Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 



A Beautiful New Cage by Will Jacques

Artwork: A Beautiful New Cage by Will Jacques

In This Skin
Damir Salkovic

 

Icy rain had thinned the traffic almost to the point of vanishing, but the gray clouds had relented and a weak, watery sun was streaming through. Twelve miles west of the city, the vista of suburbs repeated like a pattern. Wet trees dripped on the sides of the highway, thrust bare, dead branches up into the leaden sky.

Landis swung the car past the blinking barriers and orange construction signs and let it creep down the muddy gravel track, steering around the deepest ruts. The community center squatted in the middle of a sprawling no-man’s-land bracketed by two demolition sites. Constructions machines, brooding and silent, rose from the wreckage like slumbering beasts. His eyes darted about, looking for straggling workmen, or teenagers intent on mischief. There was no one around. He nosed the car into a space between two piles of rusted piping and killed the engine. Patting his pocket to make sure the key was still there, he took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped out.

His left foot sloshed in a puddle and his sock and shoe were instantly soaked through. Cursing, he slammed the door and squelched away from the warmth of the car. A clammy chill seeped down the back of his collar. He walked up the gravel slope to the barriers. From the road, the car was invisible. A solitary pickup truck rolled by. He waited until it was out of sight, dragged one of the orange signs to the side and started back down.

Dull afternoon light invested the harsh concrete planes and angles of the structure with a kind of dreary splendor, an almost dignified ugliness. The cracked cement slab in front of the entrance sprouted a patchy covering of weeds. Layers of obscenities in spray-paint and chalk ran across the pitted walls in curling arabesques, twined around doors and windows boarded up with planks and iron nails. Shadows pooled in blind corners slimed black with mold. The entrance door wore garlands of corrugated chains. He took the key out and tried it in the padlock. It turned as if oiled and the chain clattered at his feet. Rust stained his hands, flaked onto his coat. He turned the handle and pulled.

Stale air gusted from within, reeking of damp and mildew and worse. Sunlight the color of dishwater fell through the glassless skylights. Motes of dust swirled in the empty vestibule. When Landis was a child, the walls of the community center had been painted a sickly yellow and decorated with inept paintings by local amateur artists. Now the plaster had fallen off, leaving elaborate configurations of cracks and stains, great maps drawn by an insane cartographer. Sodden, pestilent carpeting, worn through in places, spread from wall to wall.

Of the place as it once was, Landis retained only the vaguest of memories. He and his mother had moved to the city when he was six, decades before the neighborhood was swallowed and digested by urban sprawl. It was not a time he wanted to revisit. He searched his mind, brought up a clutter of disjointed impressions: a squat, silent structure rising from one end of a somnolent tree-lined street, a vast open space, shadowy and threatening, his mother’s hand, warm and clammy, engulfing his own. The impressions were so ephemeral that he couldn’t tell whether they were actual recollections, or fragments of something heard or seen in a movie.

Not that it made a difference. A month from now, six weeks at most, the cranes and bulldozers would migrate from the neighboring demolition sites and tear down these slimy, mildew-infested walls. Repossessed for tax delinquency, the center had been rotting on the township’s balance sheet since the late nineties. The town fathers were eager to get rid of it, and Felix Tessier, Landis’s client, was willing to take it off their hands for a pittance.

What had begun as a promising, if highly speculative, investment idea had taken months of bribes and blackmail and painstaking research to come to fruition. All it had taken was someone with vision and a keen business instinct. Someone like Felix Tessier. According to rumors, the man had a taste for risk and a seemingly illimitable supply of dirty cash. Landis wasn’t inclined to credit rumors. He dealt in facts. Within a year or two, the city would put a freeway right through the property, sending its value skyrocketing. When that happened, Tessier stood to make an obscene amount of money. If Landis played his cards right, a significant chunk of that money would end up in his own pocket. That was all he needed to know.

He started walking back toward the car and halted. Halfway up the graveled rise, a man was standing, watching him. It was too far to make out much detail: a sallow face above a shapeless black coat, shoulders hunched, hands thrust in pockets. Landis started uphill, his best professional smile in place, then checked himself. His eyes narrowed to slits. The smile sagged at the corners. A white priest’s collar gleamed around the figure’s neck. He proceeded warily, scanning the silent construction sites. Protesters. Where there was one, there would be others, and the religious types were the worst of all. He would have to handle this with care, preferably before Tessier and his entourage showed up.

