What does it take to drive a teetering man completely over the edge? Let's find out in the nonsensical conclusion to a story about a guy who gets in over his head.
of the Arts
by Oscar Lopez Jr.
He was back outside, half his head shaved, brown hair decorating his Atlantic Drift shirt. Some of it even slipped down through the cracks, and had begun to itch like crazy all over his chest and upper back.
Jim wasn’t sure if he could call it one, but assumed that that room was one of the traps.
“I have to call Sheryl.” He stood before a door which read EMERGENCY STAIRS. He thought it over, deciding that it would be rather cruel to market a trap in such a fashion. Making it seem like a stairwell, but in reality a two story drop. Instead, he decided to go through the door beside it, which would lead into another room.
Had Jim gone through the exit door, he would have been one floor down, and one step closer towards his freedom. All previous test subjects, including Sheryl, assumed it to be a trap.
He wondered what Sheryl was doing right about now, and decided she was watching Animal Planet and weeping. She did that often of late, sit there in front of the T.V. and cry, sometimes it wasn’t even on. He figured she was going through something she didn’t feel like talking about. Whenever he brought up her mood swings, she would walk away or act like he was talking out of his ass.
It all made sense now, they did something to her here, broke her down. Then again, if it was true that she held a knife to him while he slept, that wasn’t cool either. At least this place managed to fix that, even though it turned her into Silvia Plath.
Take the good with the bad? Fuck this place.
Jim Branden had to get out of here before this hell broke him, too.
He stood in front of a different door now, wondering if he really wanted to go in. It beat waiting out in the cold, out here in the hallway, where that bulldog Baldy could be patrolling. It was possible the guy was lying in wait somewhere, in one of the rooms, and his form of torment would be reading select chapters from Atlas Shrugged or Naked Lunch.
The blow was powerful, unrealistic even. He’d never been hit so hard in all of his life, especially by one punch to the gut. He couldn’t imagine taking that same hit to the face rather than his stomach.
‘We call that one ‘the pulverizer’, kid.’ He was informed by a voice in his head.
“Get in here!” A meaty hand grabbed at his gray shirt, pulling him into the room. The dark figure strapped him to a chair, legs in their restraints, one arm strapped down to his side, and the other stretched out before him. “Let’s have some fun, Holmes.”
“Look here, Johnny . . . Tsunami . . .” Jim prattled, searching the room for signs of Ayn Rand literature. William S. Burroughs was nowhere to be seen, either.
A softer blow, but still mighty powerful, laid into Jim’s side, crushing his kidney. Another coming from the left smashed into the side of his face, causing him to spit blood.
He didn’t want to learn how to fly anymore. He wanted to become a snake and slither away, but not before biting this asshole on the neck. He concentrated all his energies on becoming a snake, one with the cold-blooded creature.
“Whatever they’re paying you!” Jim hollered in pain.
“I’m listening, fool.” Baldy stopped a moment, waiting for the proposal, wiping sweat from his brow.
“I have a cache of blood-thirsty robots.” He paused, staring at Baldy in the dark of the room. “And they will fight for me!”
“These crackers, man.” Baldy grunted, and once more proceeded to beat the living hell out of Jim Branden.
“This was supposed to be a school of arts!” Jim bellowed, thinking everything hurt and nothing was beautiful.
“This is art.” Baldy wiped sweat from his brow upon the white sleeve of his tee, spat on the marble floor. “This is the art of beating your ass, Holmes.”
“What . . .” Jim asked in a state of semi-consciousness. “What did I ever do to you?!”
“Let’s get real,” Baldy walked to one side of the room, rinsed his hands. He returned with a paper towel, ringing them clean. “I’ve worked ever since I can remember, because I knew that’s how we reach the American dream. We work a goddamn lifetime, day in and day out, never ending.” he glanced around at the marble floor, the walls, “But where is it?”
Jim looked too, thinking he might spot it somewhere.
