Stefan picked the book from the table by the register. The Hunger of Ned Greaves, Poems by Peter Liu. He opened to the middle and began to read.
Ned lifted the electric saw from his little white table
From his little white table with the iris freshly cut
He brought the saw to my face
He brought his face so close to my face
The fog in his goggles
The saw began to sing that same old song
Who am I?
at one with the curve of the little white vase
Stefan grimaced and flipped to the blurbs on the back.
The journal of a man flayed and eaten alive, an odyssey of awakening. He takes you along for the ride.
“That’s a great fucking book,” someone said. Stefan looked up to see a clerk with a black vest and a red mohawk. “Peter Liu’s what you’d get if Rumi and Rilke boned and made a baby.”
“High praise,” he said and read a few more poems.
First person, a diary in verse of Peter Liu, chained to the wall in a bare room where another man, Ned Greaves, slowly excised parts of his flesh and ate him alive over the course of several months. Stefan continued reading as he handed over his credit card.
“Don’t move,” the clerk said and used the scanner gun to shoot the barcode on the back. “You want a bag?” he asked.
“Nah,” said Stefan and headed for the door. “Thanks for the rec.”
As he stepped onto the downtown sidewalk, a chill thread of air slipped through the seams of his coat, and Stefan looked up from his book as he adjusted his clothes. Here and there, pedestrians traversed the pavement. The stop light at the corner turned green. The traffic moved. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but at the same time, everything seemed especially vivid, and Stefan felt uncharacteristically at ease. He looked down at the photo on the cover of the book, a wall-eyed image of an enormous, sepia-toned wave curling over an empty pier.
Stefan began to walk. At first he felt content to soak in the calm and spacious feeling that had appeared out of nowhere, but soon his thoughts began to churn. He thought of his empty apartment, the stack of burger patties fused to paper squares in the freezer, the slosh of plastic utensils every time he opened the drawer. Did he even have beer? Stefan looked at the time. He didn’t want to make another stop. He could almost hear Laney mocking him for being too lazy to stop for beer. “This is why you never get what you want,” she’d probably say if she hadn’t disappeared months ago with most of their shit. Lifting the book in his hand, Stefan turned to the beginning and read as he walked the rest of the way to his train.
The story spun out through the poems was a bizarre tale. Somehow, the torture the poet-narrator endures seems to initiate a kind of inner transformation, and he falls into a vast well of unassailable peace. Ned Greaves has delivered me beyond my mind / Here where there is so much space. The narrator even begins to feel grateful for the torture to come, seeing it as an opportunity. Only six hours / on the cross / How much further might I go? / Gone, gone / gone beyond to the other shore.
At his apartment, Stefan cooked his burger in the pan and read as he ate. He read until long after he’d finished dinner, until a thud lifted his eyes from the page.
In the living room, a small clock lay toppled on the carpet. Laney’s cat, one thing she had not taken, perched on his bookshelf where the clock had been, and for a moment, the whole tableau—the carpet, the toppled clock, the bookshelf, and the cat—were spread throughout a vast terrain, and the foreground and the background in his vision became one. Then at once, he realized that he was the clock. He was as fully the clock as he’d ever been himself, and in a certain sense, he had always been the clock, only now it was apparent. He was at once both the clock and himself and neither, all at the same time. He recalled a line from the book, At home with all these obvious paradoxes.
“Amazing,” Stefan said, feeling the word in his chest. The cat licked its fur. Cleaning. Sentience. The words arose in his mind as if from a cool still lake and then sank again without a ripple.
Stefan didn’t need to read anymore. He didn’t need anything. He stood from the table, and as he did so, it occurred to him that Laney might benefit from the poems. A doubt arose as to how she might interpret the gesture, but he wasn’t about to be stopped by something as insubstantial as a thought. His body was in motion, crossing to the writing desk. His hands pulled a large envelope from a slot and wrote Laney’s new address on the front. It was unusual to no longer be under the illusion that he was causing any of this to happen, but despite the novelty, it felt altogether natural and rather obvious that there was no little Stefan inside his mind driving his body around. Thoughts, desires, sensations all arose within his field of experience, but in the absence of the mirage of his organizing ego, it was clear he had as much to do with the products of his mind as he did with the dark breeze rustling the leaves outside the window. intimate with it all / yet no place to stand.
