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Spelunking in the Caves of Despair (originally written in 2017)

Canto IX

His Loves and Linage Arthur tells,

The Knights knit friendly Bands:

Sir Trevisan flies from Despair,

Whom Red-cross Knight withstands.

“A part of me still can’t believe he killed himself.” Arthur wasn’t looking at Red. He was watching the road as the two friends sped down the winding back road in a roundabout way toward Red’s apartment. The sunset painted the sky in rich orange and yellow, but between the trees that lined the road there were only short glimpses of light piercing through the dark shade. The contrast was almost blinding. Through a hairpin turn in the road time seemed to move from night to bright day back to darkness within a few seconds. Red could barely see, but Arthur kept his foot to the gas as the two hurdled back into town.

“What makes someone do that? What makes someone decide to end their own life? And now we have to deal with all the shit he left behind. So selfish.” Arthur still wasn’t looking at Red, he was focused on the winding road. Red decided to stop looking out the window. If Arthur’s erratic driving was to be his demise, he’d rather not see it coming. He looked at his friend. Arthur’s face was red, his eyes a bit puffy; a tear ran down his cheek.

“I miss that idiot. And I still don’t understand it.” Arthur sniffled. “And don’t get me started on Tristan deciding not to show.”

“It’s still too fresh for Tristan. Funerals are meant for closure, seems to me they’re also warnings. Here’s someone you loved who died, avoid what killed them. With Terwin what we’ve got to avoid is killing ourselves. Maybe back off the gas a little Art.” Red’s voice was quiet, barely making it over the roar of the engine constantly switching gears to make it through the twists and hills of the country road.

“Sure, okay, so how the fuck do you do that? Seems to me that suicide is like some kind of disease, one you are far more likely to catch if someone near you had it. Like an emotional flu, no, emotional ebola.” Arthur hadn’t slowed his old Honda Civic Hatchback.

Red turned his body to face his friend. “Arthur, are you happy? I know we just left our friend’s funeral, but before all this shit, were you happy?” The car began to slow a bit, though not quite down to the posted speed limit.

“Sure. I was happy. Nearly finished with school, nearly have an awesome job, nearly ready to start dating. Sure, I’d say I was nearly happy.”

“Nearly?” Red tried to answer this question for himself, and he’d come up with a similar answer, occasionally, but overall, not yet; almost, sure, but in general, no.

“Yeah. I guess that sounds bad. It does sound bad.”

“Okay, what will make you happy?” Red’s tone was that of a helpful friend, but he was honestly curious of the answer, secretly hoping it could make him happy as well.

“I guess the easy answer’d be a girlfriend. Some others: graduating college and getting a good job. I guess what will make me happy is some security, some consistency in my life. I can’t be happy now, ‘cause I’m not done yet. Sure I’m an adult on paper, I can buy alcohol and everything, but I’m not on my own by any means. I’ve got a shitton of debt from school, and I still need a bunch of help from my parents to be able to afford rent and food. It’s like I’m not a complete person yet, but I will be soon, so I guess I’ll be happy soon.”

The two sat there, the car speeding over rough asphalt, not paved in years, as the words really started to hit both of them.

“That sucks.” Red finally said out loud. The two stared out the windshield and wished Terwin hadn’t killed himself. More than that they wished they didn’t have the creeping feeling that they’d like to join him.

Arthur’s turned his head to look behind them. “Did you see that? Just now, I saw something moving in the rearview mirror. It looked like a dementor from Harry Potter.”

Red turned, “I didn’t see anything. Must have been a deer.”

***

The small glass bowl had glowing embers surrounded by the bright green of finely ground plant matter. Smoke twisted around the tall glass tube as water in the lower chamber bubbled like a boiling witch’s cauldron. Tristan removed the bowl from the glass bong and sucked the smoke into his lungs. Red watched as his friend’s eyes began to dilate. He replaced the bowl and turned to look at Red. He began to speak, seemingly forgetting his lungs were full of smoke. The heavier-than-air gas made his voice come out deeper.

“Red, you ever seen Catch Me If You Ca – “ He was interrupted by a fit of deep rasping coughs which seamlessly transitioned into a sort of laughter. “Fuck man, gotta cough to get off.” He picked the bong up from where he had placed it on the end table. The glass bowl looked like a pizza slice had been burned out of it, but otherwise it was still green. Tristan glanced around the room. He squinted his eyes.

“It’s still in your hand.” Red pointed to the purple lighter in Tristan’s right palm.

Tristan laughed. “That’s weed, man; terrible for your memory.” He flicked the steel against the flint and took another puff from the large piece of glassware. This time he remembered to exhale before talking. “So what brings you ‘round here? I haven’t seen you since. . .” His voice trailed off.

