An old “classic” I guess, since a lot of my friends have read it already…
Jacob walked towards the bar, slowly and heavily, the weight of the world in his shoulders. His face was dark, and greasy from dried sweat mixed with dirt.
– “How can I get a drink?” He asked the woman whom was the only other person sitting at the bar. She looked at his callused hands that gripped the empty mug. His nails were dirty, and the old flannel shirt he was wearing had tears and holes in it.
He sensed she could smell the result of a hard day of work emanating from him, and while not pleasant, it might give her a sense of confidence and safety. She filled his mug with beer from her pint, then gulped down the rest of what was her own mug, and started to refill.
– “How many did you have already?” he asked. His small eyes squinted to the point of almost disappearing, while his hand stroked his badly shaved chin. Not receiving an immediate answer, he absent-mindedly pulled on the white hair that stubbornly poked out of his bushy eyebrows. His ebony skin showed the strength of the years in the deep and multiple wrinkles that marked his face. Looking once more to his still silent companion, he smiled a reptilian grin, his teeth glowing in the dim light.
-“Don’t wanna intrude or anything,” he said. “Just making small talk as a way of thank-you…”
– “Don’t.” She said. Her voice was throaty, coming up as a strangled and pained whisper. She gazed at the liquid in the mug, as if the answer to her dilemma was swimming in the golden beer.
– “Whatever you say, ma’am. You give me beer, I drink quietly and I leave. Leave you alone, indeed I do.” He drowned the beer in one experienced gulp and stood up to leave. Her hand moved fast and grabbed his arm, holding him in place.
He could hear the musical sound of the empty bottles that were being thrown away in the back, and he could still feel the warmth of hand that had let go of him when he sat back down. Busy eyes scanned her face, the rest of his demeanor aloof.
– “I am just having a very bad day,” she apologized. “I am normally much more polite.”
– “No concerns, ma’am, none whatsoever. All of us have a bad day now and then, it is only natural, you know.”
– “A…” she struggled with the correct word to use. She then drowned the stubborn lump in her throat with another gulp of beer. “A dear friend is very ill. She… she may die at any moment and there is nothing I can do.”
Jacob gave her a sympathetic look. They continued to drink, silently, in a comfortable pace.
– “Regina,” she said after a while, looking at Jacob.
– “What, ma’am?”
– “Regina. My name is Regina. What’s yours?”
Chickens don’t dance turnpikes.
The voice invaded Jacob’s head softly, crushing gray matter and reality as it dispersed in his brain. He had been ready for it; it had been a month since the sweet painful whispers started to regularly assault his head. By now, he was even able to mask the sweet pain that reverberated throughout his body.
He watched as Regina stood up and shook herself out of inebriation and grief. Swaggering her tall, lean body towards the restroom, her black skin well cared for and glowing red from the lights of the bar. Her legs, moving across the beer-drenched floor had some feline grace and certainty. Her well-defined muscles, built over hours and hours of dancing and practicing, transfixed Jacob. An uncomfortable and sinful sensation started in his belly and slowly snaked its way into his groin; Jacob was not happy with that.
Shrimps, five o’clock – Babylon.
The Angel had returned, and the time of reckoning was now.
* * *
Regina was convinced: it had to be the alcohol. Because there was no way in hell that there was an actual jaguar in the restroom.
Then again, she couldn’t possible have drank that much.
The cat looked at her lazily, shining white fangs displayed in a bored yawn. Its intelligent eyes scanned the room nonchalantly. It stood up and slowly moved towards Regina.
She slowly backed up. The cat did not move faster, its liquid musculature flexing and relaxing in calculated intervals. Stalking, that’s what they say jaguars do. How appropriate.
She decided to take a chance, bolting towards the door. She did not look back – no point in looking certain death in the eyes.
She surprisingly made it to the door alive. She quickly shut the door behind her and held the icy handle for dear life.
– “Something wrong, ma’am?”
An adrenaline-fueled freight train loaded with the whitest fear rammed Regina and for a second she froze. Recognizing Jacob, she grabbed his hand and ran for the door. She would get out of here. Contact the police, the fire department, the zoo. She dragged Jacob across the bar and opened the door into Madison Avenue.
