We lived in a world of boiling seas, where the tentacles and teeth and eldritch knowledge of old cosmic gods had burst forth from the clouds and the ground, stabbing pincers into our minds and our hearts, peopling our souls with Crisis. We lived and changed and didn't live or change at all.
I made my way sweeping and sponging the otherwise exterminated gunk of the three-headed intelligence that dripped nightmares over the doorsteps of the Annex Food Hall as it spewed hatred in limericks in a language older than the world. Privately, I called it The Behemoth of Bloor Street, a being of flowing white robes and three faces, who glowed and thrashed and whispered above our heads, a building-sized creature haunting the air above buildings.
I did my work in full hazmat gear, ignored by the feasting patrons and watching monsters. Each day, I felt the particles and invading matter of the alien muck I mopped, seeping a little deeper through my protective layers, seeking to make a home in my brain.
Each night, I collected pay, and bought rations, pushed them to my bus, held them in my lap as the tiny Cthulhu driver roared “Last stop!” each time we slowed, over and over. Every stop was the last stop, except the last stop, which was met with silence.
In my bachelor apartment, I would clean, and eat, and pretend to sleep. I would read torn pre-crisis magazines, journals of the fantastic. I would scour the internet for pornography. I would play video games. Once a week, I paid an Occultist to check on my cat Lester to make sure it was not becoming one of the emerging. He would hold Lester aloft to intone: Show us who you truly are. And Lester would meow, and blink, and wiggle in his grip.
"Your alive, at least," the Occultist would say as he left as if I'd asked him what I should be thankful for. I could not tell his expression through the black metal of his face mask. I often thought his purple eyes smiled at me.
“So people tell me,” I would say.
A trio of Wendigos in black suits wandered into the food hall, their antlers scraping paint from the doorway not quite tall enough to accommodate. I brushed the paint chips into my dustpan as they took their seats, ordering pork cutlet sandwiches and diet cokes. One of them waved hello to me, but I kept my eyes on the ground. Inside my head, flat and lifeless, a message from the government of Canada infomercials played from the early days of Crisis: "do not speak to monsters. Your isolation is your armour.”
They turned on the television and watched hooting and howling as a news report showed kraken’s making love over Australia: a continent of tentacles converging in the ruins of the Sydney Opera House. I did my best to look away.
When the food hall doors swung open again, triple-headed elder god whose purple spittle made my living via scrubbing and sponging and hosing. For just a moment, I caught the eye of its nearest face, which could have been the face of my father - if I'd been able to remember what that looked like. It stopped mid-scream and stared at me with golden eyes like distant aching stars, acid drool pouring into a thick white beard. Its lips moved, and somehow through the distance and above the noise of cars in winter slush, I thought I could make out the whisper of its words.
“Do you feel that the foundations of your reality are wrong?”
A man bumped my shoulder as he slipped into the mess, an electric shock of contact so rare in a post-crisis world. "Sorry," I mumbled, looking down.
The twinkling eyes of my Occultist were smiling at me again. "Oh hey, it's you," he said, like recognition was the most casual thing in the world. "Don't worry about it."
“Where are you from?”
“I'm not from anywhere.”
“Where were you born?”
“Then you're from here, in the city.”
“I don't feel like I'm from here.”
“If not here, where?”
“I don't know. Someplace else?”
Why did my words falling from his lips thrill me so?
He’d stayed in the food hall past the patrons, past the Wendigos, past closing time and the setting sun. He'd lingered quietly beside me as I handed over my supplies to the night shift, as I'd collected wages, as I'd punched out. I had pretended not to see him, pretended the armour of isolation had no gaps. Only when we stepped out, through the doors, past the triple-headed god, did he ask me where I'd like to go.
Safety whispered to me to ignore him, to keep my mask fixed, to keep my head down, to keep to routine and silence.
“Do you feel that the foundations of your reality are wrong?” whispered the saintly dripping head.
