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Tuesday Fiction: “Ceremony of Innocence” by Armando Salinas

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Armando Salinas. Armando currently lives in Mexico City, together with 21 million other aspiring writers and dreamers. His fiction has previously appeared in the Rudy Rucker-edited FLURB magazine; in the past decade, he’s also written six short story collections and one mainstream novel currently available on Kindle, including One Night in Bangkok. You can read his blog (in Spanish) where he rambles on about whatever book he read that week, or follow @Armando0827 on Twitter.

This is the story’s first publication.

Ceremony of Innocence

Armando Salinas

I

“I am Matarese.”

He said.

Having said that, the nightmare began.

II

They led Cornelius down the stairs.

The rooms below were mostly dark and smelled. Damp melanomas stained the walls. Arthritic cables, knotted and almost fossilized with dust, crawled out of holes in the ceiling with naked light bulbs hanging like fruit. Whatever poor lighting there was, though, came mostly from the phosphorescent graffiti scribbled on every inch of wall. Occasionally, cheap portraits of saints and wooden crucifixes eclipsed the glowing artwork. Cornelius stared emptily, every room an underground grotto. Most of the rooms had at least some soiled mattress on the floor, but other than that, the rooms were mostly bare.

Police officers were still questioning the half-dressed women along the drafty hall. Cornelius tried ignoring them and followed the officer to the crime scene.

Obregon was already there, along with the coroner and his assistant—busily taking picture after picture—and a ring of uniformed men around the body.

The woman was tied to a chair, her hands behind her back while her legs were forcibly spread wide open. She was still dressed—a strapless yellow top and some denim cutoffs, her bare feet bound to the legs of the chair—and her face was missing. The girl looked up at all of them with round lidless eyes.

Besides the constant clicking of the camera and the slow whine of the flashbulbs the only noise inside the crowded room was the leaking kitchen sink tap on the opposite wall, drip-drip-dripping endlessly, the white paint underneath chipped away long ago by the Chinese torture.

Obregon nodded his head, noticing his presence. “Inspector.”

“Do we have a picture?” Cornelius asked.

One of the uniformed men answered. “Yes, sir. Several, in fact. One of the girls was her roommate. Here.” The officer gave him a set of photographs. Two girls, sometimes three, in several different locations. “Um, she’s the blonde.”

“Yes, I can tell.” Cornelius took a quick look at the stolen face in the pictures and gave them back, bored. He felt as if his tie was choking him. Everyone was sweating. He moved away from her. A few wooden boards were missing from the floor. In other places small wooden squares had been simply nailed on top to partially cover the holes. “So put an APB out on this girl. The Face probably has it stored for future use, but do it right away anyway. He likes to become women these days, specially blondes.”

* * *

Cornelius checked his watch as he stood naked in front of his mirror, trying to fix himself in a hurry. He flipped the 15-blade expertly, and started slicing his own face even before the anesthetic had taken effect completely. He cut softly from the line of his scalp down to his chin, leaving the skin around the eyes and the lips in its place. Next, he inserted the scissors deeper into the cut and carefully detached all his superficial temporal vessels, starting with the external carotid, exposing those first. This procedure didn’t just require the sure touch of a surgeon artiste, but a solid mastery of microvascular anastomosis; otherwise, his own immune system would ruin the intended work of art. Finally, he gingerly unpeeled his own face, making sure the tissue didn’t tear. He placed the loose skin inside a plastic bag and sealed it airtight. For a moment there, he stood under the lights, watching his own skinned face, the wet muscles revealed glistening under the lightbulbs. But he didn’t linger long, for he found his true face disturbing. He went back to the procedure by nailing Mitek screws around his naked face with a surgical pistol.

With delicate fingers he brought out the dummy’s head and placed it on the table under the mirror. With a flat spatula he separated the moist soft skin off the plastic head, careful not to crease it. The face made a slick wet noise as it came loose. With a surgeon’s touch he applied an even layer of moisturizing cream first on the inside of the face, then on his own. Slowly, he spread the hanging folds of face over his own. This was the most delicate part, when he had to sew back all the exposed vessels with the new endings over them. When he was finished he was almost exhausted, but he still had to inject the slow-drying glue under the skin.

The final result looked grotesque. The new face fit almost like a glove, but obviously it wasn’t a perfect match. It still needed some padding under the new skin to provide a real structure. He peppered his face with miniscule capsules of silicon until he was satisfied. It was still too early to tell, of course, but long experience told him the facial transplant was a complete success. He could already feel the blood flow was strong. The vascular reattachments were flawless. He was well aware of what his immuno-suppressive tolerance levels were, mostly thanks to the serum of his own creation which replaced the auto-immune therapy that would normally be used, so he was certain there would be no infection and his body would not reject the foreign tissue.

