When Arlo woke up one morning, he was surprised to find himself hanging upside down from the rafters of a high attic ceiling. With a little effort, he twisted free from a thin cocoon and then floated down into an old familiar room.
All his things were there, just as he left them: the TV and stereo components in the entertainment center, the DVDs and CDs arranged just so on adjacent shelves, the larger Native American artifacts hanging on the walls and smaller ones placed on the shrine below a window. The bonsai tree stood prominently in the middle of the shrine, although now much faded. He felt gratified most of all when he saw all his many, precious books stacked in the shelves set against the walls. In the adjacent den, the laptop was on his desk, still half-open, next to a blinking modem, writing pads and sticky notes.
Everything looked so familiar, but also very strange. All the objects that he saw below had a kind of gleam and sheen and an added depth so that they looked more vivid and distinct. Perhaps it was the fading light, but everything around him was devoid of any color and imbued with shades and gray. The room was deathly silent, except for the intermittent sound of branches from a tree outside scraping on the bedroom window.
Arlo glided to the bedroom and saw his shoes set on the racks and his clothes hanging in the walk-in closet. He was pleased to see his favorite black leather jacket that he had for so many years hanging on a separate hook. He held his gaze on the bed. The covers and blankets were half drawn out. He noticed a slight impression on the sheets starting just below the pillow, about the size and shape of a half-curled up human body. Lisa always slept in that position. Oh, those times in bed with her, making love in the candlelight at night, falling asleep exhausted in each other’s arms, then waking up in the morning to make love again. He never felt more alive than in that bed with her.
Oddly, he sensed her presence close by, somewhere in the house. Odder still, he sensed another distinctive presence – although one that he could not quite place – that was also in the house.
Just then, he heard the sound many voices coming from another room downstairs. He wondered who they were and what was going on so he swooped across the room and through the wall, no need to use the door, then down and through the floor – defying the laws physics. He could do that now!
Arlo saw groups of people gathered in the kitchen and the dining room, but mostly in the living room. He hovered high above them just below the ceiling. He recognized most everyone there, much to his delight. There were some people from his writers group and others from his workplace. That was nice of them to come. Some family friends were there as well, talking amongst themselves: his sister with her spouse and daughter; his ex-wife holding a drink and chatting it up with a man who looked like the one she remarried. He saw his son by the fireplace talking to a pretty girl about his age in her late teens. Then there were other faces of people he hadn’t seen in years; a college friend and his brother who he used to go drinking with a lot; and Jack, his best an oldest friend from college. Their paths branched off many times since then, yet they always managed to stay in touch.
Arlo was surprised when he saw some others in the room. Kirsten was a girl he met in college and who he travelled in Europe with almost thirty years before, except that…she still looked almost the same as then. There were more like that down there. Gus hadn’t changed a bit from the time he worked on the newspaper with him over twenty years before. Sin-cha still looked as hot and sexy as the time she was his girlfriend when he lived in the Bay Area many years before. He also saw Sylvia, the woman from Argentina he went out with for a month during the time he travelled through South America. He vaguely recognized other college friends and workplace acquaintances who he hadn’t seen in ages, yet who changed so very little. He wondered how that could be. Why did so many of them still look so young? Were they all just his figments of his imagination or something else?
He began to feel an odd sensation within his chest and stomach, as well as a strong urge to leave the room.
He still hadn’t seen Lisa yet, and so he floated from the living room to the dining room then to the kitchen in search of her. Every movement he made seemed so effortless. He didn’t have to move his arms or legs or anything. It seemed as if he only needed his thoughts alone to move from place to place.
He saw Lisa in the kitchen, fixing something on the stove while talking to another woman. She stood out from the rest, by the glow and color of her skin, which was almost a fleshy tone, as opposed to all the others who were in shades of gray. Lisa’s back was to him, so he maneuvered to the edge of the room so that he could see her face. He felt a deep and heartfelt emotion as he saw her there. He detected a sorrow in her mood, despite her smiling face as she talked and listened to others in the kitchen.
