Homework was done and Mom was reading a book in her room with her Elvis CDs cranked up loud. There would be no better time to approach his sister. Tristam knocked on her door quietly, almost timidly.
“Who is it?”
Who is it? Who does she think it is the damn bird?
“I said who is it?”
“It's me.” Tristam said.
“What do you want?”
Tristam tried to sound reasonable, “Can I come in? I need to talk to you.”
And now our young hero risks gory death!
“Why? Is Ronnie in there again?”
The door flew open and Pamela stood there in her shorts and T-shirt, brandishing a bottle of skin lotion. “What are you doing? Listening at the wall and pulling your pud?”
“Well I think that after all I've put Mom through that finding out about you would just kill her.”
“Do that and I will make your life a living Hell.”
“Too late.” Moving carefully he sidled past her and stood in the center of her room.
“What do you want?”
“What happened at Fred Trager's party?”
She returned to sitting at her night table, where lotions creams and tweezers were at the ready, “Is this about your ugly little slut friend?”
“No this is about my cunt sister telling me what I want to know.”
“Look I left there before the gang bang started.”
“Gang bang? She was raped.”
When she spoke she only had eyes for her reflection, “Is that what she's saying now?”
“No that's what I'm saying because that's the only thing that makes sense.”
“Oh and you're going to avenge her honor?” Noticing a stray eyebrow hair she carefully plucked it.
“If I have to.” Tristam's voice was uncertain.
“Are you doing this because she's your friend or because in the end your little sweetheart would still rather suck varsity cock?”
He imagined Pam’s makeup table bursting into flames, then the fire spreading, sparks catching flesh. “Did I mention you're a cunt?”
“Look, even though my senior year would go so much better for me if you were dead, expelled or in jail I'm going to tell you something. You probably won't believe me but it's the truth. I trust the person that told me this.”
Tristam’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “This should be good.”
“Smudge was a volunteer. No one forced her to do anything. The second guy in felt bad, he told her that she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do, that he'd get her out of there if she wanted. She didn’t stop, she stayed.”
“You are so full of shit.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
“Get out. Get out of here or I swear to God I'll scream.”
He knocked her jewelry box off her dresser as he stormed out “Fine you had your chance.”
Phil’s shade was waiting for him in the hallway. “I like her she's feisty.”
“Don’t get me started.” Tristam walked into his room and closed the door. Nirvana was thrumming gently from his stereo, his journal was open to a fresh page- he'd been making a list of sorts. Pushing it aside he sat cross-legged on his bed and slipped out of his body, “Little bitch is always making sure to tell everyone I'm not her real brother…”
“You ready to focus? Or you wanna snivel and whine for a little longer?”
“I'm ready.” Tristam growled, “Where do we start?”
“We finish peeling the onion.” Phil rose up through the roof, “What were the realms again?”
“The first layer is the Realm of Essence, then comes the Realm of the Dead, then the Realm of Dreams, then the Realm of Substance, then the Realm of Magic.” Tristam rocketed after him. It felt good to be out in sky, especially after the things he'd heard today. The questions about Drew and his promise to Phil hung heavy on him. The clouds were dark and low, they choked off the stars. He accelerated through them wondering how this would feel on his skin.
“Not bad, but one thing. I lied a little, the first layer is not the Realm of Essence. The Realm of Essence is the second. The first and the last layers of our little onion are the Maelstrom.”
“So the first and last layers are the same? The beginning is the end?”
“It's just the only way our minds can perceive it. Look up Zeno's Paradox in the library sometime, that will kind of explain it.”
High above the clouds they hovered in place; like swimmers treading water. The stars were sharp and bright, the moon was waning. “Do I go inside my soul? How does this work?”
“Oh you can get there from the inside but that's not for beginners, we'll take the scenic route. The first time will be piggyback. You know the drill.”
Just like the clouds beneath them, the two spirits wafted closer and merged. Size and scale meant nothing to them, so perhaps Tristam had wrapped himself around the old man, or perhaps the old man was merely carrying him in the palm of his hand. To their perceptions such interpretations were meaningless.
Slowly the night sky changed, becoming oily in its blackness. The starlight grew sharper and sharper until it was almost too painful to look at. Beneath them the clouds rolled. Ghosts rarely ventured up this high but Tristam knew they had just crossed into the Realm of the Dead.
“Why is the Realm of the Dead before the Realm of Dreams?”
“I don't know for sure but Victor always suspected that the Realm of the Dead was really just the shoreline between the Realm of the Soul and the Realm of Dreams. Ghosts are just jellyfish that got washed up. Ever step on a jellyfish while walking on the beach?”
“I've never been to the beach.”
The too-bright colors began to twist and warp, like images seen through rippling water. Horizons and angles shifted. Images and sensations flickered like lightning, momentarily blinding them with stolen experiences and longings. The thunder was a chorus of hushed voices, the babble of a thousand conversations going on at once.
“Like a Dali painting isn’t it?”
