Sometimes Tajeb dreams about magic, of shimmering water sprites donned in diamond dresses floating over Andalusia, their incandescent heels grazing the skyscrapers. Of fairies with eyes of Lapus Lazuli and Moonstone, deselected Golems watching dolefully from the sidelines, of creatures that spit rainbows; a world of numberless possibilities. The reveries often leave him with a slow, euphoric flush within his chest, like a dispersion of bliss spirits just learning to fly. It is palpable in the star-dotted night peeping in through his bathroom window.
On this particular night, Tajeb finds himself armored in skin-tight gothgear. An exoskeleton of black leather pants and a fishnet top clings to him like a scared child, squeaking with every inch of movement. A stripe of kohl bands across his still, brown eyes and narrow hook nose, contrasting with the pastel red that paints his lips. He reaches for the pearly-black flatiron from the sink. It sizzles and smokes in his hand. Without delay, he grabs a hunk of hair and pulls the smoking metal through, ignoring the incessant hiss. Once the strands are straight, the faint hints of his poor bluish-black dyejob begin to show. He muses on the thick clumps still bunched at his chest. He takes a few hairs between his fingers and stretches them out, admiring the natural wavy state. It is the same subtle S-shaped curl-pattern that was uniform of the natives of Portugal's infamous Norte region, an area lodged in a dimension lying somewhere between past and present, where lifetimes were chained to a perpetual carousel of birth-work-die, and eyes have become hollow from the lack of fresh sights, grown tired of the usual barren pallor that permeated the land. Once upon a lifetime, this was Tajeb's home, a period before he could wrap his mind around ideas of the living dead or the stunting of time. For him, it was a simply when he was Herminio Amieiro, a young boy living amongst yet ignorant of it all. Every once in a while, he'd read up on the current events in Cape Verde, the place of his birth, only to find that the slum streets remained silent with the hushed screams of the sticky-fingered destitute, the petty thievery and backstabbing going on seen by none and felt by all; a sepulchral den of dark-skinned madness.
The virus of this muted spiral of crime were known to the people as Gêmeos Invisíveis, The Invisible Twins, prophesied to be the shadow-skinned phantoms sent by Satanás to lay fresh bodies to Cape Verde's staggering, blood-drunk depravity. It began when cases of produce that provided most with food and some with profit disappeared from the cramped, grime-stained aisles of the market. With the coming months it became common for a farmer who'd arrived with ten cases of fruit to leave with a six-case pay in his pocket, and no products to account for. They disappeared as if lifted by colossal colorless hands large enough to cradle elephants. After the fruit came the meat, and after the meat came the jewels, the shiny rocks that were always locked away and out of sight, stuffed in small chests like dark secrets. Who knows where the people got these treasures while living in dilapidated trash heaps, and no Norte woman would dare wear these adornments in public, unless she desired to vanish like so many crates of strawberries, to melt into the sluggish fog billowing from the alleyways. One by one the jewelries went, taking with them the last stitches of the society's fragile fabric. Paranoia poisoned neighbor against brother against friend, and soon the high noon market rush was always aglow with the light of exposed machetes, with any argument ending with gore on the walls.
Herminio's first memories of this life were of ripe bananas tinted in a tropical shade of yellow, the sizzling smell of tortillas, of doors adorned with delicate mauve sashes stitched with a likeness of Mary, and mounds of gold jewelry that no one would wear. Hearing the stories of how these finds came to decorate their home was always an exciting time. In a fort of large covers and plush pillows, he listened to his Papai tell him how he had to fight a gang of winged leprechauns to get the sausages for Christmas dinner's Cozido, and his serenade of a fire-breathing mountain lion for the garnet-studded gold band that rung around Mãe's finger. On these magical nights, he'd see his Papai cover himself in a black cloth that engulfed everything but his eyes and head out. Herminio knew that he was off on another adventure, gathering fodder for another awesome bedtime story, and, deep in the night, he would wait at the window by his bed for his Papai, looking out into the lines of smoking huts valleyed in the distance and try to imagine him flying a magic carpet over Cape Verde, returning with a night's catch perched under his arm.
He didn't remember much of the night they left. Only particularly could he recall the feral roar of the mob in the distance and the frantic yet expert whispering of his parents in the other room, the ruffling of cloths and trunks and the sensation of being carried. From then the nightscents of warm Cozido and Frittatas fell to the aroma of Daal Bafla and Dosa, and Herminio Amieiro was replaced with Tajeb Kasad. No retellings of the town's enchanted wonder were given after that night, and Tajeb’s toddling brain was too weak to keep a firm grip, so it didn't take long for the streets of Cape Verde to eventually rip and peel away.