The skin around his eyelids, still his own, as well as the circle around his lips, required some cosmetic touches, but a small hypodermic pistol, a needle and some transparent surgical thread finally did the job. A couple of stitches around the orbital septum, some simple makeup and voila. The swelling would go down before the hour was over, thanks to his serum. He had trouble blinking for exactly five minutes as the ethyl chloride anesthetic wore off. The skin directly below his hairline was always tricky and, to be perfectly honest, Cornelius always cheated here, using some crude makeup to hide the imperfect match. He combed back his still-wet black hair and glued a small pony tail on the back of his neck. He used a woman’s brush to add the silver hairs on his temples but, really, he paid little attention to the last two details. They were merely affectations, after all. The face itself was a different matter.

Checking himself one last time in the mirror, Cornelius gasped as the sensitive pores on his own skin started drinking from the alien skin on top. He’d used this face before. Too many times, really. It was becoming risky, but it was still one of his favorites. He could smile with it. For real. Once, he’d even managed to cry alone in his room.

To show his power, Cornelius grinned.

Finnegan, the cruel confident man facing him back from the other side of the mirror, smiled. Satisfied, Finnegan grabbed his navy blue Armani suit and started dressing himself.

III

The manor was enormous, its grounds seemingly endless, and still Finnegan had had to search for it for almost two hours. By the time he’d found the holographic HD wrought-iron double gates it was almost midnight. Two men in gray suits and dark shades scanned his face with their full-spectrum Id eyes, and admitted his car. Finnegan couldn’t help a smile.

From the gate to the house itself was another five minutes by car. The forest was so gorgeously vivid it almost made him take a wrong turn straight into a tree. By the time the road led him to the main house he had figured it out. A lot of effort and money had been spent to give the trees and the lakes and even the road that hi-definition look found only in virtuality. It was unsettling, this feeling, outside a sim, without gloves or goggles. Realer than real. All those colors. The long red gravel road made a turn around a wide and sprawling white marble fountain—holographic water—in front of the big house, and Finnegan parked his car there. The fountain, like the forest before, was completely silent.

Matarese was waiting for him by the door.

He was a tall lean man with an androgynous face and wearing a plain black suit and tie. He did not bother to use shades to hide his grotesque Id eyes. Creepy gold corneas fixed on Finnegan’s face studying his every feature and gesture, using wide-spectrum.

“Mr. Finnegan, I hope you didn’t have much of a problem finding the house.”

Finnegan accepted the offered hand and smiled. “Not at all, thank you. In fact, it was a pleasant country ride.”

“Yes. Come along, please. Mr. Andreas just finished his dinner.”

“Was he waiting for me or does he usually have dinner so late?”

“Mr. Andreas doesn’t sleep anymore. He had the surgery just two months ago. He now keeps different hours.”

“It helps, yes. I don’t sleep myself, either.”

The marble-floored room, unlike the grandiose manor, was not excessively furnished. A minimalist display which mocked the majestic exterior. The walls around them were papered in an elegant series of vertical sequences of golden ones and zeroes on a maroon background. He stared at one sequence at random—10000110110000111—and wondered idly if it meant anything. A big glass-topped teak desk dominated the room. There were a few carefully-staged props arranged on it: a twin pen and pencil holder, a gleaming crystal paperweight, all without practical purpose, reeking with the semiotic obsolescence of all genuine antiques. Two tall brass floor-lamps behind the desk framed the large panoramic window overlooking this mute and high resolution kingdom.

“Mr. Andreas, this is Mr. Peter Finnegan, the artist you requested.”

Bien sûr. No introductions are necessary,” said Andreas, rising jovially from behind his fashionably artificial desk. He was a big and impressive man, very much like his house, taller than either Matarese or Finnegan, and with the belly of a Mandarin protruding from the waistband of his fabulously expensive white lacquered suit. Like his house and his gardens, the man himself was in hi-def. Every detail was edged in fire in Finnegan’s eyes. He wore a jewel-rimmed gold monocle in his right eye. A Berlitz subconscious universal language translator earring hung from his left earlobe. Standard SHOJI glossolalia issue. His voluminous body commanded an instinctive semiotic respect. The man had a rich milk-and-chocolate skin, smooth like a baby’s, which made Finnegan’s mouth water. He could almost feel all those wonderful emotions, all the obscene hungers that he could experience beneath that colored face. Andreas smiled, noticing the artist’s interest. “I’ve followed your work closely for the last couple of years.”

