Babylon by Cody James
Daniel left Babylon, Texas and moved to San Francisco with the dream of becoming a successful writer. Seven years later, the schizophrenia he suffered from in his youth returns and threatens to take over his life. With no sanity, no job, no money and a failed writing career, he decides he only has one option left. Daniel heads back home to the West Texas desert. It is there, in the desolation of Babylon, that an existential apocalypse plays out in the no man’s land where religion and madness collide.
Read Chapter 1 of Babylon below
Prologue: The Bone Yard
Somewhere to the left of the highway, a wooden house stood on arid land. When you sat on the porch and looked all the way around, you saw nothing at all.
You couldn’t stand in the backyard, because it was filled with bones. Piled high, and in no particular order, some say there were bones to represent every creature on earth back there — you could pick them out if you looked at them hard enough, and for long enough. At night though, when the moon was out shining on those old bones, they melded into a white sea, indistinct and troubling.
A witchdoctor once lived in this house. He would spend his nights calling out to the Devil, singing the Hymn of Lucifer:
He is the king of Hell
He has two heads
One is the king of hell
He has two heads…
No one lived there anymore. But a tall man was sitting on the back porch with an old record player next to him, on which Mississippi John played the Avalon Blues. The man looked at the bones as the moon rose. Come on home now, he said quietly into the night, it’s time to come on home…
Part One: With Signs Following
I counted my breath in and out, rough and ragged. A fractious rhythm among the others, the slamming oven doors and the clanking plates, that surrounded me. The air inside was so thick and heavy that breathing felt like drowning. As the seconds wore on, one noise began to swell and smother the rest: the slow and steady buzzing of the fluorescent bulb above my head. It was feverish and nauseating, as jarring as a jackhammer on asphalt.
My heart rate surged and I brought my hands up to my temples. The buzzing began to transform, its timbre deepening. It grew into a deafening roar, like an angel’s fall from grace. Just as I was about to pass out, the sound stopped abruptly. I opened my eyes hoping for a sign that others had heard it too. My question was answered as I looked around the kitchen and saw that no one seemed perturbed. My stomach sank under the weight of this observation, and I turned and stumbled out the back door, into the alley that ran behind the restaurant.
Outside it was damp and cold, a thin fog bestowing undeserved halos on the harsh street lamps. A rat rustled in the accumulating garbage. I lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall. The back door swung open again and a sweaty, red-faced Andre approached me. He was a friend of mine, but at that moment, I remembered that I was feeling mighty disappointed in him. He leaned back against the wall next to me. I handed him a cigarette and lit it for him. He exhaled his first drag in a very forceful fashion, and the hiss of it made me cringe.
“Don’t worry, Daniel, they can’t fire you for being nuts,” he said after a while.
I pondered this, unsure of its veracity. But, I couldn’t keep my mighty disappointment inside anymore. I said,
“Did you really suck Chef ’s dick?”
“Look man, I made two batches of really bad Gnocchi. He was going to fire me.”
“Yeah, I know. But he’s such a motherfucker. And last week you specifically told me that, of all the dicks in the world, his was the one you would never suck.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Yeah well, it was easy to say that before two batches of bad Gnocchi.”
We both looked straight ahead and smoked in silence. After a minute or two, he said,
“I resent your judgmental tone.”
“Look, I have nothing against you sucking dicks…”
“What the fuck is your problem, then?”
“It’s just his dick, you know? That’s like, the worst dick in the whole world.”
“Well, it’s alright for you, since they can’t fire you for being nuts.”
“Let them fire me, I’m not putting that fat fuck’s dick in my mouth, I can tell you that much.”
The sound of angry cats floated down the alley towards us from somewhere nearby, and we turned and went back inside, Andre to his bad Gnocchi and me to my tables and customers. I felt jumpy and nervous for the rest of my shift.
By the time I got home, it was around 2 am. My roommate Brian was out and the apartment was still. I went into my room and lay down on my bed. I turned out the lights, but the bulb from the hallway shed a beam that illuminated the wall opposite me. As I watched the wall, a procession of shadows darted across my room. Shadows of people running backwards and forwards. I could see them clearly, and every now and then, one of them would run right at me, only to turn to nothing at my chest.
I closed my eyes to block them out, but as soon as I did, a buzzing noise started in my ears. I covered my head with my pillow but the buzzing only grew louder, slowly turning once again into that roar. And on top of that, I could hear my name being whispered. The whispering seemed to be coming from many voices, creeping closer and closer to me, until they coalesced into one loud voice, shouting over the hellish roar –
I pulled the pillow off my head and opened my eyes to an empty room, and a quiet apartment. I got up, lit a cigarette, and went into the kitchen to make coffee. I made a whole bunch of coffee that I didn’t drink. I paced all over the apartment. I bit my nails. I went back to bed and lay there until the next afternoon – neither awake, nor asleep, every muscle in my body tense.