And that is when the world went mad.
Regina watched as reality bended and shifted, ozone burning into flaming red flickering flares of nothingness, daggers of pure metallic pain piercing her gut and heart with lighting speed. Blood roses eroded away the pavement, while vines and weeds leeched the color and life off the buildings. Dog-sized rats screeched across the now desolate landscape of what used to be Midtown Manhattan, their hair shooting up towards the burning sky.
Yellow ageless eyes observed Regina from across Madison Ave. The ghostly jaguar, owner of the eyes, growled its white smile of death, and slowly started crossing the street, sending the wandering vermin scurrying away from it.
Regina wanted to run. She wanted her legs to take her body far from this nightmare, back where things made sense and Midtown was not ablaze in dantesque insanity. But she was paralyzed with fear and hypnotized by the aqueous flow of the jaguar’s slow dance across the street. Jacob’s voice woke her up to her situation:
– “We need to find cover,” he noticed unwaveringly. “The beast looks a bit hungry, and we would indeed do it a favor stopping here like two black fools.”
There was, of course, reason to Jacob’s argument. There was also something else, something Regina just couldn’t quite put her fingers on and that scared her.
Whatever it was, it didn’t change the fact that Jacob was right, and the idea of a Regina cat-chow broke her away from her stupor.
It is a strange sensation, to run on cotton. At least that is how the ground felt to Regina, giving in to her weight at every step.
Comfortable maybe, but terribly tiring.
Soon, Regina was breathing smoke and her heart, fueled by pure panic and a kin of madness, pumped battery acid into her aching leg muscles. Jacob, however, slid down the road with snaky agility. His small, yellowish eyes searched feverishly for hiding, for sanctuary.
They ran down 53rd street, crossing a few deserted blocks. Not another human soul could be seen. Cars, half eaten by rust, lay abandoned in the middle of the street. The bright lights from Midtown shone in a reddish hue, while newspapers, shopping bags and a baby cart littered the sidewalk. There was not sign of a riot, or a war, or anything that might have caused this. Windows, if dirty and cloudy, remained unbroken, and the asphalt had no holes. Buildings remained standing tall, but were covered in rust of old age. As if everyone just left in the middle of whatever they were doing, store neon signs silently yelled “open”, a limo stopped in front of hotel had a side door and the trunk opened, and a pile of suitcases nearby. Everywhere, cockroaches swarmed over human belongings, the leftovers of civilization now a nest of insects and rats.
Regina looked back, and noticed that the jaguar had not followed them. Relieved, but still afraid, she kept on running until they reached the corner of 53rd and 3rd.
If things were already strange, what Regina now saw pushed far beyond the limits of the nightmare.
Rising high as a blasphemous tower, the wall cut right down the middle of 3rd street. Deathly white, the wall was mirror-polished, its smooth surface covering the view of the sky and damming the flow of the clouds. An inscription, written in sickening yellow, was engraved near its base.
Looking around, she noticed that the wall stretched around a few blocks of Midtown, trapping them inside this infernal square.
Regina approached the wall, while Jacob, leaning against a grocery store’s wall, vigilantly mapped the area for possible threats. There were no beasts or vermin close to the wall, as if its whiteness warded them off. The pulsating inscription read:
Condenados, eles choram
Os devorados se jubilam
Quando todos enlouquecem
A morte falha em os liberar
O grande espirito, Anhanguera
Triunfa sobre a tribo do jaguar
Banindo os filhos das trevas.
“Can you read that?” Jacob enquired.
She could read, a little. It had been a long time since her parents spoke in Portuguese with her, and even longer since she emigrated from Brazil. But something stuck.
“It says something about the condemned and the devoured, about them going crazy. And this part, it talks about a great spirit and the tribe of the jaguar. This word however, I don’t really understand it, but it bugs me for some reason…”
She said it softly… “Anhanguera.” She savored the name in her tongue first and let it roll out smoothly. It gracefully hanged in the stilled air and then it dispersed itself in the atmosphere.
