Once in a Strange Place

I have a minor writers block lately. I get that way some times – especially when RL is kicking my ass. I’m not in the mood to crack jokes, I don’t feel like reviewing anything, and I can’t make myself to blog about work because… Well, because it’s work, and I don’t want to be reminded about it on my free time. It’s not like I don’t have anything to write about… I have about 46 draft articles in my WordPress installation – most of which are stubs that need to be expanded. Couple of them are fully fleshed out articles that I decided not to post here for various reasons. Below you can find one of such oddball oddities that I wrote once upon a time, but I felt it didn’t belong here for one reason or another.

It is a short work of fiction that is a little very rough around the edges. There are probably copious spelling and grammar errors in it and it probably could use 2 or 3 more proofreading passes before being released. But I’m posting it now cause it’s either this or nothing. As usual, feedback is appreciated. Would you like to see more stuff like that here?

Please note that the whole thing is a bit longer than my usual output. I usually dish out around 1k words per post. This story is close to over 5k words, so I’m putting it behind the jump to avoid having a wall of text on the front page.

* * *

You know how you sometimes have this momentary lapse of consciousness? You drift away and fall asleep just for a split second and then you come back with a sudden jolt? You shake off the fuzzy, warm feeling and you are hit by the realization that you actually dozed off for a while. To you it seems as if you barely closed your eyes. Then your buddy tells you you slept through the whole lecture (or the whole movie).

Well, I just had one of these. I was sitting here, looking out the window and basking in the warm glow of the sun and staring at the clear, blue sky above. I distinctly remember that when boarded this train around lunch time. The sun was high in the sky and no clouds in sight. Now the sun is slowly sinking below the horizon and making the puffy clouds above look like dark oil streaks lit up by an eerie orange glow. I definitely slept through my station. Normally this would not be a problem, but I hardly know this region.

Outside the windows I see a forest of these dirty, tall apartment complexes. They are made out of gray brick, and have funky little columns of balconies that have their railing panels painted orange. It really looks like an soviet era architecture and planning – sparse clusters set in a suburban landscape, punctuated by grassy knolls and narrow access roads. Each building has a little courtyard, some swing sets, a slide and a sandbox outside. It looks a little bit like home – but it is much more dirty, run down and gritty. Think Half Life 2 backdrops – those high rise apartments you see in the background as you run around city 17. Yeah, that’s how this area looks.

It dawns on me that I really have no clue where I am. I don’t even know where this train is heading. I never went past my station, and never bothered too look up the final destination. My trip is a short one. I get in, and get out after 4 stops. There are no turnoffs along the way which means I can take any train I want. Every single one will take me to my destination. I just hop on the fist one that shows up on the station. It doesn’t matter whether it is an express train or not – all of them stop at my station. This poses a problem though – I have no clue which train I boarded, how long I have slept and where it took me.

You see, it’s not one of these fancy trains with LED displays telling you the current station, time of arrival and other useful things. There are no conductors jumping out at each stop and ushering people in and answering questions. It is a rickety old line – more of a tram really. There is a guy who sometimes makes rounds and checks tickets – but I have only seen him twice in my life. You can’t buy tickets from him either. He doesn’t carry them. You can get one at the station, or you can get in and hope you don’t get caught. The odds are in your favor.

There are only two other people on this train. There is an older lady wearing a head scarf few seats ahead of me. She has two of these canvas grocery bags with her. She is cradling one in her lap, the other one is on the floor. Both are stuffed to the brim with random junk she must have bought. Lost in thought, she seems oblivious to my confusion.

There is an old guy standing by the door. Or at least I think he is old. He is skinny, swarthy, and his face is covered with deep creases – its a like a map. Each wrinkle corresponds to a major crisis, a deep problem problem or a hardship. Judging from the look of his face, this guy has been through a lot. He has a razor sharp stubble that is probably harder than steel, and deep sunken eyes. His clothes are old, dusty and made in a style that is no longer fashionable. I try not to look at him. He on the other hand doesn’t even attempt to conceal his interest. He is eying me suspiciously as he is scratching his stubble. He probably thinks I’m drunk or on drugs.

