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June 27, 2022

The Countdown

By Nenad Pavlovic

Steps and squeaks echoed up the dark void of the seemingly endless staircase. There was hardly any light; every third or fourth floor had a working bulb, and even those tended to be sickly yellow or flickering. But none of it bothered Jacko as he sprinted upwards with a breeze in his step. The young man danced as he walked, slightly out of breath, but otherwise unbothered by the gloom of his surroundings. After reaching his goal on the twelfth floor, he spun on his heel and rapped a quick tune upon the sad-looking door. For a while, nothing happened. He lifted his hat, wiped the sweat from his brow, coughed, straightened the collar of his kaleidoscopic sweatshirt poking from under his jacket. Just as he moved in to rap again, the door inched open. A pale face peeked from the other side.

"How it's hanging, bro?" the sturdy boy shouted as he pushed the door open and barged in. He peeled his jacket off and casually flung it on a shabby sofa to his right. Jacko put his dry, pasty hands together and rubbed excitedly; his mouth was all grin. His gaze scanned the room quickly, as in pursuit for something out of the ordinary. But there wasn't been anything new in this room for decades: only timeworn, stained furniture and broken appliances covered in dust. The light was on, but it shone weakly from its desired effect.

His host was the living reflection of the interior. Georgy looked more pale and sickly than ever, with eye bags bulging like a couple of gray plums. Jacko didn't notice any of that. He threw himself into the ass-shaped pit in the sofa, still rubbing his hands like a fly about to open its Christmas presents.

"Sooo, where's the nug? Oh, do you have one ready rolled?"

His friend Georgy stared at him with blood-shot eyes.

Jacko took one look at him and burst into laughter.

"Look at you, man! How much did you smoke already? Man, we had a deal, you were supposed to wait for me!"

But there was no genuine dissatisfaction in Jacko's voice. He would've smoked half the bag himself if the conditions were reversed. It was more of a friendly tease, a compliment in disguise.

"Listen, Jacko ... I rang you ..."

Jacko was now looking inside the small wooden table in front of the sofa, and to left and right of it.

"Where is it?"

"I rang you ..."

"Yeah?"

"Jacko, something weird is happening ..."

"Like what? Man, are you fucking messing with me, where's the weed?" Suddenly, his face took a dead serious look. "Did something happen to it?"

Georgy waved his weary head.

"Nah man ... I'm just saying, maybe we shouldn't smoke any weed now. I rang you ..."

"Jesus, Georgy, you almost gave me a heart attack here! And what's with this 'we shouldn't smoke' bullshit, what, are you too stoned already? Fuck, man, have a drink, eat an orange, get yourself together! We are heading out in ... about two hours. Who am I kidding, it's gonna be closer to three! But we are going out, man! Tommo said that a busload of hick pussy is gonna be there, and he is saving a bottle of Jack with our name on it, on the house!"

Georgy just glared, looking haunted and exhausted.

"Well? What are you staring for, man, go get the weed!"

The shorter, more slender boy with the lollypop-shaped head quietly turned around, crouched, and pulled out a plastic bag from one of the compartments of the massive wooden shelf-set. A heavy, diesel-like smell attacked the stale air.

"Now we're talking! While you are still on your feet, could you pour me a shot of 'Russian Death'? I'm kinda in the mood."

Georgy nodded and shuffled towards the dark kitchen. 'Russian Death' was a drink Georgy got from a cousin as a present some years ago. The clear liquid wasn't actually Russian, but from one of the many small East-European countries he couldn't quite remember the name of. It was fruity in origin, but presumably contained some kind of toxic ingredient too, as no one ever wanted to drink more than one shot glass at a time. And the effects of that one glass were potent, like being kicked in the head by a mule. Even after years of casual consumption and dare-drinking, the tiny bottle was somehow still half-full. He poured some into a shot glass and brought it to his friend. Jacko put down the half-rolled spliff for a second, gulped the drink down and shuddered.

