The Cold Inside
By AL BRUNO III
Thursday November 24, 1994
The sun was low in the sky, its light obscured by tattered clouds. The branches of the bare trees hung heavy with frost, even as the immaculately trimmed grass that surrounded them seemed to almost shine with an unnatural greenness. Rivulets of ice curved down the face of each gravestone, tracing patterns in the engraved letters and etched saints.
The names floated past Tristam as he wound his way between the tombstones. If he had been wearing his body now he might have shivered; it was that old childhood dare come to life.
Would you walk through a cemetery at sunset?
Ordinarily he wouldn't have. Simply flying too close to a graveyard had always left him with a sickly feeling. It was the same feeling of being exposed he got from, even flying close to graveyards left him with a sickly feeling. Besides there had been lots more exciting places to spy on, why would he ever bother with a cemetery?
But now he had to be here.
It was homework.
The headstones continued to scroll past; some were eroded with age, some were as recent as this year. Tristam had never really considered the enormity of death, but now he was almost overwhelmed. Each stone was a life, it made left Tristam full of somber questions. Did any of the bodies buried here in the cold ground know peace? Had their final moments been tinged with any kind of understanding or had there only been terror? How many died hoping that something better was waiting for them?
Maybe there is something better. Tristam turned in mid air, Maybe this proves it.
Nothingness or judgment. Tristam couldn’t decide which idea he found less appealing. At least with oblivion you knew what to expect and knew it was fair. Judgment however was another matter; would an all powerful God be full of forgiveness or condemnation? Try as he might Tristam found the thought of being chided by a doorkeeper angel somehow too ridiculous.
Tristam froze in place, hovering over the row of headstones. Dumas? Somebody actually had the last name Dumas and didn't legally change it?
And I thought I got picked on. Imagine what this kid went through.
“You done lollygaggin'?”
Tristam spun in midair. A few yards away was the section of the cemetery that seemed to be reserved for the more ostentatious memorials. Phil Dowd stood near one of the mausoleums, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“I’m here.” Tristam replied. The art of communicating had been Phil's first lesson. It was a hard thing, to learn to speak by thought alone, it was like learning to speak a foreign language.
Phil inhaled deeply on his cigarette and motioned for Tristam to approach, “I noticed. You zip along like a firefly.”
“Sorry I was trying to find you but dumass...” Tristam scowled. The problem now was that when he tried to speak he sometimes ended up saying more than he wanted. “I mean I was trying to find you sorry.”
“Well you couldn't could you?” Phil smiled, “That's cause you're a stupid kid and you don’t know shit. Good thing I like you.”
“Good thing.” Tristam agreed, but he knew that there was a price for these lessons. A price he hadn't even negotiated yet. Phil had promised him that the first week of lessons was free, then they would talk about the cost.
“Last lesson today.” He said, echoing Tristam's thoughts, “But you knew that didn’t you?”
“Yes. You promised something amazing but this is all pretty amazing.”
“Amazing to you.” The old man pitched his cigarette into the snow, “Same old shit to me. Come closer now.”
Tristam drew closer until he and Phil were an arm's length apart. The old man fairly radiated power; it was nothing specific, nothing Tristam could explain. Phil had already taught him so much; like how to slip from his body without having to be asleep and how to ride what he had called the 'Astral Currents'.
“Hard to believe this will ever be same old shit.”
“Given the choice between a nice piece of ass and superpowers, you know what I’d take?” Phil sneered.
Thoughts of Ariel and Monique filled his mind suddenly and Phil's knowing grin made Tristam want to ride the astral currents right back home again. “Can we get on with it?”
“I dunno.” The old man laughed a little, “You sure your mind is on the game?”
“I am focused.”
“Ariel? That your little girlfriend? She looks a little old for you.”
“Please. The lesson.”
Smiling Phil reached into his pocket and pulled out another cigarette. With a flick of his wrist he popped the cigarette into his mouth, “Boy, you're all business kid you know that?”
“Only way to understand.”
“You said it.” He pulled a lighter from his heavy winter coat and lit the cigarette; Phil inhaled deeply taking his time before he spoke again. “Reality is like an onion, you got that?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen fuckwit I'm trying to teach you. You want to call it quits and go home? You wanna spend the rest of your life being nothing more than a peeping tom?”
“How can you know? I never said anything.”
“I know a lot of things kiddo. It would make you sick if you knew what was in my head.” Phil advanced on his pupil. Tristam involuntarily flinched backwards, passing through a tombstone. “Now like I said, reality is like an onion. It's in layers. The very center of the onion, that's you, that's your mind, your soul. The Realm of Essence.”
“I don't understand. I am the center of the universe?”
“Your perceptions to an extent create the universe you see. For instance if you're afraid of dogs, then every dog you see will seem threatening.”
