“Yes!” Andre hissed triumphantly as the eight-ball lazily tumbled into the side pocket. Most of the other half-dozen guys gathered around the table cheered raucously at the satisfying conclusion to a well-played game.
“Ah, shit...” Rusty complained, as he hung his head in defeat.
“We win! Pay up, losers!” Andre playfully teased his friends.
With a frustrated sigh, Rusty rested his pool cue in the crook of his arm as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Just a couple of lucky shots, ’Dre,” Rusty commented as he grudgingly handed over a fifty.
“Naw! Skill, baby! All skill!” Andre refuted with delight as he accepted his winnings.
“Simon? C’mon, dude, don’t leave me hanging,” Tom ‘Zim’ Zimmerman, the other half of the victorious duo, prompted, as he held his hand out, expectantly.
“Huh? Oh, right! Sorry, Zim,” Simon apologized, as it dawned upon him that the game was finally over. Despite towering over him at six-foot-six, Zim’s lanky frame and perpetual hang-dog expression combined to make him the most non-threatening giant Simon had ever met.
He reached back for his wallet to retrieve his half of the $100 wager he and his best buddy, Rusty, had staked on the game.
“...of course it helps that you had a partner who wasn’t comatose!” Rusty complained to Andre, loud enough for the whole pool hall to hear. The other guys gathered around all chuckled.
“Thanks, pal!” Zim said with a broad grin, as Simon placed a $50 note in his hand.
“You okay, man?” he asked with concern a moment later.
“Yeah! I mean apart from not being able to afford my phone bill or heating, now that I’m officially broke...” Simon deflected.
“Oh, you are breaking my heart!” Zim replied sarcastically. Simon smirked.
“Simon... What the hell, man?” Rusty admonished his best friend as he slid up to him from his right-hand side. “You couldn’t make a single shot?”
“I don’t know, Rus’. I guess I just wasn’t feeling it,” Simon somberly responded.
“Wasn’t feeling it? I just got a fifty dollar bite taken out of my right ass cheek! I don’t know about you, but I’m sure as fuck feeling that!” Rusty replied, delicately as ever.
“Okay! So who’s up next?” Andre called from the far end of the pool table.
“Not me!” Simon was quick to respond. “I think I’ll call it a night.”
“Really?” Rusty asked with surprise as Simon handed him his cue. It wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet.
“Yeah, I’m just tired. I’ll catch you tomorrow,” Simon explained.
“Okay, whatever,” Rusty responded, unfazed.
After farewelling the rest of his friends, Simon made for the pool hall’s main exit and stepped out into the cool night air. The streets in this part of town were mostly deserted after dark, leaving Simon all alone with his thoughts for the 10-minute walk home.
Geographically, he might have known exactly where he was going. But his life as a whole? That was a completely different story.
College life just wasn’t what he expected it to be. He’d been starting to notice that the coursework wasn’t holding his interest anymore. He was seriously starting to wonder whether engineering was right for him. But that was only part of the problem.
When he and Rusty left their lecture hall earlier that morning, Simon was confronted with a sight that really dampened his spirits.
Francine Vandromen, hands-down the most gorgeous babe on campus, making out in the parking lot with Roy Connors, captain of the basketball team. It had only been a couple days since she’d broken up with her last boyfriend, and she was already off the market!
Of course, Simon knew that even if she were single, he didn’t really have a chance with a 5-star babe like her. But watching Roy Connors feel her up, through those skin-tight clothes that proudly displayed every curve of her perfect body, made for a painful reminder of how barren Simon’s love life had been here.
He’d always dreamed that it wouldn’t take him long to get a proper girlfriend once he got to college. But somehow, it just hadn’t happened. That drought in his love life was the main source of his present doldrums.
Spending his nights hanging out with the guys was okay. But all too often, he would find himself yearning to curl up with a girl he could call his own.
As far a Rusty was concerned, he and Simon shared a common problem. “Shit, dude. We need to get laid!” was the crude appraisal he made of their lives, about a dozen times per week, on average. In fact, that had been his reaction when they’d spotted Roy making out with Francine, earlier that day.
But Simon’s sentiments weren’t quite so simple. For Simon, the real absence in his life wasn’t the passing ecstasy of sex; it was the affection that lingered in the aftermath. He wanted sex. But what he wanted even more was to wake up next to a lover, greeting him with a warm smile, and a sparkle in her eyes that said, “That was wonderful! We should do this again, sometime—soon!”
Unfortunately, most mornings after he’d ‘gotten lucky’, Simon would wake up alone. On the couple of exceptions, the atmosphere had been tepid and awkward. Whatever chemistry there had been between himself and those girls had burnt itself out after a single night of shallow lust.