“Yeah.” Red didn’t look at him.

“But I’ve forgotten my manners, and what’s a stoner if he isn’t a gentleman. Puff, puff, pass and all that.” He gathered the various pieces of paraphernalia and presented them to his friend.

Red hesitated for a moment, but decided there were worse vices, and he hadn’t driven here, so what was the harm? He took the bong and proceeded to light the bowl for a small hit. He lay back on the couch and surveyed Tristan’s apartment. Not ten days ago it had been the joint residence of Tristan and Terwin. Now Terwin’s room was packed up in boxes. The posters of coffee he had bought at Ikea had been taken down. The nails still stuck out of the wall. Odd little reminders of what used to be; who used to be.

“Tris, why weren’t you at the funeral yesterday? Arthur and I were really hoping you’d make it. I know you and Terwin were clo-”

“Hey, don’t Bogart it, dude. Take another one and pass it along. Don’t talk in between hits. This isn’t ‘Nam, Donny; there are rules.” He laughed at his butchering of the Big Lebowski quote and continued to eye the dirty chemist’s beaker like a dog begging for a bite of ham sandwich.

Red wasn’t pleased with Tristan’s avoidance of real conversation, of reality in general, but he wasn’t in the mood to call him out on it. He was in the mood take another drag, to join his friend in the far more entertaining version of the world. One where the colors seemed brighter, the video games were more fun, the food tasted better. The world felt more like it should; more like it used to.

The bong was still in his lap. He bent over, placed his lips against the cold glass, sparked the lighter, placed it to the bowl, and inhaled.

“Snap it!” Tristan was requesting that Red finish the current bowl. The host had already removed another nug from the mason jar on the side table. He placed it in his grinder and began prepping the next while Red attempted to finish the first.

There was far more left than Red had expected. Tristan was excellent at avoiding conversations he didn’t want to have; weed another hammer in his toolbox. Red was coughing his lungs out before he had finished emptying the chamber. Tristan took the bong from Red’s hands before he dropped it on the carpet, and cupped a hand over its top before the remaining smoke escaped into the room.

“Heh, I’m sorry Red, I forgot how much of a lightweight you were.” He lied. “That should put you in a good place. Get you out of your head for a while.” Tristan picked up the lighter from where Red had dropped it on the couch and finished off the last few bits of black in the bowl; Red having burned the last of the green.

Our hero’s head was spinning. He sank back into the couch cushion and looked up at the ceiling. Even with his neurons’ cannabinoid receptors influenced by a hefty helping of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, he couldn’t shake his current stresses; he couldn’t forget about his friend’s recent passing. He saw all kinds of curious shapes in the textured plaster ceiling. He thought he could see a face; thin, stretched, and smiling. It sent chills down his spine. He stopped looking and watched his friend pack the next bowl instead.

Tristan held the grinder in one hand and the bong in the other, but he wasn’t moving. He was staring past Red on the opposite couch like he’d seen a ghost. His face was deathly pale; a harsh contrast to his bloodshot eyes.

Red did his best to speak, “Tris, you ok-okay?” He turned around and craned his neck trying to see what had startled his friend.

“Fuck man, weed can make me hella paranoid sometimes. Gotta remember not to buy this strain again.” He shook his head. “I thought I saw a crazy monster, like a big black cloaked figure. Real scary.”

***

Red found himself back in his apartment. He didn’t live alone. Through an odd set of circumstances he’d found himself renting the walk-in closet of a one bedroom apartment of a friend of a friend. It didn’t have any windows, no outlets, and barely enough room for his bed and dresser. When he closed the door he was in his own little box. He often thought about how this sort of space was the punishment the Dursleys had forced on poor Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone. At least Harry wasn’t paying $350 a month for the privilege.

Red had attempted to make the hole-in-the-wall livable with a few posters and some extra pillows on his bed, but some things aren’t fixable. The National Geographic map of the world reminded him of how big the world was outside, and how little of it was his. Despite the heavy metal door, and the 1950’s concrete and asbestos walls, he felt like he could hear every apartment on his floor, the one above his, and the one below. He was frequently awoken by the sounds of lovemaking, or the crying of babies; further reminders of how lonely he felt.

A bundle of wires connected his computer and phone chargers to the outlet in the living room, snaking under the door, where a small band of sunlight creeped through. Red’s eyes weren’t on that organic glow, instead they were trained on the harsh light of his computer and phone. The computer currently displayed two women in a romantic embrace, porn; while his iPhone was on the Facebook app. It may have seemed like a curious juxtaposition, but to Red, both scenes were equally fantastic. The world his Facebook friends lived seemed as unreachable as the threesome that was beginning on his computer. For a moment he glanced up at the other tabs he had open on his browser: Three homework assignments, two already late; his student loan online bill paying, unpaid; his current bank balance, lower than he’d hoped, but about what he had expected. His phone showed a new event, a wedding he had been invited to. His peers were getting married and he was masturbating in a closet. He popped a tablet of Methylphenidate (brand name Concerta) that he’d bought off a friend, and told himself he’d use the drug-induced concentration to start climbing out of this hole he’d found himself in.

