Sunday, February 14, 2010

segment #3

"I don't know what's wrong with me," Decker quavered, "I've never been afraid of heights!"
At first every step was torture; the see-through gratings of the treads crackled and pinged, the rust-scaled handrail gave just enough to make his stomach do flips, and the endless blackness beyond the gas lamp glow sparked with persistence-of-vision flares that Decker fervently hoped were hallucinations. To Degren's exasperation, Decker would stop at every landing to close his eyes and catch his breath. After what felt like the hundredth flight, things got gradually easier; he was able to maintain a slow, smooth rhythm, ignoring the subtle complaints of the stairway and his new-found acrophobia. As long as he concentrated on the next light post in front of them, he was alright.
Degren had become quite conversational as they descended. Mostly he spoke of his "friend" Furge with fondness in his voice, often finding some similarity between Decker and Furge that evoked a rush of reminiscence. "He doesn't like heights either, you know," he said. "The shaman suggested that he take the peyote while meditating on top of Hawk Bluff. Poor Furge tried to go up there before he took the buttons. I tried to help him out onto the Talon, which is a place of great spiritual energy at the very end of the bluff. He was shaking so badly when I put my hand on his arm, but he couldn't bear to have me touching him for fear I would overbalance him. He was still at least five arm's lengths from any edge! He just couldn't do it. We went back to where there was flat ground all around us and he collapsed in my arms like a frightened child."
"So why did he decide to have his, um, spirit quest inside the shack? Seems like your people are more the 'commune with nature' types."
"Furge ate the cactus on one of the flat rocks outside the shack. I was gathering stones for a cooking fire when I saw him go in. It seemed curious to me, too. I followed him in just in time to see him disappear through the wall."
"Guess that explains some things."
The rushing of water had become loud enough so they had to shout. Both men were getting quite thirsty, so they went on without further conversation. They could see occasional glimmers of water as they descended, and the air around them was becoming misty and moist. The steps were growing slippery, and there were sections of the stair and rail that looked more and more degraded by rust. They tended toward the cliff-ward side of the stairs, careful not to put too much weight on any one spot.
Finally, a picture resolved itself out of the blackness. They had gotten close enough to a great cataract of water for the gas lamps to illuminate it. It extended upward into infinity, but they could just make out a great cloud of roiling mist, gilded by gas light, below.
"It seems we were proceeding up the river after all," Degren roared. "Not that that stands in our favor."
Decker glanced toward his fellow sojourner, noting the strong lines of his cheeks, the firm straight ridge of his brow. He saw the anguish there too; the desperate worry for a companion that Decker now understood was more than just a good friend. He was drawn to the big man's depth of feeling, the nobility of his passion. This was the sort of guy that he'd always hoped to befriend in his life.
He ran his fingernails over his scalp and a large clump of damp hair rolled onto his cheek, then tumbled onto his shirt. "What the..." He rubbed his hands over his scalp and a lot more hair came free between his fingers. "Fuck and fuck! What's the deal?" He showed his hands to Degren, who immediately brushed at his own soft pelt, to no effect.
"Decker, are you ill?" Degren took a step backward, bumping into the railing. The corroded metal pipe crumpled outward and the big man teetered. Decker, clenching his jaw and hyperventilating, reached out to grab his arm. His balance partially restored by Decker's grasp, Degren stabilized himself and retreated. "I cannot... without our fur, know, it wouldn't be wise, um..."
"Ah, hello? I just saved your life?" Decker was outraged. He held forth clumps of his hair to his squeamish companion. "Ya think we can worry about THIS for a minute? Why the fuck is my hair falling out?"
"Decker, I don't know, but the pelt is a crucial protective coat for our people. Without it, we die. So you see, I can't afford to risk contact with you, for fear it is a disease you have contracted."
"Oh. Um, okay. I guess I see your point. But it's scarin' the shit out of me, man! We gotta DO something!"
"Do you feel able to go on? There don't seem to be any answers here."
