Roger wandered the streets on autopilot until he found himself back at the entrance to his apartment building. A bit befuddled, his first thought was to talk to Ms Diamond now that he too had seen a face within a face; no, that would be a futile endeavor. His next thought was to yell, scream get on his knees and thank the lord, oh lordy lordy I’m not dead; instead what he did was strip, get in the shower, wash the day and night away and check to see if there were any burn marks. He felt a pain in his wrist let me go boy and looking down noticed three distinct markings along his skin. Burn marks; something was making these bums catch on fire, global warming or some new poison, there was no dousing going on, Ben had not been doused.
As he left the shower, he passed his window and noticed the huge black guy from yesterday trying to look inconspicuous in the depth of the alleyway; noticed a moth as it searched out light from the window; observed an osprey nesting in the streetlights; a film of petals captured in the wind; he detected worms wriggling in the rainbow oil slick of water standing in the gutter; his senses levitated, must still be the old man his mind had never been sharper.
With another glance at the big guy, Roger entered his bedroom, every sci-fi movie plot floating in his head. He made his way around the empty apartment, reproachful in its barrenness. The events of the weekend had taken a toll on him, as he tried desperately to wash away the image of Ben staring into his eyes, let me go boys a look like…like triumph just before the flames caused the agonizing grimace.
Sleeping was not an option, so Roger turned right into his office and crumpled into the pseudo-leatherclad hydraulic chair at the desk in front of the computer. He toyed with the bottle of bourbon until with a grunt effort, let me go down in the mud finally tore the plastic seal and cap off; he needed an ungodly swig, feeling the vapors rise through his brain until the horror of the last fifteen hours washed away even for an instant. He tried to come to grips with the hows and whys of the bum pushing him away. What had he said? Dragon? Dracha? Dracula? Dachau? And what else Save yourself? Run fast, run far? Was it a message from the bum or was it as Cazz suggested from someone else, the possessor of the eyes, not him perhaps. And what had the Diamond girl conveyed, a face within a face and to think Roger assumed she was stoned on painkillers, but it looked like the same apparition had presented itself to him. Could it have really been some kind of possession? And the bum had caught on fire, but this bum wasn’t trying to save Roger, the bastard was trying to kill him. That was until the man had said his name, where the rivers all run dry demon possession—wouldn’t SCAB! kill to get that story.
Roger smacked the space bar activating the PC screen, pulled up his blog, So This is the End of the World, and added a new category—spontaneous combustion. He began researching the causes for SC, but none seemed to coincide with what had happened below his window the other night or in front of his face today. In fact even the possibility of spontaneous combustion seemed highly improbable; for one, cigarette smoking caused almost ¾ of the probabilities. Roger remembered the eyes the most, how sharp and maniacal they were, until that last instant when the man told him his name. He knew just what the neoChristian conservatives would spew, this land was always ours but didn’t think God was much into the hands on experience anymore. But the very real concept of possession was undeniable, the idea of paranormal or alien claims seemed, at least for the present, to be ridiculous, but something had taken over that man and forced him to do what he did. He recalled the headline in the paper so long ago in the doughnut shop; this would make it five combustions and counting, in just a few short days.
He pulled up his Horrorscope webpage. 2019 was a fun year for every freakazoid to come out of the woodworks: shows about Nostradamus, The Illuminati and the Apocalypse, revelations and the rapture, doomsayers, gloomsayers, even South Park had their version, it was inevitable that SCAB! would want to get into the act. And who better than their resident basket case. Roger devised a weekly horrorscope, combining aspects of Nostradamus’ quatrains, Web Bot forecasts, daily news items, and 2020 end of the world scenarios, to produce a weekly horoscope for the masses. But after four years of Trump, the end of the world predictors, apocalypse nutcases, rapture raptors seemed like a picnic compared to the war on elections no one wins, war against North Korea no casualties, war against Mexico no wall, against abortion, really no one wins, against cannabis only criminals win news, the notion of reality, the concept of reason was the proud land of our fathers where the irrational had become respectable and the dangerous fringes had folded up as the establishment. Truth was no longer packagable and combined with the stark reality of the depression, job losses, bankrupt cities, oppression and prejudice resulted in the isolation by way of cellphone that had seen groups of people magnetized together into tribal cliques, fearful of the outside world, distrustful of any outsider that crossed their sphere of influence. With drones surrounding the cities, police acting out of an us versus them mentality instead of a protect and serve platform, and informants ready to turn on their neighbor, the racist the word taken, it belongs to us and them the America Roger had grown up in seemed like some far off memory. No one could have predicted how far the country had fallen in just five years but after the election non-election and with Trump’s presidential orders flying out like tweets, nobody was allowed to speculate or even venture towards a foundation of truth. That’s when SCAB! jumped in; they innately understood that what was life without the gut wrenching fear of it all coming to an end and luckily the newest calculation placed the end of the world date a few months away. The rest of print media would fade out, but the tabloid would always hold a place in the grocery store checkout lines in America, not to any others and would always be grabbed up by the demographic that least needed to waste the money, the most gullible to the gluttonous hunger of failed success. And with that in mind, another date had replaced the original Mayan manifestation—December 23, 2020. Over the past seven months, his little fear factor game had gone over quite well, in fact, was his only steady contribution independent contractor to the tabloid, especially lately.
