Taylor found himself coming up with ever more excuses for staying late at work, anything to avoid coming home to what was increasingly a hell-like life at his apartment. His boss, seeing him the first one in the office and the last one there when she left, felt her crisp, corporate sensibilities hum with satisfaction. What she didn’t realize was that Taylor was often there until midnight. Of course, he didn’t record that on his time sheet. But the money wasn’t why he stayed late. It was worth it to him just to keep away from Gary and Barry. Gary and Barry. Christ, it sounded like a sit-com. And in a strange way, it was a little like living in one, but scarier. Say, like Lucy and Ethel on acid, or The Bundys, but even more vulgar and crass.
On this particular night, long after Jan had gone home, his desk phone rang. Groaning, he picked it up, “Fortune and Darrow. Taylor here.”
“You’re still there?” Gary’s raspy Bronx accent returned, “Jesus, that’s every night this week. Maybe we should just forward your mail…”
“What is it?” Taylor asked.
“Oh nothing. I’m just waiting for Barry to clear his trick out. I think they’re post coitus at the moment but I can’t be sure. I hope. They’ve been at it for three hours. Three hours! Damn. That’s longer than I put out. Even on Ecstasy. Well, maybe longer. You know how insatiable that stuff makes you. Well I guess you don’t, do you? Being the Girl Scout you are and everything. I mean…”
Taylor sighed, “I’m in the middle of something. Wrap it up?”
“Excuse me. I thought I’d just brighten up your dreary little evening. But I suppose you don’t appreciate that. You know, it almost seems like you’re trying to avoid us, or something. We never see you. And when you are home you just lock yourself in the tower like a recluse. We would like the pleasure of your company once in awhile. That’s what friends do. They share time together. I swear. It’s like having a flight attendant for a roommate. Did you know…?”
“Hang on,” Taylor said, “I have another call.”
“At this hour? I didn’t even hear your…” Click. Taylor leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Ten. Nine. Eight. At one, he picked up the receiver. “I’ve gotta go. Was there something you needed?”
“Oh alright. We’re going to Splash for drinks. Are you coming? We’ve been waiting since six o’clock.”
“No, you’ve been waiting. Barry’s been occupied, so you said.”
“Yes,” Gary said. “I’ve been waiting. But we hoped the three of us might get together for once. So? You coming?”
Taylor couldn’t think of an excuse. “I’ll meet you there. In an hour.” After he hung up, Taylor decided to just close up then anyway. Why prolong the agony? The sooner he got there, the sooner he would get home. It would certainly be too early for Gary and Barry to go back to the apartment, and that meant having the place to himself for a while. Besides, he could deal with them a lot easier in a crowded bar. They’d be distracted, not smothering him with their relentless idle prattles. And last but not least, a drink seemed like a damn good idea.
Getting an apartment together with those two had seemed like a good idea at the time too. He had moved to New York to be with Burton, a freelance producer who did most of the Bloomingdale’s ads for TV (The humorous matching of their names with those of the famous Hollywood couple was not lost on them, or to their friends. It wasn’t long before they were being referred to simply as Liz and Dick). Burton spent a good deal of time in Miami, where Taylor was born and raised. They’d been together for more than twelve months after meeting on one of Burton’s many model hunts; he taking pride in shunning the elite agencies of South Beach only to hand pluck the men and women himself, right off the street or from inside the infamous nightclubs (a true tonic for his purring, rapacious ego). He stayed at Taylor’s for one or two months at a stretch before returning to New York, during which time Taylor actually enjoyed the bittersweet ache of his lover’s absence. He took it as the telltale sign of a valid relationship. True Love. The Real Thing. Burton would also surprise him with plane tickets for long weekends at his Upper East Side apartment and house on Fire Island. Not unexposed to impressive wealth himself, Taylor was nonetheless dazzled by the picture perfect form their love affair had assumed. It felt so easy. So natural. So meant-to-be. And not least of all, he secretly relished the envy that his friends so desperately tried to conceal. So when Burton asked him to move up there for good, there wasn’t a single doubt in Taylor’s mind that it was the right thing to do.
