The night wore on, with the better part of two hours spent speaking with the police. I had managed to have the majority of the conversations outside of the house after explaining that, ‘the air is oddly stuffy in here.’
After the paperwork had been filled out and the trite condolences were served in the same underwhelming tones of pity, I looked up at the barest sliver of a waning moon shrouded by the clouds, finally passing from the day’s storm. The contours of my father’s feet were slammed behind two beige doors, stuffed into the coroner’s van, sliding down the street before I could even think of something dramatic to whisper to myself.
I caught one of the officers who was yet to offer his apologies, just as he was looking at me, likely with the intent of doing just that.
“It’s good to see you again, Officer Joyce,” I said before he could get them out.
He ran a hand through his springy, short and curly hair. “I wish I could say the same.”
“What, you're not glad to see me again?”
“Not in these circumstances, Thomas. No. I'd prefer never to see you again, if it would mean this never happened.”
The police lights danced on both of our expressions, switching from an awkward grin and forfeiting to a tight-lipped frown. “Well," I replied, "you can tell the story of how you visited each scene of a family's demise. It might be a good icebreaker.”
He scoffed, tapping his police cap against his hand. “Of all the people making jokes tonight, I thought you’d be the last.”
“Tragedy is at the heart of great humor, Officer. I think two turns of the same déjà vu taught me that.”
“It’s a hell of a déjà vu. Hey, are you all right?”
I stopped fidgeting with my long hair, and forced my eyes up from the ground after they wandered in rumination, to watch the craters of concern deepen in his pupils. “Yes, I’m fine. As fine as I can be for tonight, at least.”
“You don’t seem …”
“This is a chapter of my life that I couldn’t predict. More than anything, it’s left me confused as what to do next. The pain of this is inevitable, but the real concern is still the the destination, isn't it? I’m just wondering what I’ll do next, is all. Graduation is coming up.”
“You go to East Hills Prep., right? They start their school year six months before other schools, don’t they?”
“Yes, we graduate in late November instead of the summer. Gives us more time for college applications. Or so they say.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eighteen." Luckily, I finished in my head. I knew what was coming next.
“Legally speaking, you’re not obligated to leave your home if you are … comfortable staying there. If you want, we can have a representative from the state come and get you outfitted with another family before you leave for college.”
An orphan? I’m too old to be an orphan. “No, I don’t think so. Thank you, Officer.” My childhood ended when Samantha died, and since then, the pages of my life have been writing and turning faster than any of the others, swirling past me, flipped rapidly by a steady gust of wind.
The other police cars had left, leaving only Officer Joyce and his partner, whose face was lit up by his phone in the darkness of the car. I caught his eyes staring at me, and he went back to scrolling.
“So I’m allowed to stay here for the night? Last time …”
“Last time, we couldn’t rule out it wasn’t a homicide. We had to have a proper investigation. But the detectives saw the planks, the evidence of forced entry. There’re no windows in that room. If you killed your father, you’d have nailed yourself in with him. There were no bruises and no other wounds on his body. For you to hang a man twice your size without any kind of struggle is unthinkable. Given your history, we’re calling it like we see it.”
I stared at him, wondering how easy it would be to get away with murder given ‘recent history’ and some human error in abundant compassion. “That's something, at least," I admitted.
“You have a good night, Thomas. Remember, you have my number in case you want to talk.” I could almost feel his cringe as he said 'good night'.
I thanked him again and waved. I hadn’t called that number once, and wasn’t planning to, as kind as the gesture was. Nothing had compelled me to seek the comfort of a stranger, not since Samantha’s accident, and not tonight. He was not a friend, merely the unfortunate soul who happened to be called to each of the three scenes of my family’s death. In my life, it made him nothing more than the quintessential curiosity of happenstance.
While I watched their car drive away, following the same road that the coroner took, I looked at all the silhouettes in the lit windows of the neighboring houses. Why did I almost feel like laughing?
The masquerade reveler ascended the steps of his dark and empty home, still permeated with death’s presence. Or rather, now encompassed by it. It was as if breaking through the sealed door had unleashed a phantom from its hold, free to haunt every last crevice, nightstand, desk and cold sheet.