Finnegan nodded in discreet silence, properly impressed. Of course, most of the world slept happily unaware of his life’s work.

“Please, have a seat. A cigar?”

Finnegan accepted, while Matarese took out a gold case of French cigarettes. Andreas continued. “Yes, for a very long time I’ve tried to be a part of your fascinating world. People, as a whole, use their imaginations—if at all—only to dream of more money or some lurid sex fantasy. Most can’t wait to go back to their mundane realities, can’t stand their brief stays as it is. They dread getting lost. But the artists… you live there, you’re no mere tourists, you own an atlas of this twilight state, you breath the same air as fables and stories. You import some of those dreams into our reality and try to make a living from it. You window-shop at the bazaars of the imagination and smuggle ideas into our dreary world, selling them at a premium. Glorious!” Finnegan wasn’t any good at hiding his emotions, and Andreas laughed. “Yes, I like hearing the sound of my own voice.”

All three men laughed politely.

Clearly, that was all that was needed, as Andreas continued. “I’ve tried to add my own humble contributions to it, you know. Once I even met the Frenchman, Sloane. It was a disappointment, I must say. Meeting the artist behind the work can often turn out like that. This Sloane didn’t even seem to be aware that what he was doing was Art. In fact, he was quite offended by the notion. The mere idea that he was creating, that he was adding to the race’s catalog of beauty was anathema to him. And perhaps that could’ve been exciting in itself, revolutionary. The reluctant artist, creating masterpieces against his will. Almost unconsciously. Imagine the doors it would open into our Ids. But he was not offended for long. He just didn’t care. He was only trying to get even with his mother, long dead. How trivial. I tell you, it left me with little enthusiasm to look for any of the others.”

“He’s nothing but a butcher,” said Finnegan.

Andreas started to laugh and clapped Finnegan on the shoulder. “Ahh, the world we artists live in, n’est-ce pas? I love it. All those jealousies. We can’t be friends with anyone else who calls himself an artist. Obviously no one’s an artist but us. Yes, you may be right, but isn’t that what all of us ‘artists’ must strive for all the time? To play out our little private fantasies? Out there. To stage them, to make them real. On canvas, in words, in white virgin noise, or living flesh. In music or in dance. Whatever it is we require, to talk about our universes, before we die and they become lost forever. We recount ideas, my friend. Ideas no one else has thought before. We tell stories. We create the realities our children’s children will read about when they’re in school.”

Sloane liked cutting up women because he was afraid of them, thought Finnegan. He said nothing, though, and accepted instead the glass of cognac Andreas gave him.

“I believe Mr. Matarese has already explained what I require from you,” Andreas said.

“You’re interested in a collaboration.”

Andreas’ glittering blue smile spread across his wide face, the diamond on every teeth hurting his thick lips. “I illustrate the moments of creation, Mr. Finnegan. I illustrate the lonely night when an unknown poet writes his finest poem. I illustrate the stories behind every painting, every still statue. I make symphonies come alive, literally. I give four dimensions to word and music. I make them breathe according to my own humble and subjective interpretation of the available data. The poet, and the poem. Of course, a poem must never be totally explained. Therein lies its magic, its freedom, its Art. But sometimes Art itself is not enough. The world is not kind to it. I take care of those verses, those lines adrift in the world’s unconscious. Those mad geniuses who toil in the black hole of anonymity. Those who write for themselves, who frantically scribble on the walls of condemned buildings. Who plaster their fevered dreams on napkins and toilet paper they must later use. I make these people exist—I make them real—in a world that would not acknowledge their presence. I have money. I’m good at that. Those who’re truly great artists, by definition, are not. Maybe I just try to be one of them the only way I can. Perhaps I just fancy myself an artist.”

“And,” Finnegan said, “you need my special talents for one of your illustrations?”

“Precisely. Tell me, Mr. Finnegan, are you aware of a long epic poem called A Ceremony of Innocence? Or of a man called Tarrant?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Of course not. Tarrant was in fact a woman. A young woman who out of respect and love we treated as a man according to her own wishes. She died a few years back. She was twenty-one. I’d only known her for a few months. She was not an only child, oddly enough, but the eldest of four daughters. A normal family, a normal childhood. How she became an artist, or why, I never understood. It took me a while to realize those first twenty years were nothing but the first couple of verses. A mundane beginning to serve as contrast and balance to the tumultuous last stanzas.”

Andreas himself refilled Finnegan’s glass before continuing his tale.

