Phantasmagoria Undone

April 15, 2009
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Flick to look inside!
The toothy neon sign looking like it might gobble up and then tear to infinite pieces in the most painful way possible any bystander that dares to even think about flicking. That even dares to want to look inside. A discouraging sign, but it wasn’t made for attraction. Nor was it made for repulsion. Those that know what is inside without needing to flick to look are, sooner or later, sometimes unwittingly, but nevertheless always drawn inside. No one goes inside the building by accident, certainly, and either by luck or by something else anyone uninvited will always have a difficult time trying to find it, such a long, difficult time that the occupants of the building will have relocated long before they arrive. Or so the lies and urban myths go, told at neverending parties that ceased to be fun decades ago, that’s how long they’ve been going on. The building itself looks like any other building on the street—worn-down grey concrete with graffiti, which is, in the city, an ubiquitous abrupt, unwanted appearance of color and imagery so weirdly fantastic that it seems to move. The inhabitants of the city and under it, when they come out, never get used to them. And probably never will.
Lanthier, though, simply walks behind the sign and flips the switch. The neon jaw closes and the letters disappear. A door opens, revealing a hallway swarming with spinal cords topped with pretty women’s heads, which blink and gape like idiot fish and latch on to the ends of each other’s tails to form an extended version of whatever they are. One of them, an almost medically intricate redhead, has a scarring of tally marks on her cheeks. As Lanthier hurries on another mark appears, completing a five. Lanthier doesn’t stop to count, can’t, actually, but it looks like a lot. At the end of the hallway another door opens, making the sentient spinal cords that are gathered around it squeal and move back in a flood of tattooed skin and bone. Lanthier cringes away from the walls, but some spines wriggle onto the floor and disappear under her feet. Her skin crawls.
The door closes behind her.
Creatures, some in bottles of formaldehyde, others legs splayed and pinned to corkboards, stare at her intently, or as intently as dead things can stare anyway. The room is unnaturally clean, just messy, with used syringes darting around the floor of their own accord and freshly inked medical diagrams hanging from the ceiling in a single file. The walls filled with grotesqueries by the same artist who had drawn the mobile spinal cords. A whisper, faux-velvet-sleazy and just as soft, slithers from a covered gurney in the corner.
“Want some vodka?”
Fist clenching, Lanthier grabs an edge of the cloth and pulls it off. It seems to take an eternity. Or maybe just a second, stretched painfully wide, like the opposite of someone morbidly obese forced into a corset. Lying there is a chalk-pale man, his throat slit and a choker of gore around his neck, dressed in a black shirt and trousers, his hair falling over his face. In his hand a nearly empty bottle of vodka, which he holds up in good-humored greeting.
“Want some?” he repeats. What she can see of his teeth are translucent and sharp, a mouthful of needles. His lips pull back in a grin of sudden and genuine pleasure that should be lascivious but isn’t. Is much, much worse. “I promise I didn’t backwash.”
She shakes her head, in what she is certain is an imperceptible motion, but the man acts like he sees it and smirks. She feels like she lost somehow, by allowing him an acknowledgment. She stumbles quickly over her response. It’s not as if he didn’t already see. “Uh…no thanks.”
Why the hell did she add the “uh”? Mancy, her friend: fat disheartened man resembling a giant frog powdered and wigged, laced in a dress, beard still showing under the pounds of foundation, had told her, had made sure she understood about confidence when it came to imaj dealers. He’s not really my friend. Just…convenient to have around, and street-smart. It’s suicide not having him around. Complete with bitter smile, a story (when she becomes the most famous imaj supplier) told to the leading journalist of Psychedelia Remix. A story true only in another universe, which isn’t exactly lying, not really.
Although if Mancy dies suddenly, most likely of a heart attack or overdose on lethargy, if that’s possible, maybe a crushed ribcage from the tons of flesh on his chest, although that’s verging on the edge of pseudoscience, it’s not like she’d immediately organize a funeral and invite his sob-story-addict friends over for a quick drink. Oh, yes, Mancy, he was such a poor dear! Always staying at home with no woman to take care of him, it’s no wonder he turned out the way he did. Predictable. I’d probably move in to his flat immediately, I’m that crap a friend. This she feels with pride, then guilt for feeling pride, then self-scorn for feeling anything the slightest bit sentimental for so repellant a human being. Is he human? She can’t be exactly sure. He certainly isn’t Mo’thorn, almost always exclusively physically female, all angular shadows and thorns as hair, scarred and discolored zombiesque skin, rich but dressed in deliberately dirtied and debauched finery, the brainchild of some wackjob artist and the epitome of messed up.
“Aw, y’ sure?”
“Yeah. I’m abstaining.” Lanthier isn’t sure whether or not this is actually true, but it sounds sophisticated enough.