The stench dripped from the inky pages strung up from my bedroom’s ceiling. It seeped out of the illustrations strewn about my desk, the closed notebooks, the dusty journals filled with adolescent lamentations. When I threw open my window, I gale of wind rushed into the room and enveloped me.
Instead of the scent of autumn and damp soil, I was greeted by an overpowering aroma of decay. It reached out with wispy fingers, slithering through my nose, my throat, into my lungs and through my veins.
I retched, convulsed, and nearly fell to my knees as I stumbled to the bathroom, cracking the toilet seat as I slammed it back.
For a brief moment, I stared at my painted reflection in the water before I heaved into it. It seemed to say to me, “It’s good to see you again.”
After I finished vomiting, the real expulsion started. I hugged the bowl of the toilet, legs curled up to my chest, and cried until the warmth of my skin had leeched into the porcelain, and was given back to me.
Still weeping, I hurried back into my room, overcome with frustration. I threw my clutches on every notebook, drawing, journal entry, painting and scribbled musing. I stared, I ripped, I crumpled, stowed, examined, screamed and fought with the recollections of my mind reinvented in creative bodies.
I wasn’t crying for my father, my mother, not even for my sister. I was crying for myself. I’d been defeated. I had dreamed of sustaining myself, of becoming an illustrator, a writer, a painter, a creator who bypassed the bullshit systems of society, carrying my weight from my own personality instead of the myriad masks we display to get the jobs we hate. I wanted to do all of this, before I even had to look at test scores and college applications.
Yet, I was graduating in a month, and I hadn’t made a penny. So what was left, but to be carted to a college, another four years of drudgery, of listening to people I didn’t care for and surrounding myself with responsibilities that would only attempt to break me? Another dispassionate journey, only this time, it wouldn’t be interrupted by trauma. I had already faced the greatest tragedy of my life; what was left to stop the long, drawn out, screeching note of daily toil? I would be left in the cold of the most unadulterated monotony, the most mundane life.
I collapsed on a pile of unfinished, ruined, polished and terrible displays of art. Pieces brimming with inspiration but lacking technique, or demonstrating a careful hand without any passion. One lacked the other; the other lacked the difference.
My characters stared at me with expecting eyes. They picked themselves off of their pages, hovering above my head, clawing at my skull, asking for release once again. The journal wasn't enough for today; my demons had escaped me, and taken the form of my creations, not to inspire or comfort, but to torment.
When the shivering stopped, I grabbed my phone and my earbuds. I jammed them in and turned the volume up until I felt my ears ringing for silence. Marilyn Manson screamed me back into a creative frenzy. I found a stick of charcoal, a blank sheet of parchment. Charcoal was my most despised medium. Tonight, I was going to murder my fear of it.
A boy sitting in an empty mansion beneath a chandelier. Instead of light fixtures, three hanging bodies would be smeared above him, their ashen forms slipping into their shadows cast by an ebony moon.
One of the greatest illusions of pain is that we think we need others to turn to when we are broken. When we feel supported by their words, it’s merely the truths that resonated with the wisdom buried beneath our delusions. They simply helped us find it again. It doesn’t mean it was never there to begin with.
I didn’t have anyone. I had two bloodied fists, a stick of charcoal, and a mind of nightmares. There was more than enough wisdom scattered between the three, at the very least, to get me through this night. Another pot of coffee couldn’t hurt, either.
When I was finished, a sigh of satisfaction that had been held in for weeks escaped from me. The demons swirling around the room were trapped in the parchment, for now. Eventually, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, they’d find their way out in screaming delight, reminding me that they needed multiple cages to be locked away.
I stood up from my chair with a tear and charcoal-stricken face, checking my phone for the time. 2:33 am.
Still, I wasn’t tired. The second round of coffee was just starting to kick in, and I realized I wouldn’t be sleeping before dawn. Silly as it sounds, I had homework on my mind. Four years of rigorous college preparatory will leave you in a habitual state of stressing out about the next assignment, even if you found a corpse in a closet that same day.