The train makes a stop, so I get up. This is not a train station. The doors open to a large swatch of ugly, beaten up grass. We stopped in the middle of a damp, muddy field. Outside the door I see a wooden post. A rusty staple holds a faded train schedule. Equally rusty, rickety little bench is located below it. Other than that, it’s all grass, mud and puddles for few hundred paces in all directions. In a distance I see one of those high rise apartment buildings. There is no street – the doors just open onto a dirt road.

I see bunch people walking around going about their business. Someone is hanging out their wash to dry on a clothes line. Few kids are playing soccer in the mud. There are 3 old men sitting on the stairs passing around a bottle. Some guy is washing his car using using a hose and a bucket of suds. I don’t think any of these people can help me.

I decide to stay on the train. The wrinkled, stubbly old dude decides to do the opposite. He jumps out and slowly makes his way toward the building. As I look after him I see that the drunken trio on the stairs notices him and they start to wave. The door closes, and we are off. I make my way back to my seat. The bag lady is sitting in the same exact position. She didn’t move an inch.

The train goes over over a little rickety bridge and we leave the grass and mud behind. I see paved streets, concrete buildings and other signs of civilization. We have entered a city but I can’t figure out which one. I look for landmarks, but fail to recognize anything familiar.

We roll into some sort of a large square and I make my way out of the train. The place is beyond impressive. The street is lined with old, buildings covered with antique ornate stonework. I look upwards and admire the elaborate gargoyles, the elegant columns, carvings and decorations. Stone, marble, gilded trims, red roof shingles. You feel as if you went back in time to a simpler era when putting carvings of monsters and dragons on every available flat surface was actually considered cool.

The main street is busy, full of cars and full of gawking tourists. They are taking pictures, walking around, laughing and doing all the usual touristy stuff. There are queues forming outside of some of the local eateries. Street vendors are selling hot dogs and other junk food. It’s about dinner time, but the sun is still up and the square is bustling with activity. I realize that I haven’t eaten in hours. I should probably find some food too, but I’m not going to eat at one of these glitzy tourist traps or touch anything sold out of a filthy street cart. I start walking.

It’s funny, but my body seems to know where I’m going even though my head does not. I am hopelessly lost, in a strange city but for some reason that does not bother me. I pick a direction and start walking. In the back of the head I know I should stay on the square, get some food and try to catch a train back. That would be the logical thing to do. It’s getting late and I don’t fancy the idea of being stuck in the city for the night. If I miss the last train I may need to find some place to sleep. Thankfully I have a credit card with me, so in a worse case scenario I can probably rent out a room in some crappy motel. All this stuff is going through my head, but for some reason I keep walking. It’s as if I was answering some strange call. Some strange force of attraction is propelling me off the square into one of the narrow alleys.

I enter A narrow shaft between two buildings. If I spread my arms I can touch the walls on each side of the sidewalk. There are windows above my head. I see some elderly lady watching me pass by from the second floor. I don’t envy her the view from that window. I definitely wouldn’t want to live there. Having windows that face a brick wall only few feet away is not the type of view I’d want in my apartment.

There are several clothes lines hanging above my head. People are drying their bedsheets, pants and shirts outside. Strange… I haven’t seen people doing this sort of thing in ages. I mean, laundromats are not that expensive. Or maybe, in this town they are. Who knows…

I get out on a bigger street, cross it and jump into another alley. This one is wider and less claustrophobic. I see a young couple walking ahead of me. They are holding hands, and whispering sweet nothings to each other. He is tall, dark haired man wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt. She is a short, blond and curvaceous wearing a short skirt and a vertically stripped blouse. I guess they wanted to get away from the noise of the busy street to talk. They are walking slowly, so I quickly overtake them and leave them behind.

I reach a steep stairway and start descending down at a reckless pace. I’m jumping down two steps at a time, holding on to a rusty, rickety railing. The stairs are too narrow, and each time I leap I’m afraid I will miss my landing by an inch, and tumble the rest of the way down. The railing is rickety, and offers no support. If I lose my balance and try to hold on to it, my momentum will likely rip out the rusty screws that attach it to the wall. It’s clear that most people avoid this stairway. No one seems to be maintaining it, and thus it’s absolutely filthy. Steps are covered with trash, empty bottles and broken glass. It’s an accident waiting to happen. And yet I’m recklessly racing down without any regard for these hidden garbage traps. Why am I doing this? What has possessed me? Now more than before I start to question this strange compulsion. But I do not stop. It wouldn’t make sense now. I’m actually curious to see this thing through. Have I been here before? The place looks oddly familiar, but I’m quite sure I have never seen it before.