A chill traveled with lighting speed down her spine. A sound like thousands of screams boomed from inside the wall, sending Regina flying across the street.
Jacob moved swiftly, grabbed Regina and ran for safety. In an unmistakably calculated move, he rammed the door of a close-by grocery store, plunging both of them into the darkness. He proceeded to barricade the door with(specific then general) every kind of heavy object he could find.
“Damn you woman, you curious little nitwit,” said Jacob. “Don’t mess with them things, you see, devil magic can be powerful.”
The rashness in Jacob’s voice surprised Regina. Maybe he was afraid, maybe confused, maybe something else entirely, but something seemed out of place. She tried to act level-headed:
– “Devil magic?”
– “Certainly it ain’t God’s magic, with all them rodents and the sky burning. What else could it be then?
The dark grocery store was angrily and softly lit by the burning red sky outside. The sun, which by then Regina had realized was not moving, made it hard for her to sleep. The constant fear and the sheer madness of what was happening to her did not help at all either.
She thought about Theresa. Her friend, her best friend ever, lying in a hospital bed. Cancer and life had taken their toll out of Theresa’s beauty, and left only an emaciated pained face constantly lost in contemplation and drug induced paralysis.
She remembered the isolation she felt in her first year at Jordan Middle School, when she traded the humid tropical air of her native Rio de Janeiro for the crisp dry pine-smelling air of Northern California. She walked in the classroom in her first day of class, the cacophony of almost unintelligible voices fighting in her ears and disorienting her completely. Overwhelmed, she had retreated to the back of the classroom and sat there, avoiding contact with all. But the little stubborn white girl kept smiling at her, and waving. That was the first time she saw Theresa and she was only 11, but she remembers that day as if she was reliving it now.
She and Theresa had developed an enduring and long friendship. They went to school together until college. When she moved into New York for a job, Theresa came with her. Now, a few rogue cells were taking her away from Regina forever.
Regina knew that, wherever Theresa was, she was still alive. She could feel it, and whatever it was that destroyed Midtown and trapped her with Jacob had not killed Theresa.
She was sure of that.
* * *
Seeing Regina slowly fall asleep, Jacob decided to explore. He walked slowly down 3rd street, following the wall. The hot air blew in his face and warmed the chilled of fear that had been gnawing at his bones since the madness started.
It had an odd beauty to it, this demonic wall. Its ivory eeriness was crackling with energy. The vermin and the foul beasts kept away from it. It pleased Jacob to know that something in the wall kept vice and darkness away from it – and, comforted in that thought, he walked as close as possible to the wall.
Jacob had a job, before the madness. Better yet, he still had a job and the madness was an impediment for him to accomplish his duty. Jacob was a gravedigger.
There was an unjust poetry to being a gravedigger. Those who remained saw you as the one that took their loved ones away. The dead, in their greed, took everything to the grave and shared nothing, thanked you for nothing, the ungrateful bastards. That is why, when Jacob had found the shining red and black bead necklace lying inside the freshly open grave earlier that month, he took it. He thought of selling it, but something made him change his mind. That was the first time the Angel started talking to him. He tried to get rid of the necklace also, fearing madness or demonic possession, but every time his will would falter and the voice in his head would scream until his ears bled.
Take ducks Antioch, rutabaga.
The Voice had called upon him. He needed to get ready, for the Enemy was coming, and no mercy was to be expected. He looked around, trying to find something, some kind of weapon, something to defend himself with.
He put his hand in his pocket and fondled the beads of the necklace.
Terrible Rex damage.
He would find something, but not only an ordinary weapon. He would find something appropriate, something fitting.
The shining orange sign in 59th and 3rd street was like a god-sent revelation. Those bright letters showed Jacob his search for a weapon was over, and he read them out loud to make it real:
“ Home Depot…”
* * *
Regina woke up from her untruthful sleep, grappling with the reality of the nightmare in which she was still trapped. She laid on the floor of the grocery store, the stench of rotten goods assaulting her nose violently, and the unsettling ferocious crimson light on the outside creeping its way in through the cracks of doors and windows. Jacob was nowhere to be found.