The following month dragged by in a slow horror of deterioration. The world around me became sinister and surreal. My dreams and my waking hours started to blur in my head, making it hard to determine which was which. I couldn’t stand the sound of the TV, the phone, the radio, the refrigerator, and the neighbors walking above me. The noises sent me into a frenzy, and I ended up holding my head under in a sink full of cold water, just to drown it out and freeze the panic.
One day, Brian came in to wake me up for work, saying,
“Dude, get up, it’s 4:30 already.”
He left the room, and I lay there panicking because not only did I suddenly have no idea who he was, I also no longer had any idea what 4:30 actually meant. I had completely lost the concept of 4:30. Who the fuck is that guy and what the fuck is 4:30? It took me a good ten minutes to remember. I started to lose basic human concepts…time, cognition, faces. All the words that came out of my mouth started to sound like gibberish to me, and nothing anyone else said made any sense.
Dread followed me everywhere I went. It became impossible for me to leave the house at all. I’d open the front door, only to become overwhelmed by anxiety. I’d end up sitting under the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and feeling a horrible certainty that I was losing my mind again and there was nothing I could do about it.
It was really no surprise, then, when after a month of missing so many shifts at work because I couldn’t go outside, I got a voicemail from Chef Fat Fuck telling me that I was fired. I listened to the message, and then I threw my phone out of the window. I went into the living room and sat down in the only armchair that we had. I sat there for a while, just thinking about things. After about half an hour of just sitting there thinking about things, I felt that I had come to the only possible solution for what I was currently going through.
I got up, went into the bathroom, and ran a warm bath. When it was full, I got into the tub with my clothes and shoes on. I picked up the razorblade to my left next to the bottle of shampoo, and I proceeded to cut open both of my wrists. I submerged them in the water, and I settled back to wait. All kinds of thoughts rushed through my mind. How I wanted my body burned in the desert like Parsons. How I didn’t have a friend that would steal my body and burn it in the desert like Parsons’ friend did. How I didn’t have many friends, and how shitty the few friends I did have were because they wouldn’t steal and burn my corpse. Yeah, all kinds of thoughts.
The trouble was that I just didn’t seem to be bleeding out fast enough. What the fuck, I thought impatiently, pulling my wrists up with some effort to check that I had cut them vertically not horizontally. Yep. Two deep vertical cuts on both wrists. I mean, yeah they were bleeding out and all, but they sure were taking their sweet time about it. I then started to feel quite light-headed and so I decided to try and be more patient about the whole thing. That was, of course, until I heard Brian coming in the front door and I realized that I had forgotten to close and lock the bathroom door.
Goddamnit, this was really going to throw a spanner in my works. There was only one thing for it – I was going to have to get up and close and lock the bathroom door. Easier said than done. I managed to get one arm out of the tub, and it kind of hung there over the rim for a little while as I manoeuvred awkwardly until I could get the rest of my body out of the tub. The only problem was that my wrist had bled over the rim and all over the bathroom floor in front of the tub, so that as I tried to take a step towards the door, I slipped on my blood like a clown on a fucking banana peel and I landed flat on my ass instead. At that exact moment, Brian decided to present himself in the bathroom doorway, taking in the spectacle of me sprawled in a pool of my own blood on the bathroom floor.
“Hi Brian,” I said grinning at him, because suddenly the look on his face made this whole thing the funniest moment in my entire life, and then I started laughing my ass off. Laughing my ass off is the last thing that I remember from that day.
After the seven days I spent at San Francisco General Hospital, including three days for a psych evaluation, they threw me back out into the world. I’d managed to convince them that I was heartbroken over a girl. I didn’t tell them anything about my past or the medication that I was supposed to be taking. I walked out of the automatic doors into a bright and sunny afternoon. I sat down on the curb in-between a dead rat and a crackhead. I knew he was a crackhead because he was smoking crack at the time. I scratched at my bandaged wrists and tried to pat down my mussed up hair. The crackhead looked down at my wrists, and then up at me. He motioned with his pipe, but I turned him down. I looked at the dead rat on my other side. It must have been crossing the road. Its fur was matted with dried blood, its face frozen in a painful grimace.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” I asked the crackhead suddenly, turning to face him.
“How the fuck should I know?” he responded.