I followed the Occultist into the streets of Mirvish and sat at a three-story bar that had once been knocked down to make room for condos. The building, once destroyed had been resurrected, pulled from the rubble by the entropy vampire which had emerged walking backwards up the steps of Bathurst station. With each day, water dripped upwards through the slowly closing hole in the roof, tables became brighter and cleaner, couches lose their patchiness, and the reproduced Van Goth Starry Night on the second floor becomes bluer and more brilliant by the day, light by the flashing lights of Honest Eds.
We sat down in front of glasses already poured - Rose Gin on ice before him, Moscow Mule before me—and we sipped them as the glasses steadily became fuller and fresher, liquid condensing into ice at the bottom.
"You know, I've been seeing your cat for almost a year, and I don't think I know your name," he said, bringing the glass to his bare lips (so strange, to see cheeks, to see lips, to see tongue, to see chin. So weird, after exposure to monsters, to survey a human composition).
I gave him a name; he gave me a name. Neither were real.
We drank in fits of awkward silence, him asking me questions, me avoiding answers. I avoided questions. It was as dangerous to know as it was to be known.
Our drinks full to the brim, a waiter appearing, walking backwards, the tumblers sliding into his hand “!og uoy ereH" he said, continuing down the stairs. I wondered when he left this place, did he continue to flow backwards in time? Would he unravel into a child, a baby, an embryo, a seed?
I was standing, adjusting my mask, rebuilding the walls of safety. The Occultist, my Occultist, didn’t move. He remained, an arm draped over an empty chair, black mask dangling loosely and uselessly from an ear. “Thank you for the drink,” I said stiffly.
He stared up at me. What spell or protective power could make eyes become that colour? I wonder what colour he'd been born with before the Crisis made its changes. "You have somewhere else to be?"
“I have to feed the cat.”
He smiled and made a gesture of goodbye and that he would sit for a while. I stopped at the top of the stairs, looking back at him, and words tumbled out. "Aren't you afraid?" I asked.
“Afraid of what?” He asked.
A tumbling thing, a confusing thing, a dangerous thing. I was with him. I tasted the sweat of his skin. I bit into the flesh of his shoulder – not quite hard enough to bleed him.
My hands scrambled across his back, his front. Something fell over on the nightstand. Something fell through in me, and I realized too late that I had dropped into dreams, even as I fell into a dream of him. In my dreams, the many monsters made spirals, made fusions, and I watched the Earth crack, and demons in birthday hats crawled out from beneath the earth to swarm over the seats of Starbucks. Zombies grabbed at me, pulling me apart, eating, questioning. From between their teeth: the voice of the god whose spittle I spent my life wiping away: “Do you feel that the foundations of your reality are wrong?”
I tried to tell them that this wasn't reality, that it was just a bad dream, until the Occultist plucked me from the writhing earth. We tumble upwards on dark wings past the tentacled clouds.
As we hung in the sky, high above the chaos of the unfolding Crisis, the moon's silver texture became a great yellow slitted eye that opened to bathe us, turning the darkness of him into sparkling gold. He leaned down as if to kiss me; the gilded sheen jumped from his skin to mine, spreading, infecting. From between their teeth: the voice of the god whose spittle I spent my life wiping away: “Show me who you truly are,” he whispered.
I’m sorry I wanted to tell him. I do not know. And then he dropped me. And I fell to earth like a seed, yearning for a place to belong among the roots.
I woke alone in bed, wearing all my clothes, and feeling not quite the same. In my pocket, The Occultist had slipped his card before parting ways at the bar. I turned it over in my hands. Initially he had been recommended to me through the local vet. I had given them my contact information and address, and he had simply shown up a week later, carrying a leather bag of supernatural supplies and offering me a form For the living had been scrawled in pencil over the contact information.
Outside, morning but no sun, but a bright ring crowning a dark and distant portal. An eclipse that would not end. A dark that teemed.
From the street, I could hear screaming. Blue pixies caught a pigeon on the fire escape beyond my window, tearing through flesh and feather. I closed the blinds.
My cat pushed his head against my hand, sniffing the paper stock and looking up at me. "That boy will be trouble," he said and curled up on my coffee table to sleep.
