The Way Out is Through.
In the beginning, we remained under the covers, rolling between the sheets, showered in diffused amber sunlight.
In the end, static from the car radio stole my attention. Once again, I was preoccupied with something more important. I fidgeted with the knobs and she yelled, but of course, her words were lost on me. Fed up, I punched the plastic interface and wailing feedback blared through the speakers. The wheel drifted and we slid seamlessly. Oncoming headlights filled the car with a blinding incandescence, but by the time I even cared to notice it was already too late.
My eyelids twitched. The morning sunlight shrunk my pupils, and the world around me slowly came into focus. I was home. Home and hung-over, having passed out in front of my typewriter again. The bottle laid next to me, headless and drained. I peeled my face from my desk, shielding my eyes from the light while massaging my inflated skull.
Damn. It'd been two weeks and I still couldn't get that dream out of my head. It was more like a nightmare; her screams still reverberated.
I slapped myself to life and willed the courage to stand, stumbling my way into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and rinsed with mouthwash to cleanse myself of the night, to move on, to forget. I was able to mask the liquor, but her taste still remained; her memory, it seemed, was permanent.
I didn't want to dwell, or maybe I just didn’t care enough to understand, but once again I was preoccupied with more important things, like the fact that I hadn't written anything worth a good goddamn since my grandiose self-imposed write-or-die shut-in. I was supposed to write the great American novel. I was supposed to become something, a somebody, a big, bright, beautiful, shining star, but instead I'd been plagued with crippling writer's block and haunted by a repeating nightmare.
Oh, and let us not forget that the well was now dry as of last night. There was no more booze to speak of, but that was okay, I would be fine; who needed it anyway? Only hacks use liquid courage. This would be a good thing for me; I was planning to cut back as it were.
The real bad news, however, was that I was down to my last can of tuna fish. After today I would have nothing left in my cabinets and cupboards except coffee, salt, and breadcrumbs, and nothing in the refrigerator except condiments. I would have to become very resourceful if I hoped to continue eating.
You know, I sometimes wonder if I could go on without it, if I could rid my body of its biological need for food. What’s that old cliché, "Mind over matter," right? I actually remember once reading a story about a kid who did just that, and like a drug, he quit cold turkey. After a few weeks he ended up in the hospital yanking out his feeding tube before finally dropping dead on the cold tile floor. Pity. I would’ve done better. But enough of that. I get so easily sidetracked, spending too much time wondering and daydreaming and not nearly enough time working. Right now what I needed was a good old fashion fire under my ass.
I walked into my neglected kitchen (add it to my tab) and opened a cabinet containing the aforementioned tuna, one cylinder of breadcrumbs, and one crumbled foil bag of coffee—Coffee: the sweet, sweet nectar of life. I reached in, and with fingertips, I softly picked up the bag of grounds, being careful not to crush the sensitive foil as I set it upon the counter. I grabbed the coffee pot, rinsed it out, and filled it with cold tap. I added a new pristine white filter and replaced the glass pot, all the while keeping my eyes glued on the crumpled, deformed foil. Resting my hands on the counter, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I whispered to myself: “This is no longer an empty bag, rather it is supple and fragrant.” I steadied my nose above the opening of the bag and took a savoring whiff. I continued, “The potent smell of hazelnut will flood my senses with overwhelming euphoria.” The palms of my hands began to sweat and I licked my perpetually dry lips. I opened my eyes and stared at the label of the bag, "La Colombe." My favorite. I outstretched my hands and rounded its perimeter. Breathing through my mouth, I cautiously peeled the foil, counting down from three, each number feeling a mile away from the last.
“Three…Two…One—" BOOM BOOM BOOM. A pounding from my front door shot fear and panic up my spine, causing my hands to clench, crushing the hollow bag. Goddamnit; it was empty all along. I should have known better.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
"All right, I fucking hear you!" I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut. I was on the fringe of hysteria, and if I lost my cool I was liable to say or do just about anything.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
I repeated this month's mantra to myself, my assigned, "words of greatness," as my psychiatrist liked to call them: “Innocuous. Invisible. Immaculate,” I said, fixing my gaze on the door. “Innocuous. Invisible. Immaculate.”
I slowly came back to my senses. In control, I figured maybe if I quietly approached I could sneak a peek at whoever or whatever might be lurking on the other side. I tiptoed to the peephole and peered through. The undesirable happened to be none other than my rotund landlord, Francis Garland. He was steaming, red in the face and wiping his shiny bald head with a rag while muttering to himself. Again he pounded against my door, nearly bending the wood this time. Jesus, his mitts were as big as lunchboxes.
