Encounter I

In my nightmare, a shadow creature with spider-like arms, razor teeth, and mucous oozing from its ferocious jaw, at least six-feet tall, smells like excrement and rotten guts. For its size, it was fast, like a cockroach fleeing light. I needed to make it until dawn, that daylight, somehow, would save me from the monster. But could I last that long?

I call it Ghouli. A fearsome beast that feeds on flesh.

When I first saw it, I was in a primeval forest. The Ghouli was gnawing at the bone of something large… and vaguely human, working to extract every last bit of sinewy meat, like it was famished. I froze, instinctively. A chill down my spine. Primal fear, like I’ve never experienced. (There are many threats to us in daily life, but being eaten isn’t one of them.) Slowly… very slowly… I backed away, when—

CRACK

The snapping twig under-foot alerted the creature immediately—I froze again, as it turned, fully alert. Its eyesight must be pretty poor because it looked right at me, but didn’t react. I couldn’t breath. Carefully, quietly, it began to creep in my direction, senses heightened. I was exposed and vulnerable. My heart roaring in my chest, legs dying to run! But it must not have seen me, or it would have already pounced. My only hope: act invisible, and do not move.

As it neared, I trembled. In that long, drawn-out moment, which felt like an eternity, several thoughts flashed at once: What was this thing? What was I doing here? Where was I going?

My feet frozen, it continued moving closer, seemingly unaware of my presence right in front of him. (Him? Her? It?) But if it couldn’t see me, it sure was heading in the right direction. In moments, it would be on me. The putrid smell grew worse, making me want to gag. I had to move.

With everything I had, I turned and ran! Ran for my life. Feet barely touching ground—

The beast right on me— fast AF! Breathing down my neck!—

I cornered a few trees, ducking and dodging branches whipping my face—

The beast struggled to keep up. It was good in the straight, but couldn’t maneuver so well—

I didn’t know where I was going, just trying to distance myself from it. I came upon a deep ravine with a river below, blocking my path. I ran along it and dove back into the woods. The beast was losing ground, and maybe my trail. I charged ahead, exploding into a clearing. Surrounded on three sides by a wall of rock. In the center of the clearing, an enormous mound of discarded bones, picked clean. Rotting.

Behind me, the sound of the beast crashing through the woods. Closer and closer…

No time to act, I dove into the bone pile, burrowing into it, the only chance to get out of sight. Lungs heaving. I tried to calm down as the beast burst into the clearing and stopped.

Did it lose track of me?

Absolutely still, I watched as it paced the area, not sure which way to go. It called out in a primal, unsettling shriek, as if announcing defeat. I stayed rooted, afraid to move an inch. The beast called out again, a sense of futility in its godawful wail. Strangely, this gave me hope. Maybe it was admitting defeat and would soon head away.

But then I noticed something that crushed my soul. As the beast cried out again, I saw movement around the perimeter of the clearing. Dark, obscure shapes on the ground began to stir, slowly waking and rising to their feet.

Other beasts, just like Ghouli. A dozen, at least. Surrounding me. An encampment of six-armed creatures, drooling, with fangs. The original one gestured toward the bone heap in which I hid—or thought I had. The others turned, as one, in my direction. Knowing. Hungry. Howling. So much awful howling, it drowned out my thoughts! Then they began to make their way closer. If this was a dream, it was time to wake up. This was a dream. It had to be a dream…

Because you don’t die in your dreams, right?

Right???

The monsters moved closer, there was no escaping this time—

There was no way out.

3H00. After Dark.

3:12AM. Here he is wasting time lying in his own sweat, heart rate thumping at 180bpm. He’s not alone, his parents are just two doors down. The house is locked. They live in a safe, clean suburb. But he is afraid of what manifests. Are his parents lying awake right now too, also afraid? What went wrong with Sonny? Is this why he was given up 10 months after his birth?

3:17AM. He gets up. If his heart is racing, if he’s sweating and afraid, he wants it to be real. Not some fiction concocted in his brain as he lies in this bed.

3:23AM. Cold enough to see his breath. Everything closed. Time to outrun the night.

3:25AM. Sneakers laced up, hoodie up to protect him from the evening chill. He stalls in his backyard. Why does he feel like he’s forgetting something? Is he hungry? Thirsty? Does he need to pee? Stop stalling, Sonny. Just run!

3:34AM. Full tilt for 9 minutes, labored breathing. He thought he was in better shape than this. He did forget something. His phone, his music, his earbuds. No electronics, only nature. At this hour, he appreciates the luxury of being able to run in the middle of the road and pays attention to things he’s never noticed before. City planners did a really crappy job in this neighborhood. No streetlights. All the street signs named after pilgrims, puritans and colonists: John Alden Drive, Paul Revere Road, Brewster Street. Boring. He recalls an elementary school project he had to do on the Mayflower. He recites as many of the native tribes the pilgrims encountered that he still can remember, mantra-like:

Pe-quotNar-ra-gan-sett… Po-ka-no-ket … Wam-pa-noag…

The multi-syllables in rhythmic beat with his footfalls, a temporary reprieve from dark thoughts and lactic acid build up in his calves.

