There was a huge thud at the door. And then again. Not even once did Noah wake up. A moment of silence allowed him to breathe in oblivion before he was shaken up by the shattering sound of breaking wood. He squinted his eyes as he looked around. “Where the hell am I?” – were his first words but they never came out of his mouth. The place was filled with a blackish fog that made Noah wonder if he had gone blind. He could not breathe anymore, not only because of fear, but also because of the strong stench around him that stormed his nostrils. He was thankful for he could not see anything because he was sure that he was sitting between piles of dead bodies. Or had he just woken up from being dead, he thought?
A clutter of noises broke the deathly silence. He saw a flickering laser-like beam appearing from his left. He was happy that he was not blind. The beam soon stopped flickering as it focused on his eyes. As he tried to shield his eyes with his hands, he noticed a gigantic double-door with one of its doors barely hanging from its hinges. “Who the hell broke that door?” – were his next set of words but they went down his throat along with a gulp. He did not have to wait long for an answer.
A familiar sound drew him towards the other side of the beam. He realized that he had been sleeping on the floor all that while. He stared at what he thought was the hoof of a larger-than-normal horse. He looked all the way up to confirm his guess. What he saw on top of the horse was weirder-than-normal. It appeared to be a monster-like man with a beard so long that it touched the back of the horse. He was too terrified to find out who the creature was.
The beam was back on Noah’s eyes, as the creature spoke in a hoarse voice. And it spoke in English.
“You need to come with us.”
The crisp but strong instructions made Noah sit up straight. And he finally spoke, rather stuttered.
“But where? And who are you?”
The larger-than-normal horse reared high, making it appear even larger, as its hoofs aimed for Noah’s head.
“You’ll know.” The words indicated the end of the discussion.
The hoofs came down, not on Noah, but they landed so close to him that he was thrown back in shock. He was about to let out his loudest cry when a thick noose fell perfectly around his neck. Before he could react, the noose tightened. He gasped for breath as he felt being dragged on rocks. He wanted to get rid of the noose but he could not find his hands. He struggled like a fish out of water before he realized that he was flying like a blind bird. And then he was going down.
The cry finally came out. It was more of a scream that did not stop until Noah was out of his last bit of breath. His heart was pounding hard as if it wanted to escape through his ribcage. As he dared to open his eyes, he found that he was on his bed. In his own bedroom. It was bright enough for him to see the half-open door that gave him a glimpse of his loud television. The stench around him, of his unwashed socks and unattended bathroom, was not strong enough to bother him. As he looked down, he noticed that his white sheet, that had recently acquired a grayish shade, looked almost black. His entire body was wet. He must have sweat out a bucket of water, he thought.
The fact that his nightmare was over gave him the courage to get out of his bed, something that he couldn’t remember when he had done last. The only curtain in his bedroom, that had gathered a thick coat of dust, got lucky as it was pulled to the side of the window. The world outside the window was still the same as before. Cars crisscrossed on roads and people laughed by walkways. The lights on the streets almost blinded him just like that annoying laser beam. He looked back towards his alarm clock that had been just ticking along for months without playing the tunes it once used to play. The needles on the clock brought out Noah’s first words in his real world. “10 pm! Damn! When did I sleep?” He had no idea. It was last night when he was brought home and put to bed. He was not drunk. It was just that he had not slept at all for the previous three days and three nights.
Noah’s real world was in tatters. Of late, nothing had gone in his favor. His once-promising career of an investment banker had started showing signs of crashing down. The cool dude of college with the biggest job package had ended up being confined to his workstation. His friends had started fading away from him just like he did from their hangouts. None of that had distracted him from his focus towards becoming a top investment banker at his company. Until the friend that mattered to him the most had told him what he did not want to hear. About a month ago.
“Noah. Sweetheart, you need to take it a little easy.”
That was Jade, Noah’s only girlfriend since college. She was an investment banker herself and she knew everything that was going on inside him. More than anyone else, she wanted her Noah back. He, however, was sucked too deep in the whirlpool to be pulled out.
“And what do you mean by that?” Noah’s raised eyebrow asked more questions that the words he spoke.
“I do not mean anything. Just that I am worried about you. You are killing yourself!”
Noah shouted back. “Just say it on my face! That I am not good enough to be successful like you. Right?”
Jade dropped her shoulders as she raised her voice too. “Come on! When did I say that? Stop imagining things!”
That brought a wry smile on his face. “Huh! Now I am imagining things!”
