Out and Elsewhere
If you told me then that Cassandra was the ghost, I would have believed you. She stepped into the Micro wearing black fishnets and hiding a human-and-a-half’s fill of suffering behind her toothy smile and deep olive skin. Her two-toned hair floated in a glamour of sprayed curls, and underneath it all she came for me, gliding through a scatter of bodies but not touching a single one. Her eyes were wide and doomed, I saw, and her numb hand waved from across the bar as if it were something dead and half-dead alike. She had been a great tambourine player once, but now that was all gone.
She collapsed her body across my table and rested her forehead down between her arms.
Cassandra wailed. “I’m done for,” she said. Or maybe she only said, “I’m done.” When I told her I was coming from the wake of one of our many musician buddies, and that Scout and P-Squad would be meeting up soon, she groaned and said, “That fucker’s still dead?”
Cassandra was referring to the pillhead Kato Carls and performing in her words that tightrope walk of heartcrazed reconciliation and delicate revenge that only the jilted attempt. But I had come from the wake of the dope fiend Troy Carls, the younger brother. Kato’s wake had been last summer—I think. Although in my and Cassandra’s defense, and at this time in each of our lives when so many of our nervous systems were starting to spiral, we had come to understand death only as some permanent game of tag. Out was just elsewhere.
It was then I noticed Cassandra moved like a bird, but not in the good way healthy birds moved. Not in the way that makes them seem like oiled-up robots of darting motions and controlled stops. No, she started looking stuck—like an unlubricated machine, turning into nothing but a hunk of metal. She looked up at me. “I swear that boy wants me the true dead ever since I took his truck,” she said. She was talking about P- Squad now. “What gives him the right?”
“Aside from your grandest theft?”
“That truck ain’t even his!” she said. The words started to sound sticky in her mouth. “And did he not already put the pain in me for it? Does that not make us even by the new ways?”
But I told her I never heard of these new ways.
Cassandra searched around her sides and looked at me and twitched. She started texting someone. She used her one good hand to type into her phone tough enough to poke holes through it. When she finished, she looked back up and right within me. “Oof,” she said. “You said he’s coming here?”
“Already is,” a voice behind her said. It was P-Squad’s and it had caused Cassandra to spaz, but only a bit.
The truth is he had been behind her for almost this entire time, watching. I saw him but didn’t say a thing, and part of me feels terrible for it to this day. I remember his voice sounded digitized in his throat at this moment, like it was on autotune, which made me think of a song I could write but then immediately forgot.
Is it worth telling you that during this time I pretended to play the bass, or maybe it was the drums? Or maybe that I didn’t pretend, and maybe the rest of us played instruments too, or pretended to at least? That P-Squad, perhaps, had been known for the speed of his hands’ fingers, Cassandra for her timekeeping, and Scout for her screamo ways? And that maybe we had a whole pretend band, then, with pretend fans and flyers, in a whole pretend town of admirers and musicians the same? That maybe, just maybe, we were living in ways, unreal or not, no one else had yet imagined possible?
Looking back is always the worst way to know.
The real truth is we were all trying to survive long enough for the Redeemer to show. We were promised her smoky form would possess a body, and that she would use it to find us. But it was so hard to know how to wait, or even if She was real. And anyway, I had the feeling that even if She were, She wouldn’t come until after we all first left.
Scout arrived as we were loading Cassandra into the back of the old police car P- Squad bought at auction. Murders happened in the backrow seats, so he got it cheap and didn’t care if it was haunted. The sellers made him change the cruiser’s colors and remove the sirens at its top, but he was allowed to keep the cage inside of it and the one- way locks installed. Cassandra had complained that her good hand was going numb, and at first we thought it was the dirty taps at the Micro. But P-Squad and I had enough of their mix to know, and we continued to be our usual, passable selves. We tried to ignore Cassandra for a while so we could continue dosing in peace, but then she said the pins and needles were creeping into her face. When she started drooling great strings of blue guck, we decided to get her out of there and maybe to a hospital, if that’s where she wanted to go.