There was a poetry assignment for my Honors English 10 class due on Monday. It was simple: write a fourteen-line acrostic. It’s not as if I had anything better to do.
I hadn’t the slightest idea what an acrostic was. Talk about a starving artist.
The masquerade reveler sipped the cold dredges of his coffee as he looked it up on his laptop.
Acrostic: a poem, word puzzle, or other composition in which certain letters in each line form a word or words.
Halfway through writing some truly drab and forgettable piece of gothic poetry, something about nightmares and hell, I capped my pen. The nagging suspicion was bitting me. Somewhere in the piles of scattered papers, I found the poem that I’d taken off the sidewalk, torn in my frenzy of ripping myself into tatters.
Meet me at sun 3am, the first letter of each line spelled.
Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t even two blocks from here. In fact, it was the road I always went to on my walks. It gave me a view of the south side of the City of Portland. In the sleet of winter, the fog of autumn, the stuffy winds of spring and the scalding streets of summer, it always proffered some inspiration, as long as I walked there with an empty mind.
I grabbed my mask, completing the costume, and rushed out of my house. It was Halloween, after all. I wasn’t about to step into the night without being fully decorated. It would be some kind of sacrilege if I did.
“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?” I muttered to the torn poem as I rushed down the empty streets, charms and bells chiming each step of the way. The words didn’t attempt to hush or console me. I liked that.
Clear for the first time in weeks, the sky was an open maze of stars and celestial bodies, glittering as if they, too, had been soaked by the earlier rain, and were scattering their fractured beams of moonlight on me as I strode down the pavement.
I stopped. I had left my house open, unlocked. 2:56 am my phone said. There wasn’t time to go back. Whatever was going to happen, if nothing at all, was happening in four minutes. I would be there in less than two.
I was at the end of the slanted street leading out of my neighborhood, opening up to a road that cut horizontally, always jammed during rush hour. Across that road, the direction of the street I was on continued onto Sunset Boulevard, with a yawning view of the city lights beckoning.
I stepped forward. A car rushed by, blaring its horns as the sideview mirror snagged one of my charms and tore the threads clean out of their stitchings.
Shaking with nervous laughter, I checked both ways before crossing, and continued down the widened road bordered by forestry. I wondered for a moment how anyone could have the sheer stupidity to end their lives in youth. Cruel, torturous, relentlessly brutal, without a doubt, but enchanting, diabolically hilarious, bursting with possibility and inspiration, it also was.
Once more, I was surrounded by looming trees, their fallen pine needles and cones carpeting the ground.
The lamps flickered above me, as they typically did. Nobody had bothered to call an electrician, not since they started failing a few years before.
In the spasming light, I saw another folded sheet of paper sitting in the center of the road.
Another car drove past the street behind me. I listened to its tires until they faded. For the first time, I suspected that I might’ve fallen into the trap of a murderer keen on attracting victims as stupid as I to listen to a random piece of notebook paper.
The thing with stupidity is that it doesn’t stop, even when it’s recognized. Or else it wouldn’t be stupidity, would it?
I picked up the paper.
It was familiar.
It was one of my journal entries, dated October 31st of last year.
I had forgotten that I was one of those strange people who, too, occasionally tore out pages of their writing and left them on soggy pavement, content with the thought that perhaps a stranger, perhaps the rain, would glance at them and skim the words.
It touched me to think someone had not only read my words, but responded with as much patience.
Then again … it left my spine numb with a shudder. The person who left that note must’ve been following me when I was at the graveyard.
The paper shriveled up in my hands, becoming too hot to hold. I gasped and let it go as a conflagration erupted from the corner, reducing it to ashes.
When I uncovered my eyes, a young woman dressed in an outfit not drastically different from my own was standing inches from me. Behind her, the view of the road had become muddled, as if water was spilling over it, casting everything in grey hues. I could’ve sworn the street was empty, but now it was bustle of grayish silhouettes.