Bleeding hearts and aggrieved God-freaks could kill the project before it got off the ground. Last month, the mayor’s office had publicly announced a plan to sell part of a blighted inner-city neighborhood to a huge land development consortium. Within twenty-four hours, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets to demand the preservation of the ghetto as a cultural heritage site. The cable networks had descended in force and the investors had backed out, citing negative publicity. The realtor brokering the sale had lost a six-figure commission. Landis was aware he was skating on thin ice. The deal had to be closed swiftly and quietly, without inviting closer scrutiny.

Up close, the priest looked old and frail, his face gray and grooved with wrinkles. He gave no sign of having noticed the real estate agent. Landis cleared his throat, feeling awkward, casting a look at the top of the slope where Tessier’s car would appear. Not very far, distant traffic rushed on.

“It’s begun,” the priest said, without turning to face Landis. “Almost like watching a funeral. Soon it will be gone the way of the other hallowed places. I suppose such is the nature of all things, to slip into oblivion.”

This had to be a reference to the town church, a run-down affair at the intersection of what passed for the two main thoroughfares. Landis allowed himself to relax a little. Not a frothing Bible-thumper, just an old parish priest making the rounds of the community he once served. “Did you, er, spend a lot of time here, Father?”

“We came in on occasion.” The man’s head moved up and down as if on a mechanism. “Each time we brought gifts. There was something about the place that made you lose yourself in it, loosened your hold on this world. Infinities would pass as hours. All moments would be one single present.”

“Centuries?” Now that Landis could examine the old man at his leisure, he saw that he must revise his earlier estimate. The pallid face was slack and lifeless, sharp planes of the skull pushing under the skin like knives. Scraggly stubble crept up the scrawny neck like a fungal disease and the inside of the collar was ringed in grime. The bulky black coat was moth-gnawed and stained and reeked like something left to molder in a dank cellar for years. Glassy eyes stared straight ahead, the pupils huge and black. Old parish priest was no longer a plausible category. Escapee from a mental institution, or a nursing home, seemed more like it. Maybe the old lunatic could while away centuries, but Landis had no time for this. He spoke slowly, enunciating each word. “Father, you might be confused. Can I help you? Are you lost?”

“Have you ever been lost?” The wispy head swiveled in Landis’s direction. The eyes, suddenly sharp, regarded him with unsettling interest. “Most of us squander our lives in pitiful obscurity. We live and die with nothing to aspire to, nothing to dream of, when we could use them to serve a higher purpose. Something greater and more dreadful than we can imagine.” He made a noise between a grunt and a sigh and resumed his staring. “They leave their mark on you. No one ever just passes through. Everything you thought you’d left behind comes around again.” A grin split the lower half of his face, widened, widened. “Perhaps this world is a dream, and you’re still trapped inside, lost and afraid, beating your fists against the walls. Looking for a way out.”

“Right.” Landis took a step back. The man’s words stirred something inside him, an almost-memory that slipped and changed when he tried to examine it closely: dark walls closing in, living shadows splashed over a painted backdrop. A hole pulsing pure, glistening black. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to – ”

The sound of the engine spared him from finishing the sentence. Moments later, the mud-streaked chrome grille of Tessier’s Lincoln crested the slope, gears downshifting, tires churning up wet gravel. Waving his arms, Landis hurried up toward the approaching car. Brakes squealed and the front of the Lincoln dipped to a stop a few feet from him. A small, neat man in dark glasses gazed at him from behind the wheel, mouth turned down in a moue of distaste. Landis had seen the driver before. His name was Walker, and he occupied the unlikely triple role of Felix Tessier’s chauffeur, bodyguard and financial advisor. Landis found the scowl and the dark glasses a touch too melodramatic, but he was smart enough not to broach the subject. Repressed viciousness surrounded Walker like a noxious cloud.

The rear window rolled down and Tessier looked out, cool and collected in an immaculately tailored three-piece suit, not a hair of his hundred-dollar haircut out of place. He gave Landis a critical once-over and raised an eyebrow.

“Everything all right?”

Landis was painfully aware of his appearance: wild-eyed and disheveled, tie askew, trousers spattered and streaked, handmade Italian shoes soaked through and caked with reddish mud. His confusion was replaced by a bright, hot flush of anger. Here he was, up to his ankles in mud, getting ready to grovel before this oily crook, this lowlife on whom his future depended. “There was a man here,” he said, turning to point down the slope. The black-clad figure was already at the bottom, disappearing between two parked bulldozers.