It was logically improbable that she and Jacob were the only survivors, that no other human was walking around these streets.
She had returned from St. Vincent’s Midtown Hospital, where Theresa lay in a bed, her disease nibbling her body away a little bite at a time, when she had decided to stop at a bar for a drink before going home.
Before she had left the hospital, Theresa had made Regina promise not to drink before getting home. Theresa knew how Regina would get when she drank, and that she never drank just one beer. Regina, her eyes full of tears, tried to make the lie sound convincing, but by the look Theresa gave her, she had failed miserably.
Regina was always making promises that she did not live up to. The ones she made to her first boyfriend, a scrawny little guy with eyes of a rat that declared his undying love for her every five seconds; the ones she made to her parents five years ago, when she said she was moving to New York for only a few months, until the dance show in which she was performing was over; and the one she made also to Theresa, when they were young and not so innocent, that she would never jeopardize her own life for Theresa’s.
Actually, she had not broken that last one yet. But she knew, while she was strapping the butcher’s cleaver to her hip, she knew that she was going out there, in that mad inferno, to find Theresa, and to protect her.
She though about Jacob, and about how was he faring. As much concern as she felt, Theresa was her priority.
She walked for sometime, the rising temperature and the wobbly ground making her trip even more exhausting. She was drenched in sweat, and the lactic acid that had concentrated in her muscles from the previous running had not gone away, making her legs stiff and full of pain.
The sound exploded first in her heart, sending emission across her body. The nearby buildings shook, sending crackled glass flying in sparkling flakes of reflected sun light. Regina dove for safety under a canopy, while broken glass poured from the sky.
After the glass had fallen, Regina looked up, trying to find the origin of the sound. She was not that close to the wall, but its specter could still be seen from behind the buildings.
She then noticed the jaguar, hovering from the top of a building. It looked at her and smiled an almost human smile, its fangs showing in a grotesque and sinister spectacle. The jaguar then started twitching, its body convulsing in a series of rhythmic and flowing distortions. Slowly, it started to stand more upright, its spine metamorphosing and moving like a snake in its death spasms.
With a final jerk, the jaguar stood up, arms and legs like a human; draped in loose clothing with the color of a new moon night, the creature’s human hands still had the animal claws of the jaguar. It’s face, bone-white, was devoid of any human features; it was a flat round face, without eyes, nose or mouth. Curious little red and gold embroidery decorated the face, moving around the white surface in graceful and furious twitches.
Regina knew that creature. She remembered Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, when her teenaged neighbor boys would dress up in those large and colorful clothes, walk in groups of four or five, and, making noise and hammering their stringed plastic balls in the pavement, scare the little kids and spread the joy of the holidays. She was scared of them, who were known as bate-bola or Clóvis, but she was three years old. That was thirty years ago – she was now an adult and had no reason to fear infantile demons. Her heart however, beating at the speed of a racing horse, seemed to disagree with her.
The bate-bola jumped from the top of the building and glided towards the pavement. Regina watched in astonishment as he softly descended, and started moving towards her. Paralyzed by fear, Regina could only watch as the creature moved, emitting a high-pitched scream that pierced her ears and her soul.
The creature approached her in a blink of an eye. Suddenly, a hard pang was heard, and the creature was thrown aside with the violence of the assault of Jacob’s shovel.
Jacob gnarled at Regina. She backed up, and looked at her companion. Jacob’s shirt was gone. His thin arms were covered in a layer of sweat, dried blood and animal fur. His little eyes, in a permanent scowl, danced furiously from one side to the other. Bite marks were visible across his body. A cavernous sound rumbled constantly from his chest, and the veins in his body wormed viciously with the movement of his blood.
He took a step closer to Regina. She grabbed the cleaver from her belt and prepared herself for a fight.
Out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed that the bate-bola was standing up, apparently unhurt, and watching the scene with something akin of curiosity.
– “Woman, what are you doing out here?” Jacob barked between the gritted teeth of his now sinister smile.
– “I am trying to find my friend. She’s at St. Vincent’s – I need to know if she is alright…”
Jacob started to laugh out loud. His body shook freely at the rhythm of his roaring laughter.