"You're right, brother. "Decker took a long, rueful glance at his hair-smothered fingers, then started rubbing them clean. "Let's get going. Maybe there's a clinic down by the beach."
"Why did you call me 'brother'?"
"Just something guys say to each other then they get to know and respect each other. Sounds more manly than 'honey'."
Suddenly uncomfortable, Degren turned to the next flight of steps and carefully proceeded down, his back a ramrod-stiff accusing shadow.
"What did I say?" Decker asked as he followed shakily, scratching his head and coming away with another handful of wet hair. "What the hell did I say?"
A half hour of stairs, a few rusted-through steps and a treacherous handrail or two later, the pair found themselves stepping off the staircase onto a glassy-smooth, slippery slate outcropping. They were drenched by the cloud of spray from the monstrous waterfall. Degren sidled close to the lip. "It's only an arm's length to the water," he shouted over the deafening roar and pointing to his right, "and there are steps into the pool just over there. Let's get a drink!"
Decker stood his ground at the terminus of the stars. "How do we know there's nothing dangerous in the water?"
"You're starting to sound just like...." Degren clamped his mouth shut.
""Just like who?" Decker's voice was a shrill rasp that would have been quite painful if it weren't nearly drowned out.
"Never mind." Degren slid his legs over the edge, then turned and lowered himself into the pool. Standing with his waist against the slate ledge, he called to Decker. "See, it's only ankle deep here. Come on!"
They both sat in the bath-warm water, savoring its sweet flavor and rinsing themselves clean. Decker noted that he was now quite bald, including his eyebrows. He reached into his shirt and under his arm; he found the same baby-soft skin there. He didn't bother checking further down. He'd gotten some ideas about Degren's relationship with Furge, and he didn't want to stimulate any unnecessary attention. Not that Degren was unattractive...wait, what was he thinking? He'd been a committed hetero hound dog all his life!
He was broken out of this odd reverie by a big hand on his shoulder. He started upward, but the pool bottom was as slippery as the ledge, and his feet went out from under him. Degren caught him just before the back of his head struck the ledge. "Easy, brother! I just wanted to see if you were ready to head down the river. Seems like our only choice unless you feel like crossing and climbing the other side."
The slate ledge stretched out as far as they could see away from the pool. Refreshed, they strolled along as though on a perfect sidewalk. Here the gas lamps projected from the stone canyon on poles of varying lengths, depending on the pitch of the canyon wall. There was an occasional bench carved into the stone.
It was only a matter of a few minutes until they were clear of the spray, and not much further before the smooth slate was dry beneath their feet. The roar of the waterfall was distant enough so they could converse without shouting. The river had tumbled out of the pool and cascaded over rough chutes and scattered boulders for a few hundred yards, and had now leveled out into a glassy-smooth flow that was hard to assess the speed of.
Looking up along the wall, they could see regular recesses that appeared to have been chiseled from the living rock. The lamps weren't bright enough to cast light into the recesses, so they could not discern what the purpose of the recesses was. They started at least thirty feet up from where the men walked and repeated in rows some fifteen feet apart vertically and ten feet apart horizontally.
"Looks like apartments, but if anyone's home, they don't have the lights on," Decker commented.
"Um, rows of homes in the same building where people pay to live. But they don't own them."
"Pay? Own?"
"Um, yeah. Forget it."
"You say some strange things,, Decker."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Are you noticing how the sidewalk here is starting to glow? Rainbow colors?"
Degren glanced down quizzically. "Now that you mention it, it is looking rather strange to me. And the, um, what did you call up there are shedding some weird colored light, too."
"Shit yeah! Maybe there is someone home, and they can tell us which way is out!"
They were so intrigued by the hypnotically scintillating colors that swept beneath their feet, they almost passed the stainless steel double doors. Each had an elongated oval window of iridescent glass centered in it. The doors puffed softly in and out as though a fair pair of lungs thrust great breaths behind them.
Decker attempted to peer in through the watery, swirling glass. He found himself swaying back and forth in time with the doors, disoriented. Degren watched him and swayed in a similar fashion.