Tessier saw the figure too, and his facade of composure evaporated, something cold and hard pushing through. “I thought I told you to keep a low profile,” he said, his voice dropping a register, becoming guttural. “What part of that don’t you understand, Landis? Who was that?”

“He’s nobody,” Landis said, looking away. Shame and hate flooded him; his fingernails sank into the flesh of his palms hard enough to draw crescents of blood. “Just a crazy old man. He didn’t see anything.” Tessier’s face was expressionless. From the driver’s seat, Walker watched him with amused contempt. Without a word, the window rolled up, the engine thrummed and the car moved downhill. He trudged behind it, chilled to the bone. A cold, steady drizzle had started up and gave no sign of stopping.

As soon as the Lincoln was parked, Walker jumped out and vanished behind the building. “Checking the perimeter,” Tessier said, and lit a cigarette. The architect got out of the car, a large leather folio under one arm, a camera case slung over the other. She ignored Landis and opened the folio for Tessier’s perusal. A large, glossy photo showed the derelict community center and the demolition sites. The next few shots were overlaid with computer-generated drawings. In them, the building disappeared; a strip of highway stretched across the barren landscape; a gleaming structure of glass and steel sporting a forest of bright signs rose above a huge parking lot. Tessier’s eyes flicked from the glossies to the building. He nodded once or twice, but otherwise remained silent. Looking offended, the architect left him and walked around the building, snapping photos, gravel crunching under her pumps. Landis shifted his weight from foot to foot and offered a silent prayer for the ordeal to end.

“Didn’t you grow up around here?” Tessier asked, his gaze riveted to the dreary, disfigured face of the community center. No use wondering how he had come to possess that particular piece of information: a man like Tessier left nothing to chance, couldn’t afford to in his chosen profession.

“We moved away when I was a small boy,” Landis replied, feeling a growing sense of dislocation and unease come over him. “Haven’t been back until today.”

“Did you ever come to the center? Back when it was still open?” Tessier’s voice was dreamy and distant. Walker came around the building and gave his boss the all-clear.

“Yes,” Landis said, surprising himself. In spite of the cold, sweat broke out on his brow. He shook his head, trying to loosen the images taking root behind his eyes. “I got – I got lost in there once.”

“Lost?”

“I wandered off and took a wrong turn somewhere.” Up on the slope, the architect pointed and clicked, pointed and clicked. Greasy light leaked from the sky, crawled over dirty brick and broken concrete. The day shuddered and contracted, skewed out of focus. Walker had taken off his glasses and was looking from his boss to Landis and back, faintly alarmed.

“Some places are like that.” Tessier’s face softened around the edges, relaxed into a wistful smile. “You’re only lost if you do not believe you’re lost.” He snapped out of his reverie, looking slightly embarrassed, and motioned to the architect. “I want this to go smoothly. There’s a lot of money on the line. You’re not going to disappoint me, are you, Landis?”

“You won’t be disappointed,” Landis replied. He no longer felt the cold because the one inside him was greater. The faces around him wavered; disjointed imagery paraded through his head. A headache was starting to settle at the base of his skull.

“Good.” Tessier seemed about to say something else, but didn’t. “I’ll let you handle the rest, then. Call me when they’re ready to sign.” He turned away and walked to the car. Walker raced to open the door for him. Neither man paid any attention to the architect, who piled into the back, struggling with her folio and camera. As they drove off, Landis caught a glimpse of Tessier’s face, a white smear in the dark-tinted glass, staring up at the decayed hulk of the building.

Over the horizon, daylight ebbed slowly. He hurried back to the refuge of the car, turning up his collar against the rain.

#

He dreamed that night, dim nightmares of pursuit, of domination and forced self-abasement, of flight down endless, narrow corridors that never ended. Ghostly figures shifted on the edge of his vision, dispersed like smoke when he came near. Small and afraid, he moved as one moves in dreams, the walls streaming past him like frames of film, deeper toward some unknown terminus. Faces, waxen and lifeless, gazed down at him from up on high, masks mounted on sticks and nailed to the masonry. Many were crude and half-formed, the visages of strangers; but others he recognized, and that was the worst of all. The twisting corridors gave into an enormous sunless grotto, filled from side to side by a circular hole. Viscous blackness welled up from underneath, seething and bubbling softly. Constellations flared and whirled in its depths, distant and indifferent; nebulae blazed in incandescent colors. Whispers drifted from within, the shriek of careening stars, the hiss and roar of worlds cracked asunder. Invisible fingers caressing the intricate folds of his brain. Standing at the rim, the priest opened his arms. He ran into them and the frozen vacuum sucked the tears from his cheeks.

