The sleeping bag had a hole in it the size of a clenched fist, and because of this I managed to get a good deal for it, or at least what the trader assured me was a good deal. He only wanted a book in exchange.
It had once been bright red but had faded to a dull maroon. The sleeping bag, not the book. Unfurled, it was shaped almost like a coffin—I tried to imagine myself nestling in that nylon sarcophagus, staring up at the smog-filled sky and the flickering shadows cast by terminally-ill streetlights, waiting to be found by someone who cared, or even someone who might grow to care. I tried. I really did. I failed again and again. I thrust my hands in my pockets and shrugged.
The trader, a man hawking an assortment of random objects on the side of the road, seemed encouraged by my hesitation. His entire inventory sat in a rusted shopping cart with a missing front wheel. There were stacks of DVDs bound together with elastics, a plastic milk jug filled with useless bits of metal. A nine-iron jutted from the cart at an angle, the figurehead of this down-and-out vessel.
The man rubbed his hands together. He smiled, revealing buckteeth that made him look cartoonish.
“Come dark you’re gonna want it.”
I squinted at the bag, stroking my chin. It’s not that I had any sort of rational reason to hesitate. The book meant nothing to me; I had stolen it from the library because that’s what seemed to be expected, and I didn’t want to let anyone else down. Its title had faded away, and the print was so small that if I stared at it too long the letters would crawl around the page like a disturbed nest of mites.
Maybe it was the way he talked. The man did not speak in the energized tone of the salesmen, but in a flat sort of way. Almost like a burned-out prophet, bored with revelations. He knew. Whether by my general air of aimlessness or some vagrant sixth sense, he knew that I had come from nowhere and had nowhere to go.
“Now’s not the time to be choosey,” he said.
Yes. The trader knew.
I looked both ways before offering the book. He handed me the bag slowly, carefully, as if it were a living thing. The cartoonish nature of the trader multiplied; he seemed more and more like a thing of bright colors and vibrant pastels, existing in a dimension all his own. Here he was, the animated hero, costumed and disguised, swindling a clueless adversary with dynamite and anvils. I half expected a piano to drop out of the hazy sky.
My brain throbbed from an almost giddy lack of hope and drugs. I closed my eyes and an image burned itself into the backs of my eyelids—a child in his Saturday morning best, curled in front of a TV, watching this whole scenario unfold. I imagined the child pointing and laughing at my impending misfortune. Boom goes the dynamite.
There was no malice in the laughter. It was just how things were meant to play out. This kid I had dreamed into existence had no reason to root for me. He only wanted to know that he was safe and cared for, and that these sorts of bombastic misadventures could not touch him from behind the television’s glass.
The trader flipped through the book and nodded. He kept on nodding. I think that was his way of telling me to get lost, but there was no way for me to be any more lost than I already was, so I just stood there and rocked on my heels.
The trader stopped bobbing his head.
“A place to sleep?”
He gestured at the surrounding buildings, at the whir of vehicles and patter of pedestrians, at everything and nothing.
“Take your pick,” he said.
“What about a shelter near here?”
He looked me up and down. I think he was making mental bets with himself over whether or not I would survive the night, the very same bets I had been making with myself for years now.
“You’re fresh,” he said.
Not a question. A calm statement. I stared at my sneakers, flimsy but intact—one day, months from now, my toes would poke out through them.
The trader grunted and began to push his wares down the street. He cocked his head to the side, motioning me to follow, and I did because this stranger was all I had in the world.
We walked, the trader and I, down a cracked sidewalk. I tried to make sense of my surroundings, tried to note street signs and memorize landmarks, but everything blurred together in an endless stretch of worn buildings and the people who belonged inside them. The noises didn’t help. I’m not talking about natural city-sounds, like the rush of traffic or distant gunshots, but things beyond the hearing of everyone else; whispers of a disappointed God, the beating of a single wing.
I hummed to myself to drown these things out. I turned to the trader, hoping that he would say something to distract me. He remained silent. I resisted the urge to plug my own ears.
Pedestrians kept their distance. Most kept their eyes forward the same way the trader did, refusing to acknowledge anything but their next step. Some looked down or stared at their phones. But whenever we passed each other, a chill crept along my spine as our two realms touched in a forbidden caress.
We were ignored by all, except for one woman.
