The sleet has stopped but the cold is something unthinkable. It lends a deathly permanence to the still, heavy darkness. I stand shivering on the sidewalk and look up at the Hollywood sign. I try to remember the last time I saw dawn. I try to remember the sunlight on my face.
I try to remember what it was like to be warm.
A blast of freezing wind punctures the night. It stings my skin like chemically burnt salvation.
The derelict apartment building I wander into has foot-long icicles hanging from the doorless threshold. I duck beneath them and contemplate what it would feel like to break one of them free and thrust it through my chest. Would there be pain, I wonder, or would my body welcome it with the simple, desperate relief of sated thirst.
Inside, I step into the first apartment on the left. The layout and furnishings are similar to my own apartment, but the angles are all wrong. Everything seems slanted. There are mirrors everywhere, and they’re all pointed at me. Distorted variations of my reflection watch from behind the glass, all of them diseased somehow—emaciated, leprous, stricken with ancient plagues. There’s glitter caked on the walls and sprayed across the ceiling and the surfaces of the mirrors. The floor is dusted with it, and it sticks to the soles of my boots.
On the glitter-encrusted coffee table is an envelope with my name printed on it in anonymous block letters. I pick it up, shaking glitter onto the floor, and pull out a greeting card with a scrawny cartoon lion on the front. Black tears leak from its sickly eyes. Its mane is matted and damp. A speech bubble near its head contains the text “YOU’RE PRETTY ON THE OUTSIDE...” in cheerfully disjointed font. I open the card, and whatever was originally written on the magenta-hued interior has been scratched out with black Sharpie. Written beneath it is “...but you’re empty and rotting on the inside.” The cursive handwriting looks like mine. There’s a smiley face sticker in the bottom corner.
Putting the card back in the envelope, I fold it in two and tuck it into the inside pocket of my jacket. All of my reflections break into silent, ugly laughter. They point their pale, bony fingers on outstretched arms covered in lesions and gnash their chipped black teeth.
I approach one of the mirrors and take my sunglasses off, studying my reflection. It doesn’t echo my movements. It isn’t wearing a shirt, and its chest and arms and face are spotted with festering sores. When it grins at me, I press my index finger to the glass and whisper, “One day. One day, I’m going to cut you out. I can’t wait to watch you die.”
My reflection only laughs. I put my sunglasses back on and turn away.
I light a cigarette and wander down the hall. There are paintings on either wall: Ephialtes of Trachis, Vidkun Quisling, Judas Iscariot, Robert Ford, Benedict Arnold, Julius Rosenberg, Marcus Junius Brutus, John Anthony Walker. I feel something like judgment. I suppose that’s why they’re there.
Hanging at the end of the hall is a Gustave Doré print of a dejected, bat-winged Lucifer leaning against a rock outcropping, but someone has pasted a cutout of my face over his. The purpose of this defamation is lost on me. I stare for a long time at the image and don’t get any closer to understanding. Maybe the point is that there isn’t one.
I hold my cigarette in front of my face, watch the vines of smoke twist from its tip. The skin beneath my fingernails has turned light blue. I stab the burning end of the cigarette into my palm and don’t feel anything.
Back outside, I walk hunched and trembling down to Sunset and then turn east. I keep slipping on the sidewalk, falling to my knees. Each time there’s an urge to remain there on the ground, to give up, to lie down and wait for the cold to take me. It wouldn’t do any good. I would spend an eternity waiting. I’m too mean to die. I’m not quite mean enough.
The boulevard is deserted. The black sky is pocked with the eruptions of purple fireworks but it’s impossible to tell where they’re coming from. The only thing I see is a worm writhing on the ice, oozing greenish blood. I attempt an act of mercy and crush it beneath the toe of my boot, but it keeps squirming, half-flattened. I press harder, this time with my heel, and still it does not die.
At the junction of Sunset & Hollywood is a blazing trash heap at least a dozen feet high. Bursting garbage bags both black and white, twisted hunks of scrap metal and plastic, old movie posters, dismembered mannequins, untold pounds of wasted food clumped into amorphous paste, liquor bottles and beer cans and paper soft drink cups, torn sheets of tarpaulin, paperback books with covers charred beyond distinction, broken audio equipment and smashed video cameras—all of it burns. The flames are an odd shade of indigo and give off no heat. I keep thinking I can see faces in the pillowy black smoke, their expressions contorted into anguished shrieks. Sometimes the faces look like mine.
