Ink


By Akis Linardos

It started as a moldy splotch on one corner of the living room ceiling, soon expanding into a long crescent like the smile of a goddamn Cheshire cat. I squeeze a mop on it and rub until my muscles ache behind my elbows. The mop gets black and smudgy, and it smells funny. Like fresh concrete.

I call the handyman. He says he’ll come tomorrow. 

As I hang up, I hear the elevator mid-whirr outside my apartment. It only goes as high as this, though there is one extra floor above, accessible only by stairs. Where Oswald lives.

I see him from the eyehole. He’s carrying a massive oil barrel—black paint for his art, I assume. He’s dragging the barrel up the spiral stairs, struggling to twist it around the tight corners. Perhaps he needs help?

I grab the handle, pause. 

Why should I help him? He never bothers with my problems. Barely even talks to me these days.

I push the door open anyway. “Do you need help, Oswald?”

“Ah, no bother. I’ve got it,” he says, barely glancing in my direction. When had I become invisible to him?

“What’s that you’ve got over there?” I ask.

His mouth curls into a smirk. “Just some supplies.”

“I did some painting the other day after a long time. It kinda flowed out of me. Maybe you can take a look sometime.”

“That’s nice,” he says.

He doesn’t even hear me. Doesn’t even look at me. The message in his eyes and in his tone is clear: Why is that loser still talking to me?

The genius polymath, an archeologist with a passion for cartoons—successful in both. Ever since he uncovered that jar from the buried ziggurat in Peru, he’d been the buzz of the town. Who has time to even glance at his childhood friend with all the media attention and busy life, right? Who has time to waste on a loser?

Whatever. I don’t care.

“Well, enjoy,” I say, and retreat to my apartment.

I lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling. A screech moves along it, and I imagine something sharp and heavy slowly being dragged against the floor above. My brain hurts, like cold spoons slowly being dragged beneath my temples. The Cheshire smile curls wider on the ceiling. 

***

The handyman crawls through the scuttle attic between my room and Oswald’s. The scuttle hole releases a wave of stench, like someone had tossed rotten fruit into a bowlful of wet cement. I feel sorry for the handyman. 

I sit back on the coffee-stained couch and turn on the TV. Show’s about to start: Oswald’s Fermi the Bouncy Rat. The show that brought black-and-white cartoons back in fashion. I’ll never understand how Oswald managed it. He followed his dreams all the way to Wonderland. Not that I’m jealous of him. The pharmacy pays the bills, so I never stress about money. I’m happy with my life.

The handyman crawls back out an hour later. Says he couldn’t find any leaks from the boiler, and that whatever the hell it was, it’s all over the scuttle, but it’s even worse above. Must be something from upstairs. I have to figure it out with Oswald. 

So I’ll be the one speaking to him again. Begging for his attention.

I can’t remember when we stopped being friends. It happened like a slow shifting of seasons: from best friends, to occasional updates on each other’s life, to a polite greeting in the common areas. Reduced to stranger neighbors.

He usually comes home around five thirty. I’ll have to think about how to phrase my request casually. I hate needy people. I don’t want to give that impression. 

I spend some time at the coffee table with the TV on, working on a cartoon rabbit sketch I started some six months ago and never got to finish. Not much of a point to it, the lines come out all awkward again. The eyes don’t match. 

I remember the first time my father found me painting. “Good hobby, keeps the eye sharp. But don’t do it for a living. Pharmacy will set you up for life. People always need their pills.” He never really understood. Not like Oswald’s parents did. They paid his tuition through art school, talked up his paintings every chance they’d get. It’s different if you have someone cheering you on. But he was lucky. I was not. Simple as that.

The elevator whirrs. The familiar jingle of Oswald’s bulky keyring follows.

I reach the door, wrap my fingers around the cold handle, stay there for a long moment. All the opening phrases I stored up seem clunky and awkward. 

His footsteps taper away, up the stairs. I push the door open. He’s halfway up the staircase, hand on the railings.

“Hey, Oswald. I’ll need your help one of these days. Something wrong with the ceiling. Found out yesterday the problem comes from your place.”

He turns. Slowly. Precisely. Like a goddamn clockwork soldier. 