The book went in the envelope. Postage was applied. Stefan’s body walked to the corner and dropped it in the blue box. So clear. Unified with everything from the street-lit corner on up past the tip tops of the trees and even out beyond the net of jewels spanning the dark sky overhead. Stefan, in and all around his body, walked back to his apartment and went to sleep.
The next morning, he awoke feeling totally normal. Except for a vague sense that he’d been crammed back into a body and a mind that were infinitely too small, whatever had happened the night before seemed to have totally passed and left only the awareness of a baseline level of agitation he hadn’t even noticed before. The book! Why had he mailed it to Laney? He pictured her opening the envelope in some sleek apartment in Kansas City, pictured her scoffing at what she’d surely see as a pathetic attempt at reconciliation before she tossed the poems in the trash on her way to crush another workout. Is that what would happen? Is that what he’d been doing? His motivations had seemed, at the time, like rationalizations rather than any useful thinking and had therefore seemed to deserve his utter disregard. Whatever he’d done, it had just happened, the way sunshine or rain happened.
Stefan looked at the clock. He was late. He ran upstairs to shower and dress for work. Riding the train, he thought about the previous night’s experience. Could it really have been the book? Maybe he’d been accidentally drugged or had some kind of stroke and should go straight to the hospital. But no, it was the book. It had to be, because the book seemed to have induced in Stefan the same type of experience that Peter Liu described undergoing at the torturing hands of Ned Greaves.
As Stefan walked past the bookshop, he confirmed that it would open at ten. Through the window he could see a single copy of The Hunger of Ned Greaves propped up on the display, and throughout the morning he eyed the clock as he worked. At 9:55, Stefan left his desk and hurried down the service stairs.
An enormous old man in a long fur coat with a non-matching fur hat waited before the bookstore’s locked doors. There was no way the old guy was there for the same book, but Stefan plotted a course to the display nevertheless. Inside, the kid with the mohawk unthreaded the steel link from door handles. The old man swept forward, the broad fur blanket of his back blocking Stefan every step of the way. The old man lifted the last copy of The Hunger of Ned Greaves from its little wire rack and headed for the register where he paid.
“Any chance you got more copies in the back?” Stefan asked the kid with the mohawk.
“Nope. Wanna order one?”
Stefan watched the old man step out onto the sunny sidewalk and followed.
“Excuse me, sir,” Stefan said. “Any chance I could buy that book from you?”
“How much?” asked the old man, one of his eyebrows rising archly toward the brim of his fur cap.
“Thirty bucks?” Stefan ventured.
“It looks like this book’s worth much more to you than that,” the old man said.
“How much do you want?” Stefan asked.
The old man laughed.
“It’s just a book,” he said, shaking his head. “Just give me what I paid for it.”
With a new copy of The Hunger of Ned Greaves in hand, Stefan hurried back to his office, shut the door and began to read. He started at the beginning, but after about fifteen pages, he put the book down. He couldn’t sink in. The expectation of something happening loomed too large over everything and, indeed, half the times he’d looked away from the page had been to search his visual field for any perceptual changes.
Stefan made himself read fifty pages, but it was obvious it was not going to work. Stashing the book in his desk, he resolved to try again after lunch, but his afternoon turned into a slag pile of meetings. He tried again to read on the train home but fell asleep. After dinner, he sat down in his apartment and forced himself to concentrate, but absolutely nothing happened. The book was just poems, the poems were just words. He remained his plain old, normal self.