Her blonde ringlets bobbed with her every step, making her look child-like despite the cracks of age spreading along her face. She held something in a closed fist. She moved as if to march right through us. She stopped in front of the trader’s cart and grinned.
“I have a gift for you,” the woman said. “Hold out your hand.”
The trader did so, and she dropped something onto his open palm. Then she said something in a language I did not understand—it sounded mythic, like a spell or incantation. Then she was gone, past us and fading back into her world.
Another grunt from the trader, as if this happened to him daily and the routine bored him. He held out his hand to me.
“Want it?” he said.
All I saw was a flash of green resting in his palm, the portrait of a dead president I could not name. I didn’t question his generosity. There was only my need and a chance it might be met. But the money, it felt all wrong between my fingers because it wasn’t money at all, just one of those religious tracts. Meals and hope, all evaporating in the wake of three-step salvation.
“No. No way.”
The trader bit down on his lower lip. I wanted to cry out for my mother, but I didn’t know where she lived, or if she was still living. I couldn’t even remember her face.
“No way,” I repeated.
“Backworldsmen,” he murmured.
Then he watched me for a long time. I think he wanted me to ask him what he meant, but I didn’t because I was afraid that whatever he told me would be more shocking than the fake currency clutched between my quivering fingers. Or worse, his words would make perfect sense, and my exile would be complete. There would be no going back.
The sky was beginning to darken. Streetlights rebelled against the gray twilight. The breeze whistled a dirge about dying trees shedding their leaves, a prelude to the cancerous winter.
We arrived at the shelter, and the shelter was full. I was informed of this by a young woman whom I might have tried to sleep with a year ago, but who now seemed like too much of a burden to love, even for a moment. Her hands were clasped together as if in prayer. I think she expected me to scream at her, but I just stared at the paling sky and my own pluming breath. There was no reason for me to yell because another voice was doing that already, uttering terrible and vile things. It was coming from the concrete beneath our feet, lurking just below the surface. I don’t think she caught any of it. But I heard every word.
When I turned around to find the trader, he was gone.
I pulled the sleeping bag over my shoulders and walked to a small park across the street. It really wasn’t much of a park, just a plot of grass with a few benches. People lounged, smoked, waited. There were a few tents up; I sat down and pretended to organize my stuff and kept an eye on them.
One of the tents rustled and opened and someone stepped out of its mouth—a man, more of a boy, really, wearing a smock and a name tag. He paused for a moment, staring into the maw of his nomad’s home. Then he zipped up the tent and walked away. He moved in a lumbering gait, dragging his heels, leaving trenches in the grass.
Once he was out of sight, I waited ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Then I crept over to the tent.
You have to understand. I couldn’t spend a night out in the open, alone. My body wouldn’t let it happen. Even in better circumstances, in a time not long past, I hardly slept. Even with the pills I no longer took, the pills that were supposed to make it easier to live, or at least make it harder to die.
I’d lie there and stare at the churning ceiling. My eyes burned bright in the dark, backlit by thoughts tumbling one over the other. Catastrophic montages of things which had not yet happened. Arms, legs, they were charged and tight and throbbed like seismic beacons, crying out for attention. This hyperawareness made the body a prison. There was no drifting into void or dream or nightmare; there was only a cage of meat and bone and a soul throwing itself against the bars.
All of this doubled in open spaces. I couldn’t bear the disdain of the electric lights. The streets talked too much. They never lied, and I hated them for it.
I needed something, anything, to protect me, even if that something was borrowed and temporary. I needed to sleep, or things would just keep getting louder. The prognosis was immutable. The prescription unattainable. But I would try anyway because that’s the only thing I’m any good at. Trying.
I unzipped the tent flap and poked my head in. A sharp intake of breath. Not from me, but from her.
“Oh,” I said.
The girl’s eyes widened. She held a bundle against her chest. All was silent save for a quiet suckling.
I looked from the girl to the baby she was feeding. My veins went tight, coursed with acid. Envy wriggled in my closed fists. Whether I was more jealous of the mother or child, I did not know.
I expected the girl to scream at any moment. I didn’t know what I would do when she did.
But she defied my expectation. She did not scream, only moved with serpentine grace, cradling the child in one arm, reaching out with the other. The hand came up. In it was something metal and sharp. A shiv or a syringe. She brandished it in my direction.
“You’ll wake him,” she whispered.
“I would never,” I said.
But that was a lie.
The infant unlatched; it took one look at me and wailed.