All things considered though, Simon had to admit that Rusty had a point: he hadn’t gotten laid in ages! Right now, a hearty roll in the hay with a member of the fairer sex felt like just what the doctor ordered; even if it was just a one night stand.
He snorted a heavy, frustrated sigh as he finally lifted his gaze from the sidewalk. He’d been looking down at the ground for so long that his neck actually ached in protest as he craned his head back to check for oncoming traffic. The intersection he’d come to was usually dead this time of night, but better safe than sorry.
He was about to cross the street when he noticed something odd some way down the next block. Atop one of the apartment buildings, on the other side of the street, was an odd yellow glow.
Simon had made this trip a hundred times, and there had never been a light like that on those roofs before.
He knew it was none of his business, but his curiosity was piqued: he decided to go check it out.
His pace hastened with purpose, as he stalked the mysterious glow to the precise building it seemed to emanate from. It was a narrow apartment block, seven or eight stories tall, by Simon’s estimate. Its facade was weather-worn, but bright. The subtlest hint of hue gave Simon the impression that the building had once been a distinct shade of yellow, before the sun had bleached it to its current pale state.
On its right side, the building was flush against its neighbor. But on the left was a wide alley that looked promising. Promising, perhaps, but hardly welcoming.
After crossing the street, Simon tentatively ventured into the dark alley, his fight-or-flight instincts beginning to kick in to gear as he began to have thoughts of being pounced upon by a crazed homeless person, or a gang of teenage delinquents looking for trouble. The fact that the alley seemed deserted on first glance didn’t entirely ease his anxieties, but it helped.
It didn’t take him long to spot the fire escape snaking up the building’s exterior.
“Awesome! That’s my way up!” he thought.
As he lowered his gaze to the escape’s first-floor landing, he was surprised to notice that the ladder was already extended, granting him remarkably direct access to the roof. The convenience of it all did not sit well with Simon. It was as if someone, or something, was practically daring him to go up there. And he couldn’t imagine any honorable reason why somebody would want to lure a person up to a dark roof in the middle of the night.
But despite his misgivings, his curiosity would not be swayed. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he marched briskly in to the dark alley, and took the cold metal ladder in-hand.
“What the fuck are you doing, Simon?” he asked himself in disdain, as the pointlessness of this little adventure finally began to dawn on him.
He had a tendency to get like this from time-to-time; to become fixated upon some trivial little impediment or puzzle, and to pursue its solution with near-obsessive determination. It tended to happen when he was very bored, or especially frustrated about something going on in his main life. Nursing a months-long sex drought would certainly qualify.
It was a smooth journey up to the roof, though he took care to traverse the staircase as quietly as possible. He didn’t want to risk one of the apartment residents hearing him outside their window and calling 911.
His pace slowed even more as he ascended the final set of stairs leading to the roof. He had no idea what he was going to encounter up there, or, more importantly, if whoever was up there would be friendly.
Patiently, he lifted his head for a stealthy peek over the roof’s ledge.
The roof was blanketed in darkness and silence. Simon couldn’t see very well, but from what he could see, there was no one about.
A small section of the roof’s floor was illuminated by the curious orange glow that had drawn him up here. But the source of the light was hidden behind the oddly bulky roof access structure. Judging by the way the light seemed to wax and wane, Simon surmised that it was coming from a small fire.
Cautiously, he climbed the final stairs one by one, until he was throwing his legs over the 3-foot-tall brick wall that encircled the entire roof. He edged over towards the source of the light, readying himself to start throwing punches incase somebody ambushed him.
When he finally peered around the corner of the roof access structure, Simon was astonished by what he saw.
The light wasn’t being cast by a single flame, but by a large assortment of candles. Simon estimated there was at least fifty, comprising a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They were all arranged around some sort of rudimentary construction: an elevated wooden plank covered with a purple cloth, and decorated with wooden, earthen, and metallic statues; and what appeared to be, at first glance, a metal bowl filled with liquid.
It took Simon a couple seconds to realize what the construction was; a shrine! Instantly, his blood ran cold. Was this the place where some deranged wacko went to receive orders from his Lord Beelzebub? Or was it just some angry goth kid’s way of lashing out at mom and dad for hassling him to go to church every Sunday?
Upon examining the shrine further. Simon’s anxieties eased a little. The statues upon the makeshift altar all appeared to be Asian in style. A couple of them even had four arms. Ceremonial markings, which he’d only just noticed upon a wooden backing panel behind the shrine, included text, in what Simon guessed to be a south-east Asian script. So this probably wasn’t devil-worship or witchcraft; at least, not in the Western sense.