Soon, everyone in the kitchen turned and walked toward the living room. In a corner of the living room, Arlo saw Jack reading from a sheet of paper. Everyone was watching Jack and listening to what he said. He heard Jack’s voice, but the words were indistinct and fuzzy so he hovered down a little closer. Although he couldn’t hear every word, he could tell Jack was talking about some of the stuff they both did together, back in the day; driving down the coast in that old UPS truck converted to a camper or sorts, sharing girlfriends, getting high, taking part in anti-war demonstrations, writing poetry, playing music on their guitars. Sometimes Jack stopped and Arlo hear peals of laughter in the crowd. After a while, he saw and heard them clapping, then break up again into groups. The clapping sounded like heavy raindrops falling on a tranquil pond. Someone turned on the stereo, and he vaguely recognized an old rock-and-roll tune and a tinny, singing voice that sounded like Bob Dylan.
After a while, he saw Lisa and a few others carry food on platters from the kitchen to the dining room. A line formed along the table and everyone filled their plates with food and cups with wine and beer and other spirits. Eating, drinking, everybody merry, talking in small groups. A champagne cork popped and flew up into the air, close enough for Arlo to grab it if he wanted to. That would stop some in their tracks – a cork suspended in midair. There was much laughter in one corner, coming from a group of kids piling gobs of ice cream on a cut banana then piling nuts and chocolate sauce and lots of other stuff on top of it. Arlo recalled his first banana split when he was their age, in a fancy family restaurant: it was so big and all for him.
Eating, drinking, everybody merry, that is…all except for one. A woman stood by herself in a corner. She looked familiar to him, but was in the shadows so he glided a little closer. He began to feel who it was even before he recognized her features and stopped when he was sure. It was his Muse: the other presence he felt in the upstairs room. He stared at her in wonder. He had not seen her in years. She was dressed all in black. Her long, dark hair was pinned up so that it exposed those strange and arcane markings on the back of her neck; the edges of some tentacles that were part of great tattoo of a full and giant sea creature that covered her entire back.
She sipped a glass of wine, watching all the people in the room. It was then that he realized how separate she was from all the others in the room, and he knew the reason why. No one knew her. She was the Big Secret who he never told anyone about, and yet was so important in his life. She was the guide to his Awakening.
Arlo whispered part of the prayer he often spoke when in her presence:
“My Muse My Mistress
Goddess of the Song
And the River and the Moon
My Shaman Healer Guide”.
She was the One who pushed him hard and through the pain and who redirected him toward the path that he was meant to walk upon. She was the One who reconnected him to that buried and near forgotten desire to write again, much of which he had started: a smattering of poetry, a few short stories and the first draft of a novel.
Of course, he could have written so much more. He had plans! But the ending came so quick…
As Arlo drove along a peaceful country road on a rainy night, that fucking SUV came speeding round a corner and right into his lane. He swerved away from it and off the road, but skidded hard downhill and straight into a sturdy chestnut tree – with branches low and wide, like arms to take him in. The last thing that he saw and heard was the crunching of much metal and the shattering of glass….then darkness – no pain, just darkness.
And now, as if waking from a dream, he was here.
Just then, that odd sensation which had been emanating from within his chest and stomach grew much stronger. The lights in the room began to dim and flicker. The voices sounded more distant and distorted. He felt as if he was dissolving from within and being pulled away from where he was. He didn’t want to go! He wanted to stay where he was, amongst his friends and loved ones! At least just a little bit longer!
He struggled hard against this force but it was too strong, so he succumbed. Soon he began to feel at peace for what was about to happen.
At that moment, he saw his Muse look up right in his direction and with the faintest of a smile, as if she sensed something there, perhaps his fading presence. He wouldn’t have been surprised.
In the end, Arlo slowly faded into black, then merged deeper into black, and at last was at one with black…but not alone. That final image of his Muse was always with him.
A. R. Bender is an emergent writer living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. Some of his poetry has been published in local journals. He has completed two short story collections and is in the process of getting a few of them published individually, in addition to some flash fiction pieces. He is also seeking representation for his completed historical novel.