"Fuuck. Well, if there ever was an occasion for it ... What's with you man, you look like you've seen a ghost! Loosen up a bit, will ya! We are going to a New Year's party, not a funeral!

"I know!" he said, snapping his fingers "You didn't eat a thing this whole afternoon!? Am I right? I know I'm right!"

Jacko's smile lured one from Georgy too. He could never resist it. That's why they were best friends, for years and years now -- they always made each other laugh.

"Well, that's your fault, isn't it? Grab some shit out of the fridge, or get something in the city later. C'mon man, come smoke this shit with me now," he said as he shifted in his seat.

"Nah, man, you go ahead alone. You can smoke inside, no biggie. My aunt isn't coming back for at least a week from now."

"C'mon man, are you really gonna let me smoke this by myself?"

Georgy hesitated for a second, and then moved his scrawny petrified body and sat beside his friend.

"I had one before you came ..."

"Ha! I knew it! I fucking knew it!" said Jacko as he spat out a jet of gray smoke. He took three more puffs, and then passed the smoldering spliff to Georgy, holding the smoke inside his lungs.

Georgy took a quick drag.

"Just a little bit, to calm my nerves. Listen ..." he said, slightly flustered, feeling a giggle coming up. "Listen ..."

Jacko was already giggling, his face melting into a puddle of bliss.

"I'm listening ..."

"There's something I gotta show you. Something you gotta hear ..."

"What man? This track? I know this, this shit's ancient, bro!"

"No, not the music ..."

Georgy stood up and waddled up to the obsolete PC with ivory colored hardware sitting in the corner of the room. He turned the knob on the cheap speakers all the way down. Generic trance-techno ceased. Then he turned gently around.

"Listen!"

Jacko was holding a smoking stack, eyes squinted and ears sharpened. For several seconds, he really listened, and then lifted his head.

"What the fuck am I listening to?" Then he burst out laughing again. "Maan, you're tripping, man! You're tripping hard!"

"No, no, no, listen, listen, Jacko, there's something, it needs, it takes time ... You can't hear it right away ..."

"You're tripping, man ..."

"No, please, Jacko, listen!"

"Ok, ok, I'll listen. Man, you're crazy ..."

"Shh!"

And for a minute or two, Jacko listened actively, stopping only to take a quick drag from his spliff.

"Man, what, I don't hear anything. I hear people talking from above, and some traffic ... I told you, you're tripping, man! Your blood sugar is probably way down in the red zone, you gotta eat something, otherwise you're gonna be having bad trips all night long ..."

But Georgy was relentless.

"No, no, please, listen a bit longer. It's not the apartment above ... It's here, in this room ... Don't you hear it?"

Jacko obliged. As long as he had his weed, he abided. After a few moments more, he just shook his head.

"I don't know, man. There's some noise, but it could be whatever. Anyway, why are you so hung up about it, who the fuck cares? I thought we had a plan, man, get as high as we can and then head down to Tommo's bar. I have to say it, I'm excited, I genially am. I feel like this year it's gonna be wild! I'm gonna get wasted as fuuck! And the girls he's bringing, man? Aw hell, I have all sorts of expectations! I need a girlfriend, man, not just a lay, but a real girlfriend. Someone to talk to, to swap Christmas presents with ... And New Years Eve party is the best time to get one. I mean, it's kind of a sure-shot! The clock strikes twelve, everyone's drunk and high and euphoric and everyone starts hugging and kissing one anothe ... Hey, I hear it now!"

Georgy pushed himself off the dining table he was leaning on.

"You do?"

"Yeah! It's a kind of a ... babble, a whisper, sort of ..."

"It gets louder and clearer the longer you hear it. I can make out like, whole words now."

"Really? What does it say?" Jacko put out the roach in the dirty crystal ashtray and took his hat off, tilting his head.