She did not want to make it worse. “Come on sweetie! I have an idea. Let’s take a break and go on our long-pending vacation to Hawaii.”
He paused for a while and then he looked at her. “Why did you stop? Tell me that you’ll sponsor the whole trip!”
There was no word from her as she picked her bag up and barged towards the main door. He stopped her just before she could grab the doorknob.
“Where are you going now?”
She turned back and spoke her heart out. “F#@k you!”
The door was shut on his face. Before he could digest what he just heard, the door opened again. What he heard next was impossible for him to digest.
“Do whatever you want with your fricking life! I am breaking up with you!”
She slammed the door so hard that the deafening sound that it made echoed in his ears for seconds. Then it was all quiet. His hands covered his face as if trying to hide his guilt, and without saying a word, his shattered soul sunk in the couch.
Noah splashed water on his face as he stared into the mirror. He noticed that he did not look the same as before. The dark circles under his eyes had grown and his once-sparkling eyeballs had turned bloody red. He could see his veins flowing like rivers on his face with the thickest one pumping hard on the right of his forehead. He tried to roll his fingers through his hair but his locks were as rough as a bird’s nest. They were thirsty just like his chapped lips. He bowed down and put his head under the flowing tap.
He didn’t get up for a while, and when he eventually did, he looked straight into the mirror with his hands pushing the washbasin down. His fingers went through his hair, not just once, making small splashes of water that painted the wall behind him. Water dropped off his eyelids as he blinked. He didn’t look the same as what he looked moments before. His eyes looked bigger and redder. His wet face glowed and his veins appeared thicker. And then as if admiring himself, he let out a huge smile. There was something mysterious about the smile in that it slowly cracked starting from his right cheek to his left one. He nodded a couple of times, and then he laughed. A moment later, he stopped laughing. He looked up at the ceiling and then he was back to staring at himself. After a short pause, he laughed even harder.
Ring, ring… Ring, ring.
The phone ring interrupted Noah’s act as he walked out to the living room. He could not reach in time to answer the phone call. He didn’t bother to check who had called and threw his phone on the couch. He opened the refrigerator and checked all its corners. They all were empty. He kicked the door hard and walked towards the window. He once again saw the cars moving on the lit-up streets. He softly stomped his foot for a few times, and then made a loud snap with his fingers. He turned around and looked for his watch and his wallet. He grabbed his jacket hanging beside the door, and in a flash, he was out of his apartment. And in another, he was walking on the street.
The usually aromatic blend of fresh cold air and smells of food on the carts was not powerful enough to bring a cheer on Noah’s face. His eyes aimed for his feet as he kept walking without caring about his surroundings. Even the guy playing trumpet had to watch his friend walk away without dropping a dollar. Noah didn’t look up for the incoming crowd, not even for the walking signs. He just walked. People excused themselves and cars braked in front of him. Abuses were hurled at him but he never heard them. While his walk created chaos around him, he fought a battle with himself in his mind.
“I am done! I don’t even know what I am doing right now.”
“Oh really! So, what’s your plan?”
“I have no fricking plan. I have no reason to live anymore.”
“Ahaa. What made you think so?”
“Everything! Even in my fricking dreams, those monsters drag me to hell.”
“Hmmm. In that case, how do you plan to die?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I will jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“Nah. Trust me, they will save you. And you know how to swim. Don’t you?”
“I will hang from the ceiling fan.”
“Hahaha! Your 1950 fan will come down with you.”
“Damn it! I will drink poison.”
“Oh boy! That’s the worst form of suicide. You will be in pain for hours. Not a great idea.”
“Shut the f#@k up!”
He finally came out of his trance as he approached a traffic signal. The number on the street sign and his about-to-explode head told him to take a left. Two blocks and a right later, he stood in front of Holy Spirits, the bar that had seen him every other evening for a decade, and had almost forgotten him in the last three months. He looked up to the glittering red sign that still had the ‘H’ not lit up. He took a deep breath and walked in.
He was stopped by a sweet voice as he tried to walk towards the bar.
“May I help you?”
He looked at a smiling girl and wondered if he was at the right place. He was not used to being stopped at Holy Spirits. He managed to stammer out his barely audible answer.
“Need a drink!”
Before the girl could say any further, a familiar voice greeted him.
The sight of ecstatic Kayla behind the bar brought a huge relief for him. She waved at the hostess to let him come in. Her animated face could not bring a smile on his face. He was much slower than usual in climbing on to the stool. His hands rested on the bar counter and his head kissed them.