It takes me almost 10 minutes to climb all the way down. The young couple I saw stops at the top of the stairs and turns around. They are not going to take this perilous descent. They seem to have much more sense than me. The guy points at me and makes a comment to his companion. They both giggle, then shrug and walk away. I should walk away too, but then I would never find out what lies at the end of this road. How deep does this rabbit hole go? I want to know!

The stairs take me to a murky square with a dried up fountain in the middle. The walls here are evenly coated with old posters, announcements, and fliers. You can barely make out what these papers used to be – they are old, darkened, wrinkled and weathered by the elements and painted over with spray paint. The old paper acts almost like a canvass for impressive amount of street art. You can actually see some sort of progression and artistic evolution. Peeling layers of paper reveal faded, yet still vivid and intricate paint work. Shapes, figures, faces and elaborate lettering, all left here by previous generations. Layered on top of that are much more primitive, more obscene and lazily made artwork. The most recent layer – the latest and greatest work is composed almost entirely out of indecipherable spray tags that spell out acronyms know only to gang members, crude obscenities or stick figure drawings of penises. Art has died in this alley but it’s body is yet to be found.

There are skeletal remains of broken benches around the fountain. The wood that was once part of them was ripped out and used to construct makeshift bonfires. A darkened blotch on the sidewalk marks the spot where the wood was burned. The dust and remains were blown out by the wind years ago.

The fountain itself is in a rather shoddy state. There is no water in it, and it seems that it is a custom here to trow used condoms and needles into it, instead of coins. The stonework is chipped and evenly covered with spray paint – different colored tags forming an intricate pattern that almost looks three dimensional when you squint at it.

There are several roads turning off this square. Without hesitation I pick one, and enter yet another excessively narrow alleyway. I turn left, then right, then left again. It’s a maze of old buildings, dead ends, side roads and little narrow passageways. I realize that I no longer know how to get back to the train station. Even if I wanted to turn around and stop this foolish quest, I would not be able to find my way back without asking for directions. So I keep pressing ahead. It’s not like there is anyone around I could ask for help here anyway. I feel that I’m drawn somewhere important – and when I get there, I will figure out what to do next.

As I’m getting further away away from my little fountain, the streets get dirtier, and the buildings are more run down. Strangely enough the spray tags start to diminish. It seems that I’m exiting the really ghetto area, and entering the really run down, and half abandoned part instead. I see boarded up windows, vacant apartments, holes in the walls that have not been patched in years. Half the buildings have at least one section that exposes naked bricks and wires. The trash lining the sidewalk is old, darkened and moldy. I see rats scurrying around. In a distance I see some drifters huddling around a bonfire. They ignore me completely, lethargically starting at the fire. Soon I’m once again all alone in a labyrinth of crumbling stone.

I squeeze myself between two buildings through a passageway so narrow I have to walk sideways. My back is scraping against the wall and if I take a deep breath my chest an stomach press against the opposite one. I push myself through tripping over empty cans, bottles and other garbage and finally find myself on a cobblestone street wide enough to have 5 or 6 people walk hand by hand. The buildings on each side of it, seem to be in a good condition. All windows have glass in them. All apartments seem to be inhabited. There is no trash on the ground. And yet, there seems to be a thick layer of fine gray powdery dust covering everything. I can feel my boots sliding on the cobblestones. Underneath the dust, they are covered with black, grimy, oily substance. It makes the dust cling to my soles.

