Delirium

by Robert Drake

No one sleeps in the city of Delirium. No one sleeps and no one dreams. No one dreams in the city of Delirium.

It was morning but only barely. Dark azure skies reflected the first hints of daylight. The air was silent and tense.

Arkus Carlech rubbed the arthritis from his hands. He wore a dozen coats, all black or gray. Beneath them, he may have been a small man. As it was, no one could tell.

As he walked, Arkus looked about town. A few scattered stores served huddled patrons within. Others were cold and austere like what remained of the night. Distantly, a raven preened itself. Arkus ignored the creature, his mind on other matters.

Gregor’s Mart was a dainty kitchenette established in the catacombs of a small apartment. A few yards of flaking wallpaper remained, lone remnants beside freezers, aisles of foodstuffs, and news-racks. Mold and its stench carried their eternal lease.

“Good morning, my friend.” The voice was as cheerful as fatigue would allow.

Arkus nodded without a word. He walked to the rear of the store, poured himself a cup of coffee, grabbed a newspaper, and returned to the cashier’s crumbling desk. He placed a bill and three coins on the counter. The storekeeper slid the money into his register without counting.

“Same time, same cup of coffee, same newspaper.”

Arkus nodded, again in silence.

“Tell me, did you…last night?” The shopkeeper was a middle-aged man with a deep, sociable voice submerged in solitude.

Arkus spoke quickly and with shame. “No. Not for weeks.”

“You still keep your routine. I thought maybe…”

“I have not. No one has.”

“Why do you still…?”

Arkus shrugged. “I will until I don’t.”

The shopkeeper nodded meekly. “Well, it’s good to see you, my friend. There are not many that come here anymore. It has been hard.”

“You still keep your aisles stocked. That’s one better than the grocer.”

The shopkeeper eased visibly. “My supplier still delivers. Most don’t. I can’t blame them. No one wants anything. I don’t want anything. Maybe it’s different outside of the city. Anyway, take something if you want it.”

“Just tell me if you stop receiving coffee.”

“I will, my friend. Or if the printers stop.”

Arkus bowed and turned to leave.

“You don’t have to go, of course.”

“I have a newspaper to read.” Arkus sipped his coffee.

“Perhaps we could have lunch?” The shopkeeper pleaded behind courtesy.

Arkus seemed to collapse under the weight of his coats. Finally he nodded. “I’ll come by.”

Gregor grinned like a small child. “Sure! Great! I’ll make something.”

Arkus acknowledged as necessary and closed the shop door behind him.

Arkus stopped beside a lonely bench near an out-of-service bus stop. Across the street a snowy city park sat undisturbed. Its trees, bare and skeletal, wore white scarves along their empty boughs. A few pieces of artillery, ancient bronze cannons memorializing some forgotten history, sat regally on stone pedestals.

With a spare hand, Arkus wiped snow off the bench and sat down. He sipped his coffee briefly then lodged it in the snow. With his throat unthawed, he unfolded his paper.

Reluctantly, Arkus turned the page. Classifieds then obituaries by the dozen. Arkus frowned and turned to the very back. The local teams had all tied. The crossword puzzle was at the bottom of the page, but there were no clues. The funnies had been forgotten altogether.

Just then, a cold breeze struck Arkus in the chin. He turned away from the blow and caught, at the farthest edge of comprehension, the sounds of a violin. The instrument was muffled and only came through when the wind allowed passage, but there was a tune. Arkus strained to catch it but could not recognize the song.

A violin player? At this hour? A visitor perhaps.

Arkus threw the newspaper into a nearby receptacle and followed the music still drifting beyond his thoughts. His steps carried him along the perimeter of the park.

Louder and faster. A glimmer of ashen light broke through the pallid clouds as Arkus scurried after the music. His walk grew into an enthused gait. The tune became clearer but remained indecipherable and hieroglyphic. Arkus turned into the park. He stepped through the snow and felt icy daggers along his ankles.

Where is it? Where is it!

The violin became furious and enraged. Arkus clenched his fist in agitation. He ran feverishly across the park, passing benches and cannons. As the noise reached a painful crescendo he collapsed to his knees. Arkus dropped his head to the ground and icy dew dripped along the back of his neck. The music groaned and shrieked and snarled, ever wailing, crying out louder and louder and louder, then it was beyond him.

