Several blocks to the South, there was the building where Joe Clelland had leaped to his death, chased by nightmare hounds that weren’t there. In its shadow, Mike stared upward and retreated first into his own head, then into the heads of those around him. The stark monument to his brother’s death sent him quailing away, made it easier for him to be … someone else.
But he couldn’t be part of the thing that was going on in South Park. He wasn’t part of that loneliness and that need.
It was easy for him to fear love, and around him a few were driven by that very fear. So he shifted, became one of the scattering of people who were driven away running from Aphrodite’s rising, seeking some other God or seeking Shelter.
And Shelter is what he found. The great Art Galleries of San Francisco were there in the SOMA district and the Mission District. There was the Museum of Modern Art, there was the Kresge Gallery next to Moscone Center, and then there was the stark green cylinder of the Arnand Gallery, its presence rising like a great gargoyle from the edge of the Mission District.
And Mike was Lost, but the people he was tripping on, whether they realized it or not, were seeking shelter too. He stepped into the ticket line along with one of them, and bought a ticket along with another, and found himself as the doors of the Arnand Gallery swept him in.
He stood for a few moments, then began to breathe again. In, out. In, out. His own body, his own breath. “God Damnit,” he muttered under his breath as he leaned against a wall. He wasn’t thinking about what he was doing as his fingertips straightened the collar of his jacket, brushing past a small unnoticed lump.
“Are — are you here to see the special exhibit?” said a voice behind him. Mike turned to see a tiny black woman, her hair graying and thinning, her skin a dangerous patchy gray-brown color that said she was ill. She was thin, thin to the point of starvation, and her skin hung loose on muscle and bone. She was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top under a business suit. Her eyes alone held him. They were a golden brown with flecks of green in their depths, and they were so utterly serene that different parts of his brain were telling him that she was crazy and he should bolt, and that nothing was wrong and he could trust her completely.
“Uh, special exhibit?” Mike didn’t know what to say. The apparition nodded. “Where …?” He indicated his program, which didn’t say anything about a special exhibit.
“Fourth floor,” she said. “I’m Cherie, I’ve been waiting for you. I’ll show you up.” And she floated, on unsteady legs, to an elevator, where she smiled a serene smile at him, produced a key from her handbag, and turned it in the keyhole that was where the fourth-floor button ought to have been.
The doors closed. Slowly the elevator rose, and slowly Mike became more and more sure that something was wrong. Finally there was a faint ding and the doors opened on the fourth floor. It was a big warehouse space, unfinished, all hallways and alcoves and skylights and storage space, statuary lurking under big white drapes like misshapen furniture or the monsters under the bed from his childhood, grown huge in their great old age and still waiting for him after all this time. The woman led him through it, floating ahead of him again on her wobbly legs, all with a reassuring smile.
“Good afternoon, Mister Clelland,” said a booming voice, as they entered a large round chamber under a skylight. The tile floor was white, with a design of inlaid blue making a seven-pointed star. At each point of the star was a pedestal, and on six of the pedestals, gargoyles stood. “Welcome to our special exhibit!” The speaker was a tall man, with hair copper-colored on top and gray at the sides, wearing a suit. He was grinning a predatory grin as he gestured around him at the Gargoyles. “I’d like you to meet the Gargoyles,” the man continued. “Over here we have Terror, Loathing, and Hatred. And on this side we have Despair, Agony, and Cruelty.” The lights came up as he spoke, revealing the Gargoyles fully. Mike felt as though he suddenly recognized them. They were evocative and their undeniable power was stunning. Mike was caught in the headlights of onrushing nightmares.
“The … The set’s not complete,” he muttered, gesturing weakly at the seventh pedestal, trying to be calm.
“Yes, a seventh Gargoyle was planned,” said Coppertop. “Its name was to be Horror. At first I was disappointed when the artist failed to deliver the last piece, but then I thought, how about making this an interactive exhibit? How about getting a little audience participation? Great idea, huh?”
Mike thought it was a horrible idea, but he found his mouth making agreeable noises, and, moving one step at a time, he found himself stepping up on the pedestal, slowly taking off his jacket and looking around. “What did you have in mind?” he asked. He knew, deep inside himself, every detail of what was going to happen over the next three hours. The little ape in the back of his brain was alternating between screaming in terror and curling up in a tiny ball too frightened even to whimper. But some other part of him was saying to himself, just play along and it’ll be all right. just let it happen, and it won’t be your fault. Not your fault, and you get to be with Joe again. . . .
The tiny black woman who’d shown him up stepped onto the pedestal with him, flashed him a smile, and began to remove her clothes. She had been sexy once, but her body was ruined by the ravages of starvation and, perhaps, disease. The business suit went first, then the halter top, then the miniskirt. She wasn’t wearing anything else except shoes. As she set her handbag down, she opened it and withdrew a knife.
“Do you know,” she asked him in the most serene, calm voice in the universe, “what this knife is for?”
Mike nodded, unable to speak.
“Just a few little cuts,” she said. “I need to ground myself.” She turned the blade against her own shoulder and slowly, running the tip of the blade only halfway through her skin, outlined her pectoral muscle, then her bicep. At each movement of the knife, she grimaced, her face knotting with pain and concentration. The angry red lines seeped a little blood, but the only blood vessels she had cut were microscopic veins in the dermis of the skin. A few red drops spattered on the pedestal’s white marble top and began to darken as she set the knife down, composed her face, and drew a few deep breaths.
It was a ritual, Mike could tell. But he knew what would come next. After five deep breaths, a frown crossed her face. The ritual hadn’t worked. The frown deepened into worry, then irritation, and she opened her eyes and sighed. “But I’m not grounded yet.”
She picked up the knife again and continued, this time outlining her triceps and starting on the muscles below her elbow. And Mike knew, with the cold certainty of a half-remembered dream, that today the ritual would not help her, not as long as she was still breathing. It would take her hours to kill herself, always just cutting a little bit further than she’d cut already, always believing that the next cut would finally calm her mind, losing blood just a few drops at a time. And Mike had to watch. And then it would be his turn.
In the center of the room, in the septagonal center of the star that was inlaid into the floor, the tall copper-haired man who’d commissioned the seven Gargoyles watched with a smile on his face. On his right hand was a steel ring with a cheap glass stone, and under the stone was a photo of who Cherie had been a year ago.
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.