He had already met Gary during a previous visit to New York. A hair stylist, he cut Burton’s hair free of charge, usually in exchange for a Bloomie’s gift certificate, of which Burton seemed to have an endless supply. Gary took an immediate liking to Taylor from the beginning; curiously sparing him the acerbic vitriol he reserved for those he just met. And Taylor was thankful for the company, for after he’d moved in, Burton’s Miami sojourns continued; something Taylor found to be at a complete loss of words for. They were together now, and New York had no shortage of beautiful people for his lover to harvest. Gary’s companionship suddenly made sense. It was an attempt to keep Taylor from the empty despair of being alone amidst Manhattan’s millions; and he realized that Gary had known exactly what was coming.
“We dated once. Briefly.” Gary once confided. “He likes to have a trophy wife. But you’re the first one, beside myself, who couldn’t give a damn about his money. I knew that about you from the get go. You really do love him. The others? Perfectly happy to lie around and snort lines all day. Provided they did work out at the gym afterwards. He’d never allow a less than perfect male specimen. Those Muscle Marys down in South Beach? The auditions are for more than his TV commercial.”
So less than three months later, firmly under Gary’s protective wing, they looked for a place of their own. Manhattan rents being what they are, a third body was enlisted to share the expenses. Barry had been a regular but quiet fixture at Burton’s many soirees and now Taylor knew why. Never having spoken beyond the obligatory “hey there”, Barry proved to be the most impossibly beautiful, yet stupid, man he’d ever seen. But looks make money, and Barry had more than his share needed for the down payment on a cavernous East Village loft.
Boarding the subway, Taylor’s eyes barely scanned the car for potential cruise meat, as was his usual habit. He sat, thinking how quickly Gary’s form of friendship had turned from “big sister” to clinging, demanding and ultimately, invasive. It occurred to him that Gary might feel complete loyalty and obeisance was due him because of the safety net he’d laid out for Taylor. This was the first time that Taylor really tried to analyze the situation and, upon this first realization, another occurred almost immediately. That Gary had also been sexually attracted to him from the beginning. Before they’d moved in together, Gary intimated (just intimated, mind you) a sexual encounter between the two, which Taylor had just as subtly declined. Now he wondered, was Gary harboring unrequited feelings for him? The thought unnerved him. Or worse, Gary’s behavior might be the symptom of spurned feelings. That he regarded Taylor as a true friend was never in doubt, but keeping the hurt of rejection bottled up inside might, just possibly, manifest itself in strange ways.
He sighed. Whatever the cause, Gary’s friendship was suffocating him, and something was bound to give very, very soon.
Although he couldn’t have realized it at that precise moment, that “something” presented itself to him, right then and there, in the form of a subway advertisement. Lined up, end to end along the top wall of the car in 1 by 2 foot cardboard signs, were ads for everything from dermatologists to off track racehorse betting. And the one directly across from him, illuminated by a weak, flickering fluorescent light bulb, was one for a web site, which read:
“Someone, something, making your life miserable? A living hell even?
Visit us at oblivion.com
We’ll make them, or it, disappear.
That was it; the ad said nothing else. No person or company’s name. No indication of what kind of business it was. It didn’t even have a logo or picture of any kind. Just white text against a black background. Taylor thought for a moment that it might even be a pest control company. But it said “someone”. It could make someone disappear. Not roaches. Not vermin. People. What did they do to people? He thought to himself. And how did they do it? He thought of the legal ramifications for any business that put up a sign like that. Could they get into trouble? This was New York after all. A lot of things were gotten away with here. It’s just an attention getter he realized. A Madison Avenue gimmick, designed to shock people, make them think. Yeah, that was it. He was sure Oblivion’s legal counsel had seen to it that a statement like that was perfectly okay. Anything goes in today’s cannibalistic business world and he’d certainly seen ads far more shocking than this one. Still, he wondered at the timing of it. Just when he was thinking about what to do with the roommates – bam! - there it was, a solution right in front of him. A solution, he chuckled quietly. Yeah, right. Whoever they are, they can’t do a damn thing to help me. And just as his mind closed to the idea, the subway cars opened and he stepped off the train.