“I’ll make it short for you. One day she woke up tired of her life. She decided she had to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. To a place where things might make sense. So she seduced an older man to get the money to leave her home and travel to Europe. This man left his own family to go live with her over there, but once they hit Barcelona, Tarrant dumped him. As I said, this was a few years back, when Barcelona was going through its second Catalan Renaissance and was still the hubbub of the digital arts that Prague is now. She had chosen her city well. In many ways she belonged in Barcelona. Her verses had an… art nouveau kind of feeling. Almost like architectural lines. Sharp angles, vanishing points. She had a lot of dreams and hopes; the gods alone know where they came from, having had such a mediocre origin, but sometimes it’s like that. The old story, really, but she was different because she actually had talent. Real talent. She had looks, too, and an almost amoral innocence to use them that bordered on cruelty. Believe me, I know. She was always upfront about it. She just didn’t see anything wrong in what she did. She never realized she was hurting anyone. Of course she always got her way. She didn’t starve in Barcelona, trust me. And she was quite prolific. She produced an amazing body of work. Almost as quickly as she destroyed men she created Art. Unfortunately, like most of her kind, all her friends were men. No matter how much she tried to change this. It’s dangerous to have all women as your enemies, Mr. Finnegan. Downright scary, if you ask me. They’ll have their way. No matter how good Tarrant was, she never got to show her work to anyone but her lovers. Unofficially she was even banned from the SHOJI. For all intents and purposes she was outside the world’s consciousness. I met her through an old friend of mine. He was her current lover back then. I knew what I was doing. I knew what to offer. She was in my bed quickly enough. I guess she was honest, she only wanted to be happy. I showed her my own world. Allowed her inside my own washitsu rooms inside the SHOJI where I kept my most private Ideas. I can honestly say she did her best work during those last three months of her life that we shared.”

“Her last?”

“She killed herself in my country house in Biarritz. She always had a thing for Hemingway.”

“I’m sorry,” said Finnegan, and he was. The man Finnegan was capable of tremendous depths of spontaneous emotion.

“Yeah, well. Thanks. But you shouldn’t be. See, she wanted to die, but not to end an unbearable suffering. She wanted to turn her life itself into a graceful statement. A work of Art. As true and genuine as any living being is capable of. To make her entire life an idea. With a beginning, and a proper end. She had always behaved like a beautiful verse, she even walked like a poem. Even when she was alone, especially then, when no one else could see it. She took care of her body, her face, although she was not exactly vain. She wasn’t stupid, she was aware how other people reacted to her beauty, but like I said, she was sometimes irritatingly innocent about it. She was proud of herself, that’s all. Now she was taking this idea one step further, to its ultimate conclusion. Her last, and most important, poem. She knew soon enough her perfection would be marred, no matter how much care she took of herself. At a certain point, old age is upon you… and by then it’s too late. No point preserving an imperfection. So she acted. I survived her. I was her only lover to do so.”

“No wonder women liked her so much.”

“Quite. In any case, I was honored to be a part of her masterpiece. I was there at the end.”

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t see the… uh, the connection.”

Matarese brought out a photograph and passed it to Finnegan. A young girl, oval-faced and with eyes like a cat’s. It was a programmed photograph, and the picomachines on its surface pictured the girl walking happily along some public garden. She had her jet-black hair pulled back tightly, exposing her sharp cheekbones. Finnegan could see how her unsmiling face might seem beautiful to some, but to him it only looked cold. Cruel, like Andreas himself had said. “This girl’s name is not important. We have her. We only found her after we ran a meticulous search/match idea through the SHOJI. She’s the closest in the whole world and all the colonies. She’s almost a perfect twin of the girl Tarrant.”

“I see.” He turned to look at Andreas, but it was Matarese who continued.

“Mr. Andreas’ current project is to illustrate A Ceremony of Innocence — the title Tarrant gave her own life—with your help.”

“You want this girl to play a part in some sort of performance?”

We are the SHOJI, Mr. Finnegan,” said Andreas. “Not the world. Any fool can get a plug inside his corpus callosum and surf the consensus field of illusions, but he’s not creating the field. His part in the consensus is only a passive one. He accepts what his senses tell him. Like a child seeing things for the first time, he’s accepting the reality we show him. Any fool can see that when our brains took the place of computers generating the notional field, some brains contributed more than others. It’s us, Mr. Finnegan, the conceptual Artists, the mythmakers, we tell the stories that build reality for the rest. This girl is unimportant, except for her graceful exterior, random as all art. You and I can turn her into a true work of Art. Give her life some meaning.”

“We want her to live Tarrant’s life,” said Matarese, suddenly leaning forward. “Her last year. The one she spent in Europe. All the way to the end.”

“And you think this girl is going to agree to any of this? Even if you don’t mention that part about ‘the end’?”

