Effluvium Trilogy: Part I, gentrification plays a hand in a young woman's loss of reality.
Heavy steam on the windows meant it was time to go. The temperature outside was dipping, and the lake outside had sheets of ice shattering into the shore. Even though I was in my classic flannel and beanie, my friends were all in the skin tight kind of dresses that score free drinks and less than sensible footwear.
I’ve been sober for a while, so it always falls on me to wrangle the pack of drunken twenty-somethings back home. Some Friday nights were easy, all it took was a, “Hey! Let’s go get pizza!” and they’d be ready in the blink of an eye. Some nights were like tonight. All three had managed to find their favorite flavor of frat boy to purchase them drinks and tell them stories about investments and app development. I desperately locked eyes with the bartender who’d picked this shift up for me. He got the message, “Alright folks, time to close up those tabs!”
With a sigh of relief, I mouthed, “thank you”, to my coworker and grabbed my belongings. I began to corral, the now six, staggering individuals I’d have to help walk back to campus. All I could think of was being snuggled up in my warm blankets. I was so close, three blocks, two floors, and I could jam them into their dorm rooms before escaping to mine. Then the dreaded phrase dropped. Just as we began to walk out the door, the rowdiest fluffy haired Letterman jacket adorned boy shouted, “Yeah! Let’s take this party somewhere else!”.
I spun around and looked again at my coworker with wide eyes. He laughed and shrugged before waving goodbye. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to try and gather up some extra patience before running to catch up with my herd of cats.
One of my friends suggested we go further downtown and find a club. I panicked and spat out, “Uh. No, I’ve got a better idea, let’s go on an adventure! Follow me!”
“Yeah! How fun! Let’s go!”, squealed Sierra, my most impressionable friend.
I didn’t think that far ahead. Fuck. Now what. They’re not drunk enough to be amazed by the straight shot back to campus. My mind raced. Get them somewhere with no booze, but different enough to count as an adventure. Just a slight detour and then bedtime. I quickly scanned the streets for something that would count as an adventure. “Have any of you checked out old town after dark? Le-Let’s take a left at the light!”
There weren’t any signs saying we couldn’t explore the soon-to-be East Lakeshore. What trouble could there be? Granted, fences guarded the majority of the gentrification; but we could still meander down the road and sidewalk. Our feet disappeared into the heavy fog from the lake’s surface as we entered the intersection. Thankfully, they were all just drunk enough to follow me as I marched along the sidewalk trying to find an open business or a run down board-walk.
The air began to get harder to take in, visibility decreased. Worried, I glanced back at the group and they all seemed fine. I whispered to myself, “It must just be a little anxiety. We’re fine.” I shook my head, adjusted my beanie, and kept marching forward.
Thirty seconds later I was dizzy. I spun around again in search of the crew, but no one was in sight. I couldn’t see anything. As panic hit, I heard a familiar squeal and a handful of giggles behind me again. A simple pivot and single step forward and the fog completely subsided. I glanced back expecting a thick white cloud, but there was no evidence of its existence. Was I imagining things? In place of a what I’d thought would be a massive wall of gas was a perfectly alluring scene. The glisten of light rain made the intersection we’d crossed glow. The streets lit up with dancing reflections of bars and pedestrians. I closed my eyes, shook my head, and turned around again. I tugged at my beanie and muttered to myself, “Construction effluvium? I guess it’d explain the dizziness and cloud hallucination.” I began to walk towards the huddle of body-con dresses and Letterman jackets.
A collective, “Angie, let’s keep going!”, jolted me back to reality. I sprinted so I wouldn’t lose them again.
One of the boys chimed in, “Yeah dude, that fog was weird. How’d you know it was there? Let’s find some more weird shit!”.
I gulped. Okay, so, I didn’t make up the fog, “Uhmmm... Let’s keep walking and I’ll tell us where to turn.”
Scared we’d spent too much time in what could have been noxious fumes, I figured forward was the only option. Just as it was during the day, the block was full of crumbling buildings barricaded by tall chain-link fences and yellow tape. I just wanted to go home. Hoping the detour through the fog was enough of a distraction I suggested we turn right at the end of the street.
A disappointed whine and, “Heyyyyy. Are you just taking us home?”, came out of my best friend. I loved her to pieces. Normally, she was kind and absolutely brilliant; full ride scholarship, three majors, and a 4.0 GPA kind of brilliant. However, cheap vodka and off-brand energy drinks were her kryptonite. She’d go from dangerous genius to ogling men content with their fourth grade reading levels in four drinks flat. I tried my hardest to remember that somewhere inside her was the girl that listens to me cry about getting ghosted by whatever newest flavor of hipster I told myself was different.