I had actually been wondering that for the past few days in the hospital. No job, no way to pay rent, my mind slowly melting out of my ears. Things didn’t look too great for me. I had come to San Francisco seven years earlier to become a great writer. I was going to write the great American novel. I was going to write books that were better than anyone else’s. Yeah. What I did do was write average novels that no one wanted to publish and instead I worked as a waiter. This was not what I had come here for. I could only see one option left.
“I guess I’ll have to go home,” I answered him.
“Where you from?”
“Babylon, West Texas.”
“’I will bring him to Babylon…yet shall he not see it, though he will die there,’” he said looking at the sky.
My wounds ached a little as a murder of crows swept across the clouds above.
I sold my guitar, my amp, my laptop and my stereo system to the smack dealer who lived upstairs from us, and with the money I bought a piece of shit car from him. It was a beaten up 1985 Ford Fiesta, and it was falling apart, but he said it had life in it yet. After I had sold all of that, I didn’t really have anything else to pack except my clothes. I gave all the books I owned to Brian. He sat watching me pack my suitcase, perched on the end of my bed.
“Who the hell goes back to Texas?” he asked me, appalled.
“I’m from Texas,” I answered a little defensively; being from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in the West Texas desert always left me feeling a little inadequate.
“Yeah, you’re from Texas, but you’re not supposed to go back to Texas. I mean, what the fuck are you going to do in the middle of the fucking desert?”
“Work in a gas station.”
“Funny,” he said, shaking his head.
“Who the fuck is joking?” I said.
After I left the Bay Area, I drove straight through to L.A. I got something to eat at a taqueria downtown, but I got out of there quickly, because L.A made me so uncomfortable, heaving the way it did with its own rotting brand of delusion. From there I drove for the remaining 14 hours straight, stopping only to piss and get gas. The land became progressively drier, the roads got emptier, and everything got quieter. The moon loomed huge over the mountain that dominated the view from my youth that now passed before me as if nothing had changed at all.
Eventually, I pulled off the highway at the unmarked exit. It had always been unmarked. Nobody ever came here willingly, so why point the way? I pulled the car over on the side of the road and got out to look over the land to the right that raced off toward the mountain. I waited, looking until I could see them. First one, then two, then three. There had never been an explanation for them, these Babylon mystery lights. Nobody knew what they were, but they were always there, strange dancing orbs, glowing yellow and orange. It had been seven years since I had seen them. I watched them for a little while before getting back in the car and driving the rest of the way into town.
It was really late when I parked near Main Street. I walked around until I found the one payphone in town. It wasn’t that hard to find, since it was in exactly the same place as it had been when I had left. I leafed through the phone book until I found the name I was looking for. I popped in a quarter and dialled the number. A croaky voice answered on the other end. It sounded strained, like someone who had just taken a hit off a bong and was trying to answer the phone and not exhale at the same time.
“Ethan?” I said.
“Yeah, who this?”
“Shit. Sheeeeiiiiit. Daniel? Dude.”
“Ethan I’m in town.”
“Sheeeeiiiiit. Really? Sheeeeeiiit.”
“Come on over, brother. You know the way.”
I hung up the phone. I did know the way indeed.
When I got to Ethan’s house, I parked the car and turned off the engine. There was nothing around his house. It was one mile outside of town. I walked up the stairs to his porch and went to ring the bell. My eyes fixed on the front door, and on the dead chicken that was nailed to it. I looked at the dead chicken for a while, hating myself and everyone else in this town vehemently as I did so. Then I rang the bell. Ethan opened the door, naked. He smiled a big old smile and motioned me inside. I wish I could say that I wasn’t used to seeing Ethan naked, but that would be a lie.
“The Prodigal Son returns!” he said, handing me a beer.
I motioned the beer away.
“What, they don’t drink in fucking California now?” he said disdainfully.
“Oh they drink a lot in California.”
“How long you been dry?”
“Is it the meds?”
“No I stopped taking them.”
“It’s loud enough in my head.”
So, there I was, sitting opposite a naked Ethan, in his house with a dead chicken nailed to the door, in the middle of the desert. I lit a cigarette as Ethan went into his kitchen to find me a soda. Shadows jumped in the corners of the room, and I closed my eyes against them. The buzzing, the whispering…”Daniel…Daniel…” As clear as day, the voice was in my ear, and I felt the breath on my skin. I jolted and opened my eyes. Nothing.
Ethan came back in and handed me a soda. I sat miserably sipping it and smoking in silence while he stared at me quizzically. Finally I said,
“Ethan, the dead chicken…”
“Yeah, I found it.”
“Why’d you nail it to the door?”
He thought about this for a minute. Then he answered,
“I don’t really know.”