Kayla had served him drinks for the last five years but she was not just a bartender for him. His friends often said that she knew more of Noah than Jade did. And Jade agreed on that too. Every single achievement of his was celebrated with Kayla’s cocktails. When things didn’t go well for him, it was she who heard his painfully long stories and cheered him up. All of that stopped when one day she told him that he was wrong and Jade was correct. It was the first time since then that he sat face-to-face with her. Well, not so quite.
“What’s up buddy?”
He raised his head and replied in a tired voice.
“Give me a drink. Please!”
The extended ‘please’ made it sound more like a request than an order.
“Please? Aha. Something’s not right. What’s wrong?”
“Just give me the fricking drink!”
“Ooh! Someone is angry.”
She grabbed the Jack Daniels whisky bottle and poured a larger-than-large shot for him. That was the drink for his mood. He downed the drink in one go and banged the glass hard on the counter. Without asking any questions, she poured another drink as she stared at his pale face.
“Okay. Now tell me what’s cooking.”
He grabbed his hair with both his hands as if trying to pluck them out, shook his head, looked towards the guy sitting on his right, then turned back at her and finally spoke.
“Nothing. Not a damn thing!”
“Then cook something.”
“I am not here to listen to your stupid jokes today. Just do your job!”
The second drink was down too, even faster than the first one. The smile was off her face as she poured another drink for him and then walked to the other side of the bar.
The evening went on as people came in the bar smiling and people went out screaming. Noah slowed down on his drinking but he did not stop. Alcohol had kicked in as he felt better after a long time. His head spun but in a good way. Kayla was in mood to talk to him so he decided to socialize with his neighbors. A tall and broad man, probably in his early forties, sat to his right with his back towards Noah. Next to him was a young woman wearing a shiny red dress, who looked at least fifteen years younger than him. Without looking around him, Noah was convinced that the woman in red was the hottest female in the entire bar. Her mesmerizing blue eyes, her beautiful wide smile, her constant stroking of her hair, everything about her prevented him from taking his eyes off her.
It did not take long for the inevitable to happen. The woman in red could not ignore Noah’s stares anymore. The tall and broad man turned around.
“Excuse me. What’s your problem?”
Noah did not stutter at all. His reply couldn’t have been more confident.
“No problem, buddy! Why do you seem so worried?”
“You are staring at my girl. You better back off.”
That brought a smile on Noah’s face. After a very long time.
“Oh well. It’s not really my fault. May I say, the lady with you is stunningly beautiful. You are a lucky man!”
That brought the tall and broad man off the stool. He stood right on top of Noah.
“You say one more word about her, and I’ll beat the hell out of you!”
By that time, Kayla rushed to the scene. All eyes in the bar were focused on the two. The woman in red pulled her man’s bulky arms in an attempt to avoid bloodshed. There was only one person in the entire bar who was not anxious. He continued to sit as he spoke again.
“Well. One word is not enough for the treasure that you’ve got, my friend.”
That brought a smile on the face of the woman but her man was still fuming. Kayla breathed a sigh thinking it was over. But then Noah dropped the bomb.
“God! You’re so damn sexy!”
That was it. The big fist landed on Noah’s jaw with full might, and with a crackling sound of breaking teeth, his body came down crashing on the floor. Before anyone could reach him, he managed to get up. Blood leaked from his mouth which surprisingly also leaked a smile. His next thoughts were interrupted by furious Kayla as she pushed him back to the wall.
“Are you fricking crazy?”
Noah let out a drunk laugh but didn’t say anything.
“He will kill you! Do you understand?”
“Come on! Let me talk to him. I have to apologize.”
“Not in my bar. Get the hell out of here!”
As three men tried to pull back the tall and broad man, Kayla dragged Noah out of the bar and gave him the last piece of advice.
“I know you don’t care about what I say, but I still care about you. Now, please, go home!”
She was back in the bar before he could attempt to respond. He smiled and then looked down on the street. He held the pose for a couple of seconds, and then he looked up at the sky with his hands on his waist. The lights of the city didn’t allow him to spot the stars in the clear sky but he still imagined them. He found the pole star, and without any reason, started walking towards it with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. It was not the same Noah who had walked like a zombie two hours back. He wore a constant smile on his face that became wider every time someone’s eyes crossed his. While everyone around him shivered in the bone-chilling winds, he marched on with his unzipped jacket flying behind him like a cape.
