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Fearfully, I walked back to the small village station. With every noise I jumped, expecting to see his crawling form, every child’s laugh reminding me of that horrible scream. I had left his body, already decaying, where he’d landed.
I wanted to be cautious, I told myself, and make sure that whatever madness he’d had couldn’t spread to me. But then why hadn’t I told the local doctor? Why hadn’t I brought in the police, quarantined the estate? Deep in my soul, I knew the answer. We are all irrational creatures, moulding reason to fit our desires, but even as I carefully deduced a logical explanation for my behavior, I knew it would hold up to no scrutiny. I knew that to confront Hartford’s monstrous psychosis was to accept the reality of its existence, and confront the fact that a exemplary member of society, healthy and rational as anyone else, could be so twisted and warped by his own mind. I knew that to contemplate whatever mad abyss he had fallen into was to gaze into it, to consider his insanity was to have an obsessive seed planted in me, to slowly grow and encroach and expand its roots until all my mind was buried under the twisted bark of the unanswerable and uncontemplatable. So I soldiered on, each footfall driving me further away from that wretched experience, to hopefully be buried ‘neath the cleansing, indomitable river of time.
In a neurotic trance, my head pounding and eyes watering, I approached the ticket-taker to purchase my salvation. I bought the ticket, and in an hour, which seemed instant to me, I was boarding the last train back to Atlanta—my home— to report a successful collection of payment.
It seemed mere minutes until the six-hour train ride was complete, so it startled me to find it ten at night when I disembarked. I knew that my client, owning several bars. brothels, unlicensed casinos, would most probably still be awake running his business, but troubling him with business matters at such an hour seemed unprofessional. Hesitantly, I decided to take the gem back to my apartment and lock it straight into my safe, to be delivered tomorrow. I had a top of the line iron-cast safe for my valuables (paranoia is one of my largest faults), so I had absolutely no doubt that I can keep this gem secure.
Once I returned to my apartment, I finally had the chance to examine the prize that I had been so mentally scarred for. I must admit, if there was ever a reason for losing one’s mind, this gem would be it! It truly is exquisite: a stone of the deepest, darkest, purest blood red I’ve ever seen, with uncountable faces giving it a roughly spherical shape. I could stare into it for hours, every new glance yielded some new curve or sparkle in its unending depths. This stone truly is precious, and whereas before I was somewhat reluctant to leave such a valuable liability and theft-magnet in my home, I now have absolutely no regrets as to my decision. I could have left the gem unsecured on my kitchen counter for a month, and it would be worth the risk just to see it this once. Like a Vermeer or a Rembrandt, it was a work of beauty unrivaled by any rival. In my profession, I’ve seen million-dollar diamonds and seven-hundred-year-old emeralds, but none can come close to the complex, subtle intricacies of this incredible ruby.
Today, I’m supposed to deliver the gem to my client. But I’ve woken up with an even worse headache than before, and my whole body is finally feeling the effects of that terrible fight with Hartford. I’m going to take a day to rest and recover, I’m sure my client will understand. Besides, I can spend tone more day admiring this truly incredible ruby.
I briefly entertained the idea of showing it to my sister, but then declined. While we may live in the same city, she was never an art-lover, and only an art-lover can appreciate the ruby’s subtle depths and tints. When I stare at the ruby, I feel myself transported to another world, swiped by its depths to another dimension of pure, unending redness and shine. In my time, I’ve been to several opium dens, and not even the greatest, most intense opium high can compare to this sensation. If it could, I’m sure we would replace every art gallery with an opium dispensary, and live our entire lives in the clouds. No, I’m certain now that I’ve found my very own art gallery inside my office, sitting on my desk.
The next day, I take another sick leave. I can see the ruby out of the corner of my eye right now, and sometimes even when I’m not looking at it. When I close my eyes, I see a shifting kaleidoscope of reds and burgundys. I read an article in the paper today about ruby appraisals, and have become convinced that I am the only sighted one in this world of blind men. If these other, pretending rubies have even one one-hundredth, or even one one-thousandth of the beauty of my gem, then the whole world must be blind for not putting them on a pedestal in every town hall, in every school, in every home.