The buildings look almost strikingly plain compared to what I saw in the rest of the city. Even the run down, crumbling ruins I passed on my way here had a striking and distinctive architectural feel to them. The same sort of theme that I saw at the main square outside the station – only toned down. The buildings on this street lack any kind of decoration or distinctive style. They are all identical gray slabs of stone. Almost monolithic in their regularity. All of them seem to be almost the same size, and same configuration. Two windows on the ground floor, and a single door. They all seem to be tall enough to have a second floor, but no windows on that level. All roofs are flat making each house look like a blocky tomb. Most of them are set only few inches apart making the narrow hole that I just squeezed through look huge in comparison. The doors and windows look like sunken holes. Lack of any kind of framing or window sills reveals that the walls are probably over 6″ thick, if not more. Why are these houses built like World War II bunkers or ancient tombs? They all have very plain wooden doors – all painted green and covered in the same gray dust and grime. The pain is peeling off in flakes and stripes.

This goes on as far as I can see in both directions – just rows, upon rows of these odd stone houses. The only thing that changes as I walk down this street are the numbers hanging above the doors. The numbers are slowly climbing . When I found this street the numbers were in the 60’s. Now I passed 100 and the street goes on as far as I can see, gently sloping upward.

The place looks like a ghost town – like it was abandoned some time ago, and no one has lived here for a while allowing the thick layer of dirt to accumulate. But surprisingly there are people here. Every once in a while I see a silhouette or a face in a window. Finally as I’m reaching the house number 145 see few of the locals out on the street.

Their clothes are plain – almost strikingly so. No corporate logos, no bright colors, no fashionable brands, no distinctive designs. This does not mean they are all wearing the same. They are not. But they could be – it wouldn’t make a difference. Their attire seems covered with the same gray dust as everything on this street. I guess it goes with the territory. My clothes already started accumulating a thin layer, and try as I might, I cant’ get it off. Trying to dust myself seems to make it worse, allowing the dust to reach my eyes and nose, causing a coughing fit.

I try not to stare at these people, but they are eying me curiously. I guess they are not used to tourists, and are not thrilled wit some strange guy parading down their street. It’s not like I could turn off anyway. I haven’t seen an intersection or an alleyway in a while. It’s like the buildings are forming solid walls on each side. So I keep walking trying to keep my head down.

All of a sudden a man materializes in front of me. He must have been standing in a doorway because I haven’t seen him. I must make a considerable effort not to slam into him. Normally when this sort of thing happens, both people do this funny dance trying to maintain momentum while maneuvering around each other. This guy is just standing there, giving me a weird look. I must bring myself to a complete stop because he won’t even budge an inch.

Because of the shaggy dark mop of hair, and a bushy beard I can’t really see his face or tell his age. There are silver streaks in that mottle of hair, but then again, i have plenty of gray hair myself. I think he is older than me though. His eyes are dark and piercing and nested within a network of wrinkles. His forehead is covered with deep furrows, and I notice that the he has some of that omnipresent gray dust trapped in them. His gaze makes me very uncomfortable. There is just something unsettling about him. I blurt out an apology for almost plowing him over, maneuver myself around him and keep moving.

He is holding a black violin case in his hand. He shifts his weight, and slowly turns around watching me pass. He proceeds to lazily tap the case against his knee as he stares after me. I try to ignore it the best I can. I try to rationalize it, the best I can. I’m the outsider here. He is just being a xenophobic ass. He will see that I’m not causing trouble and he will leave me alone. I’m trying not to look back, it is difficult. Each time I cast a glance backward I see him standing there staring back. Even when I’m not looking I can feel his eyes drilling holes in my back. It’s unnerving, and makes me walk even faster. Soon I leave him behind and I’m able to breathe a little easier.

Then I hear it. I don’t know what is worse – the staring, or the sound of the violin that is following me now. I wonder whether he is playing to freak me out, or if he just does it for fun. The sun goes down, and I find myself walking in a murky darkness. The street lamps did not go on yet for some reason and the air feels heavy and thick. I feel as if I’m swimming in a lukewarm soup.