“But that isn’t reality.”
“The reality you see is the only reality you can ever really know. You think you can ever see the world through my eyes? Through someone else's? Not gonna happen. So the core of reality is you but the core of realty is also me, your Mom and everyone else.”
“I think I understand.”
Phil laughed a little, “Now the next layer, the second layer of our little onion is the Realm of the Dead. The leftover residue from each living spirit lingers there, sometimes for long after they’ve shuffled off the old mortal coil.”
“Later more on the Realm of the Dead later, I promise, but after that is Realm of Dreams. Not just your dreams, everyone's dreams. Dreams are how different souls mingle, it's how ideas are born. It explains why certain images and ideas can carry on from one culture to the next. It reveals itself in the best things we do, and the worst things we do.”
Tristam felt like he had just wandered into a twelfth grade Introduction to Philosophy class “So what you are saying is that the entire human race is collectively responsible for going to the moon and committing the Holocaust?”
“After a fashion, but individuals were needed to make those dreams a reality.” Phil inhaled deeply on his cigarette and blew smoke through Tristam “Besides the Jews were asking for it.”
“The next layer of reality is the world of matter.” He rapped on the side of the unmarked mausoleum for emphasis, “The world of flesh. This is where you live, shit, eat and fuck. What was it Victor used to say? Oh yeah... ‘We are empyreal players upon a stage of substance and reverie.’”
“Who is Victor?”
Phil frowned and shifted from one foot to another and back again, “My teacher. He taught me what I'm teaching you, he just said it better. He used a lot of Latin. After the Realm of Substance is energy. Now I don’t mean energy like the kind you get from a socket in the wall. I mean energy like in magic.”
“Magic?” Tristam's thoughts were tinged with disbelief.
“Magic and don’t mock me unless you want to become permanently disembodied.”
Somehow Tristam didn't think he was kidding “Sorry, it's just that when I think of magic I think of rabbits coming out of hats-Zigfield and Roy-showgirls and wands.”
“Well magic is real, it's everything and nothing like you imagine. It's a force that anyone can tap into if they're lucky or clever enough.”
“So I'm lucky and you're clever?”
“Very good.” Phil laughed.
The sun was lost behind the blunted treeline. Wind plucked at the old man's hair, he drew in his coat around him. Tristam wondered how long he had before his Dad came to pick him up. Tristam had left his physical form waiting back at his empty house, but would he finish here in time to hear his Dad knock on the door?
“So that's four layers.”
“Four layers you need to worry about.”
“Why not explain the rest?”
“Same reason they don't teach Algebra in Kindergarten.”
“Now for an illustration.” Phil walked up to Tristam and waved a hand across his face, “What I want you to do is to concentrate. Close what you think is your eyes.”
“How do I-”
“You do it by not thinking about it.”
His mind buzzing with confusion, Tristam decided to try one of Dr. Butterfield's relaxation techniques. Slowly his vision began to blur until the old man and the cemetery faded from view.
Phil's voice however was still there, “Empty your mind, that last part shouldn't be too hard.”
“Up yours. No wait! I didn’t mean-”
“Shut up and concentrate. You can't see and you're just kind of floating there right?”
“Right.” He felt pretty darn relaxed, he almost felt like he might drift off to sleep but he couldn’t fall asleep now could he? If he did would he dream he was someone else? He began to feel like he was tipping over, like he was on the verge of tumbling end over end.
“Now if you're doing this right you should start to get this sensation. It's almost like being seasick.”
“Kind of.” Without his body or his sense of vision to anchor him Tristam certainly felt disoriented. He felt as though he was swirling downwards, into the dirt, into the graves.
“Better yet. It almost feels like that feeling you get when you're about to fall asleep and suddenly you wake up and you feel like you're falling out of bed. Is it happening?”
“Good. Now don’t let it stop, don't tense up.”
Tristam just knew he was tumbling end over end into the Earth. What would happen when he crossed through one of the long buried bodies? What would he feel? “Enough. Something is wrong this can't be right.”
“Don’t pussy out on me now. Hang in there.” Phil's voice sounded like it was directly in his ear, “Know what this is? This is your soul when its about to breach the boundary between layers. You remember the whole onion thing right kid?”
“Yeah your soul, and I know what you’re gonna ask. Leave it until after the lesson. Now there is a kind of barrier there. Can you feel it pushing you away?”
“Yes.” There was something nearby, he could feel himself brushing against it. It felt prickly, like the surface of an old brick wall. He rolled across it in lazy circles.
“Good. Now push back.” Phil ordered, “Push back hard.”
Uncertain of what muscles he was really flexing Tristam pushed against the barrier. Somehow pushing against the barrier made the surface more jagged; what had once been merely noticeable became uncomfortable. “Ow. Ow!”