“I’m not a monster,” I said. “I’m not.”
But as I ran away from girl and child, the sleeping bag fluttering behind me like the cape of some cowardly hero, I wondered at this. What sort of menace was I, in their eyes? There was this feeling, a tightness in my head, that seemed to mark their perception as my reality. I tried to fight the tumble of thoughts damming up my brain. Each attempt ended in failure.
Running was the only thing to do. No destination, no purpose, just blind flight. When I finally buckled over, sputtering and gasping, I had lost all sense of place. I’d been swallowed whole by a concrete beast; it was breaking me down into nutrients and amino acids and waste. It was pulling me apart into something unrecognizable.
“Hop in, motherfucker,” a nearby trashcan said to me. “Hop in and ride this one out.”
Eyes squeezed shut. Counted to ten. Reopened them. The trashcan said nothing else. I tipped it over and moved on.
There was so much emptiness in those hours. The evening sky seemed frozen in its creep toward full-dark. Minutes became immortal. I lived ten-thousand lifetimes under an eternal dusk, but I can’t recall a single one. All that remains is a cascade of images, less than memory yet somehow more tangible than photographs because these moments were unfiltered and unguided by an artist’s hand.
I crossed an alleyway and caught someone shooting up, needle already steeped in a bulging purple vein. He apologized to me. You may not believe it, but he did.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I don’t have any more. I’m so sorry.”
I told him to stop crying, that everything was cool, but he wept anyway. He genuinely wanted to give me something; he wanted to give me the best thing he had and was crushed that he couldn’t. His face is lost to me. But I remember his tears; they cut paths down his filthy cheeks like shards of glass.
By fate or chance, I saw the Backworldsmen again. She was eating in a diner, surrounded by people who looked just like her, all rouged and smiling with their teeth. I watched them eat from the sidewalk. Before I knew what I was doing, I rapped on the glass. Look at me, I thought. Recognize me. She didn’t. At first, she ignored me, and when she could ignore me no longer, she approached a heavyset man behind the counter and pointed in my direction. A piece of garbage fluttered by and shouted obscenities as it passed. Or maybe I did. It doesn’t matter.
But seeing her again reminded me of the dollar shaped tract I had in my front pocket. I sat under a statue of a man long forgotten and read it twice over. I felt embarrassed. Foolish, even. According to the text, the gospel message was supposed to be so accessible that even a child could understand it. Why, then, did the whole thing seem unattainable, like the slumber-filled daydreams of the insomniac? Maybe the hand of God couldn’t fit through the crack I had fallen into.
I liked the part about the things John saw, though, when everything ended and the trumpet sounded and the dead rose in order to witness the old earth’s last gasps, free from internment in its bowels, grinning at this final revenge.
They were the kinds of things I could imagine myself seeing someday.
Evening was not as eternal as I thought. Night finished its slow creep across the sky. Garish, artificial light bathed everything in a cold fluorescent glow. I shivered and wrapped the sleeping bag tighter around me. I was crossing a bridge overlooking a river known for its pollution. Not far across the water, there was another bridge nearly identical to this one. And ahead of me was something else, perched on the bridge’s ledge.
At first I thought it was a gargoyle. Then I realized it was moving, tottering back and forth, and I thought it might be some evil creature come to carry me off. When it turned out to be none of these things, I was disappointed and relieved.
I waved at the woman perched on the ledge; I cleared my throat and said something unintelligible and hoped she’d be willing to talk with me.
Her gaze swiveled in my direction. She tilted her head to the side and watched me for a long moment. Then she turned away. I stood beside her and gazed down at the black water below.
“Aren’t you afraid of falling?” I said.
I realize now how idiotic that question was. She stared at me again. Everything about her was jagged. If I had touched her, I think I would have cut myself. A sudden gust of wind sliced through my skin and went straight to bone. I wrapped the sleeping bag around my shoulders, shivered.
“It’s not so cold,” she said.
Whether she was talking about the river or the wind or life itself, I didn’t know. All I knew was that she had not run from me or threatened violence. The only thing to do was barrel forward before her goodwill ran out.
“A place to sleep?” I said.
Her eyes were bright pinpricks against the night, probing, searching, finding. She saw and, like the trader, she knew.
“The weather hasn’t turned fully yet. You can sleep anywhere. Pick a bench.”
“I can’t. Not in the open.”