There’s something along his neck. A dark scar or a tattoo half-hidden by his collar. Reminds me of a black snake’s tail. That’s new. He looks at me for a long while with glazed, distant eyes. Then says, 

“Want to hear what I found out yesterday? A scripture from the jar of Acat.” His voice gets lower. “Taste the ink. Scar yourself with the mark of gods.

Is he making fun of me? “I don’t speak whatever language it is you’re speaking. There’s something wrong with the ceiling. It’s full of mold, and the problem comes from your place. Could you bring a handyman to figure it out? It’s a mess on my side.”

“Mayans had such fascinating gods. They’d paint themselves in Acat’s name. They were His canvas.”

I don’t fucking care. “Right, good job, Oswald. Well, I’ll be around if you need someone to talk to about it. But please call a handyman.”

“Mayans would put a plank on the newborns’ foreheads,” Oswald continued. “Press it tight with a bandage and leave it there to elongate their skulls as they grow. Acat had more room to paint that way. I also found that out yesterday. Or maybe a week ago. Time slips lately.”

What the hell is his problem? Does he want to make me mad? “That’s interesting. Please take care of this mold issue, though. I can call him for you if you prefer.”

He smiles, and the smile reminds me of the Oswald I used to know as a kid. When he’d run so fast I couldn’t catch up, and he’d turn around with a grin to tell me how amazingly bad I was at everything. “I’ll take care of it, man. Don’t worry about it.”

***

The migraines are getting worse. My skull bones have been wobbling like cymbals all day today, and I snapped at an old lady at the pharmacy. Good customer, too. Pretty sure I lost her forever. I toss out my shoes as I walk into my apartment, rub my temples as I trudge to the kitchen for tea. I avoid looking at the ceiling. It’s been four days, and I haven’t heard back from Oswald. He is so busy with his precious work I doubt he remembers what I asked him to do. 

When I saw him the other day, he didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Something off with him too, mouth all grimy with something dark. Looked like a kid that had gotten into the chocolate box. Perhaps adulthood won’t allow him time to wipe his arse, either.

I take the tea to the living room, smell the jasmine to calm my nerves, never looking up, never looking at the half-finished sketch on the coffee table. Too tired to finish it today. 

A random thought strikes me. I whip out my phone and look up the words Taste the ink. Mark yourself with the scar of gods. Or was it scar first, mark second? Neither gives me any result. What was that god’s name? Acat. I look that up. 

No wonder Oswald comes up with creepy cartoons if he’s into that stuff. What he said the other day is true. Mayans were deforming their own babies. The richer they were, the more grotesque the deformation to stand out. Blood offerings. Human sacrifice. It was all viewed as nourishment for the gods. Gods cannot take a life. They can only devour a freshly killed soul.

A droplet spills into my tea from above, suffusing the clear yellow with black. I look up.

Lumps of the black mold have bloated out of the ceiling. They remind me of wasp nests. I’ll give that bastard a good yelling tomorrow. Too tired now. I fall asleep on the couch, Fermi the Bouncy Rat playing on the TV screen. I like the noise. I can’t sleep in the quiet. Fermi’s cartoon-spring sounds soothe me, and I drift asleep feeling a tickle in my left ear. Like a tiny tongue.

***

It’s some alien hour past midnight when I awake with a rank, oily taste in the back of my throat. Something skitters down my arm and away with bouncy sounds. Boing, boing, boing. The sounds vanish toward the exit. My left ear feels cold. I touch it. Wet with something slimy. I turn the lamp on. 

My arm is covered in tiny spots, as if a cockroach stepped on black paint before having a stroll from my wrist to my elbow. Black splotches all over the floor. One on the TV screen. And there’s a crack on the glass nearly as big as my fist, the shards spread out on the floor in front.

A migraine hits. My forehead burns. I tilt my head back. Above, the wasp blobs of mold seem to be pulsating.

I call Oswald. The phone rings back a Vivaldi season I cannot place—though it’s not Winter. My throat feels parched. I smack my lips and eye the cup on my coffee table. Idly, I take a sip of the cold tea. Tastes sweet as honey, though I don’t recall adding any sugar. Oswald doesn’t respond. My brain throbs. I swear it’s trying to escape my damn skull.

Screw this.

The black splotches lead out of my apartment, upstairs, to Oswald’s place. With every dazed step up the stairs, my eyes seem to wobble in their sockets, burning all over. His door is ajar. A thick musky haze permeates from within like blackened shower vapors. It smells like carbonized soot and feels like grease on my skin as I enter the living room.