“Yeah it does hurt doesn’t it? Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier but I didn't want to ruin the surprise.”
“Fucker!” Tristam tried to propel himself away but somehow that only pressed him harder against the barrier. Jabbing pains passed though him. In his mind he imagined that he was rolling over a field of shark's teeth and broken glass. “Make it stop! Make it stop!”
“Yeah. The first time is always roughest, and you can't turn back now can you?”
He couldn't turn back. No matter what way he tried to fly he only managed to crush himself harder against the barrier. He tried to open his eyes, to see where he was but his vision remained occluded save for strange kaleidoscope flashes of light and shape.
“You better or you'll stay there.” Phil laughed darkly, “Your body will go on living and you'll be trapped here forever.”
“And the pain will keep getting worse. Did I mention that? The more you struggle the more it will hurt and of course the pain will make you struggle more. It’s one of those viscous cycle things.”
“Nothing I can do Tristam. You have to find your own way.”
Agony made the seconds stretch into hours as Tristam railed against the barrier. Could he really spend the rest if his life like this? Tristam imagined his father finding him slumped over on the stoop, his eyes glassy and vacant.
“I can't get away… it won’t let me go.”
If he spent the rest of his life like this, like Adelphos' brother only worse, would anyone care? Would anyone mourn?
Fuck this! The anger goaded him, Fuck them! In his mind's eye the barrier became his tormentors- the Pretty Boys, his sister, Warren, Evan, Monique, the old man, his father, even that damn dog. They jeered his pain, reveling in his misery. He felt as though he was being split apart. The Cold Inside stirred and Tristam was too distracted to keep it in check. He felt it reach out and with a single push bring the barrier down.
Free again his vision snapped back into focus. Tristam winced; focus wasn't the right word, now everything seemed too sharp and too bright, like a television screen with its contrast controls miss-set. He could feel the Cold Inside eagerly beginning to uncoil itself and filling his head with promises.
“There.” Phil loosed a long shuddering breath, “I knew you could do it.”
If the old man sensed anything strange he made no sign, so, so Tristam forced the Cold Inside back into the empty recesses of himself. He felt it snarl and beg. Tristam wondered if he could he shut hat part of himself away forever.
“You ok kid? Hello?”
“Sorry. It’s all so much. Did I do it right?”
“You’re fine. Now don’t get scared by the way things look. These are just your new senses. They take a little getting used to. Try and focus on me.” Phil paced in front of him.
“You're… you're glowing!”
“That's my power, just about everyone has a little radiance to them, unless of course they're dead inside or married. Like I said before, you flicker like a firefly. You have more power than I do, but you can’t control it.”
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like power.”
“Can you see anything odd? Anything else?”
“I don’t know.” Tristam wondered if maybe he really was nuts after all. “I’ve just always felt different inside.”
“That’s because you’re a teenager.” Phil shook his head, “Now turn around.”
“There's more?” Tristam said a tad wearily. After this last scare he felt like he had had enough.
“We're not even started yet, turn around.”
They hung in the air above the cemetery, floating in lazy circles. They looked like something out of an undersea documentary. “Are these aliens?”
“That's soul residue, ghosts you'd call them. Not exactly Casper is it?”
Tristam stared at the bloated shapes, “Ghosts? Can they see me? Can I talk to them?”
“Listen to me kid. They're residue. They're all that's left of us when we're dead – mindless, pointless, invisible, intangible and impotent. Not much to look forward to, but better than most people deserve.”
Tristam moved closer to one of the membranous shapes, “So is this all there is? What about God?”
“What about God?”
“Is he real?”
Phil sneered “You want the truth or fairy tales?”
“I've seen a lot of weird things in my day Tristam. I've seen stuff that would freeze your bowels solid.”
On closer examination the, the 'ghost' could been seen to glimmer ever so slightly, “Sounds pleasant.”
“I've never once seen a single shred of proof that there is a God. Believe me kid, I gave the bastard more than enough chances to show up. We live, we die and in the end we don’t mean a damn thing. All we leave behind is an empty shell and sometimes something like that. Victor always thought that the size of the ghost was based upon the number of regrets the dying person had, but he never proved that, not really.”
“So there's magic and ghosts but no God?”
“That's just my view on things, you can take it or leave it.”
“It kind of goes along with what I've always---” Long, hair-like feelers hung from its bloated body. They grasped lazily for Tristam, “GAAAA! It's after me!”
Phil laughed, “It's just reacting on instinct. It feels the heat of your life. They're cold, they're cold all the time.”
“Cold all the time?” Tristam shuddered with revulsion, “Is that normal?”