“How long have you been out here?”
“A few days.”
“Well, where did you sleep before?”
“I didn’t. I never have, even before this shit.”
The bitterness in my own tone caught me off guard—it was almost as if the words had been spoken by somebody else standing behind me, somebody with clenched teeth and a knife in their hand. I peeked over my shoulder. The only thing there was my shadow.
The woman snorted and turned away. She began rocking again in an almost infantile movement, back and forth, gaining momentum. The whole thing would have been funny if she hadn’t been inching closer and closer to a long drop.
“Wait.” I reached out but did not touch her. “I don’t want to die yet.”
I know I had no right to do that, to tie my fate so intimately with hers. I wish I could say that I had no control over the words, that they just leapt up my throat and out of my mouth without warning. But they were calculated; they were as measured as a dose of poison. If you are going to despise me, if I am meant to be the object of your disdain, let it be for that and for nothing else.
She stopped her fatal fidgeting. She turned and regarded my outstretched hand, her expression slack, as if she had already been lost to the tainted waters. We stayed like that for a long moment.
The woman did not take my hand. But she did climb back onto the safety of the sidewalk. A low sigh escaped her lips, and she caressed the ledge with the tips of her fingers, a promise to return.
“Come on,” she said.
Only when we walked side by side did I realize how brittle and skeletal she was. A strange odor emanated from her, one I couldn’t place; it burned my nostrils and got lodged in my throat. This is how ghosts smell, I thought. Like twilight and smoke.
As we made our way to a destination unknown, we talked. She wanted to know how I had come to this.
I wasn’t ready for the question—I should have been, but I wasn’t. I had made up stories in preparation for this kind of situation, falsehoods about apartment fires and foreclosures and how I had been a victim of the spontaneous cruelty of a laughing god. But her eyes, I could feel them sear my skin. I held these stories back because I couldn’t bear it if even my lies were misunderstood.
The truth of it was that the people who had once loved me had run out of patience, and I had run out of whatever it was that kept me going, whatever dream or notion that promised that I might someday become a part of this world.
I ran my tongue along the inside of my cheeks, over the roof of my mouth. I tried to speak those exact words, but my vocal cords betrayed me and said this instead:
“I fell behind.”
She nodded and let the subject drop. In that moment, I would have died for her, given the chance. I would have taken her place on the ledge. She only needed to ask.
Somehow, we got to talking about the tract. I held it out to her and when she realized what it was, she waved it away.
“I know what it says,” she said.
“Do you believe?”
“Eternity. It’s too long.”
She offered no further explanation. I owed her something, some sort of response or even a rebuttal. But how could I when I did not even know what I believed? I flipped to the end of the pamphlet and pointed at the text.
“It talks about John here. His revelations.”
“What about them?”
“They seem, I don’t know, real to me. You know?”
She said nothing.
“You should call me John the Baptist.”
“Wrong John,” she said again. “There’s two—the Baptist and the apostle. You’re thinking of the apostle.”
“What’s the difference?”
“They’re separate people. That’s the difference.”
“No—which one saw the revelation?”
“I could be like him. I could see things no one else could.”
“Pray you don’t.”
It was too late for that.
She led me to a squat structure that looked diseased; there were large gouges in its façade of rotting brick, and half of the roof had either caved in or been torn off. There were streetlamps around, but they refused to do their job — the only light was an orange glow gleaming from behind broken windows.
Inside, the building was gutted, save for a trashcan fire and a loose collection of people scattered about. A few warmed their hands by the flames. Some lurked in dim corners and did things they could not do in the light. Others slept. Two or three glared at us as we entered, but they quickly turned away, back to their own thoughts of survival.
Whatever purpose this place had been designed for had been lost, and we were the evidence of its creator’s failure. I crawled inside my sleeping bag and curled up in the eviscerated corpse of a forgotten time. My foot poked through the hole in my sleeping bag. I gazed up at the remains of the roof and the remains of the sky. It made me sick, seeing them side by side like that. I clamped my eyes shut and hoped that one or both would go away.
When I reopened my eyes, they remained—but the woman had turned to leave. There was no stopping it. No forethought, just action. My hand whipped out and clutched at her ankle. She tensed but did not kick me away.
She stared down at me with an empty expression. I tightened my grip—not to stop her from leaving, but to keep my hand from trembling.
“Please,” I said. “Stay. At least until I fall asleep.”