“What's it like?” An old zombie asked me at the laundromat, picking at the hollow of his cheek. He was dressed like a Canadian Mountie. He was eating lettuce.
“What's what like?” I asked. I watched my black underwear spin round and round in the whirlpool eye of the washing machine.
"Living," he asked, a fly making a home on his grey left eye, and I felt something small and awkward shift in discomfort in the caverns of my being.
"Same as anything," I told him. "Same as you remember."
Zombie Mountie finished his lettuce and began to gnaw at the hollow bones of his own fingers, unawares. He sat with me, contemplating the laundry together. "Don't remember much," he said, getting up, shambling off. “Too far away.”
Thick fear spoiled above the oily rooftops. A sterile and orderly world gave way to a teeming swamp. Wildness took root in the heart of things
Perhaps, there was no after Crisis, but only deceptive periods of rest, where apocalypse dozed and waited until we believed in something called normal again.
“You know, I don’t think any of this is real. That’s, what… 72.50?”
“It’s 82. I did an extra hour today. What do you mean?”
“Any of this. This whole world. I think we are just living strings of code, just a virtual reality.”
“You sound like the Conspiracy Spiders at Lansdown.”
"No, I mean it. Think about it. How could this be real? The monsters are just mistakes in the machine. Don’t you fee - aaaaagh!”
As my supervisor stopped mid-sentence, clutching desperately at his throat, eyes wide, I thought maybe something was crawling into him from some seam unseen. Only when he pulled away his mask did I know, I was probably losing my job. He flailed on the desk, and there on his wagging purpling tongue was a deep, brown eye, blinking and reddening in panic—first one, then another, pushing into the slimy wriggling space.
Then the opening of eyes came from everywhere, from his fingertips, his nostrils, his arms, his temples, his teeth. He began to scream, but the scream gurgled and ended, and I had to imagine that the eyes had reached the flesh of his vocal cords, his lungs. It was when the creature rippled in blinks, twitching and gently clutching its stomach, that I was sure that eyes had emerged within its belly.
I should have called for help or scrambled to get away or told that monster of endlessly fracturing vision that everything would be okay. Instead, I sat, watching it morph into something slug-like and slimy, watching it stare out at me. We sat there for a while in the quiet, me looking at him, him looking at everything. Neither of us said anything. Neither of us could.
“Last stop!” Cthulhu cried from the driver's seat.
The bus jerked to a halt, I swayed, one arm brushed the other, and I felt the rare tingle of bare skin against my gloved hand. I raised my right arm upwards to my face. The tear in my protective layer unveiling the flesh beneath was less than an inch long and not very wide. It revealed just enough of my wrist to see the blue veins there, to see the little dark hairs that swayed gently under my touch. I couldn't remember if it had been there in the morning, at work, or at the office with the million-eyed monster.
I stroked the small opening of my skin absently. Imagining the particles of imagination landing among the soft trees of my hairs, travelling the blue river of my vein. I imagined what it would feel like for that little forest of me to open, for a deep dark eye to blink out at me from that hole in my protection.
We are all feared the infection creeping beneath our doors. Or at least, we were supposed to. I followed the rules, yes. I was a zealot of safety, of routine, of isolation. But did I truly fear infection? I looked inside and searched for that fear of them, of becoming other than what I’d always been. There was a gentle empty hollow where I felt that fear should sit. Perhaps that was my own infection. Perhaps my terror was not a beast that would push out from between my lips. Perhaps my monster was just an emptiness.
“Last stop!” Grumbled the creature of the deep.
“That’s me,” I said.
As Crisis began, it wasn't that my own secret histories were lost to me. It was just that I preferred not to think of them. I didn't want to find myself longing for lost things the way I suppose others must.
But standing in my dark rooms watching Lester sleep, friendless and jobless, I came to the terrible realization that I no longer knew those things I had played at forgetting. My emptiness had expanded and pushed everything else out.
Who was I, before this? I must have been someone. Behind my volumes of science fiction and anthologies of fantasy lay a string of diaries bound together with leather.
