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The Second Dream

That Which Grows in the Black Loam of the Mind




The alleys surrounding the clinic are filled with black garbage sacks. They are stacked negligently and precariously, and the path through the narrow alleyway is convoluted. I don't dare touch any of the bags. They twitch as I step close to them, a rippling wave that precedes and pursues me. A black sea, breathing. Whatever is in these bags is not quite dead, not quite inanimate, and judging from the angular ambiguity of their outlines, not quite whole.

The clinic itself is housed in an abandoned hotel at the end of a dead-end street. The upper floors of the building are missing as if they have been bitten off by a gargantuan monster. Only three floors remain, and the uppermost has become an open-air patio. The faux marble fašade is cracked and chipped, broken tiles exposing the dull and untreated skin of the building. Like the sacks in the alleys, I can't help but think of the building as a discarded piece of meat. A victim of the slow rot.

The tall front doors and first floor windows had once been trimmed with gold leaf, a layer of gilding that wasn't more than a brief kiss of electricity. Time and the weather had done much to dissolve the memory of that kiss.

Yes, the memory of a kiss. The shell of the hotel isn't just a ruined fašade. If I look at it as a face—the windows as eyes, the doors a mouth—then it becomes a moldering death mask. A once fancy disguise for an all-but-forgotten dress party, a midnight ball attended by spooks and phantoms. Yes, there was a party once. And a kiss heavy with the Midas promise. The weight of gold upon my mouth, upon my eyes.

Was it a kiss that gave me passage across the river? You seek the House Indivisible.

Inside the broken hotel, I find a line of supplicants— penitents or patients, it is impossible to tell from their empty expressions. The line, a wandering serpent that coils itself throughout the dusty lobby, moves slowly. The people are dressed in yellow jumpsuits, and their limp hair and damp faces indicate they've been recently hosed down. The jumpsuits are made from waterproof paper, a flexible material that sheds moisture. They shed water—dripping off their lank hair, off their pale noses and chins—and it darkens the floor like an undulating curtain of rain. Insects along a pheromone trail, they shuffle along the moistened hardwood.

The line bunches on my left, near the large doors to the central ballroom, and to the left, the line emerges from what was once the hotel bar. I wander to the right and look through the narrow doorway of the bar. The line twists the length of the room and vanishes through another doorway. I have to cut through the line in three places—each time disturbing the somnambulant walkers, but not enough that they actually raise their heads—before I can see through the doorway. The line extends straight back, vanishing into a dark corridor. Every few minutes the line shuffles forward enough that another person emerges from the gloom at the back of the hallway.

Is it endless? If I pushed my way down that hallway would I find another door, another room, and more endless loops of this yellow ribbon? I hesitate, knowing that where the line terminates is the lure that has brought me here, but I want to know where they come from as well. The source is nearly as important as the destination. It is the cause that informs the effect. It is the root upon which the tree is built. The alpha that becomes pregnant with the possibility of the omega.

Did she kiss me? Is that what I can't remember? Or is the reason for the kiss that has been lost?

I follow the coils forward, unraveling time and space, until I reach the ballroom. Waiting inside the room is a pair of robed and masked women, and I see several others drifting across the iridescent ballroom floor with a penitent hanging off their arm. As each of the yellow-robed penitents cross the threshold of the ballroom, they seem to wake up. The awakened somnambulist latches onto the wrist offered by the silent guardian like a bird of prey landing on a falconer's arm, and they are led across the empty ballroom.

The masks of the women guides are flat and featureless, topped with cracked crowns that were never meant to carry stones of regency or religious icons. The wave of golden hair that flows beneath these narrow crowns appears to be fake as well. The eyes and mouths are thin horizontal slits, too narrow for sight or sound, and streams of gold leaf trail back from the corners of these slots like tears and spit blown by wind. The strings of leaf blend into the hair like new bark on a young tree. Their garments are saffron, bound at the neck and elbow with white vinyl straps. They wear long white gloves and the hems of their robes are held tight to the floor by an equally bleached band of vinyl. I cannot tell if they even have feet.