Andreas’ diamond grin returned. “Oh, yes. She will do what’s necessary.”

“You still haven’t told me what you actually want me to do.”

“I need you to play my part, Mr. Finnegan. You’ll skin my face and wear it as your own for the next year. You see, I’m honoring you the same way Tarrant honored me. I’m making you a part of A Ceremony of Innocence. Her poem is not yet finished. It’ll be up to us.”

Just before he realized it was the cigar which had been drugged instead of the cognac, Finnegan’s will was gone, and he agreed to help Andreas celebrate the mad genius of a girl he’d never even known.

IV

Tarrant sipped the last of her drink, alone with her thoughts, watching the dying sunset on the cool Mediterranean waters beyond the harbor boardwalk with a bored expression. The red wine was vinegary, as if it’d been left open and allowed to breathe for too long. As usual this time of day, the cobblestone docks below the Moll de la Fusta were packed with tourists, couples and families, in khaki shorts and white shirts, old-fashioned cameras hanging from their tanned necks, videocams purring busily in their hands. All of them managing to produce the exact same old images a million unimaginative fools had taken before them. Pictures of the looming Monument a Colom, poorly-lit movies of the electric streetlights coming to life. Over and over, one after the next in an unending parade of mediocrity.

She took one last sip, trying not to grimace at the harsh taste. She was aware of the looks men were giving her—she was sitting alone, after all—only in the same way others are conscious of their own breathing. She knew it was her attitude, her moves, the way she casually fixed a lock of stray hair behind her ear with the back of her hand, how she walked and crossed her legs when she sat down, more than her body itself. Her mother had never understood why she’d come here. Tarrant only hoped one of her sisters had, and would follow her path one day. She smiled, and the low gloss ultraviolet lipstick gleamed appallingly under the bar’s ghoulish lights. Every time she smiled she left after-images of her lips. She was wearing a tight-fitting tuxedo with a green waistband and bow tie. Every accessory on her body, from her thick gold Rolex down to her Gucci loafers, had been chosen with a diamond-clear purpose of mind. She was proud of her Art.

Cassidy returned to the table, wearing a tuxedo as well, and looked at her disconsolately. He could tell she was obviously bored again. She didn’t bother to hide it anymore these days. He had opened himself to her… so now she knew he was totally dependent on her. How could any woman respect, let alone love, a man like that?

“It’s late. You want to go home?” he asked.

“Why not.” She pushed her empty glass away.

Even two weeks ago she would’ve also chosen to go home, but would have also tried to find a good excuse, pretend she really wanted to stay here with him.

Just then Cassidy saw Andreas entering the bar accompanied by a man he did not know. He waved at them. “Look, it’s Andreas,” he said, hopefully. Tarrant turned around. Cassidy knew she was intrigued by the exotic Andreas. Once, he’d seen those eyes looking at him in that same way. But he wanted her to be happy, to smile again. Even if it had to be for another man.

“Cassidy, and the lovely American.” Andreas’ Belgian accent did provoke a smile, a low-spectrum smirk. He was wearing a thick turtleneck sweater and loose-fitting jeans over his black cowboy boots. He was the kind of man who looked good no matter what he wore, so people let him in everywhere. He looked perfectly at ease inside the pricey picturesque café. He shook Cassidy’s hand firmly and kissed Tarrant on the cheek.

Without being asked he sat down and nodded to his friend to do the same.

“So,” Andreas started, “how goes the poetry?”

Tarrant made an ultraviolet pout, then stuck out her tongue. “It doesn’t.”

“She’s having problems finding a theme,” said Cassidy.

“That’s not it,” she snapped back. “It’s just… I don’t know, sometimes I just can’t pretend it’s not pointless. I mean, we’re all so good at fooling ourselves. We really believe what we do is different, new. That we’re so different from our parents. That people will be changed by our works.” She laughed. “They’re just words, what I do. Vague feelings, poorly expressed. Half the time I don’t understand them myself, and I do an even worse job trying to translate them for others. The exact same feelings everyone else has had since the beginning of time. Where’s the Art in that? Making the same mistakes. Repeating what better poets have already done. In the end it doesn’t matter one bit.”

“I like your poetry,” said Andreas before he could take it back. Cassidy had to raise his glass to hide his smile. It was the last thing anyone should say to Tarrant.

But Andreas was good. “If I tell you I like your work is because it’s good. I think I know a thing or two about that.”

“Thanks,” was all Tarrant said. Mother would hate Andreas.

“Anyway, it’ll come. It always does, doesn’t it?”