“We act like pain rectifies everything, man.” He put a meaty hand on Jim’s shoulder, making him wince. “We bleed for a dollar, worlds collapse around money, and those of us that started in the gutter stay there. That’s my reality, no rich daddy to hold my hand, wipe away my tears with hundred dollar bills. My parents’ American dream was finding a place for their kids to have a future. I feel like I’m spitting in my mother’s face each time I see her, because I took the opportunity she gave me and I tossed it into the trash.” He nodded his que ball dome, “Pain rectifies everything. You’ll walk out of here and you’ll see the world in a new light, you’ll be grateful for what you have.”
“I still don’t follow,” Jim’s eyes widened, still searching for the American dream.
“This place ain’t here to fill a void, Holmes.” He pushed Jim’s head back. “You are the void.”
“That’s enough, Paco.” Arthur stepped into the room from the lighted hallway, still holding the red rose between his fingers. He flipped a light switch as he stepped inside of the room, walking around to see Jim’s brutalized face.
“My name is Robert.” Baldy said with a stiff voice, cracking his knuckles. He walked over to a small trash bin and tossed the bloody napkin, before taking his leave from the room. “You two enjoy yourselves.”
He left and closed the door.
“Aside from a bloody nose,” Arthur exhaled upon seeing Jim’s beaten face, bloody nose dripping to his chin. “It doesn’t seem like he’s done much damage to that pretty face.” He walked over to the small table.
“You’ve had your fun!” Jim spat blood, feeling a slight breeze against the shaved side of his head. “I’m broken!” He tried to argue. “That’s what you wanted, right? That’s what this was all about, right?!” He felt as if he would start to cry at any given moment.
“Joseph wants you broken.” Arthur spoke, still turned around, standing over the small table with a white napkin laid over it. “I just want to see you squirm.”
“What is wrong with all of you?!” Jim wished these restraints would loosen so he could give his thanks personally. “You’re all sick! You’re crazy, every last one of you bastards!” He howled, chest sticking out, trying to break free of his confinement. The drug had begun to wear off and he was slowly regaining consciousness, wholly abandoning the idea of trying to become a flying snake.
“I grew up in a small town just outside of New Mexico,” he stood at the table, his back to Jim. “It was on the border.”
“This is a really great story.” Jim insisted, still trying to break free.
“One summer, when I was about ten, a group of traveling gypsies came to our town, mostly of mixed descent. Some of them looked more European, but they were all dirty, and all carried a strange smell about them.” He paused and turned around to face Jim. “I’ve never forgotten it.”
Jim felt the breeze of the slash against his Atlantic Drift tee. He looked down to see the scalpel in Arthur’s right hand. No blood had been drawn, and for that he’d been extremely grateful.
“I wish I was still high,” Jim’s lower lip quivered.
“There was one man in particular who stood out to me. The way he carried himself around the others, and the general way in which he approached the townsfolk, without a care in the world. ‘This man is free,’ I thought watching him intently as he drew a wide blade from his leg holster. He used it to cut a single red rose from a bushel.”
There was a second slash at Jim’s shirt. This time around a speck of blood had been drawn from his tan skin.
“Is this really how you treat people here? This has to be against some kind of constitutional law!” He barked angrily, spit flying from his lips. “I’m being held against my will by you people!”
“He proceeded to spread the fingers of his right hand. With the rather sharp knife he stabbed violently between his fingers, conscious clear of all emotion. Back then I didn’t know what the game was called, or why he risked his fingers playing it.” He took a long slow breath, like taking in Jim’s fear, becoming one with it. “One night I go into our small kitchen, five steps across from the mattress we all slept on. I take the knife from one of the cabinets, which was really nothing but a small box covered in a rag. I decided to play that incredible game.”
There’s a third and final slash at his shirt, this one being the longest. It tore through from above the D in Drift, all the way to his lower abdomen, skinning bits of flesh on its way down, bringing great agony to the receiver of this punishment.
Jim refused to peer down, feeling kind of euphoric now. He was sure the drug had worn off. He assumed his body had been creating its own chemicals to keep him in some lucid state, taking the pain inflicted upon him with apparent nonchalance.