They must, I’m sure, have held my secret history, my pre-crisis life. I try to imagine what words they might be filled with, what picture they may draw of the body of me.
But they were just objects like everything else, full of so much scribbled fiction.
“It’s me. I… this number was the one on the card you gave me. You said I could call.”
“Yes, I did – is everything alright? Has something happened to Lester?"
“Lester’s fine. He is… the same. This is about me.”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes I… No, I… I lost my job."
So lamely put. So entirely different than what I wanted to say. My hand trembled over the phone, which I had not used in years, threatening to press red buttons, to plunge me once more into silence, to leave me in the dark, to stand there, perhaps forever, until a crisis big enough came and swallowed me up for good.
“I’ll be right there,” came the song of his voice down the line. Whatever shielding I’d once had, I knew standing there, waiting for the Occultist’s body to materialize around his voice, I would never have around him again.
“I don’t trust my reality anymore,” I said. “I don’t feel like a living person.”
"If you aren't that, then what are you? You aren't of the dead or the undead."
“I don’t know. There’s an emptiness in me that wasn’t there before, I think.”
I lay bare-chested on the floor of the Occultist's rooms on Broadview, which looked out onto Riverdale Park East, a Guelph of grassy fields where werewolves roamed, with the skyscraper’s of the city crystallizing along the horizons. Louis Armstrong played through antique speakers, shocking me with forbidden melodies.
We were lit together only by the baby fire-moths glowing along with the ceiling. He circled me, sprinkling salt; a Book of the Beast opens to a bookmarked page, the smell of sage and sandalwood. He whispered, probing, strangling words I couldn't hold in my mind. He ran a hand gently across my face, curving across my brow, my nose, my lips, arcing patterns across the conclave of my neck, lingering just above my chest. I could feel the goosebumps there. I wondered if he could too.
The Occultist drew something symbolic from my chest, some apple, some heart, some echo of what it means to be me with a spell. He takes it into his hands as it becomes insubstantial and tries to taste it before it flickers and fades back into metaphor.
“Whatever you are,” he said, “It is only what you always were.”
“I’m afraid of the emptiness in me,” I said.
“Then you should kill it,” he said, not looking up.
“I don’t think I can kill anything.”
The smile, not hidden by a mask, lighting beneath the purple eyes. I wondered, afterwards, if it was that smile, the promise of continuing to see that smile, see it outside of dreams, see it unencumbered by the protective barriers against emergence, that decided what I did next more than anything else. He spoke a name, and for a long and shocking second, I could not remember if that was my real name or just the name I'd given him. “I need to ask you something.”
In the expanse of city between his rooms and mine, I sat cross-legged in the rotting snow, hugged by the glow of streetlamps. Before me, the brown bricks of a synagogue dripped, its colours seeming to swirl and imperceptibly shift in the gloomy light.
White crystals became salt gems, melting into the paper bag of fries propped between my legs, leaving the golden strips saddened and wilting. I was cloaked in the scents of Rose Gin, and sage, and sandalwood. Above the gloom of bricks and fog, the oppressive tragedy of a city whose Crisis had become the norm, kindly blue Stars of David’s gazed down at me. I could feel them watching through the spaces formed between the triangles, through the emptiness of spaces within them, perhaps casting down towards the empty spaces of me.
Everywhere in the city, even when nobody saw me, things were always watching me. I was watched at home by green judging eyes. I was watched on the streets, in the subways, and from the rooftops, from the food hall's benches, and from the bookstore across the food hall.
I preferred the watchfulness of the quiet synagogue to the men and monsters. I could believe there was kindness in those venerable stars I’d never felt from the stars that watched me toil in a dead-end loneliness.
Will you help me? he’d asked.
How? I’d asked, without hesitation, without thought of safety or infection.
Into the vast and empty expanse, the hollow of my body, purpose blossomed, carried from him to me through those purple eyes, through black hair, through curved lips. Purpose seeded, rooted, took shape in curling blossoms. I found it, found him, living in the populated rivers of my blood.