Tristam’s mind instantly flashed to the print in Greg's living room. “I guess.”
“Dali must have seen it though, we all see and remember the realm of dreams. Everyone's brain is a little psychic or magic or something and when we sleep that part of our brain sometimes looks here, and when it looks here it ends up bleeding little pieces of your subconscious into the mix. It's like a big stew that's been simmering for years.”
“Is this where you're taking your wife?”
Phil laughed a little, “Close but not quite. If we stayed here we'd still be no better then those hopeless ghosts floating around out there. Me and the missus are going further out and deeper in.”
For a moment they were back in the solid world, the Realm of Matter with its sharp angles and swirling cycles of matter. Then it changed again everything became like a two-toned photograph done in shades of black and yellow. This was the Realm of Energy.
“The source of magic.”
“I doubt you’ll ever worry about getting more energy but like I said before there are other ways to get power. There's feeding on the spirits of the dead, feeding on the spirits of the living, making pacts with otherworldly entities and drawing power from the Maelstrom.”
Tristam suddenly felt uncomfortable. “I didn’t mean to think so loud again.”
“Still though I wouldn't play with the Maelstrom, it's like playing with fire and you know where that can leave you.”
“This is the furthest I was ever supposed to go.”
“You weren't ready until now.” The sepia-toned silhouettes that made up the Albany landscape splintered and came apart. Fragments fell around them like a hailstorm but each shard was like a landscape unto itself- a confusion of alien futures and impossible pasts. Through one Tristam saw the tall office buildings replaced by drab minarets; the houses became hovels of brick and mortar. People traveled in ox drawn carts or walked on foot. Their clothes were frayed, their faces dirty.
“Are we… Have we traveled in time?”
“No. You're traveling in If. These are the Husk Worlds.”
The next scene was even bleaker but the desolation here was masked by an ultra- modern veneer; all the angles were sharp and clean. Windowless towers of neon and steel cast the streets into shadow but could not disguise the emptiness that sprawled there. “Where are the people?” Tristam wondered, “What are Husk Worlds?”
“Whole books are written about what the Husk Worlds might be. The big theory is that they're parallel worlds- but I think that's comic book bullshit. Some think they're remnants of the worlds God made before he decided on this one- but I don't believe in God. Some think they're Hell but that would mean that this world is Heaven and we both know that's a load of crap.”
“So what do you believe then?”
“Shit happens. That's what I believe.”
The sterile wasteland tumbled away, the next world was a green jungle. It was almost too green, too primal. Something about it frightened Tristam. A carpet of moss covered the ground, trees and vines laced together in a boiling fecundity. Shapes moved through the branches, dark and twisted- they might have been human once.
“I don't understand this.”
Phil said, “Look, there are hundreds of these things out there and most are like something out of a nightmare. The best thing to do is avoid them because they have their own kind of gravity and if you get sucked in you'll have a Hell of a time getting out again...”
“...unless you know what you’re doing.”
The next shard was a shoal of oblique rooftops and narrow edifices. There was no uniformity in design; it was a mad clash of architectures and hues. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and well-dressed pedestrians moved this way and that across cobblestone streets. Above all this a single great structure rose above the other buildings, the upper levels were broad and ringed with windows of tinted glass, the lower levels were slender and lurked in shadow. Tristam was enchanted; it was like something out of a storybook. “This one doesn't look so bad.”
“Are you nuts? This is the worst one of all. It's where the monsters live.”
“Monsters?” Tristam glanced back at the city. It was receding into the void and he had to wonder, where they speeding away from it or was it speeding away from them? Glancing this way and that through the blackness Tristam felt a strange sense of falling, as though the very floor of the world had dropped out from beneath them.
“You thought there was just ghosts out there?” Phil laughed, “There's things out there that would make a dead man shit his pants.”
The directionless void closed in around them, “Monsters?”
“Yes monsters. Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, all that crap is real but it's not like it is in the movies.”
“How would you know?”
“I was there once, in the Fifties.” Phil said, “I waited outside the main gates for three days while John and Victor got into all kinds of mischief.”
A cleft appeared in the darkness before them, Tristam marveled at it as they drew closer. It was a color or perhaps a shade of a color he had never seen before. Alien shapes swirled and drifted like oversized snowflakes. It all somehow reminded Tristam of the things he saw when he rubbed his eyelids too hard. He tried to look away, it was all making him seasick but they only drew closer.
“This is it.” Phil sounded weary, “The beginning and the end. The outside and the inside. The Maelstrom.”
They slowed. “What is it?”
“Who knows?” The tear in the nothing seemed to undulate slightly, like a conscious thing disturbed in its sleep. It stretched before them like an ocean landscape, “It's chaos pure and simple. All I know is that nothing can be exposed to that madness and survive. You are going to drop Victor's soul into the heart of that. Once we've done that I'll show you how to do anything you want.”
Tristam stared into the churning Maelstrom and smiled to himself. “Anything I want?”