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Le Plus

            It’s worth mentioning at the outset that I’m a complete shithead.  That’s basically how I ended up in the Notre Dame Cathedral, six thousand miles and an ocean away from home, alone, hobbled by a total inability to speak the language, with headphones in my ears playing music deeply inappropriate for the setting. 

            It was a close escape, one I had to fight through.  You might say it’s the thing I’m best at.  Even a shithead’s gonna dick his way into a special talent, and here I am, sitting inside what might be the most beautiful building on earth, my mind stuck on the most beautiful man on earth and just how it could possibly be that he’s trying to kill me. 

***

I was livin' in a devil town/Didn't know it was a devil town/Oh lord it really brings me down/ About the devil town/And all my friends were vampires/Didn't know they were vampires/Turns out I was a vampire myself/In the devil town/I was livin' in a devil town/Didn't know it was a devil town/Oh lord it really brings me down/About the devil town

***

            As I sit in the chair, somewhere in the middle on the left, I look around as I place my half-packed backpack between my feet.  I should be drinking in the impossibility of the building’s architectural virtuosity, that the cathedral--and I mean to say any cathedral--is in essence a triumph of human ingenuity, regardless of the names in whom it’s been built.  Instead, I’m losing myself in the things surrounding my insides.  Which is probably for the best, to be fair, because I need to plan my next move.  I know Eric’s following me, and I’ve managed to keep a step or two ahead for a couple days.  It won’t last unless I keep moving. 

            I recognize the smell of candles.  Expected in a house like this, of course, so I don’t know why there’s a sense of surprise associated.  The air in here is colder than I expected, as though it’s filled to capacity with ghosts, which may actually be true.

Napoleon was crowned here.  Put the crown on his own head, I heard once, which is at once the picture of presumptuousness and impressive; I mean, here’s a guy who knew how to take a little credit and run with it.  Results notwithstanding, it’s almost admirable.

            The sans-culottes celebrated the Festival of Reason here, missing underpants and all.  The crown of thorns is somewhere in here, and a piece of the cross.  One of the holy nails.  Heavy-duty stuff.  The real stuff, stuff that the man, the real guy, the big JC actually touched.  Stuff that, technically speaking, was inside the guy.  Not exactly a bona fide ghost, but a ponderous spectre nonetheless.

            These facts, these events, outside the mere fact that I recognize they occurred, that they’re all tied up within the walls of the place I sit within right now, are enormous and I try to allow them to slip past me.  The history of it all, along with its importance, vaporizes in the confines of my mind, yellows along with the limestone holding the building up.  Right now I’m alone, whether the world wants it that way or not.  Despite the place, despite the hundreds milling around, sitting, looking, maybe praying to themselves, taking photographs, there’s only me.  And there’s no way I’d rather have it. 

There’s really only one thing in me right now, and it’s worry.  Worry about Eric showing up.  About my parents, what they’d say, how they feel about all this.  Maybe dread, too.  That’s two.  Worry and dread.  Maybe a distant sense of relief.  Make it three.  Dread and relief and worry, the three playing against one another, fighting it out in my headspace. 

“He’ll find you,” Worry says.

Relief pipes in: “You’re away.  You’re safe.  Keep it that way, and all will be well.”

Dread ruins the party.  “When he finds you it’s going to hurt so, so bad.  It already has, hasn’t it?”

I’m supposed to be resting up.  This is supposed to recharge my batteries or something.  I’m supposed to feel like I’ve escaped danger.  Maybe coming to Paris was too obvious.  Maybe I came for the wrong reasons.  I’ve always wanted to see the city, this building, in person.  I don’t know why, but it’s always drawn me.  I’m not even religious, but the art of it, the size, its role is arresting to me.  It momentarily occurs to me that I don’t have a next move and that I’ve simply skipped ahead to the end.

***

I have been to Abilene/The spirit world rising/I have seen in Abilene/The Devil has Texas/The Spirit World Rising/The Devil has Texas/The Spirit World Rising/The Devil has Texas

***

            Three or four people sit to the left of me.  Tourists, I think.  No different than me.  Two women and a man, wide-eyed, no doubt from the sheer ridiculousness of the South Rose Window.  It’s enough to warrant pilgrimage.  I turn my head to glance at it and even though I’m not offering it a full view, its detail, the blue and purple of the glass livening from the sunlight passing through it, dizzies me.  The story it tells, all its angles, the colors and, from my perspective in the almost-middle of the cathedral, the breadth of the thing.  My mind speeds, reels to consider the work put into it, the care that exists about it--it’s just a fucking window--and that it’s been damaged, fixed, repaired, maintained for hundreds of years.  It’s hard work to keep something beautiful beautiful.  It’s hard work to keep something--someone--oneself--alive sometimes. 