I obeyed instantly. I thrust my arm in the sleeping bag, ashamed. She had every right to leave, but she didn’t. Not then, not yet. Her features changed as she sat down next to me. She had become every woman I had ever known. She had become forgotten mercies incarnate.
Enfolded in her shadow, I slept and saw the end of all the worlds.
There was a tugging sensation, wrenching me away from my prophetic dreams; I opened my eyes and fell back to earth.
Three men crouched around me, their eyes alight with reflected fire and ill intent. One of them clung to my exposed foot with both hands.
“It’s not for you,” the man holding my foot said. “You don’t belong in it.”
The world, I thought, he means the world. But which one? I wanted to ask, but the question, it was so goddamn hard to frame. The words got caught in my dry throat. Only one managed to break free.
“The bag. The bag ain’t yours.” He wiggled my foot. “I’d recognize this hole anywhere. It’s Fuller’s bag.”
“It’s mine now,” I said.
“So you admit you stole it.”
My heart turned on its side and blubbered.
“No, man. No. I gave him a book for it.”
The three men regarded each other. They reminded me of trolls, trying to decide how to cook their victim. They came to some sort of agreement.
I shook my head.
“What book?” the troll said again.
“I don’t know.” My eyeballs were ready to burst. “I don’t remember.”
They all looked at each other again. One of them massaged his bearded chin and puckered his lips. I surged forward with what I hoped was the truth.
“He gave me this.”
I held out the tract; a troll took it, examined it. Then he spat in my face.
“Now I know you’re lying. Fuller don’t believe in no God.”
“No. It’s not like that.”
But to them it was. They tore me from my cocoon, all three of them, and dumped me onto the concrete floor, and when I tried to stand my head exploded in a gout of white-hot pain. I curled in on myself like a dying pupa.
The woman. The woman would save me. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She had gone. I was about to cry out for her, but a sudden realization slammed my mouth closed. She had been my mother, she had nurtured me in my new home, and I had not even bothered to learn her name.
The trolls, having claimed their prize, finished with me. They tossed me out of the building. I crawled away on my hands and knees. Slowly got to my feet. Limped away. Blood dripped down my chin in elastics. How long had I managed to sleep? Two, three hours? It had seemed longer. I had seen so much.
There was only one place left for me to go.
I did eventually find a bridge—not the one I had been looking for, but its twin. I tried to laugh. All that came out was a dry wheeze. Then I saw it, a white glow beneath the overpass.
Underneath the bridge was a small gravelly beach. Black water slapped at the shoreline, carrying with it the stench of scum and abandoned things. There, reading by an electric lamp, was the trader.
“Fuller?” I called.
Fuller glanced up from his book. I joined him by the water’s edge. We sat side by side and watched dawn creep over the opposite bridge. He did not ask me where the sleeping bag had gone or why I was bruised and bloodied. We spoke of other things. He told me what he believed and why he believed it.
“This is it,” he said, and gestured to our surroundings, the colorless gravel, the monochrome city. “This is all there will ever be.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
We sat there and Fuller dispelled the lies of others and told lies of his own. I couldn’t take any more of it.
“You’re the same,” I said. “You’re both wrong.”
I waded into the water. It wasn’t cold. Fuller called out to me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he screamed. “There’s nothing there, nothing at all.”
But there was, he just couldn’t see it. He shouted and shouted. I kept wading until I was waist deep.
“You can’t stop me,” I said. “I’m John. From the Bible.”
“Both of them, I think.”
One deep breath and I was under. I opened my eyes in oily darkness as still as a womb. When I reemerged, I heard a ripping noise, like a veil being torn, and I saw the sun crowning the horizon.
The sky opened. The fingers of God crept along my eyeballs and lit up the world in neon implosions. There, on the opposite bridge, a star was falling, and then it was lost. A trumpet sounded and angels poked holes in the atmosphere, and shafts of light rained down on the world of men. A great set of wings enveloped me, drew me close to a being of refracted holiness, and this being had no body, had no flesh, only a face beyond recognition, a face that claimed to know all.
Lips of alabaster moved, and this is what they told me:
It gets easier.
Can you understand how those words saved me? Will you believe me if I tell you that it was the very untruth of that statement that kept me alive? If something this beautiful, something born in heaven, could be so completely wrong, then maybe, just maybe, there was hope that someday I’d be right.