A loud pause, then, “More for me.” The ring of scab around his neck bobs once as he swallows. His tones are conversational. “The one good thing about being dead—undead—dead—whatever, is you never get hangovers. My last one was in ’79, just awful. Pounding headache and dry mouth and felt like I had a freaking fever, for gods’ sake.”
“Have t’ try that sometime.”
“Hangover while alive? Oh, yes. Hell but feels so great when it’s over. You ever drink medical alcohol?”
“No. Why, that what killed you?”
“Haha, it‘d be ironic, but unfortunately no. Tried it only after my complexion got significantly paler. A bit after the rigor mortis, I’d say, though can’t be sure.”
Now it’s Lanthier’s turn to hmm along. “Int’r’sting.”
There’s an uncomfortable pause, during which the man (still lying on the gurney in a heap of stubborn lethargy) hums a cheerful sea shanty and looks down the neck of the bottle. This goes on for a while, and Lanthier, impatient, disoriented, and bored, tries to catch herself in a reflective surface. Urgh, such horrible coloring t’day. All yellowish, and your eyeballs are like mustard. And that’s just the white bits. Ah, I look like regurgitated raw eggs. Ugh.
“I’ll tell you your fortune.”
“Eh?” Lanthier looks up to see the man taking off his shirt. Pit stains, which should be visible, but aren’t. Wiry dark hairs against the maggot-field of his flesh. She takes a half-involuntary step back. “What’re you…”
Standing out from the rest of his torso is a flap of skin, raised and divided with a thin, faded scar. Four large, black buttons seem to hold the flap to his skin, and she hears, or imagines she hears, sloshing coming from inside. A trickle of rust-orange leaks and settles at the edge, then runs out in streaks of fauxblood. A flash of pale, bony fingers and the buttons are shifted out of four distinct holes. Then, the flap is falling down, over his pants, and the fingers are plunged into the gaping, fractured gap. Out comes the fingers along with a coiled, stinking mess that trails dark, purplish liquid from the end of what looks like a tube that sticks out, separating itself from the rest of the deliberate chaos that was once Slatterinhaut’s intestines. A sluggish thumping noise, which Lanthier recognizes as his heart, serves as a distraction from the gruesomeness, until, with a wet plop! the albino-spiderlike fingers drop the mass onto an unsterilized table. Some coils are shifted, grunted at, then shoved back into the maw, but the liver he keeps, and the bladder, and the kidney and shrunken grey lungs are immediately arranged in some design only fathomable to him. “I’ll tell your fortune…” The heart drawn out, still thumping away, pissing smudges of dark faded veins over the clickety clackety fingers.
“Did you want something?” She nearly jumps. His hair is off his face now, around it and spiky. His shirt is on, just as before, nothing betraying or even hinting at his piece of self-parodying self-deprecation which, she knows with a sinking feeling, might never have happened. Damn these hallucinations. Damn this medication. They’d started last year, for no apparent reason, and sometimes they’d stop for a while, but the hiatuses always relied on luck and (dis)belief and nothing more, and no amount of visiting alleyway quacks and crooked physicians will hinder them for longer than two weeks. Most of them pinpointed the problem to her imagination, becoming a supplier of imaj was the best idea, and, really, she had no other choice. Like the draining of blood of earlier centuries, only effective. Some suggested she go to see a professional, certified doctor, but she doesn’t dare, even after a particularly jarring hallucination, to visit a hospital, due to her fear of sterilized, precise, malevolent whiteness. The whole school-like, engulfing, vomit-sweet earnestness of it all. The passive-aggressiveness. How they almost regard it as a failure if you don’t live, how the very best patients get smiles and extra tidbits and better care. How the sick ones are encouraged to have faith. Gold stars and exceptional grades come in the form of letters and visits allowed, and being failed is nothing more than a frown and some plastic-pretty nurse shaking her head with choke-inducing calm exasperation. She loathes it all. The quietness. The superiority. The patronization, the condescending way they view you, even if you have nothing more than a bad cold. More than one night she’s imagined the cleanliness, the rigor, the teacherlike concern slowly turning black, peeling off like burnt paint, invisible flames smothering everything and rendering the whole damn place unusable, ugly. Reflective of the horrible people who work there, so that’s perfectly perfect. Slatterinhaut’s a pale, skinny thing with shadows and bruises, like a dead subterranean newt, she notices now, and the fingers, she sees, are more invertebrate than arachnoid. Proof. Proof that the imaginings are back. Hey, thirteen days without a single drugless drug dream, that’s a new record. Did I fall asleep? Gods, how long has it been…
“Uh,” she molds her face, forces the muscles to contort into an expression of surprise. “Yeah, actually, I wanted t’, uh…”
“Didn’t catch that.”
