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He awoke to total blackness, a dark beyond darkness, silent, and numb. He existed; he was aware; nothing more. No, wait! There was a sound; from somewhere he heard something, a persistent beat accompanied by a sound - but what a sound! A low, snarling screech that reverberated through his mind and shivered the length of his spine and back again.
It tormented him, it called to him. He wanted that sound, wanted to caress it and let it caress him and wrap around him until he and it were one.
He tried to move; something seemed to hold him in the dark, pressing in on him. He struggled, confined by something he could not touch, could not grasp. The sound was fading, now; desperate, he made one last effort....
....breaking free! He could see, now; he was in a quiet, dark alley. Whatever had blinded him was gone, now. It was still dark here, but not that utter blackness he had known before. And the sound, fading away, beckoned.
A small shape ran on quick legs past him; he flinched, startled. A cat arched its back and screeched at him, and then bolted in seeming terror. What did it fear? A strange dread took hold of him; something terrible had happened back there, something he dared not see. He ran with the cat.
Darkness yawned at his feet; he caught himself on a railing, shaking with panic. The darkness resolved itself into a set of stairs descending to a basement door. An intricate pattern of red lines adorned the black door, and there was something familiar about the place. He put one foot on the stair; he had been here before....
"It won't help," said a quiet voice from behind his right shoulder. He spun around; a slight young man in his late twenties leaned against the railing beside him, smoking a cigarette. Unwashed blond hair just brushed his shoulders and hid most of his face, except for the dimple on his chin. Intense blue eyes glinted from behind that tousled hair.
"Too late for that," he shook his head, "too late for that, here". He spoke with quiet certainty.
Erle--yes, that was his own name; he wondered why he'd forgotten it--stared at the speaker. The hair, the blue eyes, those ripped, patched jeans and T-shirt, that quiet, raspy voice--there was something vaguely familiar about the man, but he couldn't place it. Erle rather uncomfortably realised he couldn't place much of anything, including his own last name.
Everything felt a bit unreal, as if it would vanish the moment he turned his back on it. God! He was high as a kite! He blinked. No, the alley was still there. The cigarette smoker was still there. Erle glared at the man.
"So what the hell do you care?" he snapped. "And who says I need any help?" He wobbled on down the stairs, unable to feel his heels hitting the steps. Christ! What was he on?
The blond-haired smoker took a long drag from his cigarette and sighed. "Maybe I'm just an optimist. I know you'll have to figure it out for yourself, but..." he shrugged.
"An optimist? In this crazy, fucked up world? You're insane!" Erle stepped back just in time to avoid being hit by the door. He watched in disbelief as a black-clad couple walked right by him, somehow not colliding with him in that narrow space while ignoring him completely. Without waiting for a response from the blond man, he darted inside.
As soon as he entered the club, he realised he had been here before. This was Down Below, the club where he spent most of his free time. How could he forget a thing like that? He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind. Whatever he was on, it was potent stuff. He didn't like this memory lapse, either. If he could remember what he'd taken, he'd stay away from the stuff in the future.
A glance across the floor at the stage and Erle knew what he'd heard. Tonight was a live music night, and the band was just tuning up for another set. The first inviting chords spilled out into the room, as the singer, a tall snake-hipped woman, gripped the mike tight and close like a lover and began to sing.
A rich, sultry voice twined with incandescent guitar riffs to make that sound, The Sound that had woken Erle from the darkness. He listened, mesmerised, as The Sound wove around and through him and took him far away....
The last chords faded away, and Erle came back to himself. Somehow, he'd wound up next to the stage, past all the moshers, almost within touching distance of the singer. Her pink hair was piled high on top of her head in a strip cut, and her eyes were absolutely wild. He barely noticed the rest of the band; he had eyes only for the girl. Her name was Serena, and he knew her. Yes, he knew her; he loved her.
He suddenly felt terribly sad, and afraid. He could not remember why--and then those thoughts were driven from him as Serena sang again.
He spent the rest of the night that way, listening to the music, letting it take him away.
The show was finally over, and the band started taking down its instruments. Erle leaped onto the stage and--no! He'd done this before. This time, no one took any notice of him as he followed Serena to the dressing room.
"Serena?" She ignored him. The hurt cut him to the heart, and the sadness hit again; he loved her to distraction, but--he suddenly remembered doing this before, too, only then she hadn't ignored him.
Then, she'd whirled to face him.
"Erle! Get this straight," she'd yelled, "I don't love you! I don't even like you, and I don't want you following me everywhere. Just get the hell out of my face, and get lost! Don't even try to talk to me!"
"But--I--you can't do this to me! You--" he'd stood there and stammered like an idiot, unwilling to accept her rejection. He'd seen it coming, and tried to deny it for so long, tried to convince himself that she'd understand him and accept him the way he was.
"You're not listening, Erle! I. Don't. Like. You. Now, do I have to ask Random to explain 'get lost' to you?"
He'd staggered out of the dressing room in defeat, unwilling to provoke Random. The guitarist was far too handy with the chain he always wore wrapped around one arm.
Serena had been the one spot of light in his darkness, in the bleak grey landscape that was his life. At one time she'd believed in him, listened to his poetry, romanced the darkness with him.
Somehow it had all changed; she'd grown tired of his obsession with death and darkness. She stopped listening to his tirades about how screwed-up and cruel the world was, and started telling him to "grow up, your whining won't make it any better". He'd get angry then, and accuse her of being shallow, of not willing to face the world as it really was.