When I look into its depths now, I can see my own inner peace reflected. The darkness and the pain evaporate under shifting, twisting polyhedra, drawing me in like a hypnotic spiral. I can spend hours looking at it, and frequently have. I was supposed to meet my friend Gustav, a German émigré to go admire a friend’s art collection. I don’t bother, I have something greater than all the museums in the world sitting at my desk.
I realize now, I have not yet degraded far enough to miss, that my fascination with this ruby borders on obsession. But could anyone, once exposed to the magnificence of this heavenly gem, chastise me? If there things worthy of obsession, surely this indescribable gem is the most deserving of the lot. I know it might be unethical for me to linger with this gem for so long, but again, could anyone rightly blame me? To take this bottomless well of joy from me would be a cruelty on above all cruelties, an inhumanity above all inhumanities.
As I awoke at my desk, I came to a sudden and most unpleasant realization: as I rested and recovered from my horrid ordeal, the more and more sick I felt. It was as though my body was a snowball on a hoary hill, and by sitting still I was only letting the frost flake from my skin. So, for the first time in several days, I decided to leave my apartment, and venture out into that brave and all-too-often harsh world. It was Sunday, I went to Church, to refresh my body through movement and my spirit through Christ.
I sat down in the aisles and said my customary greetings, looked with mild amusement at the awe-struck children gazing at the stained glass. If only they knew true beauty. However, despite my early amusement and hopeful high-spirits, the sermon left me disgusted and nauseated. The preacher spoke words of humbility on earth, and the triumph of heaven’s beauty over any earthly situations. I left halfway through.
As I kicked the dust on the road away from church, I looked down to discover the ruby in my pocket. I instantly felt every nerve in my body light on fire, adrenaline pumping through my veins. How could I be so careless, leaving it thoughtlessly in my jacket! Anyone could see it, could be captured by its beauty, could seek to take it from me here! I almost vomited at the thought of some horrible hoodlum stealing it from me, or some pickpocket swiped it from me unaware. I would much prefer the former, because the latter would leave me still alive to ruminate over my revolting, horrifying absentmindedness. One of my former client’s men could find me out here, out in public, and try and take the ruby from me! They wouldn’t even glance at it as they pried it from my lifeless fingers, they would see it as no more than a particularly expensive people! I couldn’t allow any uneducated, unenlightened mobster or petty criminal to lay their hands on my fountain of pure beauty, to have it lie in such unappreciative hands would be a sin against beauty itself. Suddenly, I could only see my fellow street-travelers as the potential thieves they were. Right then, the church-doors opened, and a wave of screaming, unwashed, thieving monsters rushed for my ruby. I could see it reflected in their eyes, that lust for beauty, that greed, that hunger for possession and ownership. Frightened and disgusted, I vomited all over the ground and almost collapsed. Helplessly, I gazed up at the approaching hordes, their pale blue clothing a funeral shroud for all that’s good and right in the world. I couldn’t act, I was paralyzed with fear.
At that moment, when I was surest of my death and damnation, some divine power interceded on my behalf. I remembered that bloody, broken, battered body launching itself at me in one terrible last greed-ridden attempt to steal my ruby. It was like a light had shone down upon me, I realized that my hesitation there had almost cost me my life, or even my ruby, and became determined to never make that mistake again. I picked myself up right as the unwashed masses were about to descend upon me, and I ran, I ran as fast as I could until my lungs wheezed and my eyes burned with sweat and tears. I looked up, stealing breaths from the air like an indigent addict, and saw my apartment. I resolved to never leave it again, to never face the horrible, unenlightened commonfolk ever again. I would stay in my home and create a crimson tower of beauty, a temple to the holy purity, divinity, and indescribable wonder of the inner soul; a temple to my soul’s image, seen mirrored in the ruby’s scarlet depths.
