VCO: Chapter 9

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Chapter 9

Under the surface of the dark water I feel milk cartons and leaves and trash bumping into my face. I slosh around in the sewage, an acidic green and black cocktail. The air, urine-heavy with the scent of cholesterol-soaked piss. 

I float on the surface of the garbage-infused water, looking up at the spotlight spewing from out the manhole I just fell through, with a Virgo full moon giving high energy vibes, as I float farther away.

I try not to breath until holding my breath isn’t worth dying for. And as I gasp my jaw scoops across the sewage like a pelican gullet. I can taste the radio activity. Then I don’t taste or feel anything at all. 

I dunk down, pull myself forward in the water, popping up only to take short breaths. I swim.

To my left I see two pinholes of the same moonlight coming from above. 

I reach out, grab the ladder, and fight the muck pulling me downstream. 

A ladder climbs to the surface with the name Arbatel Avenue made from white and aquamarine ceramic tiles, indicating the street one would find above.

Outside, the street is lined with equidistant streetlights. Does sewage travel East or West? This place is way too residential to still be downtown.

I look down and my clothes are soaked and ruined. I have no idea where I am. And the sensation known as panic begins and my only instinct is to keep moving. 

I try to take a deep breath but the pain is so intense my body stops my attempt and springs into chaos. My ears ring, my vision blurs. 

I cover my sealed lips with my hand and run over to the driver side mirror of a parked car. Under the orange-brown glow of the streetlight, I see that whatever was in the city’s sewer water is actively eating my teeth. I try not to imagine a voltmeter spiking each time I breathe. 

I can feel my enamel dissolving. I’m going to be toothless. Staining them a sick yellow and black combination as they would if they’d frozen mid-rot. 

I bear crawl to a water spigot off the side of the first house I see that doesn’t have motion-sensor lights. 

The metal rose-shaped doorknob chirps as I lefty-loosey the garden hose nozzle. Curse at it under my breath until the water comes out. Then I’m on all fours gulping like a fish. My teeth sanging with pain.

Back under the streetlight. I become lightheaded. I walk like I’m getting acquainted to a new body. 

A distant ringing floats, closer into my ears, and I start rocking on my heels.

Still rocking.

Tilting slowly. Disoriented. 

I wasn’t aware there were hands gripping up my neck until my legs were being lifted.

This must be the EMT. 

I say, “I can’t afford this.”

I watch out of my own eyes as a puppet who fell from their shelf. There’s a light pressure against my throat. It hurts to swallow. The blurry people keep telling me in a calming voice, “Slow, deep, breaths…blow all the way out.”

And I did.

I was strapped in and lifted. Then the ambulance driver bounded through traffic, slinging all my guts around.

The intensity of my breathing is causing my vision to swell. I inhale the universe and exhale into a bigger and bigger balloon shape.

Right at the time I was getting the hang of breathing enough to scrape together a complete thought, I was being rolled onto pavement.

I touch my hand to my face and pull my palm away slowly, until it comes into focus. The outline of my fingerprints were visible with the thin layer of soot and blood.

I look up and sunlight was touching the ground where my house should be. It feels like years have passed. The last time I was here I was getting picked up in an Uber to go to Everhet’s show, less than 12 hours ago. 

The car is upside down in the neighbor’s lawn, dusted with gray powder, and still smoking. It looks like a meteorite shaped like my dad’s Volkswagen crash landed. All the windows are blown out. The interior: annihilated. 

A team of surveyors and police officers notice me and walk over. They dip underneath plastic banners that had other symbols I recognize, ones that told me what they were investigating was a crime scene.

“Please step back.”

“What happened?” Before I finish my question the police officer is already raising his hand to me to tell me that it wasn’t my business. The officer seems pre-irritated by my presence. 

I cut him off and say, “That’s my house. Where are my parents?”

And my head oozes a little, as my sobriety slowly returns. My teeth are less sensitive. I lick them. They’re still there, but I don’t know how they look.

Then the officer looks into my eyes questionably. His eyebrows fold into perfect triangle. And he seems confused. Stupefied like I’d hit some magick keys in my voice that instantly dissolved his aggression. He took off his polyester hat and held it like a steering wheel over his belt buckle. His mouth didn’t move for a long moment. He looks down at the hat and says, “Well. I wish there were someplace we could talk that’s a little more private. But…”

Slow deep breaths.

Then he says, “Son. I’m sorry.”

My mouth involuntarily exhales. And on my breath rode the word, “What?”

He tilts his chin down. Then swivels his head like someone was sitting on it. 

There’s no way any of this is real.

My parents are dead.

Oh my God. I’m poor now.

“Is there any where we can take you.” The police officer says. “Any family live near by?” 

My shift is in a few hours.

I say, “Can you just drop me off at work?”

He asks, “You wanna go to work?” And waits for an answer, but I don’t have the capacity to say anything. And somehow, it seems this is resonating a frequency out of my brain that he detects. 

He shakes his head, as if coming out of a trance, then says, “Of course. Sure. You can ride with us.”

I tell him thank you.

“You have to ride in the back, though.”

And he opens the door for me to get in, and closes it behind me.


James Jacob Hatfield is a displaced engineer, a painter, and many other contradictions. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Havik, and others. His ekphrasis poem “torrents of lahar, No. 36” was anthologized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling Fellow and a Weymouth Fellow. He is the creator and curator of the Gemini Sessions Substack. He lives in Durham, NC.

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