Then her face would grow hard, and she'd tell him icily that he knew nothing about how cruel the world could be. Once, she'd been really angry, and told Erle that he was in love with the idea of darkness, not darkness itself, because "if you'd ever been through real darkness, you wouldn't love it at all".
She didn't understand, and yet she could have, if he'd ever found a way to explain. That's what bothered him the most, the chance he hadn't taken. He knew from things she'd let slip that Serena had been through some very bad years on the streets as a teenager, and he understood. She'd learned to deal with what it had done to her; he never had learned to handle his darkness. How could he explain the darkness that drained all the colour out of his life, that left him unwilling to even crawl out of bed or eat for days at a time? She just told him "Get over it. I did, you can, too."
He'd tried drugs: speed, cocaine, heroin. Anything to kill the pain, beat back the darkness. They'd become yet another wedge between him and Serena; he remembered oh-so-well that upturned lip, that sneer when she found him shooting up in her apartment. That was the first time she threw him out, the first time he found something that could hurt him worse than the darkness.
He tried to change, for her. God, he'd tried! The night she'd finally rejected him entirely, he was already shaky from withdrawal. What had happened? Had he given in and shot up again? He didn't feel quite like he was high on heroin, but he was on something. Things were a bit surreal, and Serena acted like he wasn't there. So did everyone else.
Acid? Had he dropped some LSD? That would explain everything. He felt better; the world might be out-of-kilter, but at least he had a reason. He no longer worried that no one seemed to notice him, including Serena, Random, and the bouncers. It made it damn inconvenient that the bartender wouldn't take his order, but he probably didn't want a hallucinatory beer, anyway. Who knew what it might turn into?
He wandered across the dance floor, and remembered doing this, too. Then, he'd staggered blindly, heart bleak with despair. Now--he didn't know. He felt.. sadness, but not that black despair. Sadness that he'd lost Serena, sadness that--that what? He couldn't remember. No more acid, if could remember that when he got back to something like sanity. These memory lapses sucked.
He had the sudden urge for a cigarette, and reached into his pocket for the pack he usually carried there. It was gone. With the desperation of a nicotine addict, he checked all his pockets. Still nothing. And the imaginary cigarette machine mocked him with its non-existence.
Stop and think. He'd been running from that alley; perhaps he'd dropped them there. Yeah, that was it. What was in the alley, that had scared him, anyway? Probably just something from his delirium. What the fuck had he dropped acid for? Seeing things that weren't there sucked.
He found himself outside, after waiting for some imaginary outgoing club goers to open the rather opinionated hallucinatory door which silently refused to acknowledge his existence and open when he pushed on it. This trip was getting old, fast.
The alley was empty. Which direction had he come from? One way led to a lit street, and the other.... He shuddered. It was dark, very dark down that alley. What was he doing back there? He knew it was a dark, quiet place, with doors opening into unused basements that were nice, private places for a street person to sleep, or shoot up.... Maybe he didn't need a cigarette that bad.
"Here, have one of mine."
Erle jumped and spun about, black trench coat swirling around his legs. It was the blond-haired cigarette smoker again. He was still wearing the ripped, patched blue jeans, but now Erle could see the words "Grunge is Dead" in white on his black T-shirt, and he was holding out a pack of cigarettes to Erle. And, of course, he was smoking one himself.
"Yeah. Thanks." Erle was shaking as he gingerly reached out and took one. The cigarette seemed to be real, and Erle fumbled for his lighter, only to realise with annoyance that it was missing, too. This trip was getting really, really old.
Erle looked up just in time to catch the matchbook tossed at him by the smoker. The smoker shrugged, and smiled shyly. Erle looked at him in some annoyance, and finally lit his cigarette. Several delicious drags later, he focused on the blond-haired man. There was something terribly familiar about him; Erle knew his name, but it eluded him for now. Well, wasn't about to let this guy know how fucked-up he was.
"Thanks." He tossed the matches back, and asked somewhat sharply, "You wouldn't happen to know where my own cigarettes and lighter got to, would you?"
The other man looked down the alley, and then at Erle. "You left them back in the basement," he rasped softly.
For the first time since he awoke, Erle felt cold. It wasn't about cigarettes, he knew that. It was about facing his fear, facing the unknown horror that he'd forgotten. What did he fear so? He tried to shake the thought, tried to tell himself it was just acid delirium that haunted him.
Step by step, he retraced his path into the alley, and through his memory. Last time, he'd stumbled blindly out of the club, and fled down the alley to be alone. He'd been so bleak, so empty then. Hated by Serena, hating himself for being so weak and useless, hating the life that had lost its only light and comfort, looking forward to endless grey and empty days.... he was so close to understanding.
Then he came to a certain shadowed doorway, and remembered the basement room where he'd crashed after Serena threw him out. He stopped, afraid to continue. He turned, knowing who he would find still behind him as his crippled memory finally yielded up a name.
He stared at the blond-haired smoker, incredulous. "You're--"
"I know." He smiled, gently. "Go ahead; I'll be here."
Erle went through the door already knowing what he would find. There was no darkness now; he could clearly see the small filthy room with its cinder-block walls and bare overhead pipes. Just as clearly he could see the pack of cigarettes and lighter lying right where he'd set them down. A gentle sadness filled him, regret for things never done, for words said and not said, for possibilities ended too soon. Self mockery: for all the wrong reasons, he'd finally done something well; the cord had held, when he pulled it tight and stepped off.... Erle turned and, for the second time, left behind that desolate room and the lifeless body still hanging from the centre overhead pipe.
A wind swirled through the suddenly empty alley.... and a small black cat sat confused, and decided to wash itself.