Read The Cipher Online

Authors: Kathe Koja

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Urban Fantasy

The Cipher

For Rick
Impossible without you
With all my love

I'd like to thank Rick Lieder, Russ Galen, and Jeanne Cavelos for all their help.

Could my wish be fulfilled,
I would want to be the balm for a sore,
Dissolved
By your saliva.
—Shikatsube No Magao
Conscious or unconscious, it doesn't matter in the real world.
—Rick Lieder
1

Nakota, who saw it first: long spider legs drawn up beneath her ugly skirt, wise mouth pursed into nothing like a smile. Sitting in my dreary third-floor flat, on a dreary thrift shop chair, the windowlight behind her dull and gray as dirty fur and she alive, giving off her dark continuous sparks. Around us the remains of this day's argument, squashed beer cans, stolen bar ashtray sloped full. "You know it," she said, "the black-hole thing, right? In space? Big dark butthole," and she laughed, showing those tiny teeth, fox teeth, not white and not ivory yellow either like most people's, almost bluish as if with some undreamed-of decay beneath them. Nakota would rot differently from other people; she would be the first to admit it.

She lit a cigarette. She was the only one of my friends who still smoked, without defiance or a 
guilty flourish, smoked like she breathed but not as often. Black cigarettes, and sweetened mineral water. "So. You gonna touch it today?"

"No."

Another unsmile. "Wiener."

I shrugged. "Not really."

"Nicholas Wiener."

So I didn't answer her. Back to the kitchen. Get your own mineral water. The beer was almost too cold, it hurt going down. When I came back to the living room, what passed for it—big windows, small floor space, couchbed and bad chair—she smiled at me, the real thing this time. Sometimes I thought I was the only one who ever saw that she was beautiful, who ever had. God knows there wasn't much, but I had eyes for it all.

"Let's go look at it," she said.

The one argument there was no resisting. Quietly, we had learned to do it quietly, down the stairs, turn right on the first landing (second floor to you), past the new graffiti that advised
leesa
is
a hore
(no phone number, naturally; thanks a lot assholes) and the unhealthy patina of aging slurs, down the hall to what seemed, might be, some sort of storage room. Detergent bottles, tools, when you opened the door, jumble of crap on the floor, and beyond that a place, a space, the dust around it pale and easily dispersed.

Behold the Funhole.

"Shit," Nakota said, as she always did, her prayer of wonder. She knelt, bending low and supporting herself on straight-stiff arms, closer than I ever did, staring at it. Into it. It was as if she could kneel there all day, painful position but you knew she didn't feel it, looking and looking. I took my spot, a little behind her, to the left, my own prayer silence: what to say before the unspeakable?

Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you looked at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even
something
but some—process. Rabbithole, some strange motherfucking wonderland, you bet. Get somebody named Alice, tie a string to her. . . . We'd discussed it all, would discuss it again, probably tonight, and Nakota would sit as she always did, straightbacked as a priestess, me getting ripped and ripping into poetry, writing shit that was worse than unreadable in the morning, when I would wake—more properly afternoon, and she long gone, off to her job, unsmiling barmaid at Club 22 and me late again for the video store. She might not come again for days, or a day, one day maybe never. I knew: friends, yeah, but it was the Funhole she wanted. You can know something and never think about it, if you're any good at it. Me, now, I've been avoiding so much for so long that the real trick becomes thinking straight.

Beside me, her whisper:
"Look
at it."

I sometimes thought it had a smell, that negative place; we'd made the expected nervous fart jokes, the name itself—well, you can guess. But there
was
some kind of smell, not bad, not even remotely identifiable, but there, oh my yes. I would know that smell forever, know it in the dark (ho-ho) from a city block away. I couldn't forget something that weird.

For the millionth time: "Wouldn't it be
wild
to go
down
there?"

And me, on cue and by rote, "Yeah. But we're not."

Its edges were downhill and smooth. They asked for touch. Not me, said the little red hen, the little chicken, uh-uh. Smell rising around me, it did that sometimes, Nakota insisted she could almost catch the scent at its strongest (which meant nothing, she was a nose-drop addict, she couldn't smell her own shit which she claimed didn't stink anyway) rising humid as a steam cloud but who knew from what fluid, what wetness, its humidity had birth? A moist center? Things, inside? That was Nakota's guess, but I knew, absolutely knew that it was the Fun-hole itself, the black fact of it, sending up that tangible liquidy smell.

How long, tonight? An hour? Twenty minutes? No telling till we got back to my flat, checked the clock; it was time to do that. Rising, more reluctant, her hair in the dusty half-dark as black as the Funhole, short chop swinging around those fierce cheekbones, elbows bending as she sat straight and then stood; my knees cracked, we both jumped, then smiled on a breath, got out.

Up the stairs, down my hall. "You coming in?"

Stopping before we reached my door, her headshake. "No."

"Got your smokes?"

She patted her skirt pocket, she liked those stupid ugly resale-shop skirts, fake fifties poodle skirts with poodles that she restitched into gargoyles, fanged lizards worthy of the most hideous touristy fake kimono. That, and T-shirts of bands so obscure even I'd never heard of them. God. Half the time she looked like a bag of rags someone'd left out for the Salvation Army. Or the garbage man.

"How 'bout your nose drops?" You know, you should shut up, I advised myself, but not fast enough to miss her scorn: "My mother's dead, thanks, I look after myself now." Then a grave glance, the closest she came to kindly. "I'll see you," she said, squeezed my elbow—her signature good-bye—and left, that graceful trudge, puke-colored skirt swinging around thin hips. What, me disappointed?