I turn south on Virgil and make it a couple blocks before hailing a Lyft because I can stand it no longer. The car that arrives is long and black and sleek. It makes me think of derangement, of deformity. A tiny gleaming angel ornaments its sinister hood.
The rear suicide door opens to leather seats covered in glitter. The interior of the car is scarcely warmer than it is outside, and when I pull the door shut, something in me sinks.
The driver is a violently pale guy with tousled dark hair and a “VIRGINITY ROCKS” T-shirt. His fingers are unsettlingly long and tipped with pointed, talon-like nails. His glinting irises are black and vacuous. The color of loss. Hollow, twinkling emblems of the void.
His lips flash into a nightmarish leer so unnaturally wide it consumes more than half of his face. There’s a vague urge to scream, but then I blink and the freakish grin has been replaced by a soft smile that makes me want to confess to everything I’ve ever been afraid of.
“Where are you going?” he asks, and his voice is a handful of Oxycontin. Treacherous, pacifying. Like sliding into a warm bathtub with an Enya playlist and a razor blade.
I glance at the phone still clutched in my hand. “Didn’t I enter a destination on the app,” I ask.
“Did you?” His gaze burns through the dark lenses of my sunglasses and pierces my skull like a cold leucotome.
“Take me to the sea,” I say.
“What is it you think you’ll find there?”
I look out the tinted window and for a moment, I think I can see tall, gangly shadows with huge wings lurching around in the dark. “I have to get out of the city,” I say. “I have to make it to the end. To the edge.”
“Send me a postcard,” he says, and puts the car in drive.
At some point as we’re speeding silently west along the deserted freeway, I ask the driver if he thinks I can be saved.
“Do you want to be saved?” he asks. He puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it with a snap of his too-long fingers. I should be alarmed but the action is so casual it seems routinely commonplace and insignificant.
“What difference does desire ever make,” I ask.
“No one is sent here, kiddo. You all come here of your own accord. You can check out any time you like.”
“But can I ever leave.”
“Where would you even go?”
“Someplace warm, I think. Whatever place I was before.”
“What makes you think you’ve ever been anywhere else? Are you so certain you’d even know warmth if you felt it?”
I want to tell him I’ve been to other places. I want to tell him I haven’t always been so cold. But the words on my tongue taste like lies, so I let them dissolve there. Neither of us says anything else the rest of the way to the coast.
As I’m getting out of the car on Appian Way, the driver tells me not to bother tipping him. I ask why, and again there’s the brief flash of the horrible smile, so enormous and so full of teeth. “Relax,” he says. I shut the door and watch the car drive away.
Huge snowflakes are plummeting from the black sky when I descend the stairs to the beach. They swirl and dance along the cold winds. They stick to my face and do not melt.
The frosted sand crunches beneath my boots. I don’t know how much snow has fallen, how deep it is. I don’t know where the snow ends and the sand begins.
I light a cigarette and stare out at the ocean. It’s as dark and fathomless as the sky. The howling waves are frozen into ice like onyx that shatters into billions of crystalline shards when they break in the surf.
The cigarette tastes funny. I realize it’s lit backward, so I let it fall from my numbed fingertips. It disappears into the snowy sand.
Taking the envelope from my jacket, I pull out the card and look at the starved lion on its cover. Part of me wants to go to it, to feed it and wash it clean. But I don’t know where that part of me is, where it starts or where it ends. It seems easier to tear the cover from the card and let the snowy wind carry it away.
I look at the words scrawled beneath the black scribble marks and murmur them beneath the surface of my labored breath. An incantation. An affirmation.
Empty and rotting on the inside.
Empty and rotting.
I peel off the smiley face sticker and place it beneath my tongue.
A glance over my shoulder confirms what I’d suspected—the winged shadows are gathering on the street above, conferring and conspiring. The wind transmits the harsh echoes of their whispers, alien and unintelligible. Sharp and twisted as barbed wire.
There’s no danger when I move toward the frozen waves, and I resent them for it. They can swallow me, pull me into the black ocean’s arctic depths, perforate me with their splintered fragments, and still I will not die. I’m too mean to die. I’m not quite mean enough.
I can only grow colder.