Finally, it ended. Arkus was still prone. His body heaved with labored breaths, the only sound against perfect silence.

These dreams, these damn mirage dreams.

Arkus felt dizzy and nauseous. Slowly he pulled himself up. A waterfall of ice and frost fell from his coats and clotted on the ground. Embarrassed, Arkus looked around. No one and nothing, not even a raven. Arkus shrugged and returned to the street. Again, he went about his walk.

With the formal introduction of morning, lumbering bodies oozed out of doorways and onto the sidewalks. They fell onto benches, collapsed against street lights, and crawled along the pavement.

Arkus drifted along in a haze. The morning glow antagonized his mind and sent him scurrying for more peaceful comforts. A dull throbbing engulfed the back of his head.

You need rest, old man.

Arkus looked around plaintively.

Where can I go? Home is too far…

Desiring relief, Arkus filed down the street like a hobbling zombie. He sought an apartment in one of the many narrow alleyways that marked the granite and sanctified city. Finding it, he entered. Despite bits of recent trash, the alleyway had a feel of timeless abandon. The fire escapes were rusted and crumbling. Windows were broken and the higher stories showed signs of complete desolation.

Arkus approached a doorway. He grabbed for the iron handle, but his hand aborted the movement. Dull, distant, piano jazz vibrated through the wood. Arkus smiled.

She still plays.

Arkus finally swung the door open. It creaked and the music ended abruptly. Arkus peeked within. He saw a hallway. On either side, where there should have been doors to various apartments, there were instead, open corridors.

From one, a woman appeared. She held a metal rod in her hand. Her face was militant.

Arkus held up his hands in surrender. “Sarah.”

“Ark! Why have you come…and not come sooner!” The woman’s voice was youthful and energetic. She lowered her weapon and grinned mischievously. “I would have bruised you up real good.”

Arkus stepped through the threshold sheepishly. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

“Oh hush. It’s as good as anything. It’s not like anyone else lives here. I finally got the piano moved into the living room. Come on, and close the door. It gets chilly.”

Arkus followed Sarah into the maze. Spiders wove looms along the ceiling and near ventilator shafts. Each of the separate apartments was conjoined by open doorways and broken walls. Sarah passed across a gutted kitchen, through a shattered closet, down a half-level staircase, and into a living room.

The space was dominated by a grand piano. Besides that, a few bookshelves, mostly filled, took up places of honor along the perimeter. A small love seat sat near a pair of windows covered by tattered blinds. Morning light shone through and created a striped pattern on the brown upholstery. There was also a dainty looking coffee table, a few nearby chairs, and assorted bits of pottery placed on the mantle of a large and roaring fireplace.

Arkus whistled. “You’ve made yourself quite at home.”

“It’s not bad. The bedroom is upstairs. These are pretty much the only rooms I use. If I can get a hold of an organ somewhere I’ll put it in the three-bedroom next door.”

Arkus looked over his friend. Sarah was young in a way, but her face was tired and she had a couple decades beneath her. At the end of her slender and pale arms were long, adroit fingers. Her figure, though shapely and well-proportioned, showed the barest signs of inactivity. Even so, she was attractive.

Arkus frowned. “How did you do all of this?”

Sarah crooned impishly, “I ask and people give.”

“They shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.”

Sarah winked. “You broke your routine to be here. You must have something more than this on your mind?”

“I just thought I’d see how things are going.”

Sarah brought her hands to her bosom. “You lie poorly, my friend. Do you still have headaches? Wait here, I will be right back. Let me get us some drinks. You’ll love this. I promise.” Sarah left through the broken wall. She returned a moment later carrying two long crystal classes and a bottle.

“Was the good lady carded buying this?”

Sarah snickered. “Hush and drink it.”

Arkus watched Sarah pop the cork and pour a ruby liquid into the glasses. She handed Arkus his and they toasted. Arkus let the wine swirl in his mouth. It was old and subtle. With disappointment, he finally swallowed.

“Well, what do you think?”

“It is very good. I haven’t had wine like this in ages.”