I begin to see more and more people. They are all leaving their houses now, watching me pass by. Some of them seem to be heading towards the violin player. Others just hobble around on their porches and hum with the melody observing me intently. They can see me well, because the light from their windows illuminates the street just enough. I can’t see them because each glance towards these same windows ruins my night vision. I see moving silhouettes and hear voices. O know I should turn around and try to get back to some less disturbing section of this town. This sense of being unwanted and out of place becomes stronger than my compulsion to keep walking. In fact, that strong feeling I had just few minutes ago is almost gone now. I can no longer recall what the hell possessed me to come here. But I’m not going to turn around. I just can’t. That would mean I’d have to pass the violin guy again, and that’s something I don’t even want to consider. The way he was looking at me frightens me to the core.

Finally, the street lamps are starting to flicker on but they are too dim, and too sparse to actually provide comfortable illumination. They are actually making things worse, elongating shadows, and making them move unpredictably. In this poor lighting the faces of the people all around me take a new, more disturbing daemonic look. Their eyes look like shadowy sunken holes and their teeth look suspiciously white against their gray dusty skin.

You want to know another disturbing little detail? They all seem to be similar age. There are 4-5 people hanging out in front of each building now and they all seem to be in their 50’s or 60’s. Their faces are tired, wrinkled, tired and dusty. There are all rather thin but not ostentatiously so. I don’t see any children, teenagers or young people. I don’t see anyone obese or overly skinny. They all similar height, weight and build. The violin player seemed younger than most of these people, but then again, the mop of hair obscured most of his facial features.

No one is laughing, telling jokes or even smiling. All the eyes are on me now. The people whisper among each other and point at me as I pass. I can’t hear what they are saying – or perhaps I can’t understand the dialect. I try to keep to the center of the cobblestone street – as far away from the shadows and muted conversations but it’s getting harder. With each step the road becomes more crowded. More and more people are exiting these houses. The rustling sound of whispers is almost deafening.

What is even worse, is that the sound of the violin does not fade at all as I’m walking away from it. In fact, I think it is growing louder. Is the violin guy following me? I can no longer see him, but he can’t be where I left him. Or am I imagining this sound. I’m walking as fast as it is humanly possible without actually running. I’m like those retarded “speed walking” people who are to lazy to actually break a sweat by jogging.

With the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of a man wearing a mask standing in the middle of the whispering crowd to my left. It is a white, theatrical porcelain thing that depicts an overly round and completely emotionless face. A solid piece with two eye holes – bleach white, frozen in a grimace of complete ambivalence and neutrality. He is wearing something that looks like a black cassock you would see on a priest. It is buttoned up in the front, and he has a wide red cloth belt wrapped around his waist. He lacks the clerical collar or other vestments, and the freaky mask suggests he is not a clergyman. He is clutching red leather bound book to his chests with both hands but it does not look like a bible. I can’t say why, but this book frightens me more than his mask. There is something about it – something deeply disturbing. This is irrational, I know but I feel a cold shiver running down my spine when as I look at it. The masked man is staring at me with great deal of intensity. I meet his gaze and he instantly breaks away from the group and starts walking towards me.

I bolt! That is just to much for me. I start running as fast as my legs can carry me. Have you ever been running for your life? Have you ever been frightened to the very core of your being? I have never run this fast in my life. I usually can’t do long distance runs – I get tired easily. But my system is flooded by adrenaline now and I’m flying. Running takes virtually no effort, and I feel that I can do this all night if I have to. The masked man is left behind and I’m just running straight ahead. This street must lead somewhere. I just need to reach some connecting road and I’ll be fine.

The crowd around me explodes with sound. The whispers grow louder, and turn into a crescendo of wild animalistic screams. People are yelling things at me in weird dialect I can’t understand. Their accents are off in some way. Their voices sound wrong, the pitch is strange, the emphasis falls on the wrong syllables. Someone reaches out and tries to grab my jacket. I feel I strong tug, but I manage to break away. More and more of them appear on the street ahead of me and I can see they are trying to cut me off. The crowd simply congests right in front of me and suddenly my way is cut off by a wall of people. I have the masked man behind me stone walls on each side, an a crowd of weird frenzied people in front of me. I’m not stopping – I will plow through them. I smash into the human barrier and I try to claw an elbow my way through it. I’m like a wounded animal lashing out, fists falling. It makes no difference – these people shrug off my desperate blows and won’t even budge. Even if I was able to take few down, there is just too many of them. They have stopped me dead in my tracks by simply standing there. No one is grabbing me or hitting me. It’s just a solid mass of human bodies in front of me. It’s hopeless.