When Scout came up behind us she was empty-handed and unornamented and free. Her lipstick was perfectly applied, hair neatly clipped, eyes feline. All of which put- togetherness meant she was very drunk. You see, Scout’s outward mystery was that she was the composed sister: yours when you needed her to be, someone else’s when you wanted to think of her that way too. So then what do I say about how she looked in the face that evening? Like the night air had forgotten to darken her. That hers, maybe, was the face of a new sun.
But her inborn mystery was this: in her human-ness, she was something else. And the rest of us, greedy and angry at all we couldn’t do, refused to see Scout for the entire self she was. We were users in our warped minds of a conceptual Scout, degraders of her for our imagined whims, and we all knew one day her light would engulf us like flames. We would deserve it, and then some. And then some more. And so on.
“You, love, ain’t right,” Scout said as she ran her hands through Cassandra’s curls and looked into her eyes. Scout’s voice and look seemed to calm Cassandra, if only for a moment—her expression softened, and she pressed her cheek against Scout’s hand.
I know that if it were me, I would have tricked a finger in a tangle, said something pitiless, made of the transaction something worse than it had to be. Not that I think less of myself for looking at Scout at that moment and envying her for possessing the strength to bear the added payload our collective awfulness. Though I did pity myself for not even wanting that strength. I hardknocked Cassandra’s head against the cage.
“It was an accident!” “Ow, ow, ow.”
“You really felt that?”
“No, not so much,” she said.
“That’s not very good,” I said, truthfully.
Scout skipped over to the passenger side door and opened it and sat down. I told P-Squad that if he fucked with me and didn’t let me out the back, I’d kick out the windows. He approved of this, which caught me dumb. That’s how I ended up sitting next to Cassandra even though that job probably should have been Scout’s. It’s only ever women I’ve seen possess the strength and kindness enough to care for one another.
“Where to?” P-Squad said. He ran a red light that was really pink because the light had just turned and so wasn’t yet established. Before anyone could answer, he was heading in the direction for Mercy—whatever direction Mercy was.
Scout wanted Cassandra to answer a different question, so she turned in her seat to face her. “What’s doing this to you, love? We’ll need to tell the doctors.”
Cassandra looked at her hands as if they weren’t hers. “Everything’s too weird now,” she said. We think. Her speech sounded as if it were coming out a kazoo.
“Is it an allergy?” Scout again. This time Cassandra didn’t answer.
“Do you know sign language?” I asked. I started signing what must have been gibberish, then pushed her around a little when her eyes started to flutter. “Hey, come on. That would help us out a whole lot now.” I was joking, but Cassandra tried to lift the middle finger of her good hand anyway. It only twitched.
Scout turned and unlocked the panel at the center of the cruiser’s cage. She climbed halfway over the backseat and started shaking Cassandra hard. “Lady, how you doing?” she asked between rattles. Scout’s lower half pressed into her window and flattened against it every time she shook Cassandra. People started honking at us when they passed. I gave one of the passers-by a thumbs-up, because even then I didn’t think our situation was real.
“Well . . .” Cassandra slurred. “You’re doing well?”
“Well, I can feel it in me,” she spilled out. “It’s past the muscle and into my bones.” Her eyes fluttered again. “It’s trying for under the bones now,” she said. Then her eyes closed completely.
“What’s under bones?” I asked.
“Guess we’ll find out when it stops working,” she said. She exhaled a long breath, only strong enough to fuel a candle flame. It took a long while for her to breathe back in.
“How far are we?” I shouted. I was crying a little, and getting scared.
Scout turned back around in her seat. “Where you going, Peter?” She wasn’t scared like me, but angry. “This isn’t the way.”
“It’s okay,” P-Squad said. “We know the guy for this.”
Cassandra went dead-person stiff, like out of nowhere I was sitting next to a sculpture. I didn’t know what to do, so I grabbed a lighter from out her bag and heated it up and pressed it into her arm. Nothing returned but the sharp smell of burning skin. Looking back, I think I was trying to protect her from what she had inside. To get her to stay with us. But I never knew if she felt anything; I hope she didn’t. I didn’t want her to be trapped inside herself as if the body were a cage instead of a vehicle, and I didn’t want her trapped and feeling pain. Like in all those shows where the guy is dead but in his brain he’s still alive. Or in those other shows where people are eating each other.
