Midnight Pub

Frames Of Reference- Chapter 25


The graph paper is one fraction of a millimeter thick. On its factory-cut surface, twenty-six evenly spaced lines jut out in precise increments toward the edges. If it were placed on a lazy susan, these lines would form dazzling arcs, but as it is it remains placated and reticent aside a standard wooden pencil. Beyond the pencil is Nil’s emaciated right hand.

As today’s files noted, the hand has been emancipated from its strap prior to my arrival. This is to facilitate activity via a motor response. One must wonder whether Nil can even raise his hand, or if all the muscles are rendered turgid and saccharine. I pour the rest of my can of lukewarm sparkling water into my cup and sit back. It’s been a long day of trial and error. Sometimes, it seems as if Nil’s head will shift to the right by a fraction of an inch, but when I replay the tapes, the effect fails to show. Some kind of optical illusion.

The wound I left with the needle remains, although it’s since scabbed over, apparently of its own volition. The scab is vast, it and Nil’s blank expression seem to taunt me in tandem. As Bradford has put it, explicitly, a response initiated by pain is unacceptable and insufficient for the purposes of the faceless. Nil must demonstrate independent agency.

Bradford has been making strange periodic calls with threatening language, and each time I lift the receiver, I can envision his spittle protruding into my ear. These calls thankfully seem to arrive at midday, when Sheila’s out at the ER, and he doesn’t seem to leave any messages. He only wants me to hear him when I’m alone and present.

He doesn’t answer anything I say. I imagine he’s through humoring me.

“Draw, Nil,” I state unemotionally. “Draw.”

He doesn’t know what the word means, of course he doesn’t- you don’t come to understand or comprehend language through mere exposure, you can only understand it through interaction in real time. I envision a parakeet with a dictionary in front of it. This is a farce. I’m so tired.

The most recent call from Vern came three nights ago around 8 P.M. I was shaving upstairs and then from downstairs came the horrible ringtone, and ultimately the promise of a verbal confrontation with the bastard. All the same, I wandered down to answer it, and the clock in the hallway continued to tick as I grazed the carpet and descended the staircase. It was warm, and the air was muggy. Finally, the temperature is rising to summer expectations.

“Images fall slow and silent like snow,” came the rasp of the old codger. “Serenity. All defenses fall, everything is free to enter or to go out. Fear is simply impossible.” I see Ted Knight out on the range around twilight as Bill Murray waddles behind. He’s making these veiled and cryptic incantations with seven-iron in hand, thigh-high argyle socks, hitting the little chalk orb as far as it’ll go, well beyond the rippling stream with the lush cattails.

“Vern,” I retort, calm and with measured reserve. “We’ve been through a lot. Now I respect you. You know I do, I have to afford you something to that end. Please, Vern. Stop. Just stop already. I’ll go in. Tomorrow. Day after tomorrow.” So it is that I ended up arriving today, sans Carla the reticent secretary, sans Nathan, sans a soul around. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if Nathan were a hired actor and his simple-minded predilections were a calculated ruse.

We all wear masks, even those of us who fail to note with topographic precision the delineation between conscious and unconscious behavior. Lately, the mask has slipped. I’m going to sink into the lake on Locust, sink like a dead weight, then gradually rise up from the accumulated silt as my cadaver bloats to unholy proportions. And so proceeds the wonderful circle of life, the persistent knot of being.

“Come on,” I mutter, unsure whether the phrase would be approved by the manual. I cover the mic to let off some steam.

“Draw, you mongrel half-baked sun-kissed piece of plasma.”

I rise to my feet, yawn, look over at the clock. This has been going for three hours. Two words, broken up by allotments of thirty seconds. These intervals serve to allow for registering and processing by whatever passes for a neuron in Nil’s long forsaken gangrenal cluster. I feel every bit as alone, as drained, as wired and tapped. That’s empathy for you.

Nil’s dead hair clings in long clumps to his forehead, it’s either been cut recently or it never grows, because nothing can grow in a state like his, it can only stagnate, drag into a long underground shadow in the abscess, his view never having been witness to so much as one photon, beneath the visor his pupils are larger than a mole’s, hungry vortexes searching for light that will never arrive. He has the skin of an armadillo, yet I’ve been desensitized to his horrifying complexion, his subhuman features. The knob marked disgust in my brain has been drawn back by the arm of restraint and the measure of civility. Pity has taken form. I want to get him out of here, somehow. Somewhere he can thrive, though such a place is likely only a gelato rending in some washed-out Parrish quarto.