The lights around him started getting brighter as he reached the Times Square area. He was one of the few New Yorkers who hated crowds. His friends hated him for bringing them early to bars, just because he couldn’t drink in noisy places. Peace of mind, is what he used to say, he always looked for. On that night, in fact, a little past midnight, New York City was in its usual self – flooded with people who had no plans of going back home. It was five years since Noah had last visited Times Square. He had pledged not to come back to the craziness ever again in his life. And there he was, happily drowning in the crowds admiring everyone and everything that he laid his eyes on.
Miles away in Boston, Jade tried hard to sleep in her hotel room. It had become her evening routine ever since she had walked out of Noah’s apartment. Since then, she had grabbed every traveling opportunity to stay away from Noah. Eight cities and thirteen trips later, she still saw Noah’s sinking face whenever she tried to close her eyes. Her thoughts of calling him faded away in a battle of her worry for and her anger towards him. She had tried to find out about him through his friends but all of them were in the same boat with her. Noah had gone too far from his people, and there was no string strong enough to pull him back.
In the hustle and bustle of Times Square, Noah zigzagged like a meditating snake. Nothing seemed to annoy him, not even the awestruck tourists. He always hated them for their lack of common sense but not anymore. He joined kids for pictures with the Disney characters, cheered Spiderman hanging from the pole and even listened to the people preaching about religion. He made all of them happy with generous tips. He even became a celebrity when he dropped his pants to pose with the almost-naked cowgirls, drawing hundreds of cheers and clicks. Not even once did he think why he had never done that before. More so because he had nothing in his mind that had happened before. He was living his new life, and he was loving it.
Just after crossing the Hard Rock Café, he noticed a beggar on his left with a sign – “Will do anything for a pot!” He usually found such signs funny and creative but not convincing enough to shell out any money. On that night, he was not the usual Noah. Something made him stop. He walked towards the white-skinned beggar who was probably in mid-fifties and had a thick golden beard. He wore a torn jacket and his pants appeared over-sized for him. The only thing shiny on him was his red hat that had a yellow lion roaring on it. He sported a wide smile that could have been beautiful but for his yellow, unkempt teeth.
Noah bowed to bring his eyes parallel to the beggar’s.
“How are you, buddy?”
The beggar didn’t seem to have seen that coming. His response was not as sure as how he looked a moment ago.
“Ah. Well. You can see it man.”
Noah smiled, and stumped the beggar for the second time.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
That time, however, the response was much quicker and firmer.
“Absolutely! After all, we live in free America!”
Noah sat to his right with his back resting against the wall.
“What’s your name buddy?”
“Peter, and yours?”
Peter had nothing to talk about. He was not used to conversations. He just hoped that he didn’t have to end up wasting time without any money. There was an awkward silence between them while the screams and horns kept things loud around them. Noah broke it.
“It must be tough man.”
“Tough? Oh yeah. Tell me about it.”
“How much do you get in your whole day?”
“Ah. It’s all luck man. On good days, I make double digits. Most of the days, it’s all pennies.”
Noah was about to say something and suddenly he stopped. He cracked his knuckles and reached for his wallet in his pocket. The sight of his fat wallet delighted Peter. To make it more enticing for him, Noah started taking out bills. Peter counted them aloud but in his mind.
“One… Two… Three… Four… Five. All fricking twenties!”
Nothing was said between them as one shaking hand outreached the stable one to grab one hundred dollars. The shaking hand had to ask its other shaking sibling to prevent the money from falling off. The whole of Peter was shaking. He said what he ought to in his trembling voice.
“Thank you, man! God bless you!”
“This is nothing buddy. Go eat some food. And smoke some pot too!”
They both burst out laughing. People looked at them with curious eyes but they didn’t find the sight of a well-dressed person laughing with a beggar amusing enough to stop. Noah shook hands with Peter who was still not out of shock. As Noah started walking away from Peter, he stopped, turned around and then shouted back at him.
Noah took off his jacket and hurled it towards Peter. The old but big hands grabbed the jacket cleanly. With his wide-opened arms asking the obvious question, he walked towards Noah.
“Come on man! You don’t need to do this. You have given me more than plenty already.”
“Keep it. You need it.”
Peter gave the jacket back to Noah.
“You will die in this cold without a jacket!”
“Alright. Fine. Give me yours.”
That made Peter let his jaw drop.
“Tell me one thing honestly. Are you high?”