"It's not exactly words," answered Georgy. "Or maybe they are, but in some foreign language. It's really creepy, like from some satanic movie or a black metal song or such shit."

"I don't hear it. I mean, I do hear it, but not very clearly. To me, it sounds like somebody whispering gibberish. But it is weird, I'll give you that. Where is it coming from?"

Georgy just shrugged his chicken-like shoulders. "I honestly don't know. That's why I rang you ..."

Jacko was fully invested by now. He paced the length and breadth of the apartment, his left ear leading and twitching. He laid down on the dirty carpet and then pulled up a chair and climbed it to listen to the ceiling. "Weird. It's like ..."

"... it's coming from the middle of the room." Georgy finished his sentence.

Jacko sat the chair to the side. "But that doesn't make any sense. It must be ... some weird echo or something. Like, with the pipes or some shit. Weird shit in any case."

And just like that, he lost interest again.

"Well," he said, clapping and rubbing his hands again, "we should get to work! Bowl and cigarette case please!"

Georgy was slow on his feet, but he did what his friend asked of him. Jacko emptied the bag of funky flowers into a big metal bowl and began crushing them with his fingers.

"Man, when are you gonna buy a grinder? I'll get arthritis doing this with my fingers! And it takes forever to wash out the smell! Hey, have you heard about, like, this dude, who used to roll spliffs whole day long and then, when he'd came home, he'd clean the dirt from under his nails and smoke it? Gnarly, isn't it? Bucky told me about it. Bucky, you know Bucky? Do you know what he did for his eighteenth birthday party? He rolled a bunch of spliffs, and tied them to helium balloons. So, whoever wanted to get high, could just grab a balloon, take a puff and ... Man, this really is getting louder!"

Jacko dusted off his hands and stood up again, listening. "It's some kind of ... Yeah, like foreign language."

"Like Chinese or something ..."

"This ain' no Chinese, man! This is like ... Mongolian or some shit. Romanian maybe, the fuck if I know. Here, you roll for a while, I have to listen to this here shit."

Georgy shuffled haltingly and sat on the sofa. He began picking the sticky buds apart, slowly, sniffling loudly all the way.

"How long has this been going on?"

"Dunno. I heard it first this morning. But I had to go out. When I came back, it stopped, but then it started again. And then I had to go out again. It resets when no one is listening."

"What do you mean, 'It resets when no one is listening', that doesn't make any sense! You probably just have to tune your ears to it. It is a weak sound ..."

Georgy lifted his head slowly. His neck strained like it was a thousand tons heavy.

"Jacko, man ... This shit ain't weak ... To me now, it sounds like someone's yelling ... Like coach Shorthouse is yelling at me from the top of his lungs, only he's a demon and, and he's yelling ...

"It's not like yelling! It's nowhere near that loud! Man! You smoked a lot more than you admit!"

"No, Jacko ..."

"Well, I have to catch up to you, don' I? Give me one of those!"

Jacko took the spliff Georgy handed to him and went towards the balcony door.

"You don't need to get out, man, I told you, my aunt..."

"You said that stopping listening to it resets it, right? I wanna test that theory. And I need some fresh air, this place stinks like dirty socks. Well, are you coming or not?"

"No, man. I need to ... I need to keep listening ... Jacko, this thing ... It's evil, man! It's no good ..."

"Well, come with me then!" said the taller boy, his hand resting on the sliding door handle.

Georgy didn't get up, and Jacko didn't bother to convince him any further. He pulled the door open. Air saturated with smog, so much it tasted like night itself, poured inside. A police car wail also sneaked itself in before he slipped out and pulled the door close. Chilly breeze greeted him onto the tiny dark balcony. Jacko coughed, lit the spliff and took a big drag, eyes gazed into the night view. Thousands upon thousands of lights glimmered weakly in the pitch dark. Feeble amber sparks lodged in gray blocks, floating inside the all-encompassing black. But he saw none of it. Jacko's eyes were pointed towards a tiny blue neon sign of Tommo's bar, a couple of blocks away. He could see people coming in, in his mind's eye. Hot, country girls, with big country tits, sweating under woolen cardigans, all waiting for him. He'd offer them whiskey shots, on the house, and then take them outside to smoke some primo weed. And then, he'd choose the pick of the litter, some nice blond with a smoking body and a hick face, and he'd take her up here, for a shot of "Russian Death," some more weed and ... It was a nice fantasy, interrupted only by a rhythmic sound hammering away in the back of his head.

