Gods and Monsters Installment 16: Red

Reading Time: 7 minutes

LAST WEEK: Jim is diagnosed with AIDS and is sent to jail. He reminisces about his lover, Kristjan.
Read last week’s installment hereSee all installments here. Read the next installment here.

(Image created by E.E. King with Adobe Firefly.)

Chapter 45

Gabriel

San Francisco — 1983

Red

When Gabriel goes to the three sisters to make a delivery, he finds that all his pieces have sold. As before, the store is empty of customers. Maybe it is because the sisters have him come at 10:30 pm; few people are shopping at that hour. He collects his money and leaves six new pieces. He feels off balance, unsettled.

At home, for the second time in his life, he sleeps and dreams. Eyes close, mind opens, and he is falling, falling, falling down an endless shaft. Tiny hairs face downward impeding escape, preventing his scaling of the tunnel wall. They force him downward. As he falls, he notices the walls are spotted with small flecks of a red so dark it is almost black.

It is the first time he has seen such a color, or indeed any color. Gabriel’s world, always before black and white, for him or against him, done or not done, is now dotted with deep red. It’s a child’s coloring book, tinted with a single crayon; the color is a note, high and pure, rising from monotone. It’s a connection, making the world a little more alive, a little more human.

Then ash blows across the dream sky. Cinders, like a swarm of flying insects, darken the heavens. A man screams. A woman cries. They are the same known, unknown voices. They call out of the forgotten past from a time before memory, a time before being.

Gabriel awakes to his monotone world. The white sun is reaching fingers through the twisted roots of orchids. As Gabriel looks toward the light, he sees that a flower’s throat is freckled deep crimson. On the table, a cigarette paper is dark red.

Everywhere, the world is streaked, stained, and tinted. There is no shading or blending. The red refuses to join with white to create a rose or flush the sunrise sky with pink. It doesn’t caress the fruit on Gabriel’s table. The peaches remain colorless, the apricots ashen. The only addition to Gabriel’s black and white world is the color of dried blood.

“Color is emotion made visible,” Ryo says. He’s not sure why he bothers. Gabriel, who can smell pheromones and manipulate electricity, can no more hear Ryo than he can feel love.  The deficit is not in his hearing, it is in his heart.

Chapter 46

Jim

Ray Brook, New York — 1983

Pennies from Heaven

When I got out of jail, I still felt locked in. I was out, free: I should have been ecstatic. But I was like a bird that’d been caged too long. I was earthbound. I didn’t know where to go or what to do… certainly not how to spread my wings or fly.  I had no money, no direction, no compass.

I left the jail in clothes I hadn’t worn for many years. They were stiff with time, lost years, and folly. It was odd not to be wearing a uniform that made me look like an oversized pumpkin.

Once outside, I just stood there smelling the sky. It was fall. The air was laced with a tiny hint of warning cold. My back pocket rustled like old leaves. It felt heavy and slightly warm. Reaching inside, my hands closed around an envelope. On it, written in letters careful and constrained as spider web, in red ink so dark it was almost black, was my name, Jim Jackson.

The paper was brittle, the color of old parchment, like a treasure map in a movie. And it was treasure. Inside, starched twenty-dollar bills cracked. There were one thousand dollars. I had no idea who sent it. I still don’t know.

After counting the cash, I put it back in the envelope. Inside was something else, something hot and hard. It burned. I looked at my fingers. They had blistered. I wrapped the edge of my shirt around a hard, flat disk and pulled it out. It was a silver coin rimmed with gold. On it were raised symbols that looked ancient. In the palm of my hand, it was warm as a tiny flame. I put it in my breast pocket and forgot about it. But somewhere inside my head, I remained aware of a small round fire against my heart.

With my mystery money, I rented a one-room dive near the prison.  I was a bird with clipped wings, afraid to venture too far from my cage.

Chapter 47

River

San Francisco — 1983

Meeting at Mike’s

River leaves Bert’s Coffee Shop at 5:00 am, about an hour before dawn, Huck squawking noisily on his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a lithe dark figure ascending the stairway of Mike’s Pawn shop two doors down. Gabriel.

Huck swoops upward, a shimmering black swirl of iridescence, a feathered spire of solid smoke. When he is just a dot in the heavens he dives toward Gabriel’s back. Grabbing a strand of black hair off Gabriel’s collar, he soars skyward with a caw of triumph.

Gabriel rounds, a hiss escaping his full lips. Faster than thought, his arm shoots toward the rising shadow, but Huck is already gone, circling higher and higher up, up, up into the sky, a rising comet.

River’s clear sky-blue eyes meet Gabriel’s deep, sea-bottom blue ones. A flash of recognition, a déjà vu, passes between them. Memories of lives not lived, paths not taken, connect them for a moment across an unknown universe. Then, Gabriel turns, disappearing into the harsh brightness of the rising sun.

River stands frozen, feeling the burrs of childhood bite his flesh, hearing the rustle of barley in a golden field, seeing a baby, perfect and untouchable as a tiny sun, nestling in the arms of a charred woman.