“No, no, Rachel, don’t worry!”, I quickly responded. Damn it, nine drinks and she still could catch on to what I was trying to do. “We’re… uh-”, I scanned the street as we turned the corner. A blue oblong neon sign between condemned buildings lit up what seemed to be a little shop. “We’re going to do something fun and new! Let’s get tarot card readings! This little speak-easy style shop in a basement has to be legit.”
The three of my friends squealed with delight, and the three jocks that had tagged along shrugged in agreement. I let loose a sigh of relief, this had to be the last distraction I’d have to make to get us home. My blankets were still calling to me, I couldn’t wait to be done with the night. We walked down the stairs into the shop. A velvet navy cloth was draped over most of the walls and little mirrors cut into stars hanging from the ceiling. As the drunken group of college kids browsed around the decorations, I made my attempt to find an employee. I wanted to pay and apologize for any of their possible misbehavior in advance. At the back of the shop I found what I assumed to be the check-out counter and main display case. It was filled with polished stones and extremely large brown striped feathers. A little bell and handwritten note caught my eye. The note read, “ring me” in the worst chicken scratch I’d ever seen. I hesitated, staring at my hand hovering over the little button on top of the bell. I began to withdraw my hand. I whispered to what I thought was myself, “I don’t know... Maybe we should go back and do something else. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Hell no! I’m not ready for this night to end!” A large hand knocked mine out of the way and hit the bell. Apparently, they’d been standing behind me while our other two friends had their hands all over their prizes from the bar. I turned my head and glared at Rachel, she grimaced apologetically.
A bald man with lightning blue skin, no eyebrows, and sharp, mangled, yellow teeth answered within a few minutes. I stumbled through my introduction and apology, trying not to judge his appearance, he was silent and simply nodded and gestured for us to follow him through the hallway behind the counter. The seven of us glanced at each other and shrugged, there were 7 of us, what could happen? We scooted past the display case and into the hallway. It was poorly lit, but overall not horribly ominous. Then we hit another set of stairs, the walls were much closer together and the flickering yellow fluorescent light was barely enough for us to safely get to the bottom and into the next hall with equally narrow walkways. This hallway made me want to turn around. I tried to stop, but immediately was pushed forward by the group. I peeked over my shoulder to see if it was Rachel’s rude boy, but to my surprise there were far more than seven people following the bald blue man. My heart began to race. Where did all these come from? The light faded from the flickering yellow to a dim red as the hall slowly began to incline further down. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe we’d been hit by a car while trying to get home and we were being led into some kind of underworld.
A door swung open, letting the most blinding white light flooded the hall, stopping the procession of twenty or so people. I blinked a few times to readjust, and the blue man gestured for me to walk in. It was a small enclosed amphitheater with grimy yellowed walls. All of the workers were blue skinned, and everyone getting ushered into the concrete tiers was extremely confused. We all seemed to be equally concerned. A collective feeling of, “What the Fuck?”, lingered as we took our seats and waited for the show to begin. The main stage below was painted black and surrounded by a white net with openings near the two isles on either side of me.
The silence was broken by a metallic clang, followed by a mechanical whir shook the ground. A hole in the stage opened, and a burlap sack began to come up through the hole. Heavy footsteps cut through the whir. In each of the two isles on either side of my group and myself a single blue man descended. These two were three times the size of the one that had let us in. They had mostly bald heads with the exception of perfectly shaven squares at the tops of their heads where long pony-tails protruded. These two were also far more muscular and had thick angry eyebrows, red goatees, and tattered fur loincloths that didn’t leave much to the imagination. The same metallic clang drew our eyes back to the stage as what could only have been demons descended silently down their respective isles. The small burlap appeared to be covering the head of what appeared to be a delicate woman in a small wooden chair. She held extremely still and was adorned with a disheveled tulle dress. I’d imagine once upon a time it was absolutely gorgeous, but much like the walls the sparkling purple fabric was faded and lifeless. The burlap sack was removed by the first blue man that greeted us. The woman’s auburn hair was pulled back into a pony-tail, but her head fell forward before I could catch a good look at her face.
The two large blue demons walked across the stage and met in the middle where the woman was sitting. They looked at the crowd, expectantly, but the room was dead silent. They looked at each other, and nodded, woman still limp in her chair. The demon to the right pulled the woman’s head up by her hair revealing closed eyes, a tear-stained face, and trembling lips. The other looked at her and snapped his fingers. She opened her eyes as she was completely removed from her chair, suspended by her ponytail.