#

When he woke the next day the sun was high in the sky and he felt drained and disoriented, the familiar corners of his apartment strange and somehow menacing. His cell phone registered several missed calls and two voicemail messages from irate clients. One of the calls was from his connection at the town office. He called back and was informed that the sale had been approved and the papers would be ready to sign the day after the next. Some dim part of him tried to attach significance to the news, but he felt nothing at all. Tessier wasn’t picking up his phone and his assistant hadn’t seen him at the office all day. An uneasy rolling in the bowels deterred Landis from asking further questions. He dressed quickly and went out.

The phone rang while he was running errands around town. The number on the screen was unknown. It was the architect, near tears and almost hysterical, demanding to know what was going on and accusing him of putting crazy ideas in their mutual client’s head. He denied the accusations as best he could and managed to calm her down enough to get the full story. There had been a change of plan. Tessier had called her in the middle of the night to let her know he no longer wanted the community center razed; instead, it would be restored to glory, its rotten walls scoured of slimy damp, its crumbling roof patched up, its exterior altered and chiseled to conform to his own inner vision.

“It doesn’t make sense,” the architect said, sniffing. “I mean, you’ve seen the place. It’s the ugliest building I’ve ever seen. Hideous. An affront to good taste.” She articulated each word a little too precisely. Landis suspected she was drunk, or halfway there. “What am I supposed to do? Give the whole thing up? Grin and bear it and hope I don’t end up a laughing-stock?”

“He could change his mind again.”

“Easy for you to say.” She scoffed. “You get your deal no matter what.” Recrimination crept back into her voice. “You’re not telling me everything. Something’s going on at that place, and you and Tessier are in on it. Is that what this land deal is all about? Some kind of ploy to hide his real business?”

“I had nothing to do with this,” Landis said. He remembered little of his visit to the community center. Something about it nagged at the back of his memory, vague but terribly distressing. There was no response. She had hung up.

The feeling of dislocation, of the mundane turning strange and unfamiliar, remained with him throughout the day. Wanting to smooth things over, he met one of his irate clients at a trendy restaurant and found himself unable to focus on the conversation. The words fell on his ears without making sense, snatches and phrases in a strange language; he heard nothing, understood nothing. Had he really sat here before – countless times before – listening to this droning babble, uttering the same lines, going through the same stilted motions, nodding and smiling along? How could he not have known? The food tasted like wet sawdust. The waitress who brought his meal and took the half-eaten plate away was a wax mannequin moving with jerky, marionette strides. Behind the fixed, automatic grin, her eyes spoke of a horror beyond horrors.

The vista outside was no better: cardboard houses and paper lawns under a canvas sky. An empty stage strewn with unconvincing props, a parody of meaning, banal to the point of absurdity. Something was happening to him, something profound which he didn’t yet understand. He knew he couldn’t stay at the restaurant any longer. Mouthing the usual platitudes, he paid the check and left the astonished client at the table.

The street and the city melted away in a seamless transition. He was back in his apartment, seated on his bed, fully clothed. Muddy footprints tracked across his bedroom floor. His socked feet were wet and dirty and his white silk shirt was stained with rust. Someone was knocking on the door. He vaguely remembered that he was supposed to be somewhere, show a prospective client around, but when he tried to think about it his mind veered off into emptiness. He got up and went to the door.

Walker was standing on the other side, and Walker didn’t look good. Gone were the perpetual scowl and the army-issue sunglasses; he was pale and unshaven, his hair standing up in tufts. Deep circles ringed his bloodshot eyes. His clothes looked like he’d slept in them for days and he smelled of old booze and cigarette ash. He pushed past Landis and staggered from room to room, turning on the lights.

“Where is he?” he asked. When Landis only stared at him, he reached under his arm and took out a large revolver. A tic worked furiously under his eye. “What have you done with him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Landis replied. He was meeting Felix Tessier, he now remembered, but why had Tessier’s driver come here alone? “I’ve got business. I should go.”

The muzzle of the gun rose unsteadily, pointing at his face. “You’re not going anywhere,” Walker said softly. Whatever shock had come to him was wearing off. “Who do you work for? I’ll find out one way or another. No one has to get hurt.”

