you kill before you got the power that I so infuriatingly stumbled into?”
He pursed his lips, a moue of disapproval that made him look like he was sucking an invisible lemon. “You do not speak that way to me.”
“Yeah, I do. I speak any goddamn way I want, ‘cause you’re a fuckin’ psycho.”
The pressure on his chest seemed to increase, making his ribs creak under the strain, as Louis glowered at him, his eyes dark and as dead as glass. If he had dead in him, there was no way to see them. “You don’t get it at all, do you boy? Not even after what happened to you. You’re dying, can’t you see that? Every time you allow one of them to leave, they steal some of your energy on the way; they’re robbing you of life in increments. Why? Because you’re a flawed vessel. You cannot command the dead ; they use you. You’re the puppet. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. I am the vessel of life; their energy powers into me, and through me. It fills me, and through their deaths my life increases. Do you see? I’ll never die, because I cannot. But you? You’re already on your way out. I can see the death around you.” He suddenly crouched down, so he was more or less at his eye level, and adopted a sympathetic expression that didn’t quite fit on his face; an imperfect mask that was sliding off as he spoke. “I can make it painless for you and your … charges. You will be accepted into the kingdom of heaven.”
Now that was fucking hilarious on so many levels. He was trying to sift through his crazy talk, but wasn’t sure he could. Was that what they meant by he “ate” the dead? He used their energy – for lack of a better term – to empower himself? That might explain why the dead wanted him dead – he wasn’t their “puppet”, but he was chugging them like beers during happy hour, and that couldn’t be a good thing. (Was he dying? Was that why he got so sick?)
Gryphon couldn’t hold them back any longer. He was sweating like he was in a sauna, the enclosed space was so hot from static electricity, and he thought he could feel it making the hair on his arms stand on end. He thought at first – and he bet Louis thought it too – that this was Louis’s doing, that his power was just so great it filled this room like ozone before a lightning strike. But Louis came in a wave of cold, sucking the energy out of the very air around him, but Gryphon knew from experience that’s not how his power worked. His power was a hot, destructive thing; a thing of broken glass and frozen time, a thing that knew no barriers and rode a wave of blistering anger.
And Louis was a trespasser in the home of people who had been waiting for nearly a century for a good target to take their hate out on. A patsy who liked to play god, just like the doctors who drilled holes in their skulls and cut out their organs just to see if it did anything at all. He didn’t even know, did he? If he had such power over the dead, why wasn’t he aware he was being surrounded?
Gryphon licked his lips, which seemed painfully dry, and said, “Laurel had a message for you.”
The slightest eyelid twitch at the name, but nothing more. “Oh?” He affected disinterested, and maybe it was true, but Gryphon didn’t care.
His head throbbed like an infected wound, one swollen with black bile and on the verge of popping, and he could almost feel the hands grabbing him and pulling him back, holding him down, in such a haste to get to this man that they would trample him in the process. “Burn,” he said, as he was yanked back into his mind, and the room exploded into flame all around them.