I cut in, inserting myself at the head of the line. The next guide hesitates for a moment as I present myself, but she still offers me her slender wrist. Something flutters behind the slit of her mouth and, as I put my hand on her arm, a white moth pushes its way out of her mask and flutters away.

The ballroom floor is a mosaic of mandalas and mandelbrots, a confusion of hypnotic arcs and waves that shimmers like a heat mirage as we walk across the floor. We walk a straight line, but the room twists around us as if we have walked the curve of a nautilus shell, as if we have turned left again and again (again and again) through a Daedelian labyrinth.

My escort smells like oleander and spearmint. I wonder if they all smell the same or if they are distinguishable by scent.

We reach the table and she stops, turning to me. Another moth escapes her slit and flutters about her head for a second as if dazzled by the golden light of her hair. She lifts my hand from her wrist and, cold plastic fingers against my skin, turns my arm to expose my wrist.

The man waiting for us—the physician—is wearing a perplexing geometry of black and white triangles, a confusion of lines that is neither chaotic nor ordered. There are triangles tattooed beneath his eyes, downward facing shapes that point like runway lights toward the tweaked edge of his lip. His teeth are triangular as well, covered in silver.

On the table behind him, black cases leak green light. After examining my wrist, the physician opens the nearest box and, limned by lime light, retrieves a syringe. He holds the needle over his open hand and expresses a thin stream of sickly green luminescence onto his palm.

He is not wearing gloves, and his palms are stained red as if there are layers and layers of henna tattooing. Like pointilized pop art. Like a battlefield filled with flags and pinions. The glowing fluid makes his lifeline seem like a twisted canyon.

"It's an opiate distilled from Blackleaf 23," he says. "The hallucinogenic side effects are quite fortuitous. A paralysis rooted in the patient's own psychosis is a much more effective method of population control." He smiles, and I see that his teeth are silver-plated. "The human mind is quite willing and able to fuck itself. We just have to nudge it a bit."

"Nudge it how?" I was familiar with Blackleaf, but not the 23rd expression. The earlier distillations were classified as psychotropics, but they were innocent of implied purpose. They were receptor drugs, not influencers.

"The twist of that strand is the key to UR-Gnosis," the physician says. "And it is a trade secret. Part of our intellectual property." He nods to the woman holding my wrist. "I have to give you a double dose now because you asked."

A stream of moths like soap bubbles, like tiny circles, erupts from her slit, distracting the physician. I free myself from the woman's grip and take the syringe from the doctor's hand.

He doesn't understand how I have moved, how I have shifted, and the only reaction he manages is a tiny facial twitch. I stab him in the neck with the needle and depress the plunger. The green light vanishes into his neck, and his reaction becomes more pronounced. He jerks away from me, batting at my hand, and the syringe pulls out of his neck.

The wound oozes, a red fluid that quickly coagulates into a thin strand fluttering against the fabric of his gown. He tugs at the ribbon, twisting his head in an effort to see the silk.

He is starting to shiver already, but, as I watch the tremors roll through his shoulders and back, I realize his response is not based in panic or fear. "Yes," he whispers, his tongue sibilating against his silver teeth. "Yes, yes, yes." He tugs harder on the ribbon in his neck, pulling more of it from the wound.

I am still holding the syringe, and I pull the plunger out, filling it with air. I stab him again, in the center of the forehead this time, and I feel the needle grate and buckle as it grinds through his skull. His mouth arches into an 'O,' the triangular paths on his cheeks framing his rounded lips as I slam my palm against the syringe's plunger.

The physician shatters, disintegrating into two-dimensional chips that look like puzzle pieces. The pieces break as they hit the floor and the table, crumbling into a black dust that hangs in the air. A length of red ribbon, most of it still wound in a loose accordion, slowly uncoils off the edge of the table.

The woman has not moved. I touch her hand, and then her mask. When I try to kiss her, a moth flies into my mouth.


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