“I guess,” she said. Then she seemed totally perplexed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s like that for most of us. Artists.” Andreas blushed for a moment, calling himself an artist. Tarrant gave him an odd look. Finally she smiled. He could do no wrong, Cassidy realized.

“Maybe. How about you?” she asked. “Still spending all your days and nights inside the SHOJI? One of these days you’re going to lose your Id.”

Andreas laughed out loud, once again totally at ease. “That’s not going to happen. Not like that, anyway. We can’t lose our Ids inside the collective unconscious of the race, Tarrant. You and I. We decide what they think, what they see.”

Andreas’ friend turned away, perhaps looking for a waiter, perhaps bored with an argument he’d heard one too many times. Tarrant, too, seemed to lose interest, although with her it was hard to know, as if Andreas’ unabashed arrogance, while matching her own, was too blatant even for her. He noticed and quickly changed the subject.

It went back and forth all night long, an awkward ballet of gestures and innuendo, with Cassidy and Andreas’ unnamed friend playing the silent audience. For Andreas it was just a performance, he knew, somehow. He wasn’t going to get this girl by being who he was—he never had. But he was good at it. He’d almost forgotten it was a performance. Tomorrow there’d be another one. Different background, different props, different dialogue. Mostly new characters. She’d been alive for so long—even Cassidy, Andreas could tell. But where had he been yesterday? Why were there no memories?

Tomorrow there’d be another scene, another Act. Another in a long string. And he’d be there now. With her. Until the end.

* * *

Tarrant stormed out of the apartment while Andreas stayed behind, sulking. He’d lost count how many times she had slammed the door of their apartment, but this time he knew it was the last time.

Well, they both had known it would end like this. Hell, they’d lasted almost a month.

Too much passion. Not enough sense. Too much alike. Amour fou.

He was considerably older. Had that been the sole allure? Maybe she just liked black skin.

“You suffocate me.” Even her complaints lacked originality when she was like that.

He had been willing to give up everything for her. “I’d lose my Id inside your little corner of the SHOJI,” he offered, genuinely meaning the words.

“I’m not in the SHOJI.”

“Because you don’t want to be. I could help you. Create your own washitsu room. It’ll help you with your Art.”

No. I don’t need the Consensus to create. What would be the point?”

“It’s not like you’re cheating, for crying out loud. You’ll still be you. What you create will still be coming from your little brain. Yours. No one else’s.”

“No.”

He wasn’t in the fucking mood to go out tonight, all right? Not to Las Rambles, not to the Via Laietana. All she wanted to do was party every night. Maybe he was too old for her. She was popular in every single café from the Plaça de Catalunya down to Columbus’ column by the docks. If it was up to her they’d spend the night getting stoned with the junkies up at Montjüic or the wastrels down by the narrow backstreets of the Barri Gòtic behind the Cathedral, whining about her sisters. All he wanted was to be left alone this one night. To be by himself inside the SHOJI. He never demanded anything from her when she was in one of her infrequent creative moods. God help him if he did.

Was she like this with Cassidy at the end?

With Traven? Or with that old fart, the first one, he’d seen now and then hanging at the edge of her universe? The one whose name he’d never even found out? The one who’d jumped out of a window.

All dead now. Jesus, poor Cassidy. They’d known each other for over ten years. He was one of the guys who’d helped pitch in so Andreas could come to Europe. He’d been there at the beginning, when money had been tight. Hung himself. Good grief.

Andreas, you’ll rot in Hell.

And Tarrant will get off scot-free, probably. Wind up in God’s own Heaven, with all the other innocents and fools.

But not in the SHOJI. Not in Idspace. Andreas smiled. God, he hated her.

He grabbed his car keys and hurried after her.

* * *

Andreas stood back and watched as Tarrant, hunched down on the floor, got lost in a world all of her own making. Papers were scattered all around her. A half-empty glass of that red Spanish wine she liked so much was next to an untouched dish of paella. Unconsciously biting her lower lip, the tip of her tongue smearing the UV on her mouth, she scribbled frantically over a series of napkins, folding and unfolding them, writing on every blank side. Her unreadable gibberish a private door to her own Id.

He took his eyes off her for a moment and looked through the window of their bedroom. Just behind the ragged green heads of the tallest cypress trees, looming indiscreetly over the smashed glass topping their brick wall, the financial center in downtown Barcelona already glittered in the early night. A series of half-completed crossword puzzles, most of the white boxes still empty. Their new house was certainly a big improvement over the small apartment they used to rent back in the Plaça de Catalunya. The change itself had been good for both of them, even though it had removed them from the clandestine center of the art world and their friends. He missed the old place. He’d been there for almost five years, until she arrived. He could live without all the physical amenities the new house offered, but Tarrant seemed happy with them. He could almost believe it was their new home which had inspired her into a creative frenzy the last two weeks.