– “Do you have idea of what is going on in here?” he asked. “The universe shatters, and the chains that hold life together dissolve and are blown in the wind like desert sand. The angels themselves need to descend to earth to fight evil – yet all humans can thing about is their petty problems, their possessions and ideologies, their… friends.” He spat the last word with a fierce fury.
– “What are you talking about, Jacob? Are you alright?”
“Alright? I feel liberated. Invigorated. I spent all night delivering the Lord’s justice to these demons. I am the Lord’s vengeful Angel, delivered to this piece of the inferno to wage the war of justice.”
Regina let his words sink in. Had he gone mad? Or had she? Is he right, and this is was hell?
The bate-bola watched the interaction with curiosity. Jacob was intensely focused in Regina, giving the creature the opening he needed to tackle Jacob. They fell into the ground, a savage dance of flesh, darkness and dust. With a quick, decisive blow, the bate-bola swatted the shovel away from Jacob’s grasp. Both contenders, now disarmed, turned to their arms and legs trying to get the upper hand.
Regina woke up from her stupor. She took firm grip of the cleaver and, with the swiftness of a cheetah, drove the blade in the darkness of the bate-bola’s back.
The creature screamed, a sound so high that Regina’s ears bled. It jerked and splashed away from Jacob in consecutive spasms, trying to get the blade out of its back.
Jacob stood up slowly. Calmly, he walked towards his fallen shovel. As if he had reached nirvana, his movements lacked hurry or desperation, but had an angry peacefulness to them. Collecting the shovel, he walked to the creature, his face deforming slowly into a snarl, and a deep growl emerged from his insides.
Noticing Jacob, the creature scurried away from him in a hurry. Letting go a lionesque roar, Jacob ran after the creature, leaving Regina alone.
She dug through her pockets and rescued a few sunny pennies. Frustrated, she furiously searched her surroundings for something that could be used as a weapon. Then it was when she saw the hole.
It was a small hole. From its whistling mouth, the noise of running water could be heard. Around it vermin scurried while the grass rose arrogantly to meet the bees and fireflies drifted in the breeze.
There were no other holes on the rest of the nearby structures. The buildings rose metal solid, and not a crack was to be found in the gulag to which Midtown had turned. There were no imperfections, no bent structures. Even the worn frowns of the decayed, old paint that peeled off the walls displayed a mathematical symmetry.
The hole radiated a pleasant coolness, a sensation that softly caressed Regina’s skin and, like a healing balm, eased the pain of her overworked muscles. She felt as if someone had involved her in a tight and comforting embrace.
Regina could imagine Theresa’s arms around her, a soothing and firm grip that would squeeze out every drop of pain and misery out of her. She enjoyed that sensation and that illusion of Theresa, but it was a temporary pleasure. The sensation soon faded away.
Back to the hole. It felt out of place, in this chaos. Like a flower in a nuclear waste site. A impossibility in the middle of the impossible, and in stark contrast to it.
And even more strange was the light, pulsing cyan and ochre, that called at her, from inside the hole, to put her hand inside of it.
– “Don’t touch it.”
She whirled to face Jacob, his little eyes jumping to and fro, the shovel he gripped with the intensity of a boa gleaming with the light of the blood sun. “You scared me,” she said.
– “We should bury it,” he said, ignoring her. “It is probably the devil that trapped us here showing itself in some other form.”
Regina stood up and moved away from the hole. Jacob took a few steps towards her, and his mouth opened in a toothy canine growl. Or maybe it was a smile; it was getting harder to separate one from the other.
– “You probably work for him, dontcha?! That clown in the dark clothes, you are his bitch!” He advanced a little towards her. His fingers choked the handle of the shovel.
– “What are you talking about?” she reasoned. His red mad eyes ignored her plea and the muscles of his arms pulsated in expectation of sudden action.
The hole pulsated once more, this time a sickening green, and then died, all light gone. Jacob, mesmerized by the sudden annihilation of the hole, froze.
Regina took the opportunity and ran past him. She moved as she could on the wobbly ground, trying to find somewhere to hide. The temperature kept rising, and the buildings around her danced to the steaming heat.