“It’s okay to be sad, Red,” he said out loud. “Your friend just died. It will take a while for things to get back to normal. Of course things have gotten a bit out of hand.” He looked at his computer where a man was doing something that couldn’t possibly be causing the sounds that were coming from the woman’s mouth.

This shit didn’t start when Terwin died, he knew better. This had been his life for a while now. Terwin was today’s excuse. There was a great difference between sadness and depression. One was an emotion, an intense one at that, and the other was a lack of emotion. Sadness was the color blue and depression gray.

Red felt a small pressure on his right shoulder. Turning his head he saw a hand; boney, pale fingers ending in long tanned nails, common of long-term malnourishment. The hand protruded from a deep black sleeve. Red didn’t move for a moment, stunned. When he regained his composure, he googled the drug he’d taken and saw “psychosis” as a possible side-effect. He exhaled, but it wasn’t relief.

“Friend, you can’t explain me away so easily. I’ve been following you for a while now.” Red turned his head back toward the hand on his shoulder, this time following it back to it’s owner. It was almost human; gaunt, draped in tattered black robes. It looked skeletal, pale skin stretched across bone. Two deep circles looked back at him, all he could make out of the creature’s eyes.

Red wasn’t alien to psychosis. Though he had never experienced the symptoms himself, he had an aunt who was institutionalized. He knew that interacting with a hallucination was what constituted a “psychotic break,” so he kept his mouth shut.

“Oh you brave soul. You have nothing to fear from me.” The creature said through cracked lips, held in a warm smile. “I am here to offer rest. I’m a dove with an olive branch; a warm bed on a Sunday morning.” There was compassion in his voice. “Your friend has taken his life, and left you hurting. But I’ve been with you. You were hurting long before.”

Red’s curiosity got the better of him. He spoke, but his words came out in a rough whisper, “Terwin was a coward.” He couldn’t believe he’d said the words, though he’d been thinking them since the funeral.

“Are you so perfect that you might judge him for deciding to stop playing this silly game? His flesh is dead, as it was destined to be, and Terwin made that choice for himself. A last bit of agency in a life otherwise ruled by fate. Poetic if you think about it. A final act of a free man after a life of slavery.” The creature’s voice was soothing. “And now he is at rest; his troubles ended. That we might all be so lucky. Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life, in these there is peace.”

Red raised his voice, “No. Killing is murder; it doesn’t matter if it’s your own life. And murder is a sin.”

“My child, every day of your life is full of sin. Every hour that passes you sin the more. Simply put, the longer life, the greater sin. And what is in a life? Fear, sickness, age, loss, labor, sorrow, strife, pain, hunger, cold; all damaging to even the strongest of hearts. And all these bound in fate. Your action or inaction matter not to the vast majority of the events of your life. You didn’t choose the nation of your birth or the color of your skin. Fate chooses so much, why let it choose the day of your death? And make no mistake, all that lives must die.”

Often Red felt like a simple beast. His base cravings for food and sleep and sex disgusted him. Looking back on high school there were so many moments that seem to have been controlled almost entirely by hormones. It was foolish to think those days had ended, especially with porn open on his laptop. He didn’t feel in control.

“You are in control,.” the figure whispered. “All this is just a game. You get to decide whether or not you play. Life is so much work. Why not sleep instead? There’s only one way to actually stop sinning, and it isn’t asking God for forgiveness. The wages of sin is death, and death is the end of woe; so die soon friend.”

Red’s heart was beating fast, his breaths shallow. The creature, Despair, loomed over him.

“What’s a moment’s pain to end a lifetime of suffering? A small price to pay. Now you have but the method of your exit to decide. There are a great many options.” Red’s mind raced through the possibilities: the knife in his pocket, the rope with his camping gear, the pills in his bathroom. He was shaking. It was one thing to decide your life is not worth living, and another entirely to actually end it. He felt sick to his stomach.

Despair noticed his apprehension. “The worst is over, friend; you’ve discovered the ruse.” Red felt the knife in his hand. “One last little cut, followed by endless peace. As far as endings go, bleeding out is quite pleasant. It’s as if someone slowly turns down the lights, then the sound, and then all falls away. What a beautiful departure from this wretched place.”

Red held the knife in his right hand. Despair’s bony fingers helped guide the blade to his left wrist. It will all be over soon, he thought to himself. Or perhaps those were Despair’s words. He had forgotten the difference.

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