Tajeb's first vision of magic came in the form of a discarded computer. He was amazed at the off-white exterior holding the large square eyeglass, the gooseflesh keyboard and the thin cords that bouqueted from the back, sprawled across the floor like squid-like tendons. He'd never seen such a being before, yet it looked so familiar, so homey. He urges closer to the grayish-black screen, his face reflecting implacable awe. When he touches it, clouds of fairy dust pick and claw at his eyes, and when he smoothes it away and looks again, he recognizes the strange form, the name seeming to jump out and grab him.
The name was still too hard to pronounce for his childish tongue, but he suddenly remembered how his dad (his Papai?) would say it in the story of the day Herminio was born, where an egregious form ravaged Cape Verde, stealing newborn babies for his army, and how his parents hid him in an invisible blanket to keep it from taking him. His dad later showed him the picture of the monster from an old black hardcover, sitting in a chair clothed in a black robe, his tentacle-beard spaghettied round his head: Cthulhu, ruler of the Underworld and swiper of children.
Tajeb crawls under Cthulhu's dusty eggshell head and takes its red, black, and blue tentacles round his fingers, twirling himself in them again and again until they snaked and spiraled down his seven-year-old frame. There was something about the rubbery graze of the cords, the way they embraced and coddled him with a warmth that surpassed even the best of motherly affections. He closes his eyes and coos instinctively, allowing the snuggling heat to swaddle him further. It spreads around him like an enormous comforter, stretching over his head and past his legs. He feels safe and peaceful, and in an instant he is back in his room in Cape Verde, nestled in the palm of a third-world midnight. Memories long forgotten begin to drip and ooze before his eyes, images of thick wavy hair wrapped in virgin sashes and belts holding mystical swords, of luminous fruit and forbidden stones. They sprout long sparkly wings and surround him, ricocheting about his head, whispering heartily “Welcome home...” He sleeps placidly until two pairs of hands thrust through the darkness and shake him awake, and a voice similar to his mother's echoing in the distance. He punches and kicks at the unknown hands, shouting in his native tongue, ignoring the wayward looks from the paste-colored, English-speaking patrons of the library.
“No, I'm going to the Underworld. Catooloo's waiting for me. I wanna go to the Underworld. I wanna go to the Underworld!”
There were no tales of fairies told to him that night. He instead was scolded like any ordinary being of childish impulse, billed on the immutable laws of right and wrong and the final say of parents, of good behavior and good grades, an address of the chains that bound him to this solemn realm of reality.
“We just want you to be safe, Tajeb,” his mom says, rubbing her palm on his lap as if to either comfort or restrain him, “We want you to grow up to be a responsible adult, and get into no trouble. Now don't you do anything like that again, you hear me?”
He is silent throughout the onslaught. He just clenches his teeth and bears it. After they leave, Tajeb clutches himself under the covers and tries to resurrect that enveloping warmth that he was so viciously ripped from. Fuzzy visages of Cthulhu and Cape Verde erratically rise and fall from his vision, a murky slideshow of suppressed memories and restless daydreams. Battling the big scary claw of sleep, he struggles to keep his eyes open. As his eyelids falter one last time, he vows to someday return to that place of bliss and comforting embrace. He knew that somewhere in those tangled cords was his way home, and no matter the time spent or the cost extorted, he would find his way back into its arms.
It is on this magical night that username G4mIn3 is set to meet what the underground webtrollers called a password whisperer, a person behind one of the many usernames that popped in and out of messageboards infested with comp hacking hopefuls, tantalizing those desperate for that new piece of cache juice, that new zero to the infinite binary code of the world. The finial stage of this text-reply courtship was to be chosen to be part of this special enclave, a bestowal of recognized prowess given by a password whisperer in person, an event so rare that it bordered on urban legend. Tajeb knows not to tell anyone of the message he got this morning telling him the meeting place. Despite the connections (he will never go as far as to call them friendships) he made in this playground of generated nominals and manufactured charlatans, they were all slaves to asylums built and cultivated by their own megalomania, ready to pounce and advance upon any opportunity to get ahead. For now, he'll contain his enthusiasm.
Tajeb had always known the usernames of the whisperers were merely puppets, operated by technical masterminds that he imagined were adrift in a sea of lavish apartments and well-insulated cities, gazing over the forums like sybaritic gargoyles waiting for that elusive flicker of potential, a flash of genius worthy to honor this arcane tradition. He aches for the taste of it, to feel the occult contents wedged into his cranium never to escape. Since that short time nested in the breast of Cthulhu, he had squirmed and toiled through the singeing days and dank nights, inching himself up to this very moment.