“Evening, Thomas Moore. I was almost nervous you’d arrive late. Once you started that charcoal illustration, I was nearly convinced you’d be lost to it until you fell asleep at your desk. But once you began that poem, I knew I had you!” She pinched my arm, destroying some suspicions of dreaming.
“I … nearly,” I admitted, rubbing the place she’d pinched.
“Ugh. Thomas Moore. A stiflingly boring name, don’t you think? Doesn’t it just suffocate you? Well, you can only expect a lack of originality from a hack writer like your father. How about a new name, hmm?” Her white eyes blazed at me, accented by the rich colors of her outfit, and the remarkable waves of pale, scarlet, and black hair tumbling from her head.
“I … a new name?” I looked back at the street behind me, and watched another car weave down it, convinced I really had been hit.
“No, you’re not dead. We’d not be here if you were, and what a predictable ending it would've been. Three deaths followed by a fourth, oh how surprising!" she exclaimed dryly. "Now, about that name. You’ll need a new one. We can’t have that kind of drab plaguing our realm.”
“Come now. I can see you’re convinced.”
“Well, inspiration waits for no one, so we say.” She grasped my arm with a gloved hand and tugged me through the running wall of murky water.
I stared at the same street I had walked down for years, thankful for the mask, because my lower jaw had detached itself from my skull. Before, where there were trees bordering the road, lopsided, arching homes with whirring mechanisms, candle-lit windows, and creatures from unillustrated dreams took their place. People wearing garments both similar and strikingly different in expression walked around us, speaking to one another, laughing, and even sprinting. Where the crescent moon had been, a full orb with waving tendrils cast a grey glow over everything, illuminating this world in permanently darker hues, only to be enriched by the flaming lights hanging over the streets from iron poles. Some of their embers slipped from their cages, falling onto the walkway, reminding me of my bedroom floor after I had torn my works out over it. Only the ground was paved with them. The words drifted off the pages and slipped out reaching back into the sky.
We were walking in an upturned rain of words.
Someone as young as I, dressed entirely in black leather and cloth, with a fox prancing around his step, eyed me before returning his gaze to a glowing timepiece. He clicked the top open. It exploded in his hand. He screamed, laughed, and continued after soothing his furry companion, flicking off a still-spinning cog from his coat.
“Don’t be rude and stare at failure! Walk with me, Thomas. Ugh!” She made a choking sound. “If you’re going to make me call you that name one more time I might just send you straight back.”
“No! I’m here. I … I … am I dreaming?”
“You were always dreaming. Now tell me what you’re to be called. Oh, your mask is rather bleak. Couldn’t you have painted it?”
“… Bleak,” I murmured.
“Yes, that’s what I said. Onward?” She put her arm through mine, forcing me to accompany her as a gentleman.
“Bleak. How’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, for a name? Wonderful! We have a few dressed similar to you, with even more similar names. Trickster, Jester, Harlequin. I’m all too glad that you found something a tad more original. But maybe you’ll get along with them, anyways. And your last?”
“It’s rather obvious, isn’t it? Mask.”
“Brilliant. A demonstration of fixed perception, cognizant of itself. Oh, genius. Now say it like it belongs to you, and forget the other two. My name is Helma Ketch, and yours?”
“Bleak Mask,” I said, shaking her hand. I undid the lacing of my mask and tied it to my leg so that I could see the entirety of the dream before I woke up.
“You still have the look in your eyes of someone assuming they're sleeping. Well, you may not be entirely wrong. But the philosophy of existentialism remains, in both this realm and the one you’ve stepped from. Save that topic for the philosophers and assume the best, just as you did before.”
“Where’ve you taken me?” For the first time in as long as I could remember, a smile and a laugh was itching to come from my mouth.
“You mean, what home have you been welcome to? This is the Sleepless’ Realm.”
“Who are you, and all these people? Why is everyone awake in the middle of the night?”
“In a place where sleep does not exist, folks are twice as busy. As for me? I’m your muse, Bleak. Well, one of them. We can’t take all the credit; you deserve most of it, after all. It’s a difficult thing, to grind through sorrows with ink instead of intoxication or some other distraction. You were admirable, in that last bout. The metaphor of the chandelier tied to your childhood, but also the stillness of your father's body, why, I think I was close to crying for the first time in a century.”
