He was having trouble keeping his head straight and keeping his vision in focus. The night was already dark but growing still darker as the streetlamps blinked out, some of their bulbs popping as they did. His breaths were deep and unsteady, his heart overburdened by either the stress or the unexpected exertion of running the streets. Maybe both.
When he arrived at the phone booth he tried to calm himself, putting his hands on its side and taking a couple of long breaths, holding the air in for several seconds before expelling it, an unpleasant pressure just at the top of his chest, nearly in the bottom reaches of his throat, preventing his getting any relief. He looked around as his head pounded in his ears and little sparks of light danced at the corners of his field of vision, twirling and flickering and dying in short succession.
He stepped into the booth, his head swimming as he took the phone off the hook. Through the dirty glass the steadily blackening night came alive, swimming, moving of its own accord. His breathing and pulse quickened, and he fished some coins from his coat pocket and shoved them into the slot without checking their denominations.
He looked at the numbers, finding that his thoughts and sight were losing focus in equal measure, his hand shaking as he tried to press the buttons corresponding to a telephone number he was quickly forgetting. The booth reverberated, its glass cracking. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and as the corporeal darkness enveloped him, smothered him, seeped into his skull, bled into its very center, his mind and body alike were seized by the fear of a child making a frantic, fumbling grasp for the switch of a bedside lamp on a stormy night.
Powell put his bag down on the bed closest to the wall, while Servais dropped his on the floor and took a seat on the bed by the window and finished his beer. After crushing the empty can, he tossed it like a grenade toward the trashcan in the room’s “breakfast nook,” but after clattering off the plaster wall it bounced well wide of the receptacle.
“Where are you going?” Powell asked.
Servais had stood and moved toward the doorway, where the heavier interior door lay open and the outer screen one was closed over but rattled in the sporadic breeze. With his hand on its small metal handle, he looked back toward Brian and answered, “Going to grab the cooler outta the car.” He pushed the door open a little, stuck his head partway through the gap and added, “Might go ahead and put the top up too—looks like rain.”
Servais lingered there for a moment before turning back to look at Powell, studying the younger man’s nervous face, noting the way he seemed to be glancing at the painting that hung on the wall over by the little round breakfast table, his eyes drifting from the former backstop’s, drawn as if by a magnet to the image with its thick, heavy smears of a range of colors that nevertheless blended and blurred into a muddle suggestive of something other than the abstract depiction of the numeral zero that met the eye initially.
“What? Do you see something?” Powell asked, noting that Servais’ expression had changed and that he too was looking at the painting.
Servais shook his head and returned his gaze to the younger man, the casual air he’d had before having now returned. “Thought I saw a bug on the wall. Back in a sec.”
The former big league catcher stepped out and let the screen door thwack shut behind him. Powell stood immediately after and walked quickly over to the round table, started to move around it, to the wall, where the painting hung, but thought he was fine where he was instead. Nonetheless he leaned forward with his knuckles on the tabletop, his blue eyes focused intently on the vague shapes in the center of the picture’s 0, specifically the lumpy, rounded blob of beige below its upper arch. There were faint, thin little lines of blue within that beige-peach smear, and the longer and closer he looked, the more he felt he was being watched.
The tab on a beer can popped with a cold snap. “What’s the deal with the painting, Kid?” Servais asked firmly but not aggressively.
Popular anarcho-feminist BIPOC streamer Samanda James was recently at the center of a massive controversy that took the Chirpersphere by storm over the weekend, when she was accused of “race grifting” by a BIPOC woman (WOC) who herself now claims to be Samanda James.
“What’s going on with all these grifters pretending to be BIPOC/POC? So crazy,” lamented one Chirper user.
“I think this woman is sick n tryna coop [sic] Black Girl Magic,” hypothesized another user named Rosa BuxomBroad.
“I always thought something was off with her,” added John Browneye, who appended to their chirp an animated GIF of Jayla Ba-Bing! Rolling her eyes and shaking her head contemptuously.
Not everyone was so quick to believe the woman accused of impersonating the BIPOC Samanda James was guilty of that misdeed, however. “Sounds like [poop emoji] to me,” wrote SIR SMOKESALOT420.
“How can we be sure about all this y’all? Thiers [sic] long history of us [sic] white folk trying 2 discredit WOC #justsayin,” suggested popular political commentator and cam girl MAMA BIGTITZ 36DD/ACAB.
Local writer Danny Cater, who came to prominence after his auto smash-up with beloved, ageless murderer The Man with the Gold Car and the subsequent announcement that he planned to sue The Man, a move in which he was supported publicly by the alleged “Impostor Samanda” and her fellow streamer Captain Hi-Score, which resulted in a terrorist bombing of his room at Anytown General Hospital, weighed in: “Bruh, it’s crazy that all these mediocre white men think it’s their place to judge a Strong BIPOC Woman. #Hell2TheNaw”
Cater would shortly afterward delete this chirp when he was inundated with sternly worded replies and condemnatory GIFs and JPEGs asserting that he was speaking in “text-based AAVE” and in so doing “performing digital blackface,” and thus needed to “do” and/or “be better” to atone for what was “not a good look.” At press time he had posted a follow-up chirp thread that seemed to suggest his account had been hacked, while also contending that if the accused impostor was in fact Jen Score, she “might’ve had a good reason.”