Jacko flicked the roach into the void below and got back in, shuddering slightly. Georgy was still in the same pose he was when Jacko had left, one hand holding a cardboard filter and the other a sheet of rolling paper.

"Georgy? Dude? Are you all right?"

Georgy had a drop of blood slowly sliding down his left nostril.

"Huh?"

"What the fuck man? You really need to pull yourself together! Go wash your face, drink some water, eat something, for crying out loud! Here, I'll finish this ... Go change too, when I'm finished with this, we can go to Tommo's. It's only ten o clock but I think the party's staring already downstairs."

Georgy wiped the blood with his sleeve, stood up, and waddled towards the dark corridor leading to the toilet.

"No one rolls spliffs like you," Jacko said, admiring his friend's handiwork. "Not even me! Look at this! Like an industrially rolled cigarette! A fucking work of art! Mine have wider filters, which I prefer, but otherwise can't even compare to yours ... You know who rolls good spliffs? Damien. His are best to smoke. It slides like ... This shit is getting annoying ..." Jacko said as he jumped towards the PC. He bent towards the old fourteen inch screen, clicking away at the Winamp playlist. Eventually, some drum and bass started pounding out of the cheap Genius speakers. He turned the volume way up.

Georgy walked out of the hallway, looking momentarily refreshed.

"Jacko, the reason I've rang you ... This voice, man, this is some bad voodoo. Some evil shit. It's toxic ..."

Jacko finished rolling a spliff, threw it into the metal cigarette case and jumped to his feet.

"Evil my dick. Lemme ..."

He turned the speakers down again. "Tough at the top" faded away.

Jacko began banging his head jokingly.

"Hey, this thing kinda has a rhythm to it! 'Cha! Wa! Huruya! Gah!' This could make a killer track! I'm gonna record it ..."

Georgy just waved his round head. Jacko scolded him.

"What are you doing, man, sit down and keep rolling! We're not leaving until that case is full!"

"You can't record it. I've tried. It's like my cousin Magnus told me about northern light, you can't take a picture of it with any old camera, it doesn't work. It has something to do with frequencies and stuff."

Jacko paid no mind to the advice he was given. He was persistent, trying again and again, until he eventually gave up. "Fuck, man! I don't get it, it should've worked! I mean, it's loud as fuck now! Your mike's shit, but it should've picked some of it up."

"It can't pick it up man. This sound, this ain't no normal sound. It's like a whale song, only the whale is in outer space, and it's evil, man ..."

"Dude, you're tripping so hard right now. Evil space whales? Now that's some funny shit, man!"

But neither of the two was laughing.

"Right! Let me finish this so we can be on our way. Go pour me one more glass of the Death, man. And ... I thought I told you to change! Go change, man! No, take a shower, and then go change! As soon as you're back, we are on our way!"

Jacko sat alone in a dark, musty room, rolling a spliff after spliff, cursing the fact there was no music on, but feeling too paralyzed to stand up and play some. The sound was annoying, but also commanding.

"Wra! Groah! Mrra! Hyryua!" echoed inside his head.

After what felt like an eternity, Georgy came freshly washed and dressed, but looking somehow even more poorly than before. He looked like he'd lost ten pounds while he'd been away. Even his hair looked like it was thinning. He just sat beside his friend. A spark of positive energy between them prompted him to speak anew.

"Jacko?"

"Hm?"

"What do you think it is?"

"Hmm?"