Back to spontaneous combustion, Roger looked up weather patterns in the LA area, perhaps from Japan, but nothing seemed to be askew from the normal fires, pounding heat and continuous Santa Ana breeze of the past few years. He searched for a new over the counter drug or a new product like Woolite that may have some effect upon the homeless community, but nothing came to bear. He looked once more at the bottle in front of him with disgust time to get off the sauce and started thinking about a new angle that would fit into his tabloid’s parameters, something that would engage the community at large without circumventing the sensationalism that his employer was so greedy to maintain. With a renewed sense of purpose, he began searching again; but minutes became hours and Roger realized that he was getting nowhere.
Searches are impractical when one can’t figure out what words to type into Google or what one is searching for. There was no getting around it; he would have to rely upon spontaneous combustion and hope that led to something. He spent the next few minutes looking up what the internet had pounced upon in terms of Ben’s death, the man was still anonymous, apparently there was a suspect wonder if it’s me the net was closing in on the man oh no no no disappeared before giving a statement even worse but there were witnesses. Roger put those thoughts out of his head. It had to be something sporadic random, but why had Ben told him his name so someone would know and why the warning run fast run far because he felt he was going to ignite? Roger recalled with a shudder the heat that arose just before the bum lit up and they pushed each other away, but most of all he remembered the eyes. He walked back out into the living room and looked over some of the titles of books in the bookcase for inspiration, nothing. He thought again of the static on the internet they couldn’t really be stupid enough to believe he had anything to do with Ben. Frustrated, he went back to the counter and divested the bottle of its troublesome plastic top, opened the bottle gotta cut this shit out and took a swig of bourbon. But he took another and wiped his mouth looking at the blank walls that silently stared back at him.
He turned on the TV trying to focus on the picture within the snow, adjusted the indoor HDTV antenna, the game was either being played in a driving blizzard or the reception was hideous. Finally, he found himself staring straight up at the ceiling, watching the shadows flit in circles around the room as the ceiling fan turned. Funny, I never noticed the dust before. The place wasn’t empty before, schmuck. He took another pull straight from the bottle.
The overcast day was beginning to paint the sky in all its panoramic colors of sun, smog and ocean, as Roger squinted once more at the football game on the snow blizzard of a TV set. Who would have thought he had the last TV made in existence without a fire wire hookup in the back, probably was in her name probably didn’t even have cable. Normally, he would have been on the edge of his seat with the LA Rams/LA Chargers only behind by three and driving down the field, but the events of the week, accompanied by the events of the day had sucked out all his enthusiasm for football at the moment. He turned off the TV and headed to his office perhaps a game to calm my brain and woke up the computer. Once again a thought outside his own appeared to him have you seen Juan dePareja adjusting a string on his mandolin and he pulled up Google and typed in the phrase.
He was surprised that the search brought up Salvador Dali and amazed that he recognized the painting. Roger knew it as The Maelstrom, but there it was Portrait of Juan de Pareja Adjusting a String on His Mandolin and isn’t that what the old man asked him, what was it only yesterday, have you seen Juan dePareja. He wasn’t referring to a person, no he was referring to the painting. Roger’s mind wandered back to that wonderful vacation during Mardi Gras, he and Terr had taken. He stood trancelike for a moment recalling that vacation, the beauty of the city, stopping in the voodoo shop, the ancient Obeah that grabbed him by the arm, her eyes a filmy whiteness, placing the canister in his hands and assuring him it was meant for him. How the two of them, the old woman cataract city, looked at each other and smiled, knowing it was a con but it was New Orleans and they laughed, as he realized all tourists were a mark. How he and Terr laughed at his description afterwards and the lovemaking back at the hotel, behind the fountain in the courtyard, back when they were in love.
Suddenly the realization struck him and he bounded to the closet. Opening the door, Roger began rummaging through the piles of their lives that she had left, until he came across the very same portfolio canister buried at the bottom, one that he had put away out of mind all those years. He uncrewed the top and attempted to pull out the musty print he purchased, bury me out to sea, four years ago, maybe five. He remembered that he had half assed framed it and nailed it up as a centerpiece for the living room, for that time that was so important in their lives. How Terr had said that nailing it up was the right thing to do, it looked like skin stitched together; how she became uncomfortable, and eventually, claimed it was bad voodoo. And she should know, has some island blood in her. She said she grew to hate it more than anything, insisting that the print held some mark of malevolence; she complained of an eerie watchfulness like one feels during one of those slasher B-movies. He had even purchased the Persistence of Memory to compliment it she was okay with the melting clocks; but she was having nothing to do with it. How they argued about leaving it up at all it has Dali’s signature in the apartment. How she cried and locked herself in the bathroom for an hour. And how, of course, he had grudgingly caved and, taking it out of the frame, lovingly stuffed it back into the canister and eventually it made its way to the back of the closet, leaving it for special occasions that never came to show it off as an original.
Shaking off the remembrance, Roger dug with his fingers into the tube, only to feel the print tug back, as if secreted to the sides. He recalled that it was a reproduction, that the woman had said the signature was original. They had laughed about that too, but now the painting felt much different, where no murdered ghost can haunt me and seemed quite fragile. The more Roger attempted to gain leverage, the more his fingers slipped as the canvass doggedly stuck to the canister.