“That’s not it,” she said, her eyes still on the tip of the racing pen.

He knew her well enough not to be startled. “I know,” he said. “You will admit, however, that you have found your muse again.”

“And it’s partly the SHOJI, no doubt about that. I’m just not sure it’s worth it. I spend half my time trying not to lose myself in the maelstrom. It’s mostly garbage anyway. That’s what the SHOJI really is. Mostly garbage.”

“Inevitably. You must learn to glide through Idspace and choose only what you need. You can access anything that’s ever been. Literally. How can you still complain?”

“All that shit people store in their heads. I really don’t need an open window into that.”

“Your head’s search engine can skip any—”

“I really don’t like getting into other people’s heads, Klaus. Maybe I’m not made for this age. The less time I spend in other people’s heads, the better.”

He knelt down behind her and kissed her on the mouth. Her tongue was quick and sweet. “I love you,” he said. Trying to explain to an autistic child.

She kissed him again. “It’s not the SHOJI, Klaus.”

He sighed, accepting her words as always, and held her tight. “What is it about?”

“A girl. She wants so much, but she ends up being nothing. She can imagine all the things she’s not. Not like vague desires, but as real things. It’s about three days in her life. The three most important days in her life, although she never realizes this. One is today, another one is five years ago. The last is somewhere in the nebulous future. That one’s very stream-of-consciousness, like one big dream—maybe she has no future, I don’t know. Very Joycean. Anyway, these three days are the ones that end up defining her, shaping her. But she never knows this, like I said. Only we do.”

“A long poem.”

“No. Not really.” She seemed puzzled. Then she quickly kissed him again. “It’s for you, Klaus. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. Doing this. I’d be stuck, somewhere else.”

He turned her around, to face him. It was odd. Andreas could almost hear the sighs. Even a few laughs. He had to control a sudden urge to look back. Had he finally turned clinically paranoid, after years of being borderline? He’d always thought someone should put hidden cameras around him all day long. He was always posing for someone, even when he was alone. Always the right pose. Had the fears turned real? Had they always been?

She was there. She was real. She was with him. Why? He could think of no sane reason.

He’d die for her. Right there, right now.

“Don’t you think you should eat something today?” he asked, half-jokingly.

She was upset all of a sudden. She shook him off and returned to her poem.

“Why don’t you try to sleep this week?” he snapped back, standing up angrily, at once regretting his lack of control. But it was too late, he couldn’t go back now—and expect her to respect him. It’d be a poor performance. He left her alone, preparing himself for an all-nighter in the SHOJI, the open door to her Id unused and unguarded.

* * *

Andreas stood over her still body. She was face down, her glazed eyes half-open, her pale lips stuck to her own dried vomit. It was odd, if he looked long enough, the ultra-violet neon on her lips still made his eyes water. Like she was still alive. The mountainous countryside of Biarritz was clearly visible through the wide open window. She’d chosen her last spot carefully, as usual. And no matter how hard he tried, he could not help but hear the voices. Whispering, whispering until he could no longer listen to his own thoughts. Whispering whispering. Judging. Laughing.

Had he finally lost his Id?

Become one with the mass?

How?

And still he stood unmoving over her inert form, not knowing how he felt about any of this. How he should feel.

Tarrant was dead.

But they were only words, like Tarrant herself had once said. It was hard to understand what they really meant. Finnegan had been programmed too well. Slowly, he removed Andreas’ face off his own wet skin. Every night moistening the foreign skin and injecting it with the chemical preservatives. Alone in their bathroom, always alone, facing a magic mirror. It’d seemed so natural, so normal. Alone in the nights, while Tarrant slept right outside. They’d never been really close, then, had they? This secret gap between them as real—more so—than their “love”. He felt sad. Or had that been programmed as well? Finnegan had to admit that Andreas had told him only the truth. From the start. He was a real Artist, a maker of the myths and stories we all accept as the everyday reality.

He’d become Andreas by his own unique talent, but he’d fallen in love, desperately and unrequited, by the magic of Andreas’ Id keyboard. Or had he loved Tarrant on his own after getting to know her? Her admiring brown eyes, her little girl’s laughter (her idiotic laughter, she called it, with a tired hand over her blushing face), her absurd ideas, her neurotic enthusiasm. She was unique, one of a kind. All things said and done, maybe a little bit of Finnegan, capable of so many emotions, had been there all along.

No. He’d never even gotten the chance—because he’d already been in love with her. Did anyone else in the whole SHOJI realize that Tarrant had never loved any of them back?