Huck cries out from the sky, corkscrewing down, down, down onto River’s shoulder. He holds a shining strand of night hair in one talon.

“Jackson,” he caws.

“Jackson,” River sighs. “Real useful word, Huck.”

River walks two doors down, descending the dim, narrow stairway to Mike’s. Inside, electric blue, green, red, yellow, and magenta neon pulse like a heart machine. As always, Mike is slouched behind the counter. River circles the shop, fingering an occasional trinket absentmindedly. Huck hops down into a bowl full of gemstones, polished glass, stray earrings, and a few coins. He grabs a silver and gold coin from the bowl, taking it in his beak.

“Hey,” Mike says, “I don’t know if your crow has his own bank account buddy, but if not, you gotta pay for his stuff.”

“Huck,” River says. “Put it back.” He extends his hand, but Huck bounces out of reach, shaking his head.

“Huck,” River commands. “Spit it out!”

Huck springs away. River grabs for him. Huck casts himself forward, spreads his wings, and glides up the stairs. River hurdles after him, almost knocking over Thanatos, who is climbing down the steps, two cardboard cartons in hand.

“Thanatos.”

“Well if it ain’t the baking man. What you shoppin’ for?”

“Uh, just looking around,” River says, peering round Thanatos’ tall, gaunt frame for Huck. But Huck is now a distant flash of obsidian in the sky.

Thanatos continues downstairs. River follows. Thanatos put the six-packs on the counter.

“Mike, this is River. River, Mike…. Hard to believe Mike’s on the same program as Pam. But then she’s been on it a lot longer.”

River looks at Mike’s oversized stomach, his dirty T-shirt on which a Cheshire grin with large even smiling teeth hovers over a motorbike. He takes in Mike’s small watery red eyes, wine-stained teeth, and missing canines. The flashing neon makes River feel like he is in a heavy metal band’s version of hell.

“You like pomegranate juice?” River asks.

Mike chokes and two streams of thick red juice squirt out from between the gaps in his teeth.

“Pomegranate?” he laughs.

“Looks kind of thick,” River says.

“Well, sometimes I make it thick by boiling it down. For some clients, like Mike here, I sweeten it a bit with molasses.”

“Yeah,” Mike chortles. “I likes my pomegranates sweet.”

“Could I try some?” River asks. “Maybe I could use it in cooking.”

“Sweet pomegranates for cooking,” Mike howls. He doubles over with laughter.

“I’ll bring you some tomorrow, River,” Thanatos says, ignoring Mike. “This batch is all spoken and paid for.”

River can’t imagine Thanatos having clients and a business. The idea seems absurd, laughable. Yet, when Mike calms down enough to put his two six-packs behind the counter, he carefully takes out a glass case. Thanatos examines the contents, then scoops a few coins into his pocket. They look odd, both silver and gold, but they are gone before River can get a good look.

“Where do you boil your juice?” River asks. He has always assumed that Thanatos is homeless.

“Oh,” Thanatos vaguely waves his hand up toward the stairs. “Friends…”

“Where?” River persists. He feels like a jerk, hassling this old man, but…

“Look River, I gotta go, more deliveries. See you at Bert’s? Give this to Huck.” Thanatos reaches into his pocket and retrieves six rather grimy peanuts. “And if you happen to bring any of that magical chocolate cake….” He grins and vaults upstairs, vanishing into the light.

River turns to follow. He wants to see where Thanatos is going. He feels connections in the air like spider webs. He wants to follow them.

“Hey buddy, don’t ya need to pay for your crow’s purchase?” Mike chuckles and spits a stream of viscous red juice into a Styrofoam cup.

“How much?”

“Oh, I think that was a rare old coin he flew off with… let’s say twenty-five.” River tightens his mouth. He reaches into his wallet and thumps thirty dollars on the counter. Perhaps he hit the counter with more force than intended, because from a shelf above Mike’s head, two books, stacked between forgotten trinkets and pawned memories, sway, and fall onto the glass, covering River’s money. They are two of twenty-six outdated volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, VII- G and XX- T. Mike examines the books. Flecks of gold paint dot the indented letters.

“Tell ya what, buddy,” he says, “I’ll throw in this—hell, I’ll throw in both for five.” River doesn’t want the two odd volumes, but neither does he want to stay one more minute in Mike’s underground lair. He wants to be back in the sunlight. He wants to follow Thanatos, if it’s not too late,

“Fine,” he says, turning toward the stairs.

“Hey,” says Mike, thrusting the books toward River. “Don’t leave your books.”

River grabs them and sprints after Thanatos. But Thanatos is nowhere in sight.


Watch the author read this week’s installment in the video below:

NEXT WEEK: “I saw an auto shop. I remember my shock. I’d been down that road many, many times before, and it had never been there.  It was as out of place as crystals inside a geode.”

Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba and Sophie Gorjance.

E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.

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