Do you still have the keys or the codes to get into the Annex Hall? He'd asked, and I'd felt my heart, that fragile and tiny thing, plunging back down into my body-void. It wasn’t me he wanted, me he needed.
Why do you need them?
Because the thing that’s killing you is killing me too. You don’t have to do it. You just have to let me in.
I was to be a doorway to something else, too, somewhere else. I was to be the empty space for him to pass through. But then, why should that bother me? Was that not what I was, a creature of empty spaces? I didn't want to kill anything. It didn't matter to me what the monsters had done to me. I suppose that was what they’d done, after all.
In Kensington Market with my half-eaten fast food, I looked up at the religious stars. I felt in that moment that they were somehow protecting me, gently holding me, stemming the tide of my inner void that otherwise threatened to consume me, and the city, and everything under the black sun. I knew once I moved out of the shadow of the temple, their protection would vanish.
“He is my Occultist,” I said then, as I hadn’t been able to say to his face. He was mine. Within my expanse, I held that conviction. No matter who I had been before, I knew that about the thing I was now. That was a better identity than nothing, wasn’t it? “Of course, I’ll help him.”
“Why do you wear a mask?” I asked. We were hunched atop the bookstore waiting for the black sun to set, having climbed the fire escapes of abandoned sushi restaurants, paying the local gargoyles in fingernail clippings to take the night off.
“The masks aren’t to protect us,” he said. “They’re to protect everyone else.”
“There’s nobody else here,” I said. He reached a finger to touch the black fabric of his face as if noticing for the first time that both our illusions of remaining in a human world still clung to us. Without words, we let those protective layers fall to the ground, to make little graves of faded brick, letting our faces touch the freezing night air. We buried them in the snow.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked.
"Because we want to live," he said.
We emerged, into the smell of rot, of wilting vegetables, of spilled oil, sparking flashlights to banish the gloom. Bodies, strange and suggestive, scuttled out of our light, rumbling and screeching at the shock of our intrusion. In a flash of shock and warmth and certainty, I realized he’d taken my hand. I felt the rough callous of his palms, realizing that this was what it was like to be on the other side of horror.
The lights came on. What once was unknowable became familiar. We stood between the rows of benches, between bars and kitchen stands. Huddled at the far corner was a small collection of bodies. Two children, and an old man, and a dog.
“Hello,” One of the children called out to us through empty space.
“Don't speak to them,” My Occultist warned, letting his fingers drop from mine. In one hand, he held the knife, and in the light of the food hall, I could see the strange carvings that crawled along its dull side. In his other hand, he held open a book whose leather-bound cover was filled with warnings. He read from the book and intoned his words with weight and intent. “Show us who you truly are!” He commanded.
All was still. The dog, a mangy, unidentifiable breed of muddy brown, sang lowly of pain. My Occultist was swearing under his breath, flipping the pages, searching for what couldn't be found. I looked at the huddled assembly and back at him. "Must we do this?" I asked. He nodded, grim, ashen-faced, frightened. So, I left him, despite his protest. I wandered across my old workplace. I found my place by the old man. He stared out at me from beneath a scraggly beard and hollow, sunken cheeks and skin the deep grey of the pavement. His golden eyes shimmered, uncertain.
“Do you have doubts?” He asked. His voice was dead leaves dancing in the empty streets of the soul.
“Not anymore,” I said. I held out my hand, gentle, requesting, not commanding. “I know who we are.”
He took my hand, and from that contact, change exploded. Or not change. Not emergence. Revelation. We all became what we had always been.
In the corner was not a dog, but what once had been my supervisor was something like a spider, the sickly strange creature of endless rippling vision, no longer in pain, suspended by webs unspooling from the corners of two huge eyes on its back. It blinked like a flock of birds, reflecting all before it. And before me were not three bodies, but one. Three faces, staring out with golden eyes. One on the left; the face of a little girl, who gently wept without making a sound. A second on the right, the face of a handsome man contorted in laughter. And the third, aged, bearded, purple drool clinging to the edge of his face. They stood, growing steadily, bowing now not from fear but to stop from pressing against the ceiling of the food hall.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” Said the oldest face, the face that had been hovering in my dreams, whispering in my ear. It was`n’t a frightening voice, as I’d imagined it so many times. “only who you are.”