“I know, right? I’m definitely going to get some more. And cigars. And chocolate. I might get some jewelry. I need clothes too. Do you think I could get a car?”

Arkus laughed. “I could not say. I am glad to see you are doing well.”

“And you? The headaches?”

“On occasion. They are not so bad…”

Sarah grimaced. “You must not worry so much. We are blessed you and I. We are smart and awake and live very well. You are more awake than all of us.”

Arkus tried to smile. “I am tired.”

“Oh pish. You just need to break your damn routine. You should stay here. Your own place is too cramped and too far. Come, it will be fun.”

“I don’t know. I’m glad your move went well. I just…there are things I miss.” Arkus’ voice was shaky and hesitant. He placed his glass of wine down on the coffee table.

“You must not be so stressed.”

“I have not slept in such a long time. I need rest. Why can’t we? Have you?”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Not a wink, but why would I want to? Sleep is like death.”

“It helped me appreciate life.”

“Do not talk like that. You are just stressed. You and I, we will get you some things. You would look very dapper with a new suit. I will get you one tomorrow. They won’t mind.”

“No one minds. No one cares.”

“And everyone is extremely generous.” Sarah grinned coquettishly.

Beside her, the room dimmed slowly. A cloud passed over the sun and the windows grew mellow. Arkus looked down at the carpet. It looked ragged and fragile. “Will you play for me?” He barely spoke over the sun.

“Is that why you came here?” Sarah’s voice was welcoming.

“I think so.”

Sarah leaned over the table and kissed Arkus on the cheek. “Alright. I will play for you then. Have some more wine. I will get my music.”

“You are too good to me.”

“Just sit. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Valse Triste. It was slow and moving like a hand through water. Arkus closed his eyes. Sarah ceased to exist. It was almost like sleep.

Soon Arkus was in a forest grove. He climbed over damp logs and watched a circus of squirrels jump between trees.

There is happiness still.

Arkus began to dance. He jumped onto tall rocks and started to climb. His legs struggled and heaved. He carried himself up a mountain. A passion drove him. Then he reached the top. The view was endless.

Suddenly the music stopped. Arkus remained frozen. His breathing was slow and sickly. The mountain faded into the gloom of a moldy and ramshackle living room.

“Would you like me to play something else?”

Arkus began to shake. Sarah rose from the piano. Arkus burst to his feet. His face was in the midst of a snarl.

“Are you alright? Did you like it?”

He responded with a low growl. The horrific bark rose to a crescendo. Arkus fell to his knees and brought his hands to his ears. He knelt in a ball, whimpering.

“Let me take you upstairs. You can rest.” Sarah put her arm around his shoulders.

Arkus threw her off. “No. No! Why did it fade? I want to see it again. I want to see and hear and…”

“I could play it again?” Sarah returned to his side with a gentle caress of her hand.

“No, Sarah. I am sorry. I need to go. It was very beautiful. You are a very beautiful.” Arkus’ voice was rapid and abrupt.

“What’s wrong? I’m sorry. What did I do?”

Arkus scurried to the doorway and stopped. “You didn’t do anything, Sarah. It was perfect. I loved it and you.”

“Then why are you leaving?”

Arkus met Sarah’s lonely stare. A crystalline tear formed in the corner of her eyes and fell onto the dusty coffee table leaving a streak.

“Good bye, Sarah.”

“But, I’m all alone here. Please.” Her voice drifted just above the cold wind coming in through the doorway.

“You will find the things you are looking for. I truly think that you will.” Arkus shuffled out the corridor and turned down the alley. The swinging door barely muffled the tears within.

Arkus propelled himself along the street, his coats swaying with each determined step.

Hold together, Arkus. Get yourself home. But Gregor?

Arkus bit at his lip, unable to follow his own thoughts.

Where am I going? Why did I leave Sarah? What am I doing here?

Unable to figure himself out, Arkus looked around. The sun was rising. Light glistened off the ice that still encased the better part of the crumbling city. Nothing had changed. The city was the same as it had always been, or at least since it had been like this.

There across the way, was a Gregor’s Mart. The sign post returned a thread of sanity to Arkus’ fever. For a time, he stood quietly like an ice sculptor in early spring. It was Gregor’s hearty bellow that finally woke Arkus from his waking somnambulism.