Pain rectifies everything, he repeated to himself.
“This is the result.” Arthur concluded, raising his right hand to show that he was missing the tip of his ring finger.
Arthur had now gone two rounds without badly injuring any of Jim’s digits with his scalpel. An act of God, which Jim praised, and Arthur felt baffled by.
“You’ve proven your point, Arthur!” Jim shouted at him, not prepared for a third round of five finger filet.
“Tell you what.” Arthur seemed bored of this himself. “You let me take your ring finger, and I’ll let you make a phone call.”
“Done.” He didn’t take a second to think about it. “Take it before I change—”
Arthur had already sunken the scalpel into the middle of Jim’s ring finger, drawing blood in buckets. It hung onto the rest of the hand, but only dangling by a small piece of bloody skin. He ripped it quickly, pressing it against the nub where his own finger used to be, bloody trickling down his hand.
“I want . . . I want my call.” Jim began an agonized weeping. “And I want Angela to hold me.”
“Fine,” Arthur shooed him away. “Whatever.”
Angela, the Head Researcher, poured iodine on the stub, commenting on how gnarly he looked without it there taking up space.
He made several calls in Angela’s office, which doubled as her room, standing at the sink with her rotary phone on the edge. He almost shrieked like a pig when she splashed rubbing alcohol on the stub.
“Sheryl,” He breathed heavily, “you’re insane.” After a brief pause he said, “No, I can’t hold! I don’t care that you’re watching Animal Planet!”
Angela talked as well, but all he heard was something about her liquidating her stuffed animal collection. She also made mention of a pet rock collection, which he would inquire about further after the call.
“I know you tried to kill me, you psycho.” He paused while Sheryl said something else. “No, that doesn’t make it okay, and we need to break up.”
He looked over at Angela wrapping up his finger in gauze. “How long have they been keeping you drugged?”
“The days go by really quick.” She stared at him for a couple of moments, and shrugged. “Is today Tuesday?”
“Actually, it’s Friday.”
“Oh,” she stared at her bed for a long moment. “So what’s tomorrow?”
“Wednesday.” He said after a moment of listening to her rendition of some 90s pop song. “Do you wanna be my girlfriend?” he asked impulsively, picked up the phone again.
“You can have my favorite rock.” She smiled, a lost smile, and nodded, “His name is Fredrick and he’ll signify our unity.”
The next call he made was to the police department, letting them know everything that had just happened to him. To his amazement, they already knew about the cult, and said there was nothing they could do because of some state law protecting these creeps. “But there are hostages here. And cocaine!”
He hung up.
The next call was to his psychiatrist who he hadn’t seen since age thirteen, when his dog died. He figured he would be spending at least the next couple of months getting over this experience, and maybe even the loss of his favorite finger.
The final call he made was to Sheryl again, his landlord/girlfriend, to tell her that he’d be moving out by week’s end. He leaned over to Angela and asked if she’d like to get an apartment together, to which she agreed, and giggled like a schoolgirl.
On the phone, Sheryl wanted to know who would get the silverware and the gray folding table. He told her they’d talk about it later. He decided he would take Kyle upstairs with him just in case Sheryl decided to turn into Travis Bickle.
“Do you love me?” Angela asked as he hung up the phone.
“With all of my heart, Sheryl.” He took a breath, letting it out slowly, “I mean, Angela.”
“I’ll be nineteen in June.” She finished up with bandaging his hand, and then kissed his knuckles.
“Did you know this was a cult?” He ran his free hand over the phone receiver.
After peering around cautiously, she asked, “Can I plead the 5th?”
A couple of hours later, Jim walked from the grand mansion, face covered in sweat, blood, and tears. The tears were actively rolling down his cheeks as he descended the ten or so marble steps towards the gravel pathway.
“You ruined everything!” A voice howled after him, but he didn’t care to turn. It presented itself as more of a nuisance than a hurt party calling legitimate foul. “I hope you rot in hell, you evil little bitch!”
Then he saw Angela pirouetting across the yard, and saw her execute a perfect barrel roll. Suddenly, he realized it wasn’t towards him that the cries were directed.