“If this has to do with the deal – ”

“To hell with your deal.” In a flash, Walker had closed the distance between them and rammed the gun into Landis’s ribs. His breath was hot and rank. “He made us go back there. To that place. Made us go through the door. It’s bigger inside, much bigger. It goes on forever.” He made a sound between a gasp and a sob. “He turned a corner and was gone. Just like that. Fallen off the face of the earth.” He jerked back and stared at Landis wide-eyed, as if terrified by his own words. “I could hear his voice, impossibly far off, like it was coming from inside the walls. Screaming. Turned the place upside down, but I kept ending up back where I began.”

“I can’t help you,” Landis said. “No one can.”

“Bullshit.” Walker swayed in place, like a man who has been punched. The pressure of the gun barrel forced Landis up on the balls of his feet. “I’m going back to find him, and you’re coming with me. You know who’s behind this. Don’t try anything cute, or you’ll be sorry.” He pushed Landis out of the apartment and followed him into the hallway. “The car is outside. You’re driving.”

#

Headlights swept over the abandoned construction site. Rain danced in the moving beams. Walker hadn’t spoken a word since leaving the apartment, but Landis could hear him in the back seat, muttering to himself. Moonlight softened the forbidding shape of the building, concealed the blind holes of windows, the filth and the obscene scrawlings. How could he not have seen it before? There was beauty in its decay, a pattern in the confusion of its floors and halls. He remembered it all so clearly now: how the place had taken him in, nestled him in its walls. How the viscid darkness had whispered and caressed, soothed away the terrors of his childhood, unknitted and remade him in another image. Without knowing it, he had told Tessier the truth: he had gotten lost, wandered away from his sanctuary. But he had found his way back.

Behind him, Walker gave a sharp intake of breath. The lights fell on a white Prius parked by the entrance. The driver’s side door was open and the dashboard glowed in the darkness. Landis recognized the car; it belonged to the architect. He pulled in behind it and waited.

“Out,” Walker said, opening his door. They walked over to the Prius and peered through the windows. “She must have gone in. Lead the way, Mr. Landis.”

The chain and padlock lay on the ground. Walker clicked on a flashlight and prodded Landis with the gun. Silence greeted them inside the threshold. Their footfalls echoed through the deserted corridors, the beam dancing along the mildewed walls. “Jesus,” Walker said, and swallowed heavily. “It’s different every time. It changes.”

The passages twisted and widened, coiled like living things, switching back on themselves. It was impossible to tell where the walls ended and the ceiling began. Now there were noises ahead, dry, rustling sounds like twigs rubbing together.

“What was that?” The revolver cocked. The light faltered. “Boss, are you in there?” The muzzle of the gun nestled against Landis’s temple. “Let him go and we all get to walk away.”

Crude faces, their features caught in screams, pressed out of the darkness. Walker swore and fired, tearing chunks of rotting plaster. The flashlight beam picked out long threads of what looked like tiny rubies, spreading down the hallways, trailing upward into darkness. Landis reached out and ran his finger along the nearest thread. It was warm and dissolved under his touch. His hand came away bloody. He started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Walker swung the gun and clubbed him to the floor. Spittle flecked his lips. Beads of blood leaked from his cheeks, his hands, the corners of his eyes. He rubbed at them reflexively, smearing the blood in splotches. “Strings,” Landis said, pointing at the threads between bouts of wheezing laughter. “They’re strings.” The lines thrummed and sang, played by an unseen master in the lightless depths.

The gun cracked again and again. Before his eyes, Walker was shrinking, withering. His skin paled and slackened; his flesh seemed to be collapsing on itself, tendons and cartilage creaking like old wood. Yet the man’s aim didn’t stray, so intent was he on his target, on whatever was coming down the corridor, slavering in anticipation.

Landis closed his eyes against the muzzle flashes. When he opened them, he was alone. The hole in the floor pulsed black. At the edge of the hole stood the priest, head bowed. Landis placed a hand on one black-clad shoulder and the figure toppled over, a bundle of rags wrapped around a craft-stick frame. The hollow eyes of the mask regarded him with stony indifference. At his side, Tessier chuckled and nodded. “You’re not going to disappoint me, are you, Landis?”

He reached under his shirt, gripped the frail material of his flesh, and opened himself up to the darkness.



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Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
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