I feel an iron grip on my shoulder and I know it is the masked man. I slowly turn around to face him. He is tall. Much taller than me, so he has to bend down to look in my eyes. I think he is smiling behind that mask, but it is hard to tell. I can’t see his eyes – they are completely obscured by. The mask only exposes two black voids where the eyes should normally be.

I’m paralyzed by fear. They have me trapped, and there is nothing I can do. Whatever these people want, I know it won’t end well… In thee distance I see the violin player approach us. He is still playing as he walks. The crowd settles down and they start to hum and chant with the melody.

I hear a dry, scratchy voice from behind the mask with the same weird accent and oddball pitch. “I have been waiting for you for a long time… ” he says and hands me the book. I shakily take it from him and clutch it to my chest just like he did. My knees are shaking and I feel that I will collapse any second.

The man slowly takes off his mask, and hands it to me as well. I can finally see his face… My face. He smiles with my smile, and looks at me with my eyes. He seems relieved but also sad. He actually feels bad for me. He gives me an apologetic glance and blurts out in my own voice with my own quirky accent: “I’m sorry, but this is the way it has to be… This is the only way I can leave.”

The violin player breaks his tune, and the crowd falls deathly silent. All eyes are on him now. “The cycle is complete!” he then turns to the man in cassock who is now wearing my face. “You are fee to go”.

The man sighs a sigh of relief the same way I would do it. gives me another glance and starts walking away the same way I came in. The crowd steps away to make room for him. He doesn’t look back.

I put on my mask. It fits perfectly as if it was made especially for me. I realize that it was. It fits so well, I can barely feel I have it on. It’s like my second face. Somehow I know it is going to be my only face for now. These people won’t let me leave.

The violin player looks at me for a full minute, and then points at the book. “Everything you need to know is in there.” He turns around and starts walking away whistling the tune he was just playing. The crowd starts to dissipate. I feel hands on my shoulders gently directing me to go somewhere. As my handlers usher me inside one of their stone buildings, it starts to rain. Maybe the storm will wash away some of the dist and grime from the street. Maybe not. I cover the book with my jacket to protect it from the rain.

The inside of the house is dark and murky. I ask them to bring me some light. My voice is try and scratchy and I seem to have misplaced my natural accent somewhere. It doesn’t matter. My captors comply and bring me a lamp. I sit on an uncomfortable wooden chair and crack open the book. I have a lot to learn now…

Lukasz Grzegorz Maciak © 2009

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5 Responses to Once in a Strange Place

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I seem to have some kind of innate proofreading sense… errors just stick out to me as I read over them, breaks the flow of that internal reading voice like stumbling while walking. Has to be said, if that’s my superpower, I got unlucky.

    Anyway, I don’t want to fill the comment space with my nitpicking (found about 30 things that are either definitely wrong, or that I would change) so I guess I’ll put this stuff in an email or something.

    Reply  |  Quote
  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Matt`: Thanks for the email. I never refuse free proofreading. :)

    Reply  |  Quote
  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Matt`: Oh, and I think most people experience this “internal reading voice breakage” when reading stuff written by other people.

    My problem is that my internal reading voice reads the sentences the way I meant them to sound – not the way I have written them. Usually I can catch a lot of errors when I proofread the text after a day or so when it is no longer fresh in my mind – but even then I tend to gloss over a lot of mistakes.

    This is why we have editors – cause even professional writers make n mistakes per page (where n is usually > 0).

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  4. Hector SPAIN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I liked it.
    There’s only a minor problem… I usually read your posts at work, as a minibreak. I’ve taken quite a few ideas for improving my work from here, so it’s ok for everyone. But those 5k probably were a bit too long…
    Well If you post more like this I’ll have to save them for the evening, or even weekend. :-)

    About the self-proofreading impairnes. When preparing some document that has to be printed I can proofread it as many times as I want, but some mistakes will only appear when it is already on paper.

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  5. i normally scan images, or go to funny sites, or amuse myself with other peoples blog, when i get the block.

    and lately i’ve been taking online quizzes about animals.. just for fun.

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