“Anybody home?” He called. “It’s already the 10th of the month!”
Shit. I was late on rent again, yet another unchecked item on my endless to-do list. It’s funny the things you tend to neglect when you’re, when you’re…well, when you’re preoccupied.
“Little prick,” I heard him say under his breath. He took a folded piece of paper--probably an eviction notice--and a roll of scotch tape out of his coat pocket, sticking the paper onto my door. He boomed one final time. “Deadbeat!” He said, waddling away, wheezing as he called the elevator.
The coast was soon clear. I could've opened the door and grabbed the notice, but I had to be cautious. Francis was a grade-A grease ball; surely one of his lackey goons would be posted by my door, waiting for me to slip up and show my face. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought. So long as that notice remained untouched, I could say I never saw it. “Sorry, Francis, don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would say. Out of sight, out of mind.
I felt lightheaded, struck by a small dizzy-spell; these were becoming more frequent as of late. I took the hint and trudged back into the kitchen for the Starkist smorgasbord. I drained the metallic juice and plopped the treated pink puck onto a plate. I scoured the fridge for any curious flourishes or final touches, settling on a dollop of expired spicy mustard. Bon appetite. I slowly forked my last meal while longingly staring at the pathetic crushed foil bag on the counter-top. A cup of coffee would’ve been the perfect compliment, a good friend on a lonely night, a reminder that there is indeed a God.
Somewhere in the background of my fantasy, I heard the drop of a keychain and then the unmistakable sound of steel teeth chewing through a lock. It was Francis, it had to be; the fucking whale was trying to force himself and his pathetic agenda into my apartment, force himself into my world, into my safe haven.
Well not today, you fuck.
I sprinted to the door, practically throwing myself against it to keep it shut. I looked through the peephole, eagerly darting from side to side, but to my surprise I saw nothing, no Francis, nor anyone else. Much like the sad and sorry bag of coffee, the hallway was also empty. God was dead.
Angry and fed up with his constant teasing, I boomed my fist against the door. “Show yourself!” I yelled, half-heartedly, waiting with tense knuckles, but nothing stirred; nothing dared stir. For my sake, at least.
As I turned to walk away I noticed between my feet a small folded piece of paper. Son-of-a-bitch must’ve tricked me, I thought, diverted my attention somehow and slipped it beneath my door. The sneaky fuck. “Coward,” I said, picking up the paper and unfolding it.
It was a crumpled piece of white computer paper, and written in the center with what looked like smeared oily red lipstick were the words, “Wake Up.”
I scoffed and tore the note to shreds, staining my hands red in the process. Wake up. Some nerve. I was awake, thank you very much. I was more awake than ever before. Self-aware, I could see myself from outside, floating just beyond my physical form. I could see everything I wished for, everything I had become, and everything I had left to die in the past. I was conscious of it all, the last time I had a good meal, the last time I had a stiff drink, and the last time I had a proper fuck; all now fleeting luxuries from another time, another life.
Suddenly, I was struck with brilliant inspiration. I rushed into my kitchen, opened the cabinet beneath the sink, and dumped out the neon orange Homer bucket containing my tools. I settled on hammer and a box of nails. Then I tore my bookshelves from the wall, scattering Miller, Bukowski and the rest of the American degenerates all over the floor. Haphazardly, I hammered the shelves across the doorway, protecting me and securing my stay, furthering my isolation.
“Yeah, motherfucker,” I said. “Try and get me now."
I wiped my face with my shirt; I had worked up a pretty good sweat, and was feeling dizzy again. I needed to cool down before I passed out. My apartment was a relic from the 20's and didn’t possess any semblance of a ventilation system, let alone central air, so my only hope was to open a window and pray for a good cross-breeze. Thankfully, fall had just begun, so the temperature was dropping and the air outside was crisp, or at least I hoped it would be.
I walked to the living room window overlooking the streets below. I moved the latch and pushed up on the wooden frame, but it didn’t budge; ancient building, sometimes this happened. I tried again, pushing harder, but still nothing.
"Great, just one more thing I need to worry about," I said, moving on to the next one. I unlatched it and pushed the frame. Nothing. The wave of panic crested behind me. I rushed to my bedroom to try those windows. Same story. What the fuck? I inspected the wood; no glue or nails or screws keeping the windows closed. “This is impossible,” I said, pushing again through grit teeth, but to no avail; the windows were wedged for good.