Only Finnegan and Andreas knew.

Their knowledge was hidden behind too many conscious layers for anyone else to know.

He felt… He didn’t know how he felt. The program was over.

He finished removing the now useless mask, still careful not to crease the delicate black skin, an almost forgotten man facing him from the reflection in the open window.

Tarrant blinked, and spat some more vomit. She leaned on her elbows, the palms of her hands and her knees, and then stood up. She stared numbly at the expressionless Finnegan.

Her face, alive and well. Her brown eyes… the same as before, almost loving him. But her voice was not the same. Who was speaking to him? The lips moved, and became wrinkled, hollow… as she started to remove her own face. Stripping the thin layer of still-warm flesh without caring if it got damaged.

A humorless smile. Exposed raw muscles and nothing more.

“I am Matarese,” he said.

And Finnegan remembered, and started to feel again.

He did not cry, though, or scream—or jump Matarese as he suddenly wanted. His stomach tightened and he felt nauseous, his eyes turned watery, but he laughed. He smiled and forced a laugh out of his trembling lips trying to fit in with the rest. All those Ids laughing and laughing, only now fully appreciating the extremity of the sublime joke. The magnificence of Andreas’ very own Ceremony of Experience.

V

Matarese’s ability was almost as good as Finnegan’s. They needed the programming for every exact line, every exact move, but they could’ve reacted to the original stimuli without it, once they got going. He was just a sloppy surgeon. Unlike Finnegan.

He stole the eyelids and mouth, even though they were as useless to him as they were to Finnegan.

Already Inspector Cornelius could recognize the messy handiwork he’d seen on several cases just before his own mysterious disappearance fourteen months ago. Several blonde hookers had had the pleasure of Matarese’s presence—up until a year ago.

Cornelius could vaguely remember how Finnegan too had been there for the entire duration of A Ceremony of Innocence, the lynchpin piece of the much larger Ceremony of Experience. Even before his own acting performance began, he had to be there, watching Matarese’s year-long performance along with the rest of the audience. He had to be there, to study Andreas’ hundreds and hundreds of programmed photographs—almost a full-blown movie documentary on their own—he’d taken of Tarrant’s world. To operate on the faces of the dozens of “participants” that were required to recreate that world. To perform a dozen plastic surgeries on Matarese’s willing face alone. For Tarrant had gone through a seemingly endless series of crises—severe bouts of alcoholism and drug addictions of all kinds—and an equal number of remarkable recoveries. Andreas, almost prophetically, had kept detailed files of their days together, his pictures preserving every minute change on her face her lifestyle caused. Finnegan, not Cornelius himself, had become fascinated with that face. By that chameleon-like mask that breathed on all those photographs. Regretting the fact that he’d never known this woman while she lived, knowing all along that he was just days away from meeting that living face.

That first picture they’d shown him, Tarrant walking along Parc Güell, beneath the shadow of Gaudi’s Church of the Sagrada Familia’s incomplete spires. A mirage, nothing more. Everything had been planned.

When the program ended, Matarese’s eyes showed signs of aftereffects—that alone was Cornelius’s sole consolation. As for himself, he was forced to get rid of the Finnegan face. And that was what he could never forgive Andreas for.

The outrage for poor sensitive Finnegan had just been too much. Cornelius had been forced to kill him—like a horse with a broken leg—and lost a good friend who surely deserved better.

Andreas was as good as his word regarding the financial rewards. His skinned face—now that the SHOJI intelligentsia had unanimously agreed that A Ceremony of Experience was a true historical masterpiece and he had become a sudden celebrity—even became le dernier cri in certain circles. Cornelius’s art became a business, with hundreds of inexperienced hacks who didn’t understand the symbolic meaning of the act itself. Quite depressing, in fact.

Sometimes—admittedly, not often—the money alone was not worth it.

Inspector Cornelius returned, his own face reattached, but decided to continue his leave of absence from the department. Captain Obregon happily signed the necessary papers. Cornelius still keeps track of certain news items that not many Ids carry. Old friends in the force pass him tips about certain cases, now and then.

He keeps the trail hot.

Lovely Matarese is easy to find.

As I remove Cornelius’s face, from time to time I can still see her brown eyes, looking into mine, and then I can fool myself quite easily. She loved me. It’s just that it was hard for her to express what others—like Finnegan—find so easy. It’s like that for me, too—as it is for Cornelius. It’s almost as if we were the same skin.

It’s hard. I have to write about it, hoping no one will read it—or that she will read it, someday, lovely Tarrant, and find out, at long last, that I have forgiven her.

THE END

December 4, 2012 Posted by | December 2012, Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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