Ampersand - Amanda Palmer
I walk down my street at night, the city lights are cold and violent. A siren blares out, a stabbing sound that pierces the penumbra of my thoughts, leaving an echoing wound resonating in the night air. The quiet night is a special time, a time of power and in the city, it is worth all the more for it's rarity, so when the tear forms, it heals quickly; the city has a a thousand lifetimes of scar tissue already, it's adapted. Soon, the wound is gone, almost as quickly as it appeared, like the skin of a man sealing off the wound of a mosquito bite.
Still, there is a tension in the air tonight. Something is different as I make my rounds. Their is a pregnancy in soul of the city this night, in the buzzing of the angry street lamps and the shadows cast by the detritus of the day, something is waiting to be born.
And then it happens, I look back and see a door that shouldn't be there. The other is calling me, the Mad city that lives behind the wounds; the life blood of the waking world I've been cursed to walk for so long, that spills and scabs but never truly flows free. I went there once, seeking to find a cure to the silence, something to sever my affinity with the night and let me finally sleep, but I never found it.
I only found nightmares, those Awaken that succumbed to their inner madness and joined the wrong side and through only luck did I escape. I've kept vigil, on the City Slumbering as well as myself ever since, watching for doors, watching out for myself. My madness makes it hard not to find them, because I can hear the dreams of the sleeping city, and those dreams are Madness and Madness, madness is a doorway. I will myself to be deaf, to close the doors I hear but it's not always enough and so hear I stand before another door, opening up in a wound of sound, a portal through the veil of silence from sleeping to dreaming.
It opens before I can react and a girl stumbles out, afraid, eyes wide but I don't hear her screams, just feel them as they rip and tear at the silence. I move forward in a single stride and clamp a hand around her mouth. She struggles, but I will the voice of her strength into silence and she flops uselessly against me like a ragdoll. Ignoring her for the time being, I shut the door, unwhisper the Words the Spoke it into being and it vanishes. Now the girl can have my attention.
"You are Awake, then?" I un-ask her. She hears the lack of an answer to an unspoken question and nods against my hand, still clamped to her face. So, she is kin. I release her.
"What the... what's happening to me?"
I put a finger to my lips. The night is still delicate. "Whisper, if you must speak. The veil is weak enough tonight." I un-warn her.
"I don't understand," she sobs, her chokes muffled by her hands, "none of this is even possible."
She pulls a deckchair from the pocket of her jeans, as if they'd been cut from the same cloth as Mary Poppins' bag, the chair folding itself from some unknowable geometry into perfect being as she places it on the tarmac of the empty street and collapses into it. I feel jealous and pitiful at the same time. Her madness was one of utility it seems, unlike mine which is so much a burden. No wonder she was running, she was obviously new to this and the nightmares of the Mad city, they love such abilities and seek to devour those that have them.
"How long has it been since the insomnia started?"
"I... months... maybe years... I don't even know any more."
"And you found yourself in a strange city, fell through a rabbit hole or took a wrong turn down a road that never was?"
She stared at me with widening eyes. "But how do you...?" Then fear. "You're.. you're one of them aren't you?"
"No. You're one of me, you're-"
"Awake. You said before but I didn't understand. What does any of this mean? What's happening to me?"
"Sometimes insomnia doesn't let go and you wake up, and keep waking, even though you're already awake. More and more is revealed until we go mad. The we see the Mad city, the city of the Awake, the city of dreams. When you see the City, the City sees you, it's it jealously hordes those it deems it's citizens, whether they're willing or not."
She takes a couple of deep breathes and calms down, then like bird, cocks her head inquisitively and looks at me. "Your accent... you're deaf aren't you?"
"Yes. In the most mundane fashion. I hear with my Madness. Being Awake grants as all certain talents."
She looks pensive, thoughtful. "Can life ever go back to normal?"
"Not here, no. The only answers lie in the Mad city and it is a dangerous place. Whatever is keeping us awake lies there. I escaped once, so have you. You should not return. The City is not known for it's mercy, it would be foolish to go twice. You should stay here a guard the veil with me. It's all us lost Awake can hope for, to prevent more tragedies."
She stands up, angry. "Like you prevented mine?"
I shrug. "I can't be everywhere. Where did you come from, where did you step through the looking glass?"
"Toronto. Why, where am I?"
"This is New Jersey. You should go home."
"Wha-" but I cut her off with a whisper. I spoke a Word, then another and oral history of the universe stated she was home. I don't often use my talents so lightly, it weakens the veil, but she was a fellow victim. Still, I know I went to far as a thousand doors open and city comes to claim me back. I don't fight it. As I digest the voice of the poor girl, I realise I never really escaped.
I was a nightmare all along.