“Bull-fucking-shit!” I said, storming into the living room, kicking up books and tipping a lamp as I reached for my three-pound marble ashtray my father had given me for my birthday a few years ago. A daily reminder of the very thing that would eventually kill him. It was the last remaining piece of him in my life, but not for long.
I squared up with the window, wound my arm, and pitched it, hoping to shatter the glass and spray dazzling shards through the air ready to rain upon unsuspecting pedestrians.
Only it didn't break. The window remained, impossibly intact, without even a chip or a scratch. I stood incredulous and dumbfounded as the ashtray bounced off of the glass and rebounded toward me, striking my face with such bone crushing vengeance that I was lifted off my feet and sent flying through the air.
I was out cold before my ass even hit the floor. Curtains. Good night and good luck.
I felt the sensation of falling, forever tumbling over myself in mid-air, spinning on a string in a downward spiral toward the great unknown. And then,
I came to, but I couldn’t open my eyes; they were glued, the blood thick and dry. Damn. How long was I out? With my hands, I pried open my eyes, wincing through the pain as they slowly came to focus on the methodical spinning blades of my ceiling fan, their shadows dancing in and out of golden light. The sun must be setting. It was magic hour.
Head heavy, I lifted myself from the floor. Suddenly struck with nausea, I stumbled to the bathroom, falling face first into the bowl. So much for that last meal. I washed my mouth out in the sink and flicked on the light, examining my head in the mirror. The gash split my eyebrow, fresh blood pooling from my careless prodding. Stitches would probably be a good idea. I wet a rag and pressed it to the wound, the ruby water soaked my face. “Great,” I said to myself. “Just one more thing to worry about.” Hm, that sounds familiar.
I wandered into the living room, hazy and half expecting to wade through a sea of shattered glass, but then I remembered what happened, or more importantly, what didn’t happen. The window didn’t break, didn’t chip, didn’t crack; not even a hairline fracture on the fucker. This is a joke, I thought to myself, my life a perpetual punch line. How was this even possible? Reinforced glass? Had Francis done this? Came into my apartment--barged into my home when I was out one day? He probably did it while I was at work—back when I used to work. He could dedicate his entire day to the deed, take his time, relish being in my home without me knowing, making sure to stain everything with his greasy fat fingers.
Nausea returned, my brain pulsated against my skull. I didn’t have time to worry about hypotheticals and logistics; I needed to get myself down the block to Urgent Care—fuck going to the E.R. With intent, I walked to the front door ready to undo all of my earlier handiwork, ready to face the world and whoever might be posted outside in the hallway. Ready to accept my responsibilities and my fate.
I gripped the boards and pulled, but the nails wouldn’t give. With white knuckles I pulled, but still nothing. Drenched in panic, I pounded my fists on the wood, cutting my skin and smearing blood across the grain. “Francis!” I screamed. “You can’t do this to me! Let me out of here!”
Winded, I peered through the peephole; half expecting to see him and his goons, their faces distorted in hysteria, but nobody was there, the hallway was still and lifeless. I gave up, crumbling to the floor in defeat, holding my knees to my chest. One minute I want to lock myself away, and the next I’m in tears, begging to be let out like some sad and sorry mutt who accidentally shit the bed.
Suddenly I heard the rustling of paper, another folded note being slipped under my door right beside me. “Son of a bitch,” I muttered to myself, and then kicking the door, “Quit it; just leave me alone, you hear?” But of course there was no response. I picked up the note. In neat typeface it read: “The way out is through.” A riddle? A test? “How about I shove my boot right through your ass, fucker!” I called out. The way out is through--utter bullshit. If only I could get through my front door, if only I could open a window, if only the universe hadn’t aligned itself against me.
“Enough!” I yelled, tearing the note into a dozen pieces. “I am done playing your game.”
I noticed the hammer, still lying idly on the floor. I bent down and gripped the red-rubber handle, ready to destroy, ready to kill. I hacked away at the boards, the door, and the wood frame, desperate for anything, any semblance of progress--cracks, tears, even so much as a goddamn splinter, but nothing; the wood remained immaculate, my efforts completely in vain. Frustrated, I turned and threw the hammer like a tomahawk toward my living room wall where it miraculously stuck, the wedge driven cleanly through the drywall, suspending itself like a piece of modern art—the perfect centerpiece to my empire of shit.