Over the coming days, Stefan returned again and again to the book, but no matter his mood or mental state, he was never able to recreate the experience. Once in a while the book seemed to generate a sort of heightened acuity, intimations of a greater spaciousness somewhere beyond the current confines of his mind, like what had happened outside the bookstore. Yet reading more at those moments didn’t take him any deeper or higher, and he began to accept that whatever the book was, whatever it had catalyzed that first night, it was not going to be a reliable road map to that awakened universe where Stefan had lingered.
One evening, Stefan came home from work and found a letter from Laney.
Thank you for the book, she wrote. The poems are like wildfire, burning up everything in my mind, purifying it.
That was all it said. Stefan read the short note again and again. Wildfire? Purifying her mind? Lines from the book arose in his mind. the seeds of my discontent / falling in acetylene death. Surely this was just her appropriation of Peter’s pithy transcendent lingo. She would be the first person to try and make herself sound mystically woke. But what if...?
What if Laney were somehow permanently free in the way he’d been free for that hour or two? Was it even possible to be like that all of the time? Could she be free of the discomfort of ever worrying about anything, including him, again?
Before work the next day, Stefan packed a bag. When he got to his desk, he opened the pitch he’d started for their client in Charleston. He made a few edits, called the client, and scheduled a meeting with them for the afternoon. His assistant bought him a plane ticket, and Stefan set off for the airport.
He felt giddy as he boarded the plane, and he kept his copy of The Hunger of Ned Greaves visible on his lap. He thought maybe it might spark a conversation, that he would find a fortunate stranger who might lead him to Peter Liu. Surely someone knew of a cafe where Peter liked to write. Stefan had a sense he would know Peter by sight, that the poet would exude a sort of resonant presence that would guide Stefan into producing the right words, whatever they might be, to find out what had happened, or rather figure out what he needed to do to see, to feel, to be that way again.
After Stefan breezed through his presentation and a lunch, he got in his rental car and drove to Folly Beach. The library was located on a corner of Center Street across from a Catholic church and a Baptist church and kitty corner from a small public park that ran into a marshy area of cattails and long wooden docks that stretched out into the navigable parts of the brackish river on the inland side of the island.
It was a lovely day. Everything seemed to shine in the sun. A little girl with chocolate smudged on her cheek blew bubbles over the bright green library lawn. Stefan held up his phone and framed the library’s sign over his shoulder with the camera then bared his teeth as if he were a ravenous predator. He typed a note to Laney, In Charleston for work. Stopped by the beach to see if I could get some of Peter’s ribs, and sent her the photo. It was silly. A stone of regret plummeted through his gut as he pulled open the library door.
Behind the counter, a young librarian wearing a light blue linen dress with royal blue trim organized a small stack of reserved books. As she snapped a rubber band around them, Stefan noticed the hand holding the books seemed to be encased in a latex glove. Only it wasn’t a glove. It was some kind of prosthetic device. Through the translucent skin, Stefan could see blue wires and a white, plastic skeleton of gears. The hand attached at a hinge to an artificial, flesh-colored forearm which disappeared up the sleeve of her dress.
“Hello,” he said and set his copy of The Hunger of Ned Greaves on the counter.
The librarian noted the book then turned to the shelf behind her. Had she sneered? She used her natural hand to shelve the books, and the mechanical fingers of the other hand relaxed open. Stefan cleared his throat.
“I’m from out of town, and I was hoping you could tell me something about Peter Liu,” he said.
“I don’t know anyone named Peter Liu,” the librarian said and started on another stack.
Stefan flipped to the back of The Hunger of Ned Greaves.
“According to his book, he lives here. In Folly Beach.”
The librarian curled her lips.
“I do not,” she repeated, “know anyone named Peter Liu.”
Stefan stood with his fingertips atop the book. He waited for the librarian to look up until it became clear that the librarian was, in fact, determined to avoid his gaze. Stefan picked up his book and stepped back from the counter.
He turned an uncertain circle. No one else was in the small library. Stefan stepped outside.
In the shade of the walkway awning, a man sat on a bench rolling a toothpick back and forth in his mouth. The man took out the toothpick.
“You go in there asking about Peter Liu?”