Taylor could hear the music inside the bar from a block away. As he passed a small alleyway, an arm shot out and grabbed him painfully, pulling him inside and slamming him to the ground.
“The money, faggot! Give me the money!” A metal object punched him under the nose, breaking a tooth and sending a shock of exquisite pain through his skull. A gun. Oh God.
“Phleese,” he heard himself say through the blood in his mouth, “thake it. Here.” But the mugger already had his hand in Taylor’s coat pocket and then was gone from the alley – along with his wallet. He stood up on trembling legs, not his own legs he thought, someone else’s. Mine aren’t rubber. In fact, his whole body, his whole psyche, was trembling. He fought the urge to vomit, managed to slow his breathing, and entered onto the street, backtracking his way to the subway and on to home.
He lay on his bed in the dark. The two Percocets he’d swallowed were nicely coursing their way through his body, obliterating the pain in his mouth and making him feel warm and fuzzy all over. He was almost in a good mood. He had survived. And knowing that made him feel almost euphoric. Then he heard the front door downstairs open and his roommates’ voices.
“You check on him,” he heard from Gary, “I’m afraid of what I might say to him.” Oh, he was pissed all right, as Taylor knew he would be. Barry’s footsteps on the stairs alerted him to the fact that he was drunk, very drunk. They likely both were. The door to his second floor room, which Gary sarcastically referred to as “The Tower”, opened a crack.
“And where were you?” Barry slurred.
“I was mugged.” Taylor said, and heard in his own voice a surprising cheerfulness. The pills. Barry paused, and then closed the door without a word. He obviously heard the tone in Taylor’s voice too. Downstairs the conversation continued.
“Says he was mugged.” Barry said.
“Oh really?” answered Gary. “That’s the best he can come up with?”
“He was really sarcastic about it too.” Even from upstairs, Taylor could hear Gary’s sharp, nasal intake of breath. Something he did whenever he was truly furious.
“He’ll get his.” Gary said. “I’m over his shit . . .” The rest of his remark was lost on Taylor as the two below went into another room.
They didn’t believe him; that much was obvious. He’d no control over the way he said what he said, but that didn’t stop the anger and fury that suddenly surged through him. He knew that all he need do was go down and show them his missing tooth and the wicked cut on his upper lip but, spitefully, he refused to give them the satisfaction. His anger was too great. Their callousness and cynicism had reached their limit, and he knew it was over between them. He would end it finally. Strangely enough though, the thought gave him no relief. He couldn’t remember ever being so angry and hurt in his life, not even when Burton betrayed him. Thoughts of moving out, putting vast sums of money down on a new apartment raced through his mind. He began to cry. What do I do? Go back to Florida? Confusion dominated his other feelings then. Suddenly, the thought came to him. He pushed back the tears, got out of bed, and stumbled through the dark to his desk.
He turned on his computer.
The monitor’s glow lit up his swollen face and blood shot eyes in a ghastly green pallor, making him look like a cheap horror film zombie. The voices downstairs got louder again but unintelligible beneath the sound of pings and dial tones as he connected to the Internet. Welcome! You’ve got mail! He ignored the greeting and punched in oblivion.com in the search field and waited.
“I’m coming up Taylor.” Gary’s voice went through his brain like an ice pick. It sounded...dangerous. Come on up Taylor mused. I’m not afraid of you.
“We’re having a little chat, you and me.” Gary shouted. “ One we’re long overdue for. This bullshit stops. Now. Tonight.”
No footsteps on the stairs though. He must be mixing himself a drink first. Good. The web site came up and, just like the subway ad, there were no graphics or anything extraneous. Just white text against a black screen. Taylor began to read:
“You are here because you choose to end that whichever or whoever placed the stone in your heart and the rend in your soul. You don’t care who we are, nor should you. Neither do we concern ourselves with who you are. Nor should you concern yourself with being traced via your connection to the Internet, as many different people may have access to the ISP account of one individual.