And then, she saw the bate-bola, running towards her.
Regina has been trapped for a whole day now. She was permanently sweaty and her blood morassed in slow, tempting gurgles through her crackling veins. It was hard to walk, hard to breath. Yet, Regina ran.
Jacob followed the bate-bola, running after her. Both their voices mixed together in their fury. Regina fled down 51st street. St. Vincent’s was there, and so was Theresa. Somehow she knew it. When she found Theresa, everything would be alright.
She rammed the door of the hospital. Jacob had caught up with the bate-bola a while ago, and they started their scuffle again, leaving Regina enough time to lose both of them.
The hospital smelled of rotten flesh, even though no bodies could be seen. Regina ran up the stairs, flying from one story of the building to another like a cat.
Reaching the 7th floor, she opened the door and ran down the corridor. Nothing mattered anymore. Jacob and his insanity, the creature, the madness, the exhaustion of her body. Hope fueled her legs to keep moving. Theresa was going to be there, she would make everything alright. Theresa would wake her up from this nightmare.
She kicked the door open, one last explosion of stamina and adrenaline giving her access to the room where Theresa’s bed was.
-“What exactly did you expect to find here, Regina?” Jacob’s grave voice asked her.
She swirled around. Jacob was standing there at the door, the bate-bola right behind him. Jacob wore a strange necklace, made of little red, white and black seeds. Noticing her panic look, he smiled/growled once more.
– “He was… misguided, the poor creature. He could not recognize me for what I am.” He stroked the monster’s head. “It is not his fault really, I was confused myself. It has been so long.”
Regina turned around and went deeper into the room. She saw the bed where Theresa was supposed to be, half-eaten by rust and mold. There was no sign of Theresa.
– “You thought she could save you?” Jacob teased. “She couldn’t even save herself. Admit it, Regina, you are done, you are history. They are all dead, they are gone, all of them. There is no one that cares about you any more.”
She was supposed to be here, goddamit! She was supposed to wake me up. Where is she? Where is she?
– “Despair. It tastes sweet, you know. I remember now, when the first colonizers came to my land, with their pale bodies and fire-sticks. I felt… hum, dare I say it… delighted with their arrival. I could predict the chaos they would bring, that they would burn the land’s heart and soul. I couldn’t predict its side effects though.”
– “What are you talking about? Who do you think you are?
– “I don’t think I am anyone, dear Regina. I am Anhanguera, the vengeful spirit of the jungle. I am the essence of despair and disillusion, and I am the eternal chaos. I am death, I am life and I am the stars. There is nothing beyond me, for I am everything.” He smiled, this time a genuine smile. “Ok, maybe a little exaggeration, for drama’s sake. But two things are certain. I am Anhanguera, and I am your death.”
– “Why me?”
– “Freak accident, I suppose. Like I said, there was a side effect to the brazing of the land. Those that believed in me started dying, and I started dying. I saw the Jaguar start walking on all fours and become a stupid, useless beast. Nhanderú simply disappeared one day, and as grateful as I was that arrogant bastard was gone, I knew I was next.” He sat down by the bed, and the bate-bola moved next to him. “I trapped my spirit in these beads.” He pointed to the necklace. “Every now and then a dumb human finds them, and I have my fun with him. This shell, however,” he looks at his body with disgust. “this human was a very stubborn one, and it took me sometime to find a weakness in him. But then, you showed up.”
– “Me? What did I do?”
– “Nothing my dear, but to trigger some… instincts in this fool. I used that against him. Death by the mouth… or in his case, the groin.”
The hole! Regina knew now, the hole was the real Jacob, trying to give her a way out. She needed…
– “I am going to have my fun with you. Not just kill you, but take my time. Scare you a little bit, beat you up a little bit. Spend some quality time, you know.” Jacob/Anhanguera rambled on. “ I think…”
Regina always thought that movie villains concentrated too much on their ramblings about death and destruction. While Jacob started elaborating on his, Regina took advantage of his distraction and dashed through the open door.
She knew what she had to do. She had to get to the hole.