3:40AM Heaving now. A proper stop to take in his surroundings. Tall evergreen trees tower amongst the multi-level homes here. He tunes into the signal of the trees, into the darkness of a starless, cloud-covered sky. Relief that no one will catch him in the moonlight. Even though no one is chasing him. What is he running from? Nothing. He is alone here. And is that good or bad? He could get eaten by a wolf. No one would know who he was when they found his body. He left his ID at home.

Wasn’t this the hour of the wolf?

3:45AM. Some signs of life inside the independent gas station with the tilted, squeaky windmill. It’s closed, but he sees some movement inside. He wonders if maybe it might be a chop shop, but perhaps better to mind his own business, stay unseen.

Scooting behind the garage reveals a ravine he knows well. It leads towards a tributary of Chesapeake Bay and to the forgotten structures he loves to explore.

3:50AM. Amidst the green foliage, mounds of dirt and clutter of construction material, he short-cuts through the defunct lumber mill. He knew what he was doing was not safe. Sometimes he sees a security car patrolling here, but for now, his only obstacles were the things he could accidentally impale himself on… the rusted, jagged edges, exposed rebar or rotted, splintered wood.

As that thought came to mind, he stumbled, cutting his knuckles on barbed wire. Was his tetanus vaccine up to date? Maybe cutting himself with a rusty nail would prevent him from having to give blood again next week?

3:59AM. Distancing himself from the lumber mill, his thoughts returned to what had kept him from sleeping. What he thought he may have overheard from the doctors. A single sample containing two separate blood types. Not biologically impossible, but extremely rare. Blood chimera. Abnormal.

An unpaved dirt road. A sprint to his next destination. No more names of slaughtered tribes, only one question, the same question, cycling over and over with his footsteps in a 4/4 time:

What’s/wrong/with/Sonny? What’s/wrong/with/Sonny? What’s/wrong/with/Sonny?

The magic trick that was no trick

In the 1920s, there was a traveling magician named Raja Raboid, who had a trick so startling that grown men were known to scream in horror and flee at the sight of it. You’ve probably heard of the trick, the one where a woman in a box appears to be sawed in half and is then magically put back together. It’s a cliché, now. It was a cliché then, too. Only Raja Raboid had a twist on the trick that shocked people out of their ever-loving minds.

The trick was very simple, but effective and unexpected. Raboid had an assistant named Johnny Eck, a man who was born with only a body from the waist up and walked around using his hands. He performed for years in carnival sideshows as the “half boy,” and famously appeared in the classic 1932 movie “Freaks.” (We accept you! One of us!)

Johnny had a twin brother, Robert, who was full-bodied. The two worked together with Raboid in the 1930s, performing this spectacular trick. In it, Robert would pretend to be an audience member and heckle Raboid during the show. The goading would result in Raboid calling him up onto the stage to climb into the box and have his legs sawed off himself. But Johnny was secretly switched into the top of the box, while a little person switched and contorted into the bottom, hidden inside a full-sized pair of trousers.

Raboid would then “saw” Johnny in half, he’d pop out of the box crying for his legs to be reconnected, and the little person inside the pants would then jump up and run around the room, sending people into hysterics, often fleeing the theater.

Early on, when I would I revisit the memory of my attack, I’d often think about this, and about Johnny Eck. How, even without legs, at least he could still move. I work at this every day, but the phantom pains and the nausea inducing disorientation keeps me a prisoner in my own head. That instinctual, internal sense of how to put one foot in front of the other – without being able to see my actual feet in said space – makes walking next to impossible. The doctors tell me there’s a word for this. Proprioception. I still play it over in my mind, mulling on a daily basis on an incident that probably all told, lasted half a minute.

It was a quiet audience that night. The time had come for the requisite “saw the woman in half” portion of the show, or as we in magic circles call it, “the zig zag” illusion, on account of how the subject in the box must contort themselves around the blades. My assistant, we’ll call her Maggie (her name has been changed to protect her anonymity) was already lying horizontal, locked in the cabinet. I held the grip of a single-edged katana blade from feudal-era Japan. Real steel. Solid. Heavy. To demonstrate, I use it to slice straight through a solid block of ice.

As is part of the performance, Maggie reacts with shock, awe and fear over what will become of her. It was at this point we all heard an empathetic gasp of distress from an audience member in the back rows. It was loud and guttural, a hyperventilating war-cry. The stage lights made it difficult for me to see the source of these cries, but it was enough to make me pause from our performance.

