A strong wind blew across the avenue. It felt like a December gust, but Kass had lost track of the months long ago. It sliced into his face as he twisted and turned and tried in vain to prolong his current slumber. He soon arose, stricken with restlessness. He staggered across the littered sidewalk, sidestepping a dead dog. Kass felt like living hell, had suffered for as long as he could recall–a day or two, perhaps. For Kass, most remembrances had become long lost and fragmentary. He felt, most preposterously, to be dying a natural death.

A man sat at the curb not far from where Kass had slept. Beside him, an overturned vehicle was at war with corrosion. Kass did not recognize the man–he did not recognize anyone. He assumed this man to be new to the zone. The man drank from a dirty cup and shifted his colostomy bag back and forth
from one side of his body to the other. Kass wondered why the man hadn’t found a cabal yet; surely he was in pain. Perhaps he felt as Kass did. Or perhaps he preferred life on the streets.

Kass wiped his nose on his sleeve. He had slept on and off in this part of town for a while, as he didn´t know where to call home. A few capers had come through this zone in an attempt to coerce him into their coterie, this he remembered. But Kass felt–had always felt–that he should be the one to decide to whom he would give his afterlife; after all, it was the law. Time and time again the capers fluttered away into the night, leaving him alone to fend for himself amongst those other dishevelers who´d unexplainably decided to call the street home.

The city´s buildings loomed over him, beckoning him into their husks. Inside, capers and souls settled alongside their subjects: the night´s dishevelers who´d finally made the difficult decision to join. Kass had often wondered about the cabals. He knew their practices and actions reached a scope beyond anything he could ever assess. Yet still he´d made great attempts to visualize the vitalities behind their doings, tried to copy their mannerisms and styles to gain insight as to what one could expect when choosing to surrender a life on the streets. His efforts, though, had offered nothing of any implication, leaving him hollow and even more distant from the after-world that was so willing to let him in, to take him away from the lonely horror of life on the streets. Through timeless obsessing, his sanity had begun to unravel, reaching a point where he had been condemned to a week in the fugue district, battling rabid dogs, wild cats, and other castigators. He had come out of it–still had his life–losing two toes and an earlobe to a rat-supping hound he´d gotten too close to.

Kass had grown used to life beyond the cabals. But life on the streets was lonely. Most dishevelers eventually succumbed to the afterlife, relinquishing themselves to the capers. Only those dishevelers who proved no good use to the groups, or those like Kass, who hadn´t found a way to make a decision as to which coterie to join, ultimately stayed behind.

He glanced up and down the block. A retarded man sat in the middle of the street babbling nonsense. A youth blanketed in tattoos hunkered at the foot of a graffiti-marred building, jabbing his arm with a hypo. Soon, Kass thought, capers would come for them.

He passed the retarded man and crossed to the other side of the street, away from the junkie. He studied the broken windows pitting the slabs of concrete around him. As he passed an alley mouthed between two partially collapsed buildings, a hand reached out and pulled him in. He felt a kick against his shin. A forearm came across his face; a pressure found his genitals. Kass fell to his knees. His hair was grabbed and pulled, the force of which brought his skull against the stone of the closest building. The pressure on his balls surged. He grunted, sagged, stifled a cry. His head banged two more times, and then he was let go. He collapsed, rolled over, clutching at his groin as nausea purled over him.

He fluttered his eyes and saw the junkie and the retarded man standing at the mouth of the alley, staring. He realized that he was now at the back of the alley. The two dishevelers stood wide-eyed like a pair of pathetic gargoyles, then staggered away, yelling.

Kass turned over. Looming above him was a caper.

“What the fuck´re doing?” Kass managed. Blood and bile purled from his lips and dribbled down his chin. The caper, anonymous in its cloak, yanked a link of chain it was holding. Kass was jerked forward, the chain leashed to a collar at his neck. He had rejected their invitations in the past, he thought, but now it was clear that he was to going to have to adhere to the first come. Was this the way it was supposed to be? He hoped this cabal was worth dying for. He had spent his term as a restless wanderer, wending in pain. Like the junkies hoping to score, he had striven to find his people, those that would lay him to rest. He wished only to submerge with the proper. Not with the refuse. Not with the wretched.

He´d never really known exactly what to seek. But he knew he wanted to find it. He wanted to release his soul in a purposeful fashion, to stoop at the shores of contentment, not compromise.