Taylor heard Gary turn to say something to Barry. He seemed closer to the bottom of the stairs now. Oh Christ, he thought, here it comes. He read on:
Our purpose is not to judge. Our purpose is to help. To heal. To end that which makes life the unhappy experience it is for so many. For too many. Our reward is not monetary. You will not be asked to supply your credit card account number. It is a far less vulgar return that we enjoy for our efforts. That reward, dear reader, is the systematic reaping of joy that ensues from the sowing of seeds of compassion, tolerance and understanding. Ours is the agriculture of happiness, the harvesting of complete, total serenity and contentment for all of us. Yes, you can call us farmers. And our gardens, our fields, comprise the entire world. This Earth, upon which if everyone were happy, would be the paradise it was meant to be.
Gary’s first footfall sounded on the stairs, then the next. Taylor could tell that he was having an effort to climb and, very likely, to stand.
“Don’t even try pretending to sleep, Taylor. I don’t think you’ll even be able to sleep when I’m done with you.” Taylor? He thought. He hasn’t actually called me by name in weeks. It’s usually Girl Scout or Miss Thing or Contessa or some such fag bullshit. Well I’m over it. Taylor it will be, from now on and forever. Yes sir. That is if he doesn’t fall and break his neck first. He scrolled down to read the rest:
All you need do to help us achieve our Eden, our Avalon, the earthly paradise that will be home for us all, is type in the name of that, or who, which is the one that prevents you from being happy.
Gary was near the top. Taylor heard him trip on a step, bracing the fall with his free hand on the top landing.
That is all. The stone in your heart will powder. The rend in your soul will close without a single scar.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
“I’m knocking once, bitch!” Gary shrieked outside the door. “You can’t ignore me forever. I give you three seconds. One. . .”
Taylor clicked the mouse in the empty field.
“Two. . .”
Hands shaking wildly, he began to type: garymichaelsands
He clicked the “Send” button. There. Done!
The bedroom door flew open and hit the wall, sounding like the knob had punched a hole in the plaster. Gary’s highball glass shattered and sprayed ice and reeking liquor in a hundred different directions; one of which was Taylor’s back.
“Are you crazy?” Taylor yelled, spinning around in his desk chair. “Do you want to kill m…?” He stopped, his mouth hanging open. Instead of his roommate’s silhouette in the doorway, Taylor saw…
…nothing. Inside the rectangle of light, absolutely nothing - or no one - was there.
“Oh shit, Gary,” Taylor heard Barry say, bounding up the stairs, seemingly more sober now. Taylor saw that the glass, which had not hit a wall as he’d thought, had actually fallen to the hard wood floor just inside the door, just as it should have if Gary had stood there. He turned around and brought his face close to the screen again. This time it read:
Congratulations. Your transmission was successful. Would you care to enter another name?
“Where is he Taylor? Are you guys okay? Gary? Gary!” Barry walked in and began to search the room. “Taylor? What’s going on? Where is he?”
“I…um. He…he’s not here.” Taylor stared dumbfounded at the screen. Another name?
“What do you mean? Gary! What did you do to him Taylor?”
“He’s gone. He…dropped his drink and…he must…well, he must be downstairs.”
Barry stopped and looked at Taylor, who was still staring at the screen. “I was down there the whole time, right at the bottom step. What did you do to him?” The panic in his voice roused Taylor from his stupor.
“What did I do? Are you serious? He came up here for war, you idiot. He kicked my door open. Do you see him? Do you? He’s downstairs you stupid queen. It’s not my fault you drank yourself blind.”
Barry went to the closet and opened it, looked under the bed, in the bathroom. “What the hell…?” He looked at Taylor again; seeming to study his wounded face, then walked out and ran down the stairs. “I’m calling the cops,” he said.