“Arkus! You came!”

Arkus waved across the wasteland of pavement that separated them. He called back with a husky, crackling voice, “Hello, Gregor.”

The shopkeeper continued to wave Arkus over. Dizzy and weak, Arkus crossed the street and met his friend outside.

“You look awful. Come inside. We’ll have lunch in my apartment.”

Gregor’s apartment was cluttered – Dishes unwashed, newspapers stacked in bundles, plants wilting on window sills. Arkus smiled weakly. “I’ve never been up here.”

Gregor motioned for Arkus to take a seat. “I used to have a hard time with the rent, but the landlady never bothers me anymore.”

Arkus nodded lazily. He rubbed his hands and stared at the carpet.

“Have you heard any news? The paper was pretty shoddy today, eh?” Gregor was as happy as fatigue would allow.

“I don’t know anything.” Arkus spoke from rote memorization.

“Pretty strange though, isn’t it. Like the moon just dropped outta the sky.”

Arkus did not answer. He was saved from silence by the microwave beeping. Gregor went in search of it, returning a moment later with sandwiches on a plate.

“Take one.”

Arkus complied. He bit into the soft bread.

Gregor remained standing. He walked over to his fireplace mantle and turned on a radio. A crackling melody came in over electronic hiss. “I sure wish I knew what was going on. It didn’t seem so bad at first, but now I don’t know. I’ve tried a few times, resting and stuff. It never works. I don’t understand it and I feel…”

Arkus swallowed and answered. “Hollow.”

“Hollow?”

Arkus nodded towards the radio. His eyes were empty. “I can’t hear anymore.”

Gregor frowned with obvious confusion. He looked to the radio. “They just have records on repeat these days. There’s not much to listen to.”

For a time, Arkus sat and ate. Gregor stood in silence, sometimes eating or looking to the radio for answers. Very little came through the static. Nothing was said anyway.

Finally, Arkus stood. “The sandwich was very good.”

“We could play cards?”

Arkus shook his head. “I need to go.”

“Already? But you just got here? What about tomorrow?”

Arkus met Gregor’s depressed stare. “I’m sorry, friend. I feel the same void. I just wish I could hear the music I used to.”

“What do you mean?”

Arkus shook his head. “You’re a good man. Hold steady and maybe things will get better. Anyway, I’ve got something for you to do.”

George swallowed visibly.

Arkus pulled a pen out from under his coats and scribbled a few lines on a newspaper lying on the floor. He ripped the page and pushed it into Gregor’s hand.

“What’s this?”

“It’s an address. Take some flowers there also some wine. I think you’ll get along. She’s very beautiful.”

“What? Who…?”

Arkus choked. “Tell the woman there that she’ll be in my dreams. And keep an eye on her.”

Gregor nodded. “Of course, but what’s going on? Why are you leaving?”

“I want to hear again. I want to hear and see and be, again.”

“I don’t…”

Arkus put his hands over Gregor’s fingers and closed them around the slip of newspaper. He forced the shopkeeper’s eyes upward. “You have been a good friend. Regret nothing, but don’t forget to bring her wine.”

The shopkeeper smiled awkwardly. Arkus bowed and trampled down the stairway. Again he closed the shop door behind him. Upstairs, Gregor sobbed audibly.

Arkus entered his aged brownstone apartment and looked around. Stacks of books teetered dangerously over a dusty floor. Pictures on the walls were disjointed. Ruined furniture sat about in disrepair.

There are things I will miss.

Arkus went directly to the kitchen at the rear of the meager flat. The answering machine was flashing. Arkus ignored it. Instead, he turned on the stove. There was a hiss as the gas erupted from the tubes beneath the burners. Arkus breathed deeply and left the stove unlit. He walked to his bedroom.

The bed was small and even smaller beside overflowing bookshelves and scattered manuscripts. Calmly, deliberately Arkus pushed the papers aside. He made a spot for himself and laid down, coats and all. For a time, he thought about the pillows. Then he closed his eyes and waited.

At first there was nothing. Then water pooled around his hand. Trees and stones came next. A few moments more and Arkus was back atop the mountain. Soon everything was as it had always been. Sleep had come at last.

The End