If it weren't for the circumstances of the piece, I might've blushed. “My muse?”
“Let’s see, I watched over Edward Munch, Francis Bacon, William Blake, and perhaps you know this more recent one: Henry Clarke. You took a liking to Poe, I believe, but I was never much of a wordsmith, I just admired the man who did illustrations for him. Consistency. Diligence. Work ethic. I admired that about him. One morning I found one of your illustrations that you’d left at a park when you were just eleven. You could call it love at first inspection. I kept an eye on you since, poking in and out of your room when you needed a bit of help.”
For a moment, I told myself she was mad. All I had to do was stare wide-eyed at the chaos around me to realize how ridiculous that thought was. Helma spoke the way that a roaring fire pops and sizzles. Every punctuation was complemented by a sparking gesticulation, a snap of her finger, a toss of her head as she glanced at something close to us. Her mind, her eyes, her body, her voice, seemed incapable of remaining still. And I wondered, as I stared at her, if I would become this way if I stayed in the Sleepless' Realm. “And today?” I asked.
“Well …” she laughed. “When I saw your father scrawling out that sorry excuse of an apology without shedding a single tear, I decided enough was enough. I pulled a few strings, wrote a few novels, and was given permission to bring you here. Poe didn’t have such an easy break. Had to lose fourteen of his lovers before he got out. Grim likes his artists writhing in misery, and has a damnable addiction to pulling them out right when they’re on the cusp of taking their own lives. Or in Poe’s case, being beaten senseless by drunkards at a tavern.”
I laughed until my sides hurt. “I think I'd rather not meet Grim. So all these people, who are they?”
“Creators, like you. Muses.”
“But what do they do?”
A gaggle of jugglers and trapeze artists whirled down the street in a six-wheeled behemoth of a carriage. Poles with nets, ropes, and extensions rose up from the canopy of the carriage, where the entertainers put on their performance as the vehicle was whipped into faster speeds.
“Oh, watch yourself. They don’t mind running someone over for a laugh or two.” Helma tugged me out of the way of one of the wheels. A juggling ball fell onto my head, crumpling into spiders. Laughter cascaded from them before shrinking away down the street. I brushed off the insects, trying to admire the humor.
It was the first time I looked back towards that street behind us. Fleets of carriages and vehicles were rushing through it, some turning up the neighborhood that led to my home. The more I looked, the less familiar it seemed. It was as if another world was woven on top of my own, but far beyond my imagination. I almost felt embarrassed to be walking in it.
“In any case,” she continued, pulling out a string and snapping it between her hands, conjuring a ferret that crawled to her shoulder, “excuse me, I must practice. This conversation is taking longer than I thought. What was I saying?”
“You were explaining to me the madness of this place.” The ferret chittered, scratched, and found a better position after hopping onto me and curling around my neck.
“Right. Utter madness. You see, even chaos has an order. Every storm must have a particularly set environment before it can brew. You might call the Sleepless’ Realm the brewing of the creative storm that we unleash onto artists. You remember how you use to walk, pace, strut, and sprint down this road searching for inspiration? We don’t search for inspiration here, we create it. When we’re not spilling some into the other realm, we’re crafting it, here.”
“So we’re the muses that the Greeks talked about?”
Helma stopped, put a hand on my shoulder, then burst into laughter, so much so that I flinched, slightly afraid I had set her into insanity with that comment.
“Oh, no. Not all of us are ‘muses’, either. I merely used that term so you might get an idea. Call us conjurer’s, magicians, spirits, phantoms, ghosts, demons, nightmares, dreams, passions, call us books and call us paintings, call us gods and goddesses if you enjoy a good ego stroking. We are what we are: artists.”
I stared at my hand, and where I imagined charcoal and ink dripping from my fingers, the substance materialized and fell onto the ground before fading into the page pavement.
“A good start, Bleak. Rather unimaginative, though.”