"The sound?"

Jacko twisted the tip of the spliff and laid it into the silvery case. It was almost full.

"The fuck if I know man. It's weird, I admit that. Weird as balls. You know what I think? This is one of those satellite signals, it's misaligned," he said as he took the last pinch of the green residue from the bowl. "It's projecting smack into the middle of your aunt's room, instead into another satellite dish. This is like, a Mongolian cooking show, but, instead of going into another dish and into the TVs of Mongolian housewives in the city, it's messing with our brains. And we're susceptible. We're susceptible as fuck. We had some 'Russian Death' ..."

"Only you had some ..."

"Shut the fuck up, I'm explaining. We smoked a lot of Brothers' weed ... And you know what Brothers' weed can do to a man."

Georgy answered by gently nodding his head.

"This here is hard shit. Do you remember that jazz festival, when you freaked out and ran home? Or that time when I had a panic attack and couldn't get out of Susie's bathroom? This here is the same shit! We are under influence, we heard an ... ultra-sonic sound not meant for human ears, and we freaked out because of it! That's it! Now, if you will, I'm going to take a piss, and then we'll go out, smoke one on the road and then go to Tommo's. And then, we'll have a nice warming shot of Jack, and inhale the rich aroma of country girls' cooch!"

Jacko walked into the bathroom, took out his member and relieved himself, watching his reflection in the mirror the whole time. He looked pale and horrendous to himself. "Fucking neon light. It always makes me look like a corpse," he mumbled, pulling his pants up. "Urya, ga, sha, moa!" echoed in his mind as he wiped his face with a tiny dirty towel.

"Are you ready dude? We all set to go?" said Jacko as he walked back in.

Georgy was kneeling on the floor, lodged between the sofa and the small wooden table. Blood leaked from both of his nostrils, mixing with a stream of drool and pooling onto the table surface.

"Aw, fuck, man! Get yourself together!"

"Gra!"

"I am not letting you ruin this for me!"

"Shag!"

"Look at you, you're a mess! Now I'm giving you five minutes to clean yourself, or I'm leaving alone, I swear to God!"

"Ugrua!"

Georgy lifted his head, swallowing hard. Tears ran from his reddened eyes, leaving salty traces. "I can't, Jacko," he cried, "I can't go, I can't! It is counting down and I have to follow it through!"

"Counting down? What the fuck are you talking about?"

But it was a countdown. Jacko knew it. He didn't know what to, and he didn't want to know. There was authority in the disembodied voice, an order to sit down, shut up and listen. But he'd always detested authority.

"We don't have to do anything tonight, except get wasted and pick up some bitches! Now c'mon! C'mon, let's get into gear! Fuck the voice, fuck the man! Come here!" Jacko picked his friend by the wrist and pulled, but the scrawny boy just wouldn't budge, showing more effort to resist than ever before.

"D ... don't leave me here alone Jacko!" he grunted with a shaky voice. "Don't leave me! Stay with me please! Stay with me until the end!"

"Man, you've lost it! I'll pour you a shot of 'Russian Death', that will pick you up! Hey, remember that time ..."

"Huryatha!"

"... we were at Milo's place up town, and we got too stoned to go to that gig ..."

"Isthahal!"

"... and I made everyone drink vodka ..."

"Hok!"

"... and then ..."

Georgy swatted the hand holding the tiny glass, spraying its clear, acrid content all over the carpet. He clutched at his ears.

"Shut up and listen! Shut up and listen! It's the time!" Georgy hissed through his clenched teeth.

Jacko gave him a look of disappointment. "Well, fuck you then. I don't need this. I don't need any of this. I'm off to Tommo's. You'd better sleep it off. Have a shower. Eat something, for Christ's sake. I'll wait for you there."

"Zya!"

"Fuck you too," Jacko bespoke to the voice, picked up his jacket, his hat and the cigarette case, and turned to walk out.