It had been fourteen months since he began his journey to this mirror reflecting his personal homage to Eric Draven, a long expanse of time spent ensconced beneath the so-called teenage angst barricade of isolation and loud music, listening to “Head Like A Hole” on repeat until the synthesized riffs branded his synapses. For fourteen months, the computer screen glowed alone in the far left corner of Tajeb's room like a steadily beckoning star. His subtle hunch while sitting exacerbates with time, and eventually the bridge of his nose is only a soft breath away from the monitor, his eyes all too used to the slight sting from the artificial light.
He dives into the cunning-lined bowels of cyberspace, scouring the various shibboleths and webcults skirting his cause. Inquisitions, replies and reblog sites run rampant, ordained with names such as the Velvet Vampire or Odin's Kitchen, parochial names meant to demonstrate a sort-of occult enigma to the world of piracy. It was all evidence of the thousands of faceless, lowly cretins that faked large egos online, credulous inchworms born from ennui and too much playtime on daddy's laptop. Picking the sites off as fake was way too easy, and even thought several months in, he didn't find nearly what he was looking for, Tajeb's focus remained unwavering; He knew what he needed, and would take the time to find it. The days slowly collapsed into a heavy, wet blanket of shifts between bathroom breaks, where hygiene is a distant dream and the occasional spell of stomach numbness that passed for hunger. He retracts back to Odin's Kitchen, gathering some token beginner's information on unfurling the unknown. He gathers cracking codes and password loopholes, swapping tricks and e-gestures, learning intensely. Two more months in, the arena of challenges presents himself to him. The production of false documents was tricky at first, but finding the right avenue to produce the unused ID numbers and creating an official verisimilitude was a feat he enjoyed achieving. He stumbles into hacking and learns to break into his old high school's computer system. He changes grades, and replaces teacher's photos with S&M stills on casual whims. After awhile, He struggles to learn more, and digs deeper into the Net's dark crevasse. From a related site to Odin's Kitchen he learns of the password whisperers, those enthroned few who possessed the real keys to cities, access to the inexhaustible fountain of knowledge, master hackers. Tajeb's eyes, fatigued and half-open from lack of sleep, grow wide again with renewed vigor. Lying dormant under all of this delinquent dialogue was the need to prove oneself. It had become apparent to Tajeb that to find what he wanted he had to transcend the seemingly bottomless catechism, to rise above the masses of the diffident and maladroit. It is then that he gives G4mIn3 fangs to match his wings, feral weals born from the blows of his technical inexperience long dead. He dives in deeper...
I'll expect you tonight in the Poacher's Den, when the moon dies and where the dead roam the earth.
P~$$R had proven himself to be one of the few sentinels to keep vigil over the Net's best-kept secrets. One of the few furtive souls whose sedulous efforts who reaped the most-coveted rewards of this secret intelligence, all while avoiding the whims of the apocryphal and gauche. He'd risen to greatness not long before Tajeb discovered the scene, posting a now legendary vault of dispatched plans from the Pentagon, an ominous paper trail going all the way back to times of Truman and MacArthur: A collection of blueprints of the atomic weaponry destined to decimate souls by the millions, earthly manifestations of Cthulhu's warriors that descended upon Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Next to P~$$R, the monumental tasks of fabricating college acceptance letters, passports and W2's seemed now like a lackluster preliminary; a mere novice Tinkertoy. How he found it no one knew, and the mystery and the endless How-did-he-do-its added to his genius. His mark had been made..
It's the flat-iron's last sizzling tug, and a lacquered blue-black cape cascades down Tajeb's chest, brushing his hips as he walks back to his computer. Three fifteen a.m. burns an electric azure in the clock by his bed. It'll be time go soon. He grabs his coat and rereads the message for the seventieth time before heading for the door.
The Poacher's Den, the Goth club downtown, is suffocated with anorexic pale bodies stamped with faces of the disaffected and lachrymose, agglomerate in a wave of skull piercings and black lace. Behind the bar, a clay figure of Satan cradles a flame reading four twenty-nine. It was almost time. He turns from the bar into the adjacent hallway leading to the basement.
When the moon dies and where the dead roam the earth...
The stairs to the basement seemed to descend counterclockwise into smoky oblivion, and he walks down it quickly, fearing going too slowly will make him queasy. It was approaching five a.m., any second now the moon's crescent shape will be swallowed by the horizon, and the light of morning will crawl over the city.
