Fiction: Lights Out
By A.R. Bender
Zach thought Lillith was dead. Until she came back into his life.
He trudged along the dark and foggy Seattle side streets, head down and stoop-shouldered, on the way to his apartment from a downtown bus stop. He'd just finished working swing shift at the shipyards and all he wanted to do was to eat, drink, and sleep. The multi-colored blinking neon signs on the storefronts he passed were barely distinguishable in the murky gloom. Street lamps hovered above him like floating orbs.
Heading up First Avenue, he recognized the clubs and dive bars where he used to perform his music. As he approached one of them, The Vogue, a woman wearing a long black coat standing next to the front door caught his attention. Lilith used to wear a coat like that. The woman, who he couldn't recognize in the fog, flipped the hood over her head and walked briskly up the street. He knew it couldn't be Lilith because of what had happened to her, but still felt compelled to follow the woman.
He maintained a discreet distance behind her as she headed up Pike Street and south on Sixth Avenue. He thought more about Lilith as he followed the woman and the time they met—which happened to be at The Vogue as well—after one of his open mic performances. She liked his stuff and they poured out their souls to each other, first in the bar and then at his place. She moved in with him a few days later. Good times while they lasted.
The woman entered Freeway Park in a swirling mist. He hesitated a moment because of the many reported robberies and assaults that took place there at night, but he plunged ahead anyway. He listened for any sound, but only heard the whooshof the interstate traffic below and the trickling of the little waterfalls cascading down the massive rock formations bordering the park. He detected a movement in the corner of his eye; a person's shape floated by and dissipated into the milky fog. Time to get the hell out of there. He wound his way up a maze of side paths and stairs along the rock formations until he reached one of the exits.
The elevators were still out in his building, so he puffed his way up the narrow stairwell to his fifth-floor apartment. He wasn't looking forward to it. Too many bad memories of living there, and in the decrepit old building. The entire city had become that way for him: overrun with the homeless; the street crimes and violence; his favorite stores and restaurants closed; the traffic gridlock and endless construction detours etc. A crumbling, unlivable wasteland.
He recalled how rejuvenated he felt the month before when he visited a friend who lived in a semi-rural area with a great view of Mount Rainier. Being so close to nature was something good for his soul and spirit. Instead of where he lived now—so confined and depressing. Three years living in this dump was enough. Staying there was like death.
The bare-bulb hallway lights flickered for a few seconds as he plodded down the hallway to his place. He felt a sharp ache in his chest as he pushed the key in, and needed to catch his breath from the climb before he opened the door.
Once inside, he flicked on the light and came to a dead stop. Something was wrong. The room looked different. The faint glow from the Tiffany-glass table lamp revealed that the furniture was rearranged the same way it had been when he first moved in. The overstuffed easy chair he put in storage months before now sat in the corner right where it used to be. His old Gibson guitar was propped against the wall. He hadn't taken it out of his bedroom closet in weeks. Was that patchouli oil he smelled from somewhere? A fuzzy, garbled melody from a 1980s English pop group, that he couldn't quite recall, emanated from his speakers. At first, he thought he left the radio on, but when walking closer realized it came from his CD player. He turned it off.
He chugged down a beer while waiting for some leftover pizza to reheat in the oven. He lit a cigarette and wondered how the mescaline and weed he'd been taking were affecting his mind. Not only the fitful dreams but also how he'd been struggling to perform the simplest tasks at work. And now this furniture and CD thing. He didn't think he was using too much, but maybe he should stop.
At least he hadn't gone back to the hard stuff. But even mild hallucinogens had their downside if used too much. Like making you lose touch with reality. Which seemed to be happening now. He sighed and cracked open another beer. No, he had to stop. Period. No maybe about it. He’d been drifting along without purpose for too damn long. Working those dead-end jobs in the foundries and shipyards. His music wasn't going anywhere either. He needed to set some goals. Go back to college. Take more lit and journalism courses and work on a newspaper, like he wanted to do until he got so heavy in the grunge rock scene and all the druggy activities related to it.
A low moaning sound coming from the bedroom interrupted his thoughts. He set the beer down and listened for it again. Nothing. Was he hearing things now too? A sudden chill hit him as a shadowy figure emerged from the hallway and stopped at the edge of the kitchen light. It took him a moment to recognize her. Lilith? She leaned against the door frame with a deadpan expression. Her heavy black mascara and smeared red lipstick accentuated her pale-goth look. She seemed skinnier than before.
“What's the matter, Zach?” she said with a raspy voice. “Aren't you glad to see me?”
“It's just that . . . it's been a while.” He stared at her, slack-jawed, as she shuffled toward him. Now he knew where the patchouli oil aroma came from.
“You could've called,” he said.
“Wanted to surprise you.”
“How did you get in?”
“Had a spare key.”
“Want some pizza?”
“I'll try a piece.”
He began to feel unusually disturbed in her presence as she nibbled on it.
“I heard you OD'd or something.”
She stopped chewing and glared at him. He found himself getting lost in her gray-green eyes.