He walked without a care in the world to hold him back. His shirt had what appeared like claw marks set into it, along with bits of hair and dried blood on his neck and the collar of the tee.
Firefighters rushed past him, cops ran by yelling about drugs, and E.M.T.s brushed by carrying stretchers. They were immediately followed by a mob of disgruntled women, young and old, holding signs and chanting about God’s eternal salvation. Into the mouth of the Devil they all went.
“Don’t go too far! I may need more information from you!” A man in a gray overcoat called after him, pen and pad in hand. He brushed passed as well, jogging up the stairs, to see what all the commotion was about inside the mansion.
“Better hope I don’t find you, Holmes!” Baldy cried out as he was dragged away in cuffs. That time he did turn, and found that Robert was yelling at the queens.
He noticed that neither Arthur nor Joseph had been cuffed, which led him to the conclusion that they had offered up a sacrificial lamb. Also to his surprise the crime scene investigator hadn’t asked about his finger, refusing to even acknowledge the bloody hand. The man appeared to become noticeably queasy at the sight of it.
Finally, he’d made it out to the side of the road, at the same time Kyle had just been arriving, weaving past hastily parked cop cars, ambulances, and fire trucks.
When Jim looked up, the sun was still out, but quickly faded away to give the night it’s just due. He sighed, and then stepped into the passenger seat of the Prius, closing the door behind him.
“Look, mom . . . Mom . . . Mom! I have to let you go. Jim just stepped into the car. ‘Who’s Jim?’ What do you mean, ‘Who’s Jim?’ He’s your nephew, mom! Your sister’s kid!” He looked over at Jim with a look that read can you believe this lady? “Mom, I can feel you glaring at me through the phone, I’ll talk to you later. I said ‘later’. Love you, too. Bye.”
It could have been worse, he tried to convince himself. They could have made him read his personal poetry aloud.
“What the hell happened to you?!” Kyle demanded, removing the headset from his person, tossing it onto the backseat. “What’s up with all of these ambulances? Did someone have a heart attack or something?”
Jim looked dead ahead, mouth ajar, with no words coming to. His left hand rested over his shorts pocket, the piece of paper still there, scratching at the palm of his hand.
Jim didn’t notice it, but he wasn’t weeping anymore.
“I had to beg a cop to let me through. Told him I left my kid with my crazy wife, and he sympathized with me, told me about his own two daughters staying with their mom in California. We talked for a while, and he seemed like a great guy.” Kyle scratched the thick brown beard hugging his chubby face, casually glancing over at his cousin. “We might go for beers later, after his shift is over. You down?”
Jim drew the piece of paper from his pocket and reviewed it once more before proceeding to tear it apart. He rolled down his passenger window and watched the pieces fleeting away, thinking about how everything sooner or later becomes transient.
“Congrats, you psychopaths,” he rolled the window back up. “I’m broken.”
Kyle eyed Jim, leaning over him, “Did you shave the whole side of your face?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Jim pulled the seat belt on. “Take me home. I need to talk to my girlfriend.”
“Hey, whatever you need cousin.” Kyle whistled awkwardly for a few moments. He drummed on the dashboard, his hands sticking through the ring of the steering wheel.
“That one show premieres tonight.” Kyle said vaguely. “The one about the cowboys who get transported to the 1940s by some mad scientist, and they have to win the war against Nazi Germany to get back home to the 1800’s. Can’t remember what it’s called, though.”
“Cowboys vs. Nazis.” Jim stared blankly.
Kyle brightened up a bit, taking a sip of a warm soda. He coughed when he heard the words, too excited to care. “Yeah! That’s the one!”
“Sheryl’s looking forward to it, too.” Jim stared at the darkening road ahead of them as they entered the city once more.
“Are you all right?” Kyle inquired, still finding some kind of taste to the stale soda. “You seem a little off, not like your usual up and at ‘em self.”
“I hope I still have cereal at home.” Jim let out softly. “I feel like destroying some happiness.”
He began to weep.