At the end of the spiral staircase, an industrial tune that he recognized as Orgy's “Social Enemies” plays softly from the ceiling, and groups of leather-clad children of the night are clustered in the corners, rapt in conversation. Tajeb ambles through the crowd, admiring the romanticized paintings of the living and dead in loving embraces, of flesh and blood women pressing lips to beings of carrion and freshly broken soil. He feels a set of eyes on him, and slows to a halt. In the far corner, under one of the speakers, camouflaged in a coarse thicket of cigarette smoke, stands a barely legal feminine figure, alone and unnaturally alert. All he could see was the overall slim-fit shape of her clothes, and long hair put up in two ponytails the sides of her head. Tajeb had never thought that P~$$R might have been a girl. In fact, there was no real proof that P~$$R was a guy, everyone just assumed, and with every other nightcrawler in the basement obviously not noticing his being there...
He shuffles toward her, circling round a few times as to make his approach less noticeable. As he gets closer he sees the thick dreads dyed the color of Pepto-Bismol, the crimson, winged pentagram tattoo over her exposed stomach, the outline of nipple piercings pushing through her top. By now he's right next to her, the smell of perfume lingering with the smell of ash and sweaty bodies.
“A-Ar-Are you P~$$R?” he asks.
A rattling shriek posing as a giggle rips from her gap-toothed smile, and she shakes her head slowly no. She reaches into the pocket of her skirt and pulls out a small tube. Held tight between her fingers was a vial the length of a pen top, filled with a blue liquid that shone electric in the corner's flickering light. It's only when she hands it to him that he sees the small printed tag across the lid reading “G4mIn3.” She grabs his wrist and holds the vial up to his mouth, some of the contents dripping onto his lips.
It is cool and refreshing going down his throat, leaving a thick aftertaste of something akin to cucumbers and mouthwash. At once the girl's mouth is upon him, sucking hungrily at his rose-colored lips, tongue shoving to get past his surprised, clenched teeth. Tajeb seizes her breasts as if in reflex, scratching and clutching as the stench of alcohol passes between them. She moans into him, pushing her chest harder against his hands. The kiss is deep, slobbery and full of freshly-realized want. As soon as it breaks she is gone, vanished into the crowd like a two-second apparition. He stands there for a brief confused moment, then starts after her. When he hits the stairs he gets light-headed, the adrenaline rush of dreams and carnal indulgences all combining and pounding on him. He recognizes the silhouette of dreaded pigtails watching him from atop the stairs. He can feel her mischievous smile. He begins up the stairs, and the head darts away with the clicking of high-heels. He wants to run, take two to three steps at a time and catch her before she has time to vanish again, but the stairs are too small, so he can only manage a tipsy stagger. The hallway leading to the bar seems to have grown longer when he reaches the top. He turns only to see the flailing hem of her skirt disappear from the doorway into the scarcely occupied parking lot. He dashes towards the door, his heavy head swims aslant and he almost keels over. Recovering swiftly, he starts again, speedwalking now. She'll be easy to spot in an empty space. All he had to was reach the door. As he approaches the heavyweight, stoic security guards by the entrance, he starts to feel woozy and stumbles again. With it comes the sense of falling into blurry haze, the feeling of the world falling away, and the burly men coming toward him with their arms outstretched.
Tajeb wakes up to a claustrophobic darkness that advances and retreats from the muffled music of the club, thumping like the steps of a Giant. He lies still for a moment, scared that any sudden movement would incite whoever brought him here to knock him back into that faded-grey swirl of unconsciousness. He labors his breath, focusing solely on letting his chest rise and fall only slightly. By the tenth or twelfth inhale, he notices the brick walls arching and soaring above him that accounted for the dark, by the twentieth he finds that the alleyway was much too small to accommodate little more than his thin figure, and by the thirtieth he cautiously sits up. As he rises, the light weight perched on his chest slides off the ground, making a sound like ruffling feathers.
Tajeb immediately recognizes it as a square paper case, holding a disc no larger than his palm. Reaching for it he sees the light reflecting a half moon on the wall. They undulate about the bricks as if watching. Then the light flashes away and back; a wink. He looks ahead of him into the street, where the benighted and sluggish waddle of the city goes on untouched and unknowing of his nocturnal adventure. At least for now. Tajeb stands and begins his walk back home, his circular passage to the veritable Underworld clutched tightly in his hand, the feeling of a warm tentacle grazing his wrist.