"Whoa, this is strange," Decker said. "I feel like the buttons have kicked back in."
"I feel like I've eaten some, too."
They were startled by a harsh buzz, then the doors sprung open, nearly knocking Decker over. A chromatic, almost kaleidoscopic swirl of light spewed from inside, at the center of which stood what appeared to be a giant, bespectacled desert tortoise, the flat of whose shell was the source of all the coruscating light.
Decker shook his head. “Man, shades of Elton John! I am definitely flippin' my frikkin' cork! Beam me up, Toto, there's no place like this!”
“Um, Decker, I think what you have is definitely catching,” Degren said as he ran a hand over his fur, checking to see if any hair was falling out, “I don't know what you're talking about with the elfin Sean, or whatever, but I am definitely feeling awfully funny.”
The turtle glared at them through hockey-puck lenses. “Will you two, er, gentlemen cease your puerile babbling and state your purpose? I'm very busy at the moment, and quite without patience for fraternal foolery.”
Hysterical laughter welled up in Decker's chest. “Professor Juke Box light show turtle wax here is impatient with us! HahahaHA! WOW!”
Degren, too, was quivering with barely-contained mirth; it exploded forth as Decker ranted. “Whoo hoo hoo HOOO!” He slapped his hands to his temples and doubled over, craning his neck sideways so he could continue staring at the turtle's belly. “Oh, GODS! What's happening to me?”
“Ah, I see,” the turtle scoffed, turning its desert-drab back while maintaining a steady, Fresnel-lens eye on the disoriented pair. “You've been imbibing of the river water, haven't you? Come back when the effects wear off; an hour or two, I should think. You are obviously in need of guidance, which I will not waste on you in your river-addled condition.” Its head turreted around and a cobalt blue flipper/arm slapped at a big mushroom-shaped button inside the doors. As they closed, he said, “Ring the bell when you return. I shall answer forthwith.”
Both men collapsed on the stone, laughing uncontrollably. Through rictus grins they spewed random nonsense at each other, eliciting still more spastic mirth. Shortly the hilarity turned to awe as they became distracted by subtle roils in the river's surface; iridescent swirls spread over the water, parting for glowing, transmogrified water creatures and psychedelic naiads that emerged to dance in hypnotic processions over lamplight-sprinkled riffles.
“This. Is. Some. Good. Shit,” Decker mumbled. “Wish I had a bottle to put some in!” He absentmindedly reached for Degren, putting a hand on his companion's wrist.
“Fur- um, Decker,” Degren stuttered, “I think, um, I see, you, ah, your fur, I mean your skin...” He pointed to Decker's arm, his head, “'s growing. I see it growing. Why do you look like Furge?”
“What? I Dunno what you', must be the trip.”He tore his gaze away from the chromatic parade on the river. “Whoa! It does look like I'm starting to grow fur! Crazy shit! I gotta find something to put some of this water in.”
The colors on the water gradually ebbed, and the odd creatures disappeared into mist. Both men felt limp and hungry, but their surroundings had returned to something vaguely resembling normalcy. The shadow of fine hair now covering Decker's body, however, remained. He stretched out over the smooth water of the river, attempting to see his reflection. “Oh, man, I'm still not myself. I recognize me, but I look different!”
Degren agreed. “You have changed since we met. You look more like Furge,” he said wistfully. I wonder if the two of you...”
“What? The two of us what? Spill it, Degren!”
“Well, Furge vanished from my world as he was entering his spirit quest, which started at the same time yours did, right? Then you entered my world. Perhaps he's in your world. Perhaps the cosmos is trying to rectify the imbalance by altering each of you to resemble, even become, the other.”
“Oh, man. Oh SHIT!” Decker's heart thudded in his chest; his breathing came in ragged gasps. “No wonder I've been seeing you, um, like that! I'm NOT gay! I don't WANT to be gay! I want to be ME! Shit oh SHIT, we've got to figure this out. Let's go talk to the turtle, if he wasn't just a hallucination. He said he had some answers.”

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