I frantically looked around, meeting a handful of others’ with the same reaction. The remainder of the audience was paralyzed with fear and had eyes glued to her. Those of us who’s heads were actively spinning around were prompted to look back to the stage. A handful more of the smaller blue demons were now disbursed through the theater. All at once, they raised their right hands to point at the stage. I turned back to face the woman and her captors. A shiver ran down my spine as she looked directly into my eyes. I tilted my head, ever so slightly, both confused and sure of what was going to happen next.
The demon on the left reached out and was was handed his victim. He grabbed her by her chin and balanced her awkwardly on his palm, forcing the remainder of his hand into her mouth. She shut her eyes tight as if to free her soul while he used his other hand to grip the top of her jaw. I shut my eyes, just barely in time, enduring only bone chilling sound of flesh ripping. The room was still silent, not a single gasp was let loose, but the terror flowing through the room was palpable. I cringed, I knew I had to open my eyes to be able to escape. The stage was now drenched in blood, and the majority of the petite woman’s body lay twitching on the ground. I suppressed the need to scream and looked at the two demons. The left had the upper half of the woman’s head and jaw in one hand by her pony tail, and the other hand up in the air signifying some kind of victory. The other held his arms, awkwardly, expecting applause.
The room broke its silence and was filled with unsure murmurs questioning the reality of what we’d just witnessed. I realized now was the time to escape. I began a slow clap and kicked the now totally sober girls on either side of me to get their attention and loudly whisper “Fucking clap so we can get the fuck out of here!”. As they began to also clap, I pulled them up and started a standing ovation of pure trepidation and started to push and pull the seven of us towards the only visible exit. Everyone else seemed to understand my plan and formed an orderly line. We clapped for the beasts while they bowed. Every single blue demon was glowing with pride of what they’d accomplished.
Just in case any of my six sheep were still a tad intoxicated, I stood by the door and counted as we made our eerily calm escape. The exit was the original speakeasy entrance to the shop, but we did not take a single second to question it. As soon as the last Letterman jacket went through the door, I slipped out as well. The condemned buildings were gone, and I could see the bar we’d come from right across the street. Again, I couldn’t question it. We walked straight for the familiar building, and I peeked over my shoulder to make sure no one with the capability of tearing a human body apart with their bare hands was following us.
Thankfully there wasn’t any sign of what had happened besides our own pale faces and a thick wall of fog covering half of the intersection leading towards old town. Finally reaching the awning of my place of work, and the starting point of our journey, I took my first breath in what felt like hours. I peeked in the windows, and saw my coworker finishing up the rest of his side work. I knocked on the window to grab his attention. He walked to the door to unlock it for us. “Whoa, rough night, huh?”
“You have no idea,” I replied with my voice shaking slightly.
He glanced at the group, then looked back at me, “Need me to call these chuckle-heads a few cabs?”
His familiar, jaded, restaurant worker reply loosened up some of the tension I was still holding in. The rest came out with an uncomfortable laugh and response, “Uh- actually yeah. No one is drunk anymore, but I think they’re done walking. And if you could give me a ride back, I’d super appreciate it.”
It wasn’t long before two taxis destined for three blocks down the road arrived. I loaded the three temporary couples into them and asked each girl to text me that they made it back safely. After waving the cabs off, I walked back in the bar to help my secret boyfriend close shop.
Alexander asked, “What the hell happened to you? It looks like all of you saw some sort of ghost or something.”
“Uhm, I’m honestly still processing it. Thanks for covering my shift though, Zan. Maybe I’ll tell you later, but right now I’m sort of still in shock-” I froze for half a second, and then continued, “but I basically did see a ghost.”
He grabbed his jacket and walked back around the bar to hug me, “Alright, traumatic night. Heard that. Let’s go.” He squeezed me just a tad tighter and kissed my forehead. Then he pulled away and joked, “Soooo, on that note, when are you going to tell Rachel about us?”
I laughed and looked up at him as I grabbed his hand and walked towards the door. Winking, I responded, “Oh- hmm. I’m still processing that too. Maybe later.”
While Alexander turned back around to lock the bar back up for the night, I looked out on the lake. It was now clear and calm, beginning to form a solid sheet of ice. I slowly took in the frozen air and closed my eyes. Even though I was safe, and wouldn’t have to spend the night alone after everything, I wanted nothing more than to believe that I’d kept my shift. My life was slowly filling with uncomfortable secrets. I needed it to stop. One more freak event and my entire reality was bound to unravel.