His sneakers squeaked in the dark as he ran, powered by adrenaline, anger and condensed spite. The mental concoction gelled into a sort of a wall in his frontal lobe of which everything from fear and guilt to alien voices bounced off and deflected. But he couldn't help but feel a slight fear of the dark, a distrust. The dark was always his ally, always there to hide him from the authorities and hostile parties, but now it felt alien and malevolent. The light was even worse somehow. There was a dark speck in each and every light source. He tried to rub it away by wiping his eyes, but it always remained, like a dead pixel on an aging CRT monitor. Jacko half ran, jumping several stairs at once, making as much noise as possible. He was rushing to get outside.

The outside didn't bring the relief he craved. In some way, it was even worse. Being under the open sky frightened him, terrified him. Jacko knew how to fight paranoia caused by bad drug trips, so he pushed all those feelings away, singing dirty rap lyrics in a low voice to the beat of his feet. As soon as he reaches Tommo's, it will all be all right, he was sure of that.

* * *

The chatter was as thick as oatmeal, and so was the cigarette smoke, even though Tommo said no smoking inside. There were over one hundred people crammed into a space designated for no more than twenty. Jacko sat on a bar stool with an untouched glass of Jack in his hand. The door kept opening and closing on his left, and he could feel the freezing breeze each and every time.

"Man, you don't look so good." said Tommo the barman. "I told you not to overdo it! Fucking stoners! Why don't you go outside for a minute or two? Smoke a cig, get some fresh air?" Jacko's gaze was fixed to a spot right in front and to the right. It was the only place where there wasn't any light, only a slight shadow.

"Hey, do you have a lighter?" said a gorgeous blonde sitting on his right. She took his arm with her velvety hand and shook. "Hey, hello-o? We need a lighter! Hey, man, do you know where we could score some weed? You sure look like the type!" she said with a crystal laugh.

Jacko didn't move. To move meant to look at the light. And the things squirming in it.

"Ja! Ugnha! Mwa!"

The words, that were never words, not human words in any case, he realized, faded, but refused to disappear. They reverberated in the back of his head, like an echo of a church bell, and made him feel as if he was having the worst hangover ever.

"It's the 'Russian Death'" he told himself, or maybe even said it out loud. "It's not meant for human consumption. Not more than one shot. Not ever. And the Brothers' weed ... The Brothers' weed is hard stuff ... It's just a bad trip. It will pass."

Jacko lifted the glass up to his mouth. The whiskey smelled like gasoline. His stomach churned. He wanted to order a glass of mineral water, but his mouth failed to comply. His gaze also rose and that was the worst part. There was something in the light. All light. The neon signs. The light bulbs. The cigarette embers. The stars themselves too, certainly. A wiggling worm, a larvae, ready to hatch. Into what, he dare not to think about. Jacko also struggled not to think about Georgy. That was hard. He forced his hand to pour the alcohol down his gullet. The content of his stomach rose up, but he held it back with a grunt.

"Sheesh, Becky, let's move, this loser is about to blow chunks!"

Jacko held his right hand over his mouth and his left one on his heart. Tears budded out the corners of his eyes.

"Georgy ... I've abandoned you. I hope you are hanging in there, buddy!"

All around him, people started counting down to the year two thousand.

* * *

On the twelfth floor of the second of the five gray high-rise building of the block, a malnourished boy with a lollypop-shaped head knelt upon a stained woolen carpet. Blood seeped out of his collapsing eyeballs which stared into the sickly yellow bulb, witnessing the birth of something he couldn't comprehend. A worm made of pure dark. A star-eating entity. His ears bled too. But he could still hear the countdown. It wasn't made for human ears, nor for any ears on this blue Earth, but still, by some cosmic chance, he could hear it. The moment was coming. And to witness it was to make it happen. The countdown was coming to an end. And with it, everything else.

"Grwa! Ha! Toi! Mwa!"






Article © Nenad Pavlovic. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-03-15
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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