I approached the wall and yanked out the hammer, leaving behind a hole the size of a quarter. Progress. I put my eye to the hole—expecting what, I don’t know. All I saw was darkness, a glimpse into nothing and a window to nowhere, but as the hair on the back of my neck sprang to attention and goose bumps littered my arms, I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone anymore. Someone, something, was watching me from within.
“Hello,” I called out. “Anybody there?” I put my ear to the hole, listening for movement, a sign of life. I held my breath, and for a moment all I could hear was my pulse beating against my temples.
And then, a whisper.
“Hello?” I called, voice cracking, body trembling. “I hear you.” The walls are talking to me, and here I am, talking right back. I’ve definitely lost it now, gone mad, even, but I guess stranger things have happened. As a wise man once said, We all go a little mad sometimes.
Faintly, as if carried by an imaginary breeze, I heard the walls call back. “Jaaack,” they said. “Help me, Jack.”
“Help you?” What—how do you know my name?” I said, peering into the hole, but still I saw nobody, nothing in the dark. “Hello? Answer me!”
No response. Radio Silence.
I stood there at a loss, and as feeling crept back into my body I realized the hammer was still in my hand, quivering. The way out is through. The way out…is through. My fingers clamped around the red-rubber handle, and immediately it became clear to me what it was I needed to do.
I raised the hammer and plunged it into the wall. To my surprise it broke through with a soft squish, like a scalpel into flesh. The other side of the wall felt warm, wet. A draft of sultry air arose from the new hole like a release of stale breath. Without thinking twice I removed the hammer and swung again, and again, and again, using every ounce of what little strength I had left. The drywall gave way, and paint chips and splinters exploded in every direction like buckshot, the wall practically falling apart on its own.
Panting and hands shaking, I dropped the hammer to the floor. White feather, sawdust, asbestos, and shattered pieces of my collection of memories danced around the room like a mad storm. With labored breaths, I stood back in amazement at what I had created. It was a hole, all right, but it was vast, like a tunnel. Certainly my own two hands couldn’t have created this, no; it’s as if this had been here waiting for me all along. I had been so desperate for a way out and now I may have found one in the form of a gaping void of pure darkness leading into the unknown.
I peered into the darkness, eyes darting from side to side. “Hello!” I called out, but the only response I got was my own voice reverberating off the walls of the cavernous tunnel. Just a minute ago someone or something had called my name, and now where the fuck had he/she/they/IT gone? It wasn’t my imagination. I wasn’t crazy—at the very least I knew this to be true.
I caught my breath and examined the tunnel. What began as broken brick and twisted metal pipes softened into a more rigid appearance and as I ran my tongue across the roof of my mouth, I suddenly realized what it reminded me of. It also possessed a gleam; something akin to gloss, and it was moist with a soft lining of film.
Standing there, I felt a slight vibration throughout the tunnel and for a moment I swear I saw the wall pulsate as if it were breathing, but that’s impossible, that would be crazy, and I was not crazy, far from it. In fact, I was the only sane individual left in this fucked up world. Compared to everyone else, I was a goddamned hero and they were all villains. I was innocent, just an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
I savored these calming moments of reflection. It felt good to be right.
Enough time wasted already. I had to act; I had to move, and although the destination of the tunnel was unknown, I had had enough of life confined within these walls. It was time for me to leave.
I returned to the kitchen and sifted through the overturned bucket of tools. I grabbed a small flashlight and smacked it to life as I walked back to the living room and picked up the hammer. With one determined step I entered the tunnel; my first step outside of the apartment, trapped and tethered no more.
I slowly made my way deeper into the tunnel and with every passing step my heartbeat raced faster and faster, the familiar feeling of fear creeping up my spine. Deeper and deeper, the hole in the wall became a blur and the apartment a distant memory. Deeper and deeper, the light slowly faded until I was left with nothing but the weakening amber glow of my flashlight, the batteries yet another thing in life I had neglected. Too late to turn back now; I had to press on, had to find what was on the other side.
The walls tightened and the roof shrunk. Soon I was hunched over and kneeling, crawling on all fours like a dog, my hands wet from the viscous ground, the air thick and damp. I continued forward, slowly realizing that whatever void I had entered was vibrating again, it was grumbling. The walls, I concluded, were alive.
The flashlight flickered once more before dying, and I was left alone in the darkness…