Stefan looked down at his book.
“Yes,” he said.
The man chuffed. “I can guess how that went,” he said. He popped the toothpick back in his mouth and reclined, stretching his arms across the backrest.
“What can you tell me about him?” Stefan asked.
“If you really want to know about Peter Liu, Shrimpees,” the man said and nodded up Center Street.
Stefan followed the nod in the direction of the ocean and saw the blue sign for Shrimpees Shrimp Shack halfway down the commercial strip.
“Thanks,” said Stefan.
“Uh, huh. But you better be sure,” the man on the bench said, “that you want to know.”
“Ah, okay,” Stefan said and started up the street.
SHRIMPEES. The word was spelled out in white letters on a faded blue sign towering above the restaurant’s roof. As Stefan approached, he noticed half the light bulbs along the sign’s perimeter were missing or blacked out. An empty patio wrapped around the front of the building, and the metal tables were covered with spreading sores of rust. On the wooden railing, a one-eyed pigeon repeatedly rammed its beak against a hard black spot.
The tables inside the restaurant were empty except for a corner booth where an enormous teenage boy had three open white-foam clamshells full of fried food on the table before him and a white plastic lobster bib around his neck. Over the bar, a lazy wicker fan wobbled as it spun. The bartender had the appearance of a white wolf. His beard hung shaggily from his baggy jowls. He looked both old and young, then just old, then young again.
“What are you drinkin?” the bartender asked as Stefan took a stool.
“I actually came in here to ask about Peter Liu,” Stefan said, “a local poet.” He set The Hunger of Ned Greaves on the bar.
“Well, you fucking found him,” the bartender said and held up his hands. “Name’s Ned Greaves,” he said. “Peter Liu’s my…” he twinkled his fingers, “…nom de plume.”
Ned held out his hand. Stefan automatically shook it, his mind reeling.
Ned Greaves dropped two glasses onto the bar and poured them each a shot of tequila.
“Always a pleasure to meet a fan. I mean, I wish you had better tits, but…”
Ned tossed back his shot and wiped his eyes.
“So which poem was your favorite?” Ned asked and pushed Stefan’s shot towards him.
Ned put his hands around his mouth like a megaphone. “Which of my poems was your favorite?” he called out.
“I guess... I don’t know how to answer that,” Stefan said.
“Number seventy-seven is the best one,” Ned said. “It’s clearly ‘Day 77.’”
“Ned sees with equal I / as God we’re all / The hero’s perish / The sparrow fall. Riffing on Pope,” Stefan said and sucked down his shot.
“Yah. You really read my book,” Ned said and gave Stefan a soggy shoulder punch. “What brought you down here?”
“Work,” Stefan said. “Then I was hoping to meet Peter Liu—”
“And you were expecting a Chink.”
Stefan looked this way and that, as if bullets were whizzing past his head. Ned lifted his shot glass and said, “Don’t worry. Everyone expects a Chink. You think I’m not used to it by now? Wait, you’re not going to give me any of that attitude, are you?”
“Attitude?” asked Stefan.
“Yeah, I get a lot of that attitude,” Ned said. “But I thought you were a real fan.”
“I love the poems,” Stefan said, “but I’ll admit I don’t understand why you took the name of Peter Liu as your pen name. Why not just use your real name?”
“I figured the libtards who run those contests would take me more seriously if my name was Peter Liu, and it looks like I got that right.” He slapped the bar. “I won that contest,” he said and tapped the book. Ned shook his head. “It’s a shame though. The only people around here who care about poetry treat me like I’m a dirty little secret for my—,” Ned made air quotes, “—cultural appropriation, but they’re just pissed that they liked the poems and then they found out it was me who wrote ’em, and they don’t like me. In the end, that’s what it always comes down to anyway. No one who would ever like those poems would like the idea that I’d written them. It’s a strange fucking bit-o-irony there.”
“I like that you’ve written them. I don’t like that you’ve taken the name of Peter Liu to gain an advantage,” Stefan said.