Oscar Berkman clicked “print” after giving the piece a quick scan. He sneered in disgust. He had won a Pulitzer for a series of probing investigative articles detailing the presence of microplastics in the water supply of Coal Town, and now he was sourcing dozens of articles a week from his Chirper feed. To call this journalism ought to be illegal, he thought. Then he remembered that Moustache Publishing had in fact kicked the tires on advertising its multitude of publications as “journalism style content” back when there was an expectation of something more from the news media; now that this was unequivocally not the case, the pretense was completely unnecessary. While sauntering over to the printer, he was mulling over how best to tackle his “We Need to Talk About Y’all, Y’all” hot take (and its half-dozen similarly themed and similarly titled counterparts that he would write for various Moustache publications under an assortment of pen names, e.g. “The Problem with Y’all Saying ‘Y’all’” and the gravely serious “White Folks Saying ‘Y’all’ is Problematic AF— Stop It Now!”) in which it would be argued, with the assistance of a couple of chirps sourced from accounts with fewer than two dozen followers between them, that “y’all” was, rather than a well-worn colloquialism common to Southerners of all races, ethnicities, etc., a cornerstone of “AAVE” and thus needed to be decolonized posthaste. But even such an obviously pressing matter as this had to take a backseat when Berkman looked up to see Emily Twiggs in the flesh, heading toward Mr. Leeds’s office.
Oscar started to call out to Emily but thought better of it and lowered his gaze quickly, turning his back to her and shielding his face by rubbing the back of his neck in a stilted fashion, but then surprised himself by shouting her name. “Emily!” the seasoned content generator said in an awkward half-croak, trying to stop himself at the second syllable but failing.
Emily was startled at hearing her name, having appeared to be immersed in thought, her lips moving as she walked purposefully toward the boss or whatever’s outer office door. Now she looked up, stopped and raised her chin slightly, her eyes narrowing. “Oh. Hello,” she said coldly, looking Berkman up and down as he approached. She tilted her head to one side and hugged the manilla folder she carried tightly to her chest with crossed arms. With almost comical levels of venom, she added petulantly, “Shouldn’t you be at a... a... a nudie bar or something?”
“What? I— no, I don’t go to those places,” he said, taken aback by her hostility.
“Coulda fooled me,” she said, twirling a bit of her brown hair around her long, thin index finger. She noticed the document he’d just grabbed off the printer and gestured vaguely toward it with a jerk of her head. “What’s that?”
He looked at it, then shrugged. “Oh, you know. More grist for the mill.”
“Oh yeah? Huh. Yeah, well, I don’t ‘know,’ mister man, because I don’t ‘ride the take waves’ or ‘ski the take slopes’— I’m a journalist. I do journalism and I want to make a difference with what I write. What do you think about that? Huh, buster?” she said aggressively.
His dreams—he supposed they were dreams—had been full of half-remembered faces and even blurrier events, snatches of encounters with long gone individuals playing out as if they were happening to someone else, perceived as through a filter of oily water. The foremost thought in his mind now was a disquieting, murky recollection of taking apart the passive—either unconscious or even willing—head of a dark-haired, inky-black-eyed boy he’d known in secondary school, pulling blocks of his face and skull loose and setting them on a countertop. His own head now began to ache from an intense pressure at the crown of his scalp, and he covered his face with his hands just for a moment before his arms snapped down to his sides and he could feel himself passing at what must have been tremendous speed through some sort of tunnel, with his skin on fire at every square inch as air whipped violently around him.
Then there was light, and he was conscious of a dark, viscous fluid dripping from his nude body. He raised his head slowly, his neck popping rapidly, several times in short order, as if his joints were filled with coarse sand. Two beds sat before him, and upon each lay a man, one older and harder looking, drinking a beer, the other with distinctive blue eyes that stood out from the dark circles that enveloped them, and now widened in recognition of the slimy, naked man who hovered, stretched out parallel to the teal shag carpet several feet off the floor, between the foot of the bed and the wall.
Powell tried but couldn’t speak, and so instead rapped several times with his knuckles upon the nightstand between his bed and Servais’. The rough-hewn former MLBer, who’d been on the verge of passing out after sucking down a dozen beers in the past 90 minutes or thereabouts, jolted to life.
“The hell you knock— what the goddamn fuck is that?” Servais barked, sloshing beer over his bed and bare chest as he sat bolt upright.
Brian swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself up with an elbow, his breaths becoming quick and loud. He glanced at Servais, put a finger to his lips, nodded, then looked toward the painting that had so commanded his attention since the pair’s arrival in the room hours earlier, from which what looked like a sort of finger roughly six feet in length, with a single dark eye that was unmistakably backed by an intelligence of some sort, issued forth, dripping what appeared to be fresh paint of multiple colors, corresponding more or less to those of the painting, into a puddle on the carpet below. The ostensibly living humanoid finger writhed in silence beyond the quick, quiet plop-plop-plop of its paint droppings and sporadic pops like the cracking of knuckles or a stiff knee that emanated from its form as it wriggled and shifted from one side to the other.
“Is... that... it?” Servais hazarded to ask in a raspy whisper.
“I don’t know what it is,” Powell answered vacantly.