            My eyes dart around and I rub my hands together hard, hard enough that I can feel the sinews move.  My head drops, and I allow my eyes to close momentarily as my mind clears.  The music in my headphones, along with what echoes of voices and tourism I can hear over it, falls away to nothing.  I can only hear what I imagine to be the wind pushing its way through the cathedral, over and around me, past me, stirring me forward ever so slightly.  My hands rise to meet my head, and my fingers massage my forehead, the grease and dried sweat from two days’ travel undeniable, palpable even.  For a moment I feel like a disgusting animal for not having taken the time to go the short distance to even wash my face in a public sink.  It’s like this, my face, my hands, for long enough that I don’t really want it to end.

            There’s a creak two chairs down.  Someone sits and I don’t look. 

***

Oh my lord/I am so bored/Held the hand of Satan/Oh Laura/what has happened to you?/Held the hand of the devil/I was on MTV/Everybody was lookin' at me/Held the hand of the devil

***

            Over the music, I hear a sniffle, then a rustle.  I open my eyes and sneak a peek from the corner of my eye, my head unmoving.  The boy digs through his pocket and retrieves a tissue and blows his nose.  My eyes retreat back into my hands and I push the sockets into the meaty lowers of my palms, firing blazing waves of color that I watch sway back and forth, into and out of focus. 

            There’s another sniffle.  I continue to watch the colored curtains in my eyes lurch back and forth, shifting in intensity, becoming more and more intense, as though they’re bright lights, morphing from blues, to greens, yellows to reds and back to blues again.  This is a thing that I’ve done since I was a child.  I find it easy to lose myself in this, simply watching the loping movement of colors from inside my mind.  They call it the entoptic phenomenon.  It’s basically just this hallucination you’re able to inflict upon yourself by squeezing the shit out of your retinae.  Someday I’ll push so hard that my eyes will stop working entirely.  Here’s the thing, though: I’ve never come across anything that makes me feel more calm.  So I keep pushing and pushing, and the colors continue to swell. 

            And then he grabs my shoulder.

            It’s a man.  He’s crying.  This man has two black eyes and has a hand on me, gripping me, hard, as though he’s attempting to keep me in one place with the pressure alone. 

            By instinct, I jerk myself back, twisting away from his grasp and feel his fingers pull and snap into themselves like he’d intended to hold onto me forever.  I focus on his face, his eyes.  He is desperate, and his face is wet.

            “I can’t believe I found you,” he says.  “And I can’t believe how fucking predictable you are.”

            I pull my headphones from my ears. 

            Who is this?  I try to recognize him.  I look into his eyes, at his face, his nose, hair, ears, lips.  The way his mouth opens as if he’s going to say something, though nothing comes out.  His chest heaves slightly, his clavicles beautiful in the way that his v-neck reveals them.  If I know him, I think, I have terrific taste.  There’s gotta be something there that I see that pulls my mind toward his identity, but there’s nothing.  I’m getting nothing, and I instinctively tilt my head like a dog shown a card trick. 

 I look at him, then close my eyes.  He grabs my shoulder again, this time more gently.  I look again.  What happened to you, and why are you touching me?

“What?” I find myself asking.

“I found you,” He says, threatening a smile.  “Please, come home.”

“What?”  The air escapes me.  This isn’t her.  I feel my eyes narrow to slits, squinting as though I’m trying to read fine print, as though I’m trying to reach inside the woman holding my shoulder to retrieve some kind of identification, some kind of idea of what I’m up against, from behind his eyes.

“Did he send you?” I ask, pulling my shoulder away again.  “Did he send you to do me?”

“What?”  he says, his face twisting into one from sadness into confusion, maybe anger.  He doesn’t understand. 

I lower my voice.  “Did Eric send you to kill me?”

Her brow furrows, his lips part, showing the edges of his teeth.  I feel his fingers still on me, though the clamp of them are gone now; he rubs at me with the tip of his thumb.   Hepulls a sharp breath, then turns his head away from me.  The woman exhales slowly as I glance around.  The group to my left is looking at us.  There’s a pocket of five or six people, a family, I think, that appears to be putting in a great amount of effort to not notice.  There’s a couple across the aisle from us unabashedly staring. 

“Did he?”

The man shakes his head slightly at first, then more.  His fingers dance down my arm, then fall away. 

“Laura,” he says.

How does he know my name?  I yank my backpack from the floor into my lap.  The movement spooks her, and he turns his body to face me, leaning in his chair towards me. 

“Let’s just go home.”

“Why would I come with you?” I ask.  “I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want.”

“Don’t do this,” he says.  “Let’s just go.  We can talk about it while we’re on the way.”