Scout pointed to an exit. When P-Squad wouldn’t take it, she grabbed the wheel and pulled hard. Cassandra bounced and crushed me up against the door. P-Squad cursed and pulled back the wheel. Scout cursed back, and then the two were shouting.
I let myself get crushed a little more by Cassandra. It’s true we were behind that cage, and in front of us, contained in the fiberglass and fake leather limits of the front seat, were a passenger and driver too. We and space itself were a long continuum of bundled nerves, and I could feel the two of them up there, isolated and very, very far away, up there changing and re-changing their skins. I knew then it didn’t matter what they decided, what their shouting accomplished, because in this vague and second world of shifting strangers it would make no difference who we went to see.
Cassandra began coughing up on my shirt, and I held her tight as the cruiser bumped over patch after patch of chewed asphalt. We traveled around a great miles-long curve, young sweetgums and locusts brutally thickening on both our sides. The darkness we wended through was pure, and our highbeams, unable to light the road, showed themselves alone. And it was as if in all the worlds there was nowhere to go but only to follow them on.
There was nothing else to comment on out there that night. No sounds from animals, but we knew they were near. Static crackled from the car speakers no matter what station we tuned to or which device we attached. Even the wires from telephone and power poles quit their hum and stood dry and silent.
Cassandra’s head started bobbing by its own will. Slowly, carefully, as if it were listening for music inside a memory.
“These songs are a shame,” P-Squad said. I didn’t hear anything, so I knew his mind was somewhere in the past. “Carls would’ve hated us standing over his body, listening like this.”
“Sure would,” said Scout. She was calm again, remembering the earlier part of the evening and having accepted what we were doing now but would not name.
“Boy was the best of us,” said P-Squad. He sounded as if he had tears coming out his nose.
One time I saw Troy Carls in the middle of a Sunday at a bus stop for a bus that didn’t come on weekends. He looked vacant and defeated, so I called to him from the end of the train station lot where I would park my car at night. He piled himself into the passenger seat, the look of the fatally hassled on his face. At first the engine wouldn’t
turn over. It coughed and coughed and when it finally did turn, it banged, angry and loud, like something spiritual inside it had bottomed out. He told me my car was a piece of shit, and it was.
P-Squad regained himself and told me to hand Cassandra’s phone to Scout, which I did through a little slit at the bottom of the cage. He then told Scout to bring up the text messages before giving it to him. “I kinda feel like staying on this road,” I said. It was the only thing I could think of to say.
“And Cass?” Scout asked. “We leave her be?” “I guess so,” I said.
P-Squad looked at Cassandra’s phone, and then back up at the road. He pressed a button on it and spoke coordinates in. Every minute or two, the digital voice of the phone told us the way to go. We drove for a long time down a warren of signless streets and abandoned boulevards. We drove through the skeleton parts of a town we only thought we knew so well. We drove over roads that seemed not roads themselves, but ancient blueprints of infrastructures to come. And we drove over grass and dirt and hill and, together, saw the aliens who in millions of years would inhabit our world long after we committed our final wrongs.
Is it worth telling you how driving that way felt like a part of peace? That part that makes having nothing peaceful?
Cassandra’s neck and back jerked hard and her limbs shot straight out as if filled with a sudden lightning. Her hands spasmed, even her bad one, and she bared her teeth and bit down so hard her jowls looked like a fist. I kicked her away and pushed my back up against the door. I kept my feet raised in case she came at me. “Anyone ever see her this bad before?” I was yelling and near hysterics. Once, I saw Cassandra take too much ketamine and, caught in the long void, lay herself down-as-dead in the middle of the road—but nothing like this.
“Kato has,” said Scout. “I forgot what he said he did.” “Carls?” I asked
“Who else?” she said.
“Where do you think I’m taking her?” said P-Squad. “Didn’t you know he’s out here now?”
“Kato’s dead,” I said. “Idiot, that’s Troy.”
“They’re both dead!” Scout shouted.
“Well damn,” said P-Squad. He came to a clearing and turned down a thin path made of stone. He stopped the car in front of a small, wood cabin. Black dust from the tires clouded up around us. “Then where in hell are we?”
This is how I remember it.