Oh no you don’t. Taylor turned to the screen again. Another name? Sure. You bet. Let’s do some serious house cleaning in here. He typed: barrysaulsolinski, clicked “Send”, got up and went downstairs.
“Hello? Barry?” On his way to Barry’s room, he noticed the phone in the kitchen was off the hook, the mouthpiece hanging from the cord and banging against a cabinet. He brought it up to his ear and heard the dial tone. He gently replaced it on the cradle and returned to his room, not even bothering to continue the search for his second roommate. There was no point. Taylor knew he was gone too.
“And why didn’t you report this mugging to the police?”
“As I told you before, Detective, my main concern was getting medical attention, as well as replacing everything that was in my wallet.” Taylor looked around the precinct office. Five other desks were occupied by very harried looking policemen, all who seemed to wear a look of baffled confusion on their faces. “I really have no interest in apprehending the suspect. I imagine he’d be out on the street again in no time anyway.”
“Uh huh. So let me get this straight,” Detective Abrue said, “After you were mugged you went directly home. You didn’t try to see your roommates to tell them what happened. Is that right?”
“I was in no condition to go into a bar. I’m sure you can imagine.”
“I’m sure I can. So what all this means is that you hadn’t seen either one of them since that morning. Correct?”
Taylor sighed heavily, “Detective, I’ve given you the story four times. Four. Each time you called me down here and once when your officers first came to my apartment three weeks ago. Nothing’s changed. I happen to know…” Another detective walked up to Abrue and they began talking without so much as an “excuse me”. They were soon whispering, but Taylor managed to pick up a little of what the other cop said. “…another one, just like all the others…” He handed Abrue a sheet of paper and left.
“I’m sorry,” the detective said, “you were saying?”
“Right.” Taylor resumed. “I happen to know that you’ve got nothing on this case. That you’re hoping my story will change so you can maybe find an opening. I also know that you’ve got nothing on all the missing persons cases that have been hitting all the precincts in the city.” That seemed to annoy the hell out of the detective, but he said nothing. “ The papers are having a field day with this.” Taylor wet on. “The Post, The News, The Times, everyone’s aware of it. So, for the last time detective, I’ll give it to you: The last time I saw Gary Sands and Barry Solinski was on the morning of March 12th before I left for work. I spoke to Mr. Sands once on the phone to arrange a meeting for drinks that night. On my way to the bar I was mugged. I went home. The apartment was empty, they never returned. Not that night or ever. They never called. The next day I got a false tooth put in, which I know you’ve already confirmed with my dentist. As for Burton Lacombe, we lived together for three months before I moved in with Mr. Sands and Mr. Solinski. I have not seen nor spoken with him since I moved out. I have no idea where he is nor do I care. Perhaps you should try Miami. Now,” Taylor stood up from the chair, “if I hear anything, anything, from or about any of these men I will let you know. Until then, you’ll need a warrant if you want to question me again. Otherwise I’ve done what I can. Goodbye.” Taylor turned and headed for the exit, trying to appear calm all while his heart was racing. He expected the sound of sheer chaos to follow him but he heard nothing. Abrue knew he was right, and just sat there rubbing his temples.
Sitting on a park bench, Taylor, enjoying the early April sun on his face, unfolded his copy of The Voice. On the back cover, which always contained ads both classified and commercial, was the ad for oblivion.com. They were advertising a little more since last month, he noticed, but still in a very nondescript way. He supposed they didn’t believe in overkill. Oh God, he thought, that’s too funny. Overkill. I can’t believe I thought that. He chuckled a little. It was easier to laugh these days. The city was a little less crowded; people were a little more pleasant. It wasn’t uncommon to meet a stranger with a secret looking smile on his or her face. Then they would spot each other and exchange knowing looks. Wink, wink, I know what you did. Other people seemed to be really confused, or even frightened, but he supposed they would catch on soon enough. If not, they at least knew enough to stop being cruel to others, or mean, or just plain rude. It just wasn’t done these days.
Yes, the world was definitely a much better place to be these days.