 He tugs at my wrist, and I resist.  Nowhere, I think.  We’re going nowhere.  We can make this a fight if we have to.  I grip my bag more tightly, searching for the zipper with my free hand.

“There’s no way,” I sayHis hand stays on me, and I look him in his bruised eyes.  The rings around them have started to turn green a bit.  The healing process gets very ugly sometimes, I think, right before everything begins to look normal again

“My God,” he says.  “Where the hell are you, Laura?  Are you even in there?”

I don’t answer.  No, I think.  I escaped.  I should be safe now, but here you are.  I look for a route.  One more quick movement and I’ve got to get out of here.  I find the zipper’s key and inch it open as silently as I can.

“You don’t remember, do you?”

I keep my eyes on him.  Don’t answer.   He’s lying.

“Laura, we were scared.”

Lying. 

“That’s why we called you and wanted to talk to you.  We just wanted to help, Laura.  That’s why we brought you to the doctor’s office.”

We?  “I don’t even know who you are,” I say.  I pull the zipper wide enough to fit my hand in.  Now’s not the moment.  Wait.

“Stop.”

I say nothing.

“Laura.  It’s me.”   He pauses, moves his head, his eyes to meet mine.  I try to avoid it, but fail.  Still nothing.  “It’s me,” he says again.  “It’s Eric.  I’ve come to bring you home with me.”

Fuck.  This isn’t him.   He ’s lying.  This isn’t Eric.  It’s not him.  It doesn’t even look like him.  I allow my fingers to inch into my bag.  There are more people looking now.  I’ll have to be slick. 

“Do you remember what happened?  Do you know where we are?”

“I’m not going to let you do this to me,” I say.  “I’m in control.”

The cathedral’s bells ring.  It’s loud, so loud that I can feel my eardrums buzz from the resonance of the bronze yards and yards away. 

“Laura, we want to take care of you.  We just want you safe.  We want you happy.”

 He touches my face.  The bells keep ringing.  This won’t end.  I jerk my head away. 

“I know what you’re doing, and I’m not buying it.”

His tone lowers, obviously trying not to cause a scene.  “What am I doing, Laura?”

“I know you followed me here after I escaped.  I know you’re here to kill me.  I came so far so I could get away.  But here you are.  Six thousand miles, Eric.  I just want to be alone.  I need some time.”

Eric gingerly wipes away the tears from his tender, injured face.

“Where do you think we are we right now?”

I look at him.  I don’t answer.   He’s trying to confuse you.   He’s trying to trap you.  Don’t fall for it.

“Laura, when we went into the doctor’s office, you went ballistic.  You trashed the place.  The people, too.  You broke your mom’s arms, Laura.  Both of them.  You hit me.  I was in the hospital overnight.  They thought my nose maybe went into my brain.  I’ll probably never look the same, Laura.  But it’s okay.  It’s okay.  Let’s go.”

Fat chance.  I inch my hand farther in, and I can feel the sharp edges of it.

“You destroyed everything.  Everyone.  But we still care, and we want to take care of you.  We just want you home.”

“You’re here to kill me.”

“I’m not here to kill you,” he responds quickly.  “We’re close to home.  We’re so close.  Please, just come with me.”

 He puts his hand back on my shoulder and leans in. 

“We can walk.  It’s beautiful outside.  Let’s walk home.”

“Bullshit.  This is Paris.  This is the most beautiful building on earth.”  I can still hear the decaying ring of the bells fading out, fading ever so slowly.  My ears still hurt, like there’s an insect chewing and flicking around inside my head, tunnelling towards my brain. 

“No, Laura.  Please.  I just want to help you.  I’m here for you.  I love you, Laura.  Your family loves you, and we just want you safe.”

I flip the knife into my hand and pull it out of my bag.  I don’t think he notices.  I lean in, stick his fast and hard like a punch in the ribs under his right pectoral muscle.  His eyelids push open so, so far.   He simply looks me in the eye.  I return the look and see that it’s him.  Eric.  It’s him.  Shit.   I think for a moment that he might strike back, but he doesn’t.  While he’s still surprised, I push past him and make for the door. Get out.   

Eric yells.  There’s a sickish crackle in his voice.   Hecalls my name once more as I shove through the door, into the afternoon sunlight, down the steps, and onto Parvis Notre-Dame.  I stuff the knife back into my bag, toss it over my shoulder, and walk fast. 

I look left, then right and for a moment feel triumphant and safe before his yell rings again inside me.  The mouth of an alley presents itself as I think about his words.  I stop, and turn down it.  I recognize this.  My stomach feels like it’s breaking to pieces.  I recognize everything about this street.  

 

 

Jason McGlone is a web analyst and advertising ethicist who lives in Kentucky with his family.  He received his MFA in Fiction Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2006.  He occasionally posts at jwmcglone.net.