“They’re dead what do you expect?” After taking one final savoring puff from his cigarette he pitched it through the ghost. It quivered and spun blindly in place, “Now, touch it.”
“Touch it. Stick what you think is your hand right through it.”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“I didn’t expect a confessed dog killer to be so squeamish.” The old man grumbled. He plucked off one of his gloves. The light that radiated from Phil began to flicker and shift, oozing along his outline and gathering around the fingertips of his bare hand. He glanced back at Tristam and then plunged his hand into the quivering specter “It's perfectly safe. See?”
Mewling sounds filled the air; nausea washed over Tristam “What? What are you doing?”
“Eating.” The ghost swelled and thrashed but then slowly began to go limp, its form dwindling until it was lost in the glow emanated from the old man. “Like I said every soul has magic but not every soul has enough magic to make a damn bit of difference. This is one of the ways you can get a little bit extra.”
Scenes from Richard's Moorcock novels were flashing through Tristam's head, “But that was somebody's soul.”
“Believe me they're not gonna miss it. Besides if there really was a God to care, wouldn't he have stopped me? Send an angel down to kick my ass or something?”
“Is this the only way to get power?”
Phil smiled, “Well there’s always the old reliable human sacrifice.”
“Nope. The more potential the soul of the person being sacrificed, the more bang you get for your buck.” Phil explained, “Now if you’re really not squeamish you can pledge yourself to serve an outer power.”
“An outer power?”
“There’s all kinds of weird shit out there lurking between the layers, like the Black Pantheon or the Monarchs. If you serve them they do favors for you but things can get pretty fucked up pretty fast.”
“Did you ever serve one of those outer powers?”
“Fuck that.” Phil kicked at the snow, “I serve myself. Now, back to your lesson. There' a good-looking ghost over there by that statue of the Virgin Mary. Give it a try. Once you've got your hand in there draw inwards, imagine yourself inhaling or sucking on a straw. Remember that connection you make can be a two way street if the ghost is a feisty one.”
It was dark now, the ghost bobbed and flickered in the distance, “How do you tell if they're feisty?”
“That my boy is one of the things you learn with experience.”
“Is that one feisty?”
“What you don’t trust me?”
Phil cackled, “Good you're learning. You can tell by the glow, see how pale that one is? It’s barely there, it’s rotting away. It's probably some damn fool doesn't know they’re dead. Probably someone died in their sleep and thinks they're still dreaming. Now get to it.”
The thought that maybe it was a time to go home occurred to him, “I don’t know…”
“You've got to if you want more lessons. You can't learn to drive until you know how to turn the car on.”
“I still don't know what you want from me.”
“No you don't now go do what I told you. Go on…” Phil waved his hand, his aura flared.
Tristam felt himself surge forward, “Hey!”
The ghost sensed his approach and began to reach for him with swaying feelers. It made cooing noises and shivered in anticipation. For a moment the image of a bloodied dog flashed into his mind but Tristam let it give way to the image of Evan grinning, his arm pulled back, his hand curled into a fist.
Tristam tore through the body of the ghost with sickening ease. It screamed, its voice echoing through him. Tendrils lashed weakly at Tristam. He drew in, just like he'd been told.
“It comes so easily to me… why does it come so easily?”
Just as suddenly the specter was gone, its dwindling light added to his own. Tristam felt strangely glutted and manic at the same time. He wanted to fly through every house in the neighborhood and learn their secrets. He wanted to reach up and trace patterns in the moon with his finger. He wanted to find his way to Monique and make her sorry, make her love him again.
And for the first time Tristam began to realize that he might be able to do these things, all he needed was to be patient with the old man. To ply him with flattery and endure his insults, that was at least one thing he'd learned to do at Blessed Heart.
“What?” Phil asked with mock curiosity.
“Whatever you want I'll do it. Whatever you need I'll get it.” Tristam rocketed towards the old man “Just show me more.”
“So we have a deal then?” Phil beamed and made a show of putting his glove back on.
“Yes please, just tell me what to do next.”
“Go home. We've covered enough for one day. Now go back to your body. Between lessons there is to be no extracurricular flying about and no eating from the ghostly buffet. Trust me I'll be able to tell if you do either, if you do that you're fucked.”
“But you can’t… not after you've shown me this!” Tristam zipped around him frantically.
“I can and I will.” Phil turned to go, “The first rule, the only rule, is that my word is law. You don't question you just do.”
“Phil, please just show me a few more things.”
“Go home, have some fuckin' turkey or something.”
“Please…” He wondered if he could get his way simply by hounding the old man enough. A bribe for a little piece and quiet?
Suddenly Phil's body flared, when he spoke his voice reverberated painfully through Tristam's head, “I said go home or I will slam you back into your body and it will hurt, a lot.”