As reassuring as that thought was, Simon did another quick survey of the entire rooftop, just to be sure. It was difficult to be certain in the dark, but as far as he could tell, he was completely alone.
He cautiously advanced upon the shrine, for a closer inspection. He noticed now that there was another ceremonial design, similar to the backing board’s, marked upon the ground immediately in front of the shrine. From its many subtle imperfections, Simon concluded that it’d been drawn freehand. Nonetheless, whoever had marked out the elaborate design had clearly done so with great care, and resolve. At first, Simon assumed they’d been made in red chalk. But he realized now that their color was too rich to be chalk; perhaps something more like a crayon?
After hesitating for a second, he stepped over the red U-shaped outline that encompassed all the other markings on the ground. It seemed to mark the boundary of the entire shrine. Now, standing just in front of the makeshift altar, he was able to closely examine its ornaments.
The centerpiece of the whole set-up was the object that he’d originally thought to be a metal bowl. Looking at it close-up, now, he realized that it was much more elaborate than a mere bowl. It appeared to be a detailed sculpture of a lotus flower, about ten inches in diameter. The dozens of cupped petals each formed a separate compartment upon the sculpture’s surface, each one filled with what appeared to be a viscous, dark oil of some sort.
The object itself was surrounded by a garland of white flowers that immediately reminded Simon of a Hawaiian lei. They were very fresh, as if they’d only just been picked. Many other fresh flowers were scattered individually across the altar and the nearby ground.
Simon bent over and very carefully cupped both his hands under the metal lotus, taking care not to disturb the ‘lei’ around it. He lifted it up, for a better look. It was heavy for its size—well over five pounds. Simon sniffed the oil it contained and found it to have a very pleasant floral aroma. He lifted the lotus a little higher to study its underside, taking care to keep it level so that none of the oil would spill. An intricate pattern had been engraved all over its polished, mirrored surface.
Now looking at it close-up, Simon came to the stunning conclusion that the sculpture appeared to be cast out of pure silver! The craftsmanship was exquisite, too. This piece wouldn’t have been cheap, or easy, to acquire!
He lifted his gaze to look at the rest of the shrine once again. The authentic statuettes; the elaborate ritual markings, which he estimated would’ve taken at least an hour to draw; and now this high-quality, authentic silver centerpiece. Whoever built this shrine had put some serious effort and money into it. This wasn’t just kids fooling around! Whoever it was, they were invested heart and soul in whatever religious function this shrine was meant to serve!
Simon realized that anybody who was devoutly religious about this shrine probably wouldn’t take kindly to him disturbing their sacred site. He figured he should just put the lotus back as he had found it and get out of there before anyone discovered him.
Just as he began to lower the lotus, something caught his eye in the pools of oil, and he paused. He wondered for a second if his eyes had been playing tricks on him before he saw it again. It moved briskly, like waves of light rippling across the interior surface of the sculpture, shining right through the opaque purple oil.
The lotus began to vibrate in his hands, like a phone, except it was a higher frequency and much more powerful.
Then he felt the hairs on his arms beginning to rise, as the shimmering light within the lotus grew denser and more frenzied. Some of the hairs on his head followed suit soon after.
The next thing Simon knew, he was blinded. All he could see was a field of brilliant white.
“Holy fuck!” he cursed.
The nighttime noises of the city all seemed to suddenly disappear. He half expected the ominous silence to be broken by something terrifyingly loud; but the fright never came. Somehow, he retained the presence of mind to not spill anything from the heavy lotus sculpture.
Before Simon could begin to panic over the loss of his senses, the whiteness before him began to fade into darkness, with hints of form gradually emerging from the featureless sea of light. His ears began to pick up a very distant roar that sounded like traffic.
“What the fuck was that?” he asked himself aloud.
It took maybe thirty seconds, but eventually, his senses were fully restored. As they returned, he felt a strange, relaxing warmth permeating his entire body. It seemed to be radiating from around his diaphragm, and flowing through his spine to reach his arms and legs. As it spread, the muscles that had tensed up when he was blinded all relaxed, one by one. By the time his vision was completely restored, Simon felt surprisingly calm.
Nonetheless, he was more convinced than ever that he needed to put the lotus back and leave the roof immediately. He was no longer afraid; he just felt that leaving was the wisest thing to do.
He gently lowered the ornament back on to the shrouded altar, then carefully drew his hands, once again taking special care not to disturb the ‘lei’ that encircled the lotus’ designated place.
After stepping back from the shrine and exiting its boundary line, Simon whipped his head around left, and then right; not only to see if he could spot some clue as to what had blinded him, but also for one final check to see if he could’ve been spotted.
Finding nothing of interest, he turned and made a hasty exit back to the fire escape.