I stood in the shadow of the Behemoth of Bloor Street. The features of my flesh swirled, and swam, and ran. Gazing into the eyes of the spider creature, I saw a reflection of myself as a slice of speckled night. Distant twinkling stars flickered inside me, waiting to be born. In my heart was a distant, burning light. In my heart was an explosion. Together, we grew. I did not feel the food hall's stones burst, but I did feel the cool night air against me. I ran my hands over my flesh, my thin container. “Do you understand?” Asked the behemoth, the midwife of my revelation.
What was a time of Crisis, but a time of potential? What was an empty space but a space of possibility? I had been a creature forever fearful of transformation, of contact. I had been a creature afraid to imagine, to think, to feel. I had closed my body away from the universe and waited for the universe to end and become a universe onto myself. So that was how I had emerged.
I wondered if — in the universe of my body — planets had begun to form around the tiny stars of my cells. I wondered if there were worlds in Crisis within me, as well as without. I would never know. I was only the container. I was a monster full of life, unable to close myself away anymore.
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to spread my arms. I wanted to spin. In the distance, I could hear screaming, a city thrown into a panic by my arrival, even though I'd always been here. But I could hear more.
I could hear weeping.
I looked down amid the sirens, and the rubble, and the dying snow. In the Crisis, something was weeping. I looked at the behemoth, who smiled at me with all three faces and let me go without a word.
I shrank by folding in on myself, collapsing, dancing, tucking. I became the shape of a man through memory. I made myself small, without being small. I stepped carefully through the ruins I had made with the dream of myself. I didn’t call out or pull beams aside. I simply found him, curled in the smoke.
Above us, the Behemoth of Bloor street was wandering away. They would haunt the bookstore and the ruins of this corner no longer. They had other monsters to awaken, I'm sure.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“For who I wanted us to be again,” he said. He looked up at me with purple eyes that glowed in the dark and still sparkled in their sadness. Revealed in the streetlight, his flesh had become the motley grey of clay. He was a creature of the Occult but not an occultist at all.
“Did you know who we used to be?” I asked, “Before the crisis?”
He nodded, and for a moment, I was tempted to ask him. But those names and faces and histories didn’t have anything to do with the miraculous bodies lying next to each other in the snow. “I thought I could get us back,” he said. “I thought I could bring you back to me." I wrapped my strange, shining arms around him, and felt the rough clay of his body, felt the ticking of strange machines within him. His was a fictitious body, as his knowledge of Occult thinks had been fiction. But, I thought, holding my Automaton man, that didn't make his body any less valid than mine or the many other monsters of the city. He shook, though the machine of his body produced no tears.
“It’s okay,” I hushed him. “We’re alive, at least.”
And we were. And there was a delight in that, as well as grief. Around us, the world remained in its blackened turmoil. Things that once could not be continued to burst into the skin of the world. Its people continued in their panic, in their fight against those changes they had not chosen. We all lived, believing it was the Crisis of the end. But it was an ending that never stopped and an ending that never came. We could, at least, live in it as who we truly were
“I’m sorry you feel empty,” he said.
“It’s not that I’m empty,” I told him and took his head in my hands, making him look at the cosmos in my chest. "It's just that I'm vast."
Beneath the moon, in a monstrous city, we kissed, and whatever animals had coupled in a past life, we were kissing for the first time as the monsters we truly were.
Ben Berman Ghan is a writer and editor based in Tkaronoto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. He holds an HBA from The University of Toronto, and a Master’s degree in English Lit from Ryerson University. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in the likes of Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, and right here in The Temz Review. He is the author of the short story collection What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019), and the novella Visitation Seeds (845 Press 2020). You can find him @inkstainedwreck or inkstainedwreck.c