I used to know those hips, yeah, felt the pointy nudge of those bones, bony back, small small tits, I once compared them to SuperBalls and she laughed through her fury; she couldn't help it, she always did like my jokes. The last time we'd made love, measure it in years, it had been at my drunken insistence and bad, oh, was it bad? It was so bad that halfway into it, and her, I knew in sudden bright horror that she was actually being
nice
to me. This was so disorienting that I crawled off her, away, into the bathroom where I sat hunched among the towels heaped wet and dirty on the wet and dirty floor, close by the toilet, shaking my head. She appeared, naked and thin as a ruler, stood in the diffused light of the bedroom and observed that she had never actually made a man sick before. I think it was her smile, all teeth, that made me finally barf.

But: that cold grin, Nakota, I wanted her still, always, in the dreamy way you want to dive the Marianas trench, or walk in space: you know you never will, so it's okay to moon over it. Like mooning over the Funhole, only not quite. Long ago she had made it plain that those days were over, her deliberate graft of a scab over the ridiculous wound of my love, or something equally stupid but just as painful; a romantic, me, in my own sick wistful way. I can take a hint, but I can't live with it.

Inside I cranked shut the windows I'd opened for her cigarette stink, leaving the one by the couchbed open; I'd always liked night air, especially when I was a kid and was told it was bad for me. Shut that window! You'll get pneumonia! Very cool outside tonight, maybe even kissing forty; stupid Nakota, no jacket. You'll get pneumonia.

Hunger headache, in the mirror my sallow face pale. Okay, what's to eat. I hated to shop, it all turned into shit eventually anyway, so as a result there was usually very little to eat and none of it very good. Or fresh, but I was inured to mold, I could eat anything and keep it down. Beer kills the germs, I told people. Tonight it was cracker-and-peanut-butter sandwiches, the peanut butter cheap and thick, the consistency, I told myself as the crackers broke and crumbled, of actual shit. Though of course I had never eaten any, not that I remembered, and that's the sort of thing you would remember, isn't it? What would happen if you stuck food down the Funhole?

"God, stop it," mumbling aloud around a mouthful of sludge like some derelict in the park, shut up, shut up, drink some beer, read the paper. Ann Landers, my boyfriend wants to secrete stuff in my root cellar, I'm only eleven so what the hell?
city funds new sewage plant.
Imagine that. Two new movies opening, one about sex and one not. Won't see either, I get enough movies at work. Video Hut, Assistant Manager speaking, may I help you? The screens going every open hour of the day, pushing this movie, that movie, trailer after trailer until we can all, even the dumbest of us, recite them word for word. Once in despair I tried to melt my Video Hut name badge in the microwave: stylized red popcorn box, kernels round as breasts popping voluptuously free above my misspelled name, the whole lurid thing nearly three inches wide. Wouldn't melt, either. I don't know what it did to the microwave.

I took a beer to bed with me, along with a new old copy of
Wise Blood.
Flannery O'Connor, God I love her. She died before I was born. I have everything she's ever written. That night, knees up under the fraying red quilt, I didn't read so much as flip, skipping around to my favorite parts, I could recite them but at least they were worth recitation. I was feeling okay from the beer, halfway reading and halfway thinking of Nakota, flabby little halfway erection, cool night air turning cold on my cheek. Was the air from the Funhole cool, too, if you put your face by it? Directly above it, say? nice and close? Would there *be a sensation of vacuum? suction, gentle pull like a lover's tug to bed?

"Stop
it," alarmed, pulling myself upright, scared, yeah, wouldn't anyone be? No. Nakota wouldn't. She'd go like a zombie, sleepwalking down into the lip, so soft, opened like a kiss, black kiss to suck you down, suck you off,
yeah
stupid tentpole dick and where are
you
going, you fucking dummy? I was shaking, I put everything down, got up fast and turned on the stereo, loud, rude-boy reggae. I did not like this, I did not like any of this at all, do they call it a siren song because it cuts through everything else?

Beer. Beer cures everything, maybe even this. Standing at the refrigerator, oblivious of its stored-cooler scent, can burning cold into my hand, I do not want to go in there, in the dark, I don't even want to think about seeing the, seeing it, drink, drink and fall asleep, and I did.

Woke up with a headache that moved immediately to my stomach in a slow barrel roll of nausea as soon as I sat up, but there were no voices in my head but my own and I was glad, glad as I cursed my way into the shower, glad as I drove breakfastless to work beneath trees bare as telephone poles and signs for things I never did or would. In my pocket, hasty hidden crush like pornography, the bad poem (poems?) I had written in my fear; I would not read them, I was ashamed to throw them away.

At a red light I dared to pull one out, unroll it: the first thing I saw was the word "nacht," and next to it something scribbled out so ferociously the paper was bent outward. Or inward. Depending on your bent.

Long spin of the workday, coworkers joking in humors I never felt, dreaming over my register, watching customers thread the aisles like rats in a maze: good rat, here's your titty video.

I had started there, Video Hut, some months before, and by virtue of being the employee least likely to say no became assistant manager. Shitty pay but I bet you knew that; really, my needs were even smaller than my check. Making no living as a card-carrying poet had accustomed me to a philosophy that made minimalism seem lavish, I had lived like a cockroach for so long that a full tank, a full refrigerator were no longer even desirable: I mean, what would I do with it all?

So: my squalor: third-floor flat, one small room and two smaller, couchbed and shitty furniture, real good stereo and even better prints— Klee and Bacon and Bosch predominant, the best ones clipped from back issues of
Smithsonian
that I got free from the throwaway pile at the library—and my favorite, a black-and-white photograph of Nakota, wrapped in rags like cerement's, rising from the tomb of my bathtub, in my other, seedier place, though God knows this one was pretty seedy. At least I never cared when it got wrecked during a party.

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