Have I walked into a dream? Or was I trapped in a cycle of dreams for weeks now, in a comatose state, unable to wake up?

 “Oswald? Oswald, what—” I taste coal and shut my mouth, letting out a burst of muffled coughs.

It’s a meandering corridor to reach the living room. Something punctures my foot, and I let out a yelp. I pull my sock off, cursing, and squeeze out a splinter of wood and a sanguine little marble from the toe. As I rub the rough outline of the skin, I capture oily black snowflakes between finger and toe and spread smudge on both.

I cup my mouth with both hands and yell again.

“Oswald, man, what the hell? Didn’t you hear me scream? My ceiling looks like a Jackson Pollock of mold and it won’t go away.” 

I step into the living room. 

“What have you been—”

His body is surrounded by lit candles. Tattoos have spread to his face in a spiderweb. His eyes are egg-whites lying in charcoal-mud skin. The black liquid slowly spreads inside the eyes.

A prank. He’ll jump-scare me now, jolt awake and shift his eyes. Oswald was always up to mischief as a child.

Only we weren’t children anymore.

His chest still heaves. He is breathing. The Jar of Acat is beside him, overfull with the black liquid of art. The ink surface balloons in and out of the jar in pulses, as if it’s also breathing.

The tattoos shift on Oswald’s body. On his belly, a black dog takes shape, chasing a black cat as a squiggly line beneath them undulates to give the illusion of movement in space. The cat pulls out a hammer, smashes the dog’s head, laughs in a goofy gurgle. 

On Oswald’s face, black stripes curve to spirals, merge, stretch out to two curved lines that form between them the outlines of buck teeth. The sketched mouth opens. A low husky voice comes from it, maybe of some creature suffering from pneumonia.

“Taste the ink. Scar yourself with the mark of gods.”

“What…?”

The mouth bulges out, a black balloon at Oswald’s cheek. Buck teeth, pointy ears, pacman-shaped irises. It bounces off him. It’s Fermi, the Bouncy Rat.

“You want it,” it says as it springs from Oswald’s solar plexus, as it bounces off walls, spreading the ink. “You want the blessings others have. Why should others have all the luck, while your dreams are slowly dying? He did it, why not you? Taste the ink. Then sacrifice him.”

The splotches the rat leaves on the walls spread out in a spiderweb, forming the shapes I recognize from Oswald’s cartoons. Centie the Zebra Centipede skitters up to the ceiling, its tiny bowlegs clacking like notes on a marimba. Is this the source of Oswald’s success? Has he stumbled upon a hidden occult treasure that somehow fell through the cracks of human history? 

I know I should be afraid, but I’m not. My chest pounds with excitement. Whatever happens next, how can it be worse than the listlessness of my mundane one-bedroom-apartment life filled with taxes and pills and cranky old ladies and rusted dreams?

“What are you? What did you do to him?”

The cartoons twist on the walls. The cat from before walks up the stairs of a ziggurat. Its head elongates. Longer with every step. And as its head grows, diamond rings materialize around its loony feline hands, dark blood spills from its mouth. The cat reaches the top, lets out another goofy gurgle. Its head explodes in a splash of ink.

“You’re Acat,” I say. 

The creature does not respond.

I inhale deeply, taking in the oily scent, tasting charcoal and honey beneath my tongue. My heart drums with every boing of that rat, with every gurgle laughter and xylophone skittering of the cartoons on the walls. It’s like they spring against my cranium. Crawl along my spine. And here’s the strangest thing: I enjoy it. The migraine is gone, transformed into a pleasant stupor of intoxication. Like those nights pub crawling around town and having just the right amount to drink. Not too much, certainly not too little. A ticket straight to Wonderland. 

Oswald lies in a pool of his own avarice, ink mingled with bubbling saliva spilling out of his mouth. He failed. He was the real loser all along. My mouth curls into a grin, and my mirth comes bursting out in a cackle. For the first time in years, I feel alive. 

I grab the knife, dip it into the jar, then out. Delicious molten tar drips from the blade. I will never end up like him. I’ll make that goddamn Wonderland mine, baby.

I bring the blade’s spine close to my mouth, and lick.

End


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