“Don’t do it. SOMEONE STOP HIM!” he wailed.

A murmur in the crowd. Was this part of the act? It wasn’t, but I could use it. A magician knows that building tension is the key to a successful act. We set up an expectation and then subvert it. I’ve dealt with cynical, belligerent audience members before. Not just the ones that I secretly planted in the back aisles, but those off the street who may have lost some cash at the casino, and who pay to escape their problems for our world of wonder. This man, perhaps in his inebriation was having trouble separating reality from craftsmanship and in this case, the craftsmanship relied less on me but on that of Maggie’s zig-zagging within. But forever a showman, I goaded him for maximum pay off.

“Don’t worry, sir, she has good medical insurance.”

Nervous laughter.

As I moved away from the bisected block of ice to the cutting cabinet, so did he – from his seat to rush the stage. This was a subversion so unexpected and too fast for me to react. Of course, in hindsight, I have wondered – was there time? Could I have actually turned tail and ran? Was it my pride or fear of embarrassment that kept me standing there frozen as this enraged/deranged person wrested the sword from my hands, and then swung it full force straight across my neck?

It was a powerful blow. A clean slice. Decapitation.

My body collapsed immediately in a heap, but my head rolled and teetered at the edge of stage. I lay there, incapacitated, blood gushing and yet, miraculously I remained lucid.. Maggie, still locked inside the cabinet, screaming in abject horror, and at this point so was much of the audience. The energy in the room was intense and confused. What was happening? Was this some sort of gruesome Grand Guignol show, or was this truly a magic act gone terribly wrong? And what of me? Was I hallucinating this? Is this what an out of body experience felt like? How could I have so many questions circling inside my brain at this moment? Shouldn’t I be dead?

But I was not. I was inexplicably, a helpless witness as severed head on the ground, watching my assailant unsuccessfully trying to calm my assistant, frantically wrestling to unlock the contraption that housed her. What he did not know was that in cabinet, there was an escape hatch to below stage, which in her panic she still had the presence of mind to use. Her head and limbs snuck back into the box, and she disappeared from everyone’s view.

By this point, someone, I do not know who, tackled the man to the ground out of my peripheral vision. Chaos ensued in the theater. My stage manager ran to me. Though I could not speak, instinctually she could see in my eyes that I was somehow still alive. She bent down to my level, bewildered and fearful.

“Is this real life?” she asked me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is real, and what is not? No doubt, this incident reads like an absurdly tall tale, as unreal and unbelievable a scenario as anyone could concoct. But these are the facts as I learned them later:

My assistant, Maggie, our “zig zag” girl, escaped to safety.

The enraged man had developed an infatuation with Maggie and could not bear to see me slice her in two. He snapped. What he did in his own mind was an act of heroism to rescue her and do unto me what I was about to enact on her. He was forcefully subdued on stage, detained, arrested and deemed not fit to stand trial. He is in a mental institution now and seems to be doing much better with the proper meds.

In that half minute, my life was ruined. My pain was very real. I was a young man cut down in my prime. Many believe me to be dead. I am not. I have had much time to rage and mourn the loss of my body, to try to make sense of the impossible, but no doctor, scientist, or priest can accurately explain any of this to me. It’s why I remain here under study. And where is here? I have entertained some theories:

A hospital.

A research lab.

The Yellow Base in Idaho.

The Pentagon.

Some black site in the Indian Ocean.

An atrocity exhibit in a freak of nature museum.

For all I know, I could be in some department store warehouse off the Vegas strip. Who are these people who take care of me, feed me, converse with me, rehabilitate me and keep me breathing? They are kind voices but their faces hide behind mirrored glass.

My head rests in a glass case – immovable without the muscles in my neck, protected like the crown jewels. I am kept breathing by aged machines and an iron lung-like contraption. I have a consistent view of my bottom half — torso and limbs – seated and strapped comfortably at a desk across the room. It doesn’t have a mouth to speak or eyes to see, but it still has functional, conjuring hands and fingers. This is the greatest consolation from this live horror show. I have been trained to mentally command my disconnected body; to trigger my motor functions. First I began with simple coin tricks. Next, I began to write down my thoughts. I push and project the words you are reading right now across the air in this room, the friction of pencil to paper. I do this every day, long hand and find it immensely therapeutic. I’m told by my keepers that these entries will be helpful to those studying the next step in human evolution. I’m thinking more short term. How about a nightly gig at the MGM Grand?

This is a magic trick that has no trick, no sleight of hand, no secret compartments. I am real magic. I would sell out every night. My brain floating in a vat on stage left, my headless body on stage right. It would make a humble bow from the waist as my hands would make a flourishing gesture. Then, throwing my voice like a ventriloquist from somewhere else entirely, I would ask my rapt audience…

“… are you not entertained?!”