P-Squad grabbed Cassandra under the armpits, and Scout took her around the legs. I opened the front door and ran inside for help. The cabin pulsed light and showed a chair and table—both piled high with paraphernalia—as the only furniture to speak of. What I took as a man stood with his back to us and facing the flamed kindling. But I couldn’t tell if he was Kato or Troy or someone else entirely. He wore no shirt and his skin was papery, almost translucent. His white ponytail shined, silverlit in the fire’s glow.
I helped Scout drop Cassandra’s feet to the ground, and P-Squad lowered down the rest of her. The man turned to us first. His face was pockmarked and no longer young. No one knew what to say, so I said, “You’re not dead.”
“Agreed,” he said. “That’s the other one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We just came from Troy’s wake.”
“Who?” the man replied. He was genuinely puzzled, and I wondered if we hadn’t crossed over into another dimension.
He took his time looking over at Cassandra. Then he took a slow seat on the floor like he was dizzy or had been hit.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Scout asked. “She’s gonna die.” “Agreed,” the man said.
P-Squad walked over and handed him Cassandra’s phone. “She’s been texting you.”
I inched closer to P-Squad and whispered: “I don’t think this is Kato.” P-Squad only shrugged.
The man took the phone and looked at the list of texts. He read them aloud from beginning to end while we waited. Cassandra it turned out had been sending Kato Carls messages for months on top of months: for the most part apologies and bargains with God for his life. But then later came questions about why he cursed her hand, pleas for him to use his ghost powers to heal it, and after that threats for the same. Finally she sent enumerated regrets, admissions of great sorrow, confessions of wrongdoings one could only make to a corpse.
“I’m not that man,” he said. He paused for a moment, and in my heart I knew he was going to add “anymore.” But he didn’t. Instead, he closed the phone and didn’t move from the floor. We were desperate and clueless.
After a moment of deep and solemn contemplation, the man waved us off. “Just get,” he said. “I’ll help her up.”
Scout was at Cassandra’s pulse. “I think she might be dead.” “Either way then,” the man said and pointed to the door.
Maybe I mean that I ran into the cabin, but no one was there or had been for a very long time.
And that when I ran back to the car, Cassandra was out. Either way, I suppose.
We drove off from Cassandra’s body and streaked back to town, holding tight to the curve and pressing through a fleshy dark that left its skin on us.
P-Squad looked at me in the rearview. “If anyone asks, tell them the hospital closed early. They took a half day or something. Tell them we did what we could.”
“You think I’m the guy people ask around here?” I said.
Scout sat in the back with me, letting me rest my head on her lap and calming me by humming and touching my hair. “I’d be interested to know what that all felt like,” she said. Her head was turned toward the trees when she spoke. I didn’t understand, so I said nothing.
I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up I knew a great fire had burned through this area years before any of us in that car was born. One summer it had been too hot and dry for too long, and then, poof, it all went up. Flames born of drought and time. The ones who remembered that night were old men and women now. They told of how the fire had swirled for days and days and lifted itself up to burn sky, and that it was so pretty that upon seeing it you only wanted more. They said that out of the smolder a great woman, scarred and smoldering, started her walk. And if you had seen her, they’d say, then all of what you knew about beauty was changed. For a long time this stretch was grey and dead and its air tasted burnt.
Not too long after this night, P-Squad would punch Scout in the throat and ruin her singing voice for good. Sometime after that, Scout would knife P-Squad in the eye and ruin his life for good. Reports would come in of Kato and Troy and Cassandra making a go of it in various corners of the world. In these stories they worked in renegade chem labs, teamed up with guerilla graffiti artists, pilgrimaged to find you-know-who. I’d overhear all this from thirsters at the Micro and write down the names of the locations they spoke of on bar napkins. When I got home, I’d unclump the napkins from my pockets and look at them and at my globe. But to this day I’ve never found any trace that these geographies were real.
What if I told you I’ve loved all these people? For everything of theirs but their virtues? That there is no such thing as a heart in the wrong place? And the where of it all is only a matter of chance? We were born into the time when the Redeemer would show, and to the place that was Hers to save. If you were of us, you’d be like us too. Never having dreams you knew were dreams. Imagining if you did, it would feel like this.
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