“Huh? Who told you that?”
“A couple of people.”
“Not true. Got it under control.”
“Where have you been staying?”
“At Gwen's. But left last month when her boyfriend moved back in. So I've been hopping around to different places.” She grabbed his beer and took a few sips. “And you were next on my list.”
“I see you've got some new art,” he said, noticing two winged-insect figures tattooed on each side of her upper chest below her shoulders.
“Yeah, Miranda at Pray to the Needle did it. I wanted the work done after I read about moths. In pagan times, shamans regarded them as agents of souls, precursors of death, and warning messengers.
“Still working there?”
“Not anymore. Gone freelance. Escorting when I need a little extra cash. Mostly domming. That's been fun,” she said with a half-smile. “What've you been doing to stay alive?”
“Working in the yards. Playing at open mics. But not in a while”
“You should. Your songs are great.” She leaned closer to him. “Remember when we—”
She lurched up, knocking the chair down behind her, and rushed to the bathroom.
As he listened to her hurl in the toilet, he ate another slice and reflected on the times when they lived together. At first, everything was perfect. They performed in open mics and got weekend gigs in some Pioneer Square bars. Later, they collaborated on a few songs and cut a demo, which never got far. Things got worse after that. She'd been taking bipolar meds when they first met, but stopped doing those and shifted to the hard drugs he'd been using. She plunged into it much deeper, which intensified her highs and lows even more. It reached a point where he couldn't handle her moods anymore so they split. It took him a long time to overcome the guilt after he found out that she'd OD'd.
She staggered back in and sat down, letting out a sigh of relief. “Shouldn't have eaten the pizza.”
“Did you . . . move the furniture after you came in?” he asked.
“Huh? Why would I do that?”
He hesitated to ask her about the CD song, which he now recalled as a Killing Joke piece, a group he used to listen to a lot.
“You look a little spaced out,” she said. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head. “Guess I'm wasted from a long day.”
She stretched one leg under the table and settled her foot on his crotch, rocking it back and forth.
“Did you miss me?”
He couldn't lie. He'd often fantasized about her, and now here she was in the flesh. “Of course.”
“Let's get more comfortable in bed then.”
He almost tripped over her luggage bag on the floor when he noticed a syringe and other drug paraphernalia scattered next to her purse on the bed. Wordlessly, they embraced and pulled off each other's clothes. After the foreplay, she picked up a small plastic pack.
“Oh look,” she said, “still some left. Might as well finish it.”
He was about to decline, but the thought of stroking her toned, naked body while on smack, so adorned with the tats and piercings he had such a fetish for, was too much to resist.
“Might as well.”
Zach lay awake in bed as the first morning light filtered through the edges of the dark curtains in the room. He'd been thinking about their lovemaking that night. Somehow, he must've taken the right amount of drugs—not too much this time—because he'd been able to get it on with her for hours. He'd never felt so aroused with her, even more than those crazy manic times when she first moved in with him. As before, they switched top and bottom roles, but this time she told him to wait until he pleasured her first. His release was the most intense that he could remember.
She shifted her position and flopped on her back. In the dim light, he gazed at her spider-and-web tattoo, centered below her ribcage, moving up and down with each of her shallow breaths.
She barely opened her eyes and watched him drift off to sleep. A faint smile formed on her lips.
The next day she scored another bag, which they used the rest of the weekend.
Monday morning, Zach sat in the kitchen sipping coffee, thinking more about Lilith and how different she seemed. Harder edged. But there was something else about her—something peculiar—that he couldn't quite grasp. And why did she come back? To move in with him again? Or only to hang out for a while? They needed to talk about it.
Their encounters in bed together were different from the first night too. This time she assumed the more dominant role. She wanted him to try out some forms of what she called “edge play” with him. This ended up with her on top as she rode him and pushed a pillow down on his face. He twisted his head to the side for air and bucked her off when it went on too long for his liking. The next night she showed him the zip ties she bought when making a food run earlier in the day. He didn't object when she put them on because the desire to yield to her desires was much stronger. With his hands and feet bound it was harder for him to twist free, which she enjoyed.
A cockroach crept on the floor as he ate hash browns and eggs. He tried to stomp on it and cussed as it scurried away.
She padded in from the bedroom. “Kill it?”
“At least they aren't as bad as before. Working today?”
“Doubt I can make it.”
She poured some coffee and grimaced after taking the first sip. “Still the same weak-ass brew. Folgers no doubt.”
“We need to talk.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “Like how long you're going to stay.”
She glared at him with a severe expression. “What do you mean?”
Her harsh tone and deep voice set him back a bit. Moreover, her entire countenance had transformed into something genuinely scary.
“Like what your plans are.”
“So you're going to kick me out again?”
“No. And I didn't kick you out last time. We agreed to split.”
“Yeah, and I was left out on the street!”
“You said you had a place to stay.”
She waived her hand dismissively. “Whatever.” She took another sip. “Getting tired of me already?”