Idiot. Stupid, condescending idiot. “Imaj…”
“Imaj?!” He’s mockingly mortified, cheerfully indignant. The sure sign of oncoming pseudoreluctantdealerswit-itis. Mancy had warned her about this. “Imaj?! You think I deal in imaj?! What kind of conformist d’you take me for?”
She mutters something; he doesn’t quite catch it. This goes on for a while, back and forth, not really banter but not really anything else, either. Lanthier inhales sharply. “Look, I’ll put it blandly, gods. People tell me I’ve got a lively imagination. They like it. You…are…a…dealer. Mancy swears by you, for gods’ sake, ‘kay?” She wants to slap herself for the lack of subtlety. She wants to slap herself for her whole predicament. Lanthier can imagine a group of shadow-women, a reflection of her mother’s friends, a group of disapproving gossips whose blurry forms are more than made up for by their sharply distinct voices, shrieking in a flutter of spit and indignant righteousness about how she has no talent, no skill, perfectly fine upbringing, Lien, dear, to her mother, just so, so stupid when it comes to choices. And now she’s reduced to a mindwhore, a prostitute of purely intellectual debauchery. Lanthier hates them even as she knew that they were perfectly true. She realizes that she doesn’t even know the dealer’s name. “Mr. Um,” should do the trick, if said casually enough.
“Slatterinhaut,” in a distracted voice. “Come on to the back, I wanna see what you got. And, girlie, you’re lucky you know Mancy, or you’d be on your a** two miles away by now.” Hmm. Casual enough. Stiff joints groaning and creaking as he sits up on the gurney, then gingerly lowers himself off the edge. The bottle of vodka is gently tucked underneath the blanket, and he doesn’t make any move to hide this, Lanthier notices with some discomfort. They make their way towards a previously unnoticed door at the back, studded with radioactive signs and spray-painted with DANGER. “Just my little joke,” says the man. “What people won’t know won’t hurt them, eh?”
A laugh pulled out of her, reluctant and high, unused in almost a year. Then, eyes glued to the back of his head, mouth grim, she snatches up a syringe from the floor. It goes limp almost immediately, whatever life had been in it snuffed out just like that. More of Mancy’s advice. Always have a weapon or some’in’ ready jus’ in case ‘e tries to, like, cheat you or kill you off for too high a price. These dealers are unpredictable, dollie. The falsely hazardous door is swung open now, Slatterinhaut grinning his needles and beckoning to the hallway. Apologizing quietly, heart pounding, she enters the doorway, which is filled with more psychedelically macabre images—human hearts on spiders legs, clicking around the doorway, peering down at them and clacking to each other in an incomprehensible rhythm.
A door closes; a door opens.
Another door closes, slammed shut by Slatterinhaut, who looks like he would be sweating had the circumstances been different. The room is identical to the one they’d just left, even down to the babylike vodka bottle in the sheets and the darting syringes, just much darker. The medical diagrams now show diseases and mutations, the bottles, no, tanks, of formaldehyde preventing Mo’thorn women conjoined at the mouth, fed through tubes pushed through the callous-like skin until, by tragic “accident”, the expense to keep themselves alive proved too much and they starved to death, from rotting. The walls seem alive, or like a ghastly parody of life, every now and then shuddering and making Lanthier jump. They’re made of a strange grey skin with iridescent bruises that she recognizes as Mo’thorn skin, but, how— She gently prods the wall, but it stays lifeless. Goosebumps that would have appeared had they been alive show up, instead, on her own skin. She steps away, sharply, stumbling.
“Here.” Slatterinhau waves her over to the gurney. “Lie down. I assume you know the process?” An odd brass helmet, with clockwork dials and studs all over the place and a light blue stone in the middle he holds up.
She nods. “Yeah, you put the helmet-thingy on my head and then my imagination appears between those two wires sticking up the top. Then you reach out and grab it. And then those stupid imajunkies inject it int’ their veins, trying t’ get high on someone else’s hard-earned thoughts. ”
“More or less.” He ignores her attempts at any middle ground. “Except your imagination will solidify when I grab it, and it might take any form, like say, a spider and I need you to hold really still so I can catch it and stuff it in a bottle. Imaj’s a good drug, innit now, an endless supply and the dealer always gets more! Henh. And you know, the secret is not to draw too quickly, no, then the imaj’s too thick, eh, won’t fit into the druggies’ veins. Slow and steady does it, then it goes in smoothly. Now lie down.” His voice is significantly harsher, hoarser.