Is there a need, however? Is there, in some way, an ethical requirement superceding all protocol? Or is Nil operating in that very quarto, ascending mountains higher than I will ever climb, gold-drenched sunrays and glaciers of crystal adjacent to the lonely town of Illusion and the wafting flute? To remove him would be perhaps the greatest injustice one could commit. I could not forgive myself.

“Draw, Nil.” And the pencil remains firmly entrenched. The breathing apparatus draws in and out, the IV bag loses its supplement at a steady rate. The bellows of the device continue whirring and clicking, taking down Nil’s every vital statistic- his pulse, his perspiration abilities, his intake and outtake, his vitals and his secondaries, all routed onto ticker tape, fed into all the punch card slots at the optimal moment, whirring like a small and horrid beetle.

Mandibles retract, exoskeleton is firmly lodged in the midnight banks of the river. And a wave of panic approaches me. I do my best to crouch as it summits my frame, grit my teeth and prepare for the cold drench to envelop my back. You’re in a bathtub, and you lean out against the rim, over the warm tepid surface- it’s December, maybe, ten degrees out, and the porcelain seems dangerous to make contact with-

I shudder. Contact. Somewhere along the line, it was made. Initial, then secondary, and before long it stopped being contact and became routine.

“Nil. Draw.” Two words, two simple guttural phrases with one singular effect.

Contact has been made.

Nil’s hand remains inert, yet the lights above him flicker slightly. Two shades, one less saturated than the other, and in the control room a diminutive blue light with a mesh wire frame over it begins palpitating. I search the manual for its function, find none. Well, here’s something. I grab a pen, jot down the effect and the exact time. My heartbeat is picking up.

The air is thin, thinner than usual even with the air conditioning. It’s K2 in here, I suck in a breath but my lungs are destitute, they need more intake. There’s a strange odor, too. Like the potential of some oxygen-depleting chemical reaction.

The eraser of the pencil moves one-half centimeter to the left, as if blown by a sharp gust of wind. The motion is sudden and forceful. I dart back, my swivel chair nearly tips to the floor on its caster wheels but I right it in time. Grab a marker from the jar, scribble some notes down. Yes, this is getting to be worthwhile. I don’t dare near the microphone, further contact could impede the onset of this sequence.

Without warning, the cooling vents turn off- the gusts cease, and in thirty seconds I have to take off my jacket because it’s so hot in here, naturally. And it’s strange without the ongoing white noise, too. Maybe that’s the only function of the vents- the silence in and of itself is horrible, claustrophobic, and with it your train of consciousness tends to repeat in a cyclical loop as it dawns on you what a vile, sweat-drenched thing you are-

The basement is a hamster wheel now, nothing goes in and nothing goes out, and I start to panic as I consider how the vault door behind me is sealed tight, and with every breath I take, I’m becoming swamped in carbon dioxide. Oh, well. I used to put plastic bags over my head all the time when I was younger. Every pore of mine is leaking now.

I stare, fixated, as the pencil raises itself three feet into the air, and Nil seems to grit his teeth. I have no idea how I could determine such a thing, considering that the feeding tube completely obscures his mouth, yet there seems to be visible effort on display, perhaps the most he’s ever exhibited. It hovers for around three seconds, building momentum.

And then, like a flexible bullet, it careens towards the graph paper, hitting the sheet with such an impact that the point breaks and splinters, dividing itself like an arrow into several fractions. And then it staggers outward and falls onto its side a foot off, rendered useless.

Out here, the air conditioning turns back on, and what remains of the action is a smoldering crater in the middle of the sheet, exactly in the center, calculated with the utmost precision, as if to signify some base centrality. Yes, of course that would be the mode of expression chosen by a being which lives only with itself. One finite point on a theoretically infinite grid, the x and y and z coordinates all throttling outwards from that one terribly crucial central point on forever like cackling lightning, driving through the pouring rain, soaring over past the clouds of Eteran...