“Follow,” the caper demanded. Kass stood and obeyed, guided by a hand that was scaly-red and crusted. They slipped through a hole in the fence at the end of the alley and entered a deserted courtyard. The abandoned apartment buildings off the quad towered in their gray stone, heavy, vast, and crumbling walls scarred from decades of trickling run-off. The structures ascended over Kass, set against a gray sky that hadn´t shown a hint of sun in years. The caper walked forward, Kass obediently in tow, past a cluster of bare trees, their roots twisted underfoot.

The caper climbed a flight of steps, its black wrap trailing behind. They took one floor, two, then three, the chill and darkness permeating Kass as if he were plumbing a mausoleum. There were many hallways. They meandered through them, Kass´s footsteps echoing those of the caper. He heard murmurs echoing from somewhere behind the dark walls, laughing and singing–not gaieties of play but more so the progressions of madness.

Finally they reached a door. It was worn, the paint shedding not unlike the skin of the caper´s hand, which turned the knob.

The smell was foul, of mold and rotting flesh. There were at least a dozen bodies along the walls. Decaying blank eyes stared at the floor, like those of strangers too timid to make eye contact. Kass and the caper passed through another room. Kass saw another group of bodies, these clustered together in the center of the floor: an orgy of blue death.

In a third room the caper released Kass; the leash slipped away from his neck. There was more light here, and he looked up to see a single torch hung from wires in the ceiling, its flame dancing spirit-like against the walls. There was a damp, fermenting odor hanging heavily in the air–like the swollen breasts exposed on the woman before him. She was sitting squat on the floor, facing the lifeless cluster of bodies, her heavy legs splayed before her. She was naked and glistening, moaning incoherently. She cocked her head and grinned at Kass. Her eyes glowed red and dripped a viscous fluid, not tears but perhaps the ulcerated result of great pains and efforts. A hunk of hair strayed greasily in her face. She licked a moist streak of eye-matter trickling across her lips.

Kass wondered, Is this the one? Do I finally stand within the cabal that will grant me my death? Uncertain, he listened and heard the ghosts, the souls of those bodies before him. A rustling behind him revealed a gathering of capers, perhaps a dozen or more, hunched in their curiosity, veiled faces lost to the shadows.

The woman twisted her head back and sneered, eyes tightly shuttered, gnarled teeth grinding ferociously. She stood and held her arms out to Kass, whispered, “You are mine.”

Kass felt a terrible sucking pain in his bones. His stomach twisted and writhed with the ferocity of a thousand snakes. He cried out in agony and fell to his knees. The woman staggered over, her clubfeet morphing into odd shapes with every plodding step. Her corpulence pulsated wildly. She took hold of Kass. Kass was smothered in her mucky nakedness. He felt as if there were a plastic bag over his head. Her hands groped ceaselessly at his neck. Her pendulous breasts were flat against his chest, the nipples hard and digging into his skin. Her nails shred the wet skin on his back, tatters of his flesh splattering the gray floor like raindrops. She opened her mouth and revealed her teeth, sharp and exact aside from two perfectly framed incisors dripping saliva. They punctured his jugular. Warmth, wet and beautiful, spread across his skin, leaving him cold inside. He lost consciousness.

In his swoon, he remembered it all, the capers coming for him every night, forcing him into the tenements and failing horribly in their crusade to grant him afterlife; something about his blood, unfavorable, distasteful; his skin as well, healing too fast to allow the correct flow of blood. He would never become one with the cabals. He realized why he had found no druthers, why he could never decide which cabal was right for him. He was condemned to life in the streets with the dishevelers.

Death, Kass said to himself, will not greet me in one whole piece. I will lose a piece of my soul every night. Death will come to me slowly, bit by bit. Life will seep from me painstakingly, as I exude in partials.

Kass awoke. He twisted and turned and tried in vain to prolong his current slumber. He soon rose, stricken with restlessness. His skin was sallow and blanched. He did not remember much of anything. For Kass, remembrances had become long lost and fragmentary. He felt, most preposterously, to be dying a natural death.

Michael Laimo has appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including Dark Whispers, The Edge, Delirium Magazine, and The Dead Inn. His first novel, Atmosphere, is forthcoming in paperback in early 2002 from Leisure Books. He has a hardcover collection of short stories entitled Demons, Freaks, and Other Abnormalities (Delirium Books) and two chapbooks, Within the Darkness, Golden Eyes (Flesh and Blood Press) and The Twilight Garden (Miranda-Jahya). He serves as associate editor for Space & Time Magazine, and fiction editor for Bloodtype, a hardcore horror anthology from Lone Wolf Publications. Michael´s website address is www.laimo.com

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