Ned’s smile dropped for the first time since Stefan had walked into the bar.
“It’s a mise en abyme, man. You know what? Go fuck yourself,” Ned Greaves said. “Get out of my bar.”
“Hold on,” Stefan said. “How is it you knew these things?” He held up the book.
“Excuse me?” Ned Greaves asked.
“Whoever wrote these poems understands the workings of the mind and sees clearly into the core of our human predicament. This book is a transmission of wisdom. The poet is trying to teach us to be free, in here.” Stefan tapped his chest.
“I’m free,” Ned Greaves said. “You’re free. You can go out in the middle of that street right there and take your own life. Those fascists might try to stop you, but you’d be at least that free if you were quick about it.”
“You didn’t write this book,” Stefan said.
“You’ve got some balls on you, son,” Ned Greaves said and reached under the bar. He hoisted up a shotgun.
Stefan put up his hands and backed away from the bar. He backed all the way through the door, across the patio, and out onto the sidewalk. Stefan stood blinking in the sunlight as the pedestrians flowed by.
“Ned just pulled his shotgun on someone,” a guy said to his girlfriend as they stepped around Stefan. He lowered his arms.
“Maybe someone will shoot Ned,” the girlfriend said.
Stefan turned. Across the street, the librarian stood framed in the window of Super Scoopers. In her bionic hand, she held a plain cone with a single pink scoop of ice cream atop, and she glared at Stefan with wrath. Stefan stepped off the curb and skipped between the bumpers of two customized golf carts as he crossed the road. He headed straight into the ice cream shop.
“Why didn’t you warn me about that asshole?”
“I thought it best not to encourage you,” she replied. “I was hoping you would drop it and go away.”
Stefan plopped down on a wooden chair and buried his face in his hands. The librarian sighed.
“I loved that book, too,” she said, glaring out the window towards the shrimp shack across the street. She seemed to have forgotten about her ice cream.
“We promoted it here, at least we put up a table and chairs in the library to host a reading. I stood there, so proud of my book, waiting to get an autograph from this amazing being, and then Ned walked in. He was drunker than usual. It looked like he’d peed his pants.
“‘So this is his revenge,’ we all thought, ‘for being vilified in the book—the predatory white man, a racist and devouring metaphor,’ and we called the cops. But he kept saying over and over again that he wrote the poems. Somehow we all knew it was true before Ned called the publisher, and so we sat there, the few of us who’d stayed, with the cops, as Ned read his poems.”
“There is no way Ned Greaves wrote those poems,” Stefan said.
The librarian’s eyes zeroed in on Stefan’s.
“Ned’s no idiot, you know? He was some kind of A.I. whiz in Silicon Valley before he cashed out and moved here to be perpetually drunk.”
“He didn’t write that book,” Stefan said.
The librarian smirked.
“Okay then, what do you think happened? You think it’s a true story? You think Ned tortured someone named Peter Liu into enlightenment? That Ned gave Peter’s ear to his shitty little dog to use as a chew toy? That Ned wrote it all down after he ate Peter’s hands?”
Stefan resisted the urge at first, but horribly, unstoppably, his gaze travelled to her robot hand. A pink rivulet of melted ice cream had run down the translucent fingers.
“Oh, fuck you,” she said and threw her cone in the trash. Snatching three napkins from the dispenser, she shoved the door open and stormed outside. Everyone in Super Scoopers was looking at Stefan. He stood and backed out the door.
She was in the small gravel lot, trying to get the ice cream off her rubber hand, but the napkins were sticking and ripping apart.
“Shit,” he said to himself and hid his face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This whole deal is kinda blowing my mind.”
“No, I get it,” said the librarian. “I don’t know why seeing you in particular got my dander up this time. You’re not the first person to come here looking for Peter Liu.”
“Look, I’m really sorry. Do you want to get a drink?”
“What?” the librarian said. “No. Fucking… No way,” she said and started off toward the library.