Lanthier shudders at the expression on his face—lascivious and expectant, and then, I don’t want to do this. There are more ways to make a living. This is, this— A memory of Mancy talking about “dollies getting cheated, Lanth, little inexperienced ones. They think ‘oh, yeah, it’s just imagination, turned into a drug that’s somehow able to be injected into the veins for brief stints of wild journeys that may or may not be solely in the head’, Lanth, dollie, the thing is I shoulda killed the dealer ages ago. The bastard cheated me, dollie. Would take my imagination, opened a tattoo parlor behind the storage place, yeah, haha, the place where you deal and use in the same ugly building, eh, now. Shoulda killed him, he, he, now, took my virtue y’know, stupid man, just because I’m a, a, now…” He’d stopped, embarrassed, full of rage, but unable to do anything about a memory. –this, this man could, could do the same to me. And if he’s gone, no one has to know ‘bout it, I’ll just get more—
“Come on, now, having second thoughts?” Wheedling. “Your store of imagination always restores to its former quantity, don’tcha worry. That’s why it’s such a good drug, now innit.”
--this is, just, wait, no—
Slatterinhaut’s needles directly over her nose, odorless breath slamming into her head, which, which…Slatterinhaut forcing the helmet onto her head, tearing her ear with a rough, uncut edge of the brass, a dial drawing blood, a sheet of red falling over half of her eye. “Stupid whore. What the hell d’you know, it’s just one time you stay put you stupid cow!” Slatterinhaut strapping her down on the gurney, the bottle cutting into her back, peacoat falling open over deliberately tattered layers and revealing a small gut at the age of twenty-two, not a good thing, Lanthier. Deliberately tattered layers tattered even more when Slatterinhaut grasps her throat, shoves her shoulders back towards the mattress. Turning, turning, Slatterinhaut grabs a bottle, his hands temporarily slack. A laugh bubbling out of her when the syringe grasped in lefty is remembered, then jabbed into the already broken flesh of Slatterinhaut’s neck, jabbed again and again until two rich gloves of gore cover her hands, the dice thrown while he was distracted. Hands quickly unbuckling the lower straps, one, two, and Lanthier is falling off, the gurney’s skinny frame tripping, tripping over Slatterinhaut. His bones are crushed with an audible grind, organic matter seems to be all over the place, the floor, the tanks, the helmet. A satisfying last click, and his screams are silenced forever. She wishes she could have seen the look on his face.
Calculating…the rusty clockwork of her brain clicket-clacketing into motion. The unexpected triumph of winning a fight by sheer coincidence and good counting; the aggressive, mad euphoria as she realizes that all of it can be her’s now, the property, the equipment, the macabre graffiti that she is already getting used to, the possibility of extracting then packaging her own imagination for the pleasure of others safely in the comfort of her stolen, no, rightfully won, home without setting a foot outside. Of starting her own business, maybe even gaining a monopoly over the whole damn industry. A picture crawls, unwanted, into her head and takes control, displaying a dark alleyway, lit only by an acid-green gas lamp. The scene ripples, and Lanthier finds herself thrown against the rot-blue bumpy brick of the alleyway, knuckles scraping against walls that shudder with each breath she takes, which makes a kind of sense, seeing as the whole think is taking place inside of her, anyway, nothing to be afraid of, Lanthier. Gaudily dressed, bone-thin girls are pressed to the walls by hulking faceless men in dark coats and top hats, their mouths open voluntarily or forced to gape, so that the latter’s tongues can enter. What she can see of the backs of the females’ heads are bruised and bloated, some stretched to the limit like a womb, imagination solidified while still inside, an anomaly, fighting to get out, eventually tearing apart the skull in an explosion of organs and perpetually-shifting fantastical creatures with too many teeth and not even eyes and, and…the rest unspeakable. Lanthier swivels madly and stumbles into a couple behind her. The pair—the woman a birdlike girl with orange hair and pretty bruises spreading like rampant eyeshadow across her eyes and into her hair, her skull so stretched it resembles glass with a mass of dark hues roiling inside and the man identical to all other men in this…this…dream or whatever it is, slimily amphibian, his maggot tongue stretched out inside her mouth, the mess in her skull lessening, lessening, and the man’s paper-pale skin suffusing with color, like a speed painting. Lanthier grimaces broadly in disgust, as the woman’s skull deflates with each successive inhale. A sudden epiphany—she would be just like those girls if not for Slatterinhaut’s…murder…no, slaughter is more deserving. She turns her back on them all and slams into reality.
Lanthier’s brain quiets down now, the necessary information stored, for the first time, somewhere in the recesses of her mind. She stands up and surveys the room. The helmet she wipes tenderly and sets on the counter to be cleaned in more detail later. The perpetually kissing Mo’thorn sisters she smiles at. The lid of the tank is pushed off, and the corpses taken out, then laid to one side, for taxidermy. Then, face impassive, she turns to Slatterinhaut. His body is dumped, unceremonially, into the tank. She wonders whether formaldehyde gets rid of bloodstains when some of it splashes onto her sleeves, turning angry red exclamation marks to rusty parentheses. She shuts the lid, and makes her way to the gurney, where she collapses, hugging the bottle to her chest.
And phantasmagoria dances behind her eyelids, unbidden, even before her eyes bolt shut with a click that shouldn’t be heard.

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