My head swam. I steadied myself against Helma, and the ferret took off onto the street. "I feel dizzy."
“It’ll take practice, the same, shameless and grinding practice you did in your room at 2 am this morning. Not all of us have the passion to be ‘muses.’ Some simply live here. You've no obligation to lend your inspiration to someone who catches your eye, but it would be nice, wouldn't it? Remember all those midnights you spent scratching away at paper? Somewhere, someone is going through the same agony you were.”
"After some practice," I replied, "we'll see. That world took a bit out of me. I wouldn't mind leaving it alone for sometime."
"Understandable, Bleak. There are no rules here. However, I must tell you, if you stop creating, you may fade, and lose your form as one of the Sleepless. Laziness isn't exactly tolerated here, the same way that hunger isn't survived there."
I caught the word 'surreptitious' coming up from the ground, and spun it into a black cloak, fastening it with a silver pin from the word 'prick'. "I don't mind a bit of effort, especially if I can't sleep. But what of my family? Does everyone come here after they die?”
“Bleak, you are making funny jokes again. This isn’t a heaven, a hell. How boring would either be! This is something beyond your understanding; now isn’t that far more intriguing? The good news is, you are here, alive and breathing as you ever were. The bad news is, you arrived as alone as you were before. But now, you can find your real family."
“Real? I think that word needs some adjusting here.” I took my pen from my pocket, just to be certain it was still here, and uncapped it. Ink erupted from the tip, splattering Helma.
She sighed as if this had happened before, and slid her hand over her outfit, shifting every seam and thread to black. “A family isn’t blood or genetics, Bleak. It’s bonds and kept promises. It’s passion and blood spilt on your behalf for the sake of another’s love. Your family is here, you’ll find them eventually. Simply roam and wander as you did before. This time, there is no passion to return to, just one to live.”
Still lightheaded from the recent conjuration, I looked up at the sky, where a flock of ravens was swirling around a figure that seemed familiar, sitting on a bench. I would have to speak with him later.
How do you live in a world where creativity is food, and hunger is the lack of it? Or had I always lived that way?
“In the meantime, how do I survive, what do I do?” I asked, feeling like a child all over again.
“That all depends,” she said, clapping her hands together. “What do you want to create? Who do you wish to inspire?”
"For starters, I have project I've put off for far too long. A self-portrait. Now seems like a good time."
"Oh, you'll have to be more creative than that. These folks will tear you apart if you dip into the clichés of the previous world. Competition is fierce. We have tournaments, competitions, you know. People die to prove themselves."
"Now that's cliché," I laughed. "Also, are you so quick to doubt the person you chose to inspire? Here, hold this," I said, handing her my mask. "No, like this," I demonstrated.
She held it aloft, in front of her face.
I plucked six charms from my outfit, holding each one an equal distance from the mask in the form of a circle. I strung each one to the parchment at our feet and grinned as the same force drifting the words upwards held the charms aloft. I tapped them with the tip of my pen, delighted that they didn't fall.
In the center of the circle, I shut my eyes for half minute, counting the thirty seconds, focusing on my breathing.
When I opened them, Helma's pale eyes were staring at me through the eyeholes of my mask. So it really isn't a dream. Perhaps that had been the way she stared at me some nights as I worked on my drawings. Waiting, watching, fidgeting with expectation.
I snapped my fingers. The charms popped into different molds of the plaster mask, each one a different expression, this time colored by tangible hues manifested in unique forms like flame, shadow, snow, bark, flesh, ink and feather.
Surrounded by the masks, I stared at each one for a long while.
I took long enough that Helma reached in through the circle, kissed me on the cheek, squeezed my shoulder, and rushed off with an apology and a goodbye, promising to stumble into me soon.
I was left alone to decide which one I was to wear for the morning.
It is tiresome work, being one of the Sleepless.
I dawned the ink mask, and let the others fall.
The night wore on, with the better part of two hours spent speaking with the police. I had managed to have the majority of the conversations outside of the house after explaining that, ‘the air is oddly stuffy in here.’