Stefan turned to the ocean. Ahead, the sidewalk became a footpath at the edge of the sand, and the footpath continued underneath the hotel straight out onto the pier. As he crossed the street, he pictured himself there, at the pier’s end, throwing the book into the ocean.
It was windy and not warm enough to swim, but down on the beach a few kids shivered in the surf. Stefan leaned against the pier railing. His phone buzzed. A reply from Laney.
Go home, Stefan, it read.
Go home? What the hell? Had she just assumed that this would go badly for him? That he would somehow fuck it up? Not follow through? Stefan could feel the anger rise in his face. His thumb hovered over Laney’s name on the screen. Mean-spirited bitch. Always chopping him down at the knees. He was about to call and ream her out when a second message flashed.
You already are what you are looking for;)
A line from the book.
Stefan pocketed his phone. This wasn’t her fault. Besides, she was right. He should go home. Even if Ned didn’t write the book, it was clear that Stefan wasn’t going to find what he was seeking.
Stefan walked to the hotel café on the boardwalk and took a seat on the patio. He ordered a bottle of wine, determined to get drunk, and then decided to order dinner as well. The book sat on the table before him, and he eyed the cover with the photo of the very pier now stretching out before him. It was hard to imagine the presently tame ocean could summon the enormous wave in the photo. To capture the image, the photographer must have stood on the pier under the curling tube of water. What if he or she had died that day and some dutiful spouse or friend had published the photos posthumously after the camera washed up on the beach? What had the photographer made of life? What else besides this one photo?
Stefan opened The Hunger of Ned Greaves and began to read from the beginning. He read through his meal and dessert. He read until he tried to refill his glass of wine and discovered the bottle was empty. When he looked up, he was surprised to see it was night, and he was the only one in sight. Stefan set the book down.
Against the stark depth of the sea, radiant halos emanated from the lights on the pier, and a gibbous moon spun a wide and wavering strip of light over the water’s surface. The push and pull of the waves seemed to be drawing the blood through his veins. Stefan could feel that inscrutable inner softening, that widening of awareness, and the relative silence of his mind that often came after reading the poems, but it still wasn’t what he’d come for. It wasn’t freedom.
Closing his eyes, he listened once more to the ocean hurling itself forward again and again. He thought of another line from the poems, Nature’s erotic pulse / novelty’s incessant drive.
Stefan signalled for the check, paid, and gathering his book, stood and walked back to Center Street.
Shrimpees was nearly full when Stefan entered this time. Families sat under bright lights in the booths, and drinkers hunched on the barstools, laughing and shouting to one another over the music. The bartender, a woman with a drugstore-burgundy dye job and loose tattoos on her arms, eyed his approach.
“You look like you could use a drink,” she said.
“Is Ned here?” Stefan asked.
“He went home,” she said.
“Where does he live?” Stefan asked.
“Honey, can you imagine if I gave out Ned’s address to everyone who came in here all worked up looking for him?”
Stefan pulled out his wallet and started counting through the bills.
“Here’s one hundred dollars,” he said and put the money on the bar.
The bartender eyed the money, then picked up a napkin and scribbled down the address.
It was quiet where Stefan walked. The trees arched over the road, and the leaves sucked up all the light from the few streetlamps, turning the asphalt below his feet into a black pool. From just below the canopy of leaves, the houses on stilts seemed to peer down at him, their height giving them a strange authority. Most of them were cheap, kit homes, but up high, they seemed to know things, to be in a position to judge.
At the mailbox, Stefan checked the address against the napkin. The house looked dark at first, but once he climbed the steps to the porch, he saw lights burning in the back. Stefan opened the screen and rapped loudly on the door.
The door opened. Ned stood there holding a bowl of cereal, his hairy belly protruding from his open bathrobe and spilling over the waistband of his mesh shorts. He squinted at Stefan.
“Oh Jesus,” Ned said. He turned and walked back inside. Stefan hesitated at the threshold then followed.
In the dark living room, a football game played on the TV. A Chihuahua hopped up to the back of the couch and yapped at them.