“No way. Just the opposite.”
“What's the problem then?”
“No problem. Like I said, I'd like to know your plans. That's all.”
“You want a timetable or something?”
She settled back in the chair with that same crooked smile. “I think by the end of the week. The way things are going.”
She pulled out a cereal box from a cabinet. “Crap. We're almost out. I'll run to the store for some. Got money?”
He opened up his wallet and fished out a few small bills.
She snatched them out of his hand. “Need more than that.” She extended one hand to him, palms up. “Your card.”
An all-to-familiar pose and demand. He hesitated a moment and handed her his ATM card, feeling shitty about it afterward.
“What’s the code again?”
“Seven seven three four.”
“Oh yeah;" she said, smirking. "I should've remembered that. I'll get the food and draw out some cash for drugs. I know where to score a good deal.”
Zach took the rest of the week off. He never left his place. She used his card each day to withdraw more for fast food and drugs. He never asked her how much she took and figured she'd tell him when it ran out. After she returned in the early evening, they had a routine. They closed the curtains, lit candles and incense, shot up, and listened—and sometimes slow danced—to his collection of British techno-pop groups like INXS, Blancmange, Modern English, The Smiths, and Soft Cell. They both liked Depeche Mode the best, especially the pieces on the Exciter album. His favorite cut on this was “When the Body Speaks”. He whispered the words into her ear when the lyrics played:
“I'm just an angel
Through this world
I'm just a slave here
At the mercy
Of a girl
What the spirit seeks
The mind will follow
When the body speaks
All else is hollow”
He stroked her body as they embraced during the dance. Sometimes, she broke away and danced on her own; swaying to the rhythm of the song, complemented by erotic movements of her arms and hands. The music, the incense, the dim lighting, her dancing. So intoxicating and arousing. She danced like this for hours, and he needed to take breaks and flop down on the couch to rest and watch her.
He became increasingly infatuated with the way her shadow fell against the wall behind her, and how her movements distorted parts of her body in the flickering light; her head and arms and legs often appeared larger, or smaller—an illusion enhancing the unreality of it all. But also seeming to heighten her reality even more. When he shifted back to look at her, her features looked similarly altered in the light: the prominent cheekbones; the way her eyes were set so deep in the sockets; that leering grin with prominent incisors. The more gruesome her visage appeared in his warped state of mind, the deeper his attraction became.
They continued the edge play when they hit the sack. Each day it got more intense, and painful. But he was too high to feel much as it happened, until the next morning.
Zach woke up with a jolt that startled her awake.
“Eh. What's wrong?” she mumbled. “Another bad dream?”
He muttered uh-huh while gazing up at the bare light bulb on the ceiling. He wiped the clammy sweat from his forehead and clambered out of bed.
He splashed water on his face from the bathroom sink and stared at his grim reflection in the mirror: the wispy beard and stache and greasy unkempt hair, hollow-cheeked, pasty-skinned, with bloodshot eyes. He hadn't been eating much, and it showed. Also, the bruises on his ribs and chest. He was losing it, and didn't have the strength or will to fight it anymore. Sometime during the week, he crossed a line, past the point of caring.
Now he had the jitters with a racing heart, so he checked the pill bottles in the medicine cabinet in search of something to calm his nerves. He grabbed a bunch of Oxycontin and poured himself a tall glass of vodka in the kitchen to wash them down. The glass shook in his hand as he drank it. He carried the bottle into the main room and plopped down on the easy chair. He took another long swig, feeling much calmer as he did so, and then one more. He sank deeper into the comfort of the chair, still clutching the vodka bottle, fantasizing about playing beautiful music on his guitar in front of throngs of adoring people in an idyllic pastoral setting.
Soon his head felt heavy but before he dozed off, he detected a faint movement in a darkened corner of the room. He shook his head and squinted at the area, discerning a shape blending in the shadows, as if watching him, or waiting for something.
“Is that . . . you?” he rasped.
The bottle slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor. Now he couldn't keep his eyes open and drifted into a half-sleep; swirling visions about the dreams he'd been having. Similar to ones during his youth when he slept alone in the attic bedroom of the spooky old house he grew up in as a child: running away from something evil and threatening; his feet getting heavier, with that thing creeping closer; curling up in a ball under his blankets, which crawled away from the bed, leaving him so exposed and terrified.
More incoherent visions. Spinning round and round and down. Until the sensations of falling stopped and he settled into a soft and restful place. Where then he plunged into a deeper sleep and a similar yet different dream . . .
He was lying on a mattress
in the attic bedroom of his youth
watching in frozen terror
as the one bare bulb of light,
hanging loosely from the ceiling
by a thin white chord,
A.R. Bender is a writer of German and Native heritage now living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. His multi-genre short stories, flash fiction, and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals, most recently in: Guilty Crime Magazine, Chiron Review, Hidden Peak Press, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, Close To the Bone, Thriller Magazine, andMystery Tribune. He's also in the process of self-publishing his historical novel. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and coaching youth soccer.