Peter stood stunned as Noah took his jacket off him and wore it. There was nothing about the jacket to smile about, but Noah smiled as he seemed to admire it. Peter spoke finally.
“Man! You are a messenger of God. Come on! Give me a hug!”
The chests thumped and the hands slapped the backs hard. Finally, Noah walked towards his next unplanned destination and Peter went looking for an expensive place to eat at.
Noah had walked a lot on that evening. He felt a little tired and dizzy as he climbed the famous red staircase. He found a place at the top of the staircase for him to sit and relax. He looked around at the lit-up hoardings and then looked down at the sea of heads that had waves without patterns. Fashion models appeared to his left and to his right, some in winter clothes and some in lingerie. The NASDAQ ticker sent his head in a spin as he tried to make sense of the numbers. He then tried to reset his brain by focusing on the ball above the 2016 sign. That did not help either. He then looked up at the sky trying to find stars. That time, however, he could not find them. Even worse, he could not even find the sky. That shook him up as he stood up.
His right hand was on the railing as he looked around again. He felt a little better which made him think that he needs to keep walking. He slowly climbed down the staircase as if he wanted to pose for tourists at every step. Suddenly, he heard some nice music though he could not find any musicians. Maybe a musician playing for money, he thought. A bunch of musicians probably, as he heard multiple instruments with his favorite, saxophone, leading all of them. He liked that kind of music, the one that did not interfere but created a pleasant background for him to focus.
He was only halfway down when he heard a familiar voice. It was Jade.
“I am happy for you, Noah.”
He was startled as he looked around but there was no sign of Jade. He had almost given up but then he saw her. Wearing a yellow dress and yellow heels, she looked gorgeous as she walked towards him. And then she vanished. Another woman appeared but he didn’t know her. And then another, what was going on, he thought. All of a sudden, he heard his friends cheering. He turned to his left, and there they were, all jumping on his couch. Before he could squint his eyes enough to identify them, they were gone. Instead of them, Kayla appeared. But why was she wearing the Wonder Woman costume? Nothing was making sense. To make it worse, a huge lion roared in front of him and then it shrunk to be on Peter’s hat. He laughed out loud and he was gone too.
His body just walked while his mind remained bewildered. His last step on the staircase seemed to have no clear instructions from his brain as he slipped. Everything around him spun. The lights made red and yellow circles with the sea of heads adding shades of black to them. The saxophone didn’t play anymore nor the rest of the band. He landed on the ground with his face down. He could not lift himself up. All he could see was shoes gathering around him. Everything suddenly became awfully quiet. He could see blood dripping from his face but he did not feel the pain. He breathed slow but heavy as he heard screaming women. Soon, the crowd of shoes paved way for a flickering beam of light approaching him. It was happening again, he thought. He wanted it to be a coincidence but then he saw he did not want to. The horse and the rider. He heard the dreaded words again.
“Sir! You need to come with us.”
“Hey Noah! Come on, get up!”
It was Jade again. And again, Noah could not see her. Everything around him was so blurry. He couldn’t make sense out of anything that he could manage to see. He finally spotted a human. It looked like a female wearing a white jacket. That was all he could figure out. He turned towards his right and he saw Jade. She looked blurry too. He tried to rub his eyes but his hands were tied. The transparent tubes stuck to his arms gave it away. He was in a hospital. Hospital? The realization was enough to wake him up.
“Damn! What am I doing in a hospital?”
Jade stood up from her chair and held his hands.
“Don’t worry! Everything is alright now.”
“What do you mean? What was not alright?”
“You need to take rest. Just calm down.”
“Just shut up! Who brought me here?”
“Well. The police brought you here.”
“Police? What did I do?”
“Apparently, you did a lot. Maybe you should tell me.”
“I don’t remember a thing. What are you doing here by the way?”
“Well. Unfortunately, I still care about you.”
Noah didn’t have words to respond with but only a blank stare and that too a quick one. She noticed his discomfort and tried changing the topic with a naughty smile on her face.
“Hey, by the way! I heard you called the police officer a monster. Were you out of your mind?”
“Yeah. Everybody in the hospital knows that.”
Everything started making sense for him.
“Man! This is all because of that fricking nightmare.”
“Can we please talk about something else?”
They talked about many other things. While Jade and Noah chatted trying to make up for their lost time, a white file folder quietly sat behind Jade. It told a story of its own.
“Medical Records: Noah Kauffman.”