“Fuck you, Chippers,” Ned hollered at the dog.
In the kitchen, Ned put down his cereal and poured tequila into a glass.
“Mind telling me what it is you’re hoping to get from all this?”
“I want to know who wrote those poems.”
“Why? You think it’s gonna help you somehow?”
Stefan didn’t say anything.
“Why is it when people like you get a taste of something good you think you deserve to have it all the time?” Ned asked.
Stefan watched the man in front of him, feeling something new emerging in his mind.
“But if you really want to meet him,” Ned said, “I’ll introduce you. . . to what’s left of him anyway.”
The hair rose on Stefan’s neck. Ned walked to the counter. He took the lid off a ceramic cookie jar and pulled out a ring of keys then headed for a door off the kitchen. Ned slid a key into the lock and the door popped open. Stefan was right behind him, though he hadn’t remembered moving at all.
Ned flipped on the light. There was a bed, a dresser, and in the corner, two folding tables covered with organized mounds of disassembled computer parts.
“There he is,” Ned said and pointed at the tables.
“Peter. I built him to help me learn about death. Next thing you know, I’m in remission. Been cancer free for two years now. Fucking doctors. Sold my shares to come here and left a shit ton of money on the table. Not that I’m complaining. I’m happier now.” Ned swirled the tequila around in his glass and drained it. “I didn’t even know about the poems until I heard Peter had won that contest, and that was long after he had me, you know… take him apart.”
Stefan picked up a hard drive and saw it had holes drilled through it. Some of the circuit boards looked as if they’d been burned with a precision flame.
“You’re telling me a computer wrote the book?”
“I wouldn’t have called him a computer. Not by the end.”
Stefan looked at the mounds of cables and circuitry.
“So you didn’t write the book,” Stefan said.
Ned let out a tired puff of laughter and rubbed the stubble on his cheek.
“I might be compelled to argue that’s a gray area myself, but hey man, whatever floats your boat.” Ned looked down into his empty glass. “Why not just be happy you have the book? Maybe finding some fucking all-perfect guru to tell you what to do ain’t what you need anyway.”
“I hate myself,” Stefan said.
Ned frowned. “Sorry,” he said. “You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Ned headed back into the kitchen where he picked up the tequila bottle again. As Stefan watched him unscrew the cap, he realized someone else was in the room. A woman stood at the foot of the stairs. It was Laney. She had on a kimono, and her hair was up like she was about to take a bath or had just gotten out of bed for a snack. She looked at Stefan, her eyes shining out from dark pits. She was thin, emaciated even. Her skin looked waxy and pale, almost translucent on her skull.
“That’s Laney,” Ned said. “She came down here looking for Peter, too. You two probably have a lot in common.”
“I told you to go home, Stefan,” she said.
“You two know each other?” Ned whistled. “Small fuckin’ world.”
“You’re staying here? With him?” Stefan asked.
“Go home,” she repeated.
Laney adjusted the belt of her kimono, and Stefan noticed that her index finger looked funny. It was short. It ended at the first knuckle.
A tingling sensation spread across Stefan’s skin like an electrified web, and everything seemed to grow very bright, sharp, and clear. At once, the background of Ned’s house seemed to merge with the foreground, and Stefan felt his sense of himself dissolved into the vastness of his surroundings and whatever lay beyond. A thought to run for the door bloomed in his mind and then dissipated like smoke. His thoughts were just words, ephemera surfing on the most superficial level of his being. Besides, where could he go? His body could move, but his real self was already at one with it all, with the kitchen and Ned and Laney and Peter and everything else he could perceive or even imagine. He was at one with great things, like the distant stars filling up the sky beyond the windows, and mean little things, like Ned’s Chihuahua, snorting greedily as it chewed on something in the dark corner of the living room.
David Driscoll’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including Mississippi Review, TriQuarterly, New Stories from the Midwest, and most recently River Styx. He is also a yoga teacher and father to three young girls in the suburbs of Chicago.