Perfect, I figure. I’ve done it. I’ve solved the question. This chapter of my life can finally draw to a close, for better or worse. Now all that remains is to send these tapes out, report my findings in as succinct and accurate a manner as possible.

I stand up, grab one of the CCTV tapes, place it into the appropriate slot. Press rewind, so I can review the incident and thoroughly revel in the quality of my work. Get an appropriate feel for how to describe it for the medical journals.

I press play at the correct frame. Five minutes ago, exactly.

The grainy monochromatic world picks up, Nil sits at the desk in front of the paper and the pencil. And his hands are motionless, and the breathing apparatus and the feeding tube and the IV drip all function with one another to create the usual symphony of biomechanical sympatico. I sit and wait for the pencil to rise.

The pencil stays put. Nothing happens. Nil’s mind remains inactive.

I rewind the tape again, it makes the usual chitter as it skips and bumps and lands once again on that point five minutes ago. Nil stays where he is. His hands don’t move. Neither does the pencil. Neither, for that matter, do his telekinetic abilities. All is stagnant.

I’m nervous now, somewhat on edge. I know what happened, but the tape is lying, because Nil has willed it to lie. And if he can will it to lie, that means he has something against me, wants to see my objective fail for whatever reason, wants Bradford and Agarico to fail, wants to see it all come crashing down. I can’t say I blame him, really. But it is a cold and calculated action, to ruin me like this after all I’ve done. After all we’ve been through.

I stand up, cross over to the secret passage- of course it’s unlocked, it clicks open on its hinge- Vernon would see to that, in case I ever betrayed his trust again. Which I’m doing now. Not that I care anymore, because nothing matters now. I can’t win.

I turn on the fake fuse box, use the buttons to navigate the screen. Five minutes ago. I’m sitting at the desk, notes in one hand, leaning close to the microphone. Silently, I mutter the command, then I lean back and watch.

I don’t react as the air conditioner turns off, I don’t remove my jacket, I don’t display any noticeable reaction. I just sit and watch as, presumably, Nil does nothing and the pencil stays where it is and we arrive at a stalemate as we have countless times before. And I sit with the dopey monotone expression and the vents are visibly blowing my hair to the side, and nobody who watched this would believe me-

I jolt in shock. My jacket is back on. When I entered the passage, it was still draped on the chair, and now it’s manifested on my neck- and I didn’t notice.

I tiptoe over to the secondary viewing window. There’s no more mark on the paper. It’s clean and untouched, and the pencil remains exactly where it had been prior to contact. Everything is as it was. Same as it ever had been. Inviolable.

I go back to the fuse box, fast forward the footage seven minutes, to the immediate present. According to the camera, I am no longer standing in the hallway. I am sitting in my usual position on the swivel chair, at the desk, and staring forward with a monotone expression. My jacket is on.

I blink once and I’m not in the hallway anymore. I’m sitting inert in the swivel chair, the vents are rushing, the coolant is flowing, and Nil sits there with his bleached hands and his stupid pen and pencil, reaching with his awful tendrils into the far reaches of my soul.

Something is wrong now, something fundamental and sacred has been broken. Some core tenet- call it not something which cannot be studied but rather something which cannot be studied by us as we are in our current form- an intrinsic attribute of physics and space-time- has been ruptured, torn in half like a screaming red quasar out in the interminable womb of the Boötes Void. And I did it. I will be remembered by the history books- if there are any from this moment going forward- for all the wrong reasons, because today is the day that something has gone horribly, unbelievably wrong.

Nothing matters anymore. Objective fact is gone.

I laugh, because man is the animal that laughs at itself, I toss my stupid face back and really take in the ecstasy and joy of the moment, because soon there will be no more joy.

The intercom awakens, crackles to life in a blaze of glory.

The audio is distorted nearly beyond recognition, every five seconds it alternates between a warbling death crawl and a warped sped-up blur, but if I shift my cerebrum at the appropriate junctures, I can make it out-

“People take pictures of each other- just to prove that they really existed-”

“Just to prove that they really existed-”

Oh, Nil. It really is your world. We’re just along for the ride.

I drop today’s folder with all the relevant documents contained therein onto the floor haphazardly, make for the exit, gasp when the comparatively less humid air near the staircase blasts me, and keep laughing as I reel in the cold glare of evening.

The cicadas are out in droves.