I’ve taken up poetry lately, that beautiful art which allows the soul to sing in all the colors of the rosy rainbow. I sit all day in the palace to the beauty of the inner life—the inside—and live in the lap of intellectual luxury. My form is declining, but my eyes have never been sharper; my knees lock up, but my eyes can now see the multi-dimensional figures in my ruby’s innermost depths—if my ruby can even be said to have a bottom!
I sit for ages. Days? Years? Months? Or maybe even mere seconds pass while I consider the Ruby’s innermost depths. I feel I am a prophet of a new age; only I am able to read the codices stored in this galactic extra-earthly device—my ruby! It possesses heaven-sent knowledge, and I must deliver it. I must deliver the ruby’s red beauty to all humanity, they will all be red in the end when they see! Their insides and outsides—red with knowledge! The spirit is embodied in the inner flesh, things we hide from out pale and nasty non-red skin-colored exterior. I find myself considering the redness inside me the ruby inside me but not my ruby every day. More and more I consider, that eternally vexing question—giving the whole world the beauty stored inside my ruby.
My art is incomprehensible to all but the most intelligent—the visionaries of their generations in all the generations in all the world’s histories. I am reminded of the old Greek myth of Prometheus and his red fire, burning with the knowledge of tool-making brought to humanity. I am the second Prometheus—and the dawning of a new age and a new understanding is here with solid ruby fire. If the first Prometheus is the mechanic I will become the artist a master of all things big and small, matters of the soul. I seem to be tired now, in body not spirit I will rest.
I still am thinking with fascination of old man Hartford; his bloody trail of madness like a lighted path to my own sanity. It has all become clear to me now: the all and the everything and the nothing is all available in once complete edition for the low low price of my wretched mortal soul. I will be glad to be gone from this mortal coil, this ugly and unenlightened world with its brutish citizens stomping to and left and right for their entire lives without ever once stepping UP. Like an eternal train of disenfranchised heathens these people spend their lives lined up to curse and hate themselves because they can never see how beautiful they are. They can’t see themselves spiritually and they can’t see themselves organically so they can’t see themselves at all. Right now and all the right nows before right now I’ve considered and been considering how our two insides are the same inside. The flesh and the blood and the pulpy intestines are all one and to see one is to see the other and know the other and see peace in art and beauty. The ruby is like a glorious trumpet of shifting shapes and colors and its patterns are making me consider horrible and terrible things like how our two insides are the same inside and I should show people their two insides and how my soul inside is my beauty and how I can never let anyone else see the ruby and see their inside because I am the prophet of my soul inside.
Every day I feel less at ease in my red inside and more at ease in my soul inside because I know the ruby takes my red inside to put into my soul inside. My red inside is really red and I can see it and I can see the flesh snakes when I see my red inside and I want to be a big red slug from the holy inside inside.
I am more lucid now, I am sorry for my earlier words of truth that humans do not have the brain to understand. I am no longer human I am guardian. I am the prophet of the ruby, and the prophet of the ruby is the guardian of the ruby, and the guardian of the ruby must keep the ruby safe forever to show the world its truth. Oh, how happy I would be if the ruby just fed off me and sucked me dry and turned me to her eternal guardian! How how joyous an occasion if my mind is set free to drift in the crimson heavens, and my body on earth can act as a wall against the world for all eternity! But I am not a man without duty, and in my moments of rarer and rarer and ever rarer lucidity I know I must complete my humanistic purpose. I will be the prophet of the red inside, inside all of us, inside you inside me. Once I show people their red insides and their soul insides are the same they can be at peace like me how the ruby shows me my soul inside by showing me the red inside it. Once insides are the same and in harmony they will become outsides which will make the world all at peace with itself and each other and I will be happy and rest as the eternal guardian.
My sister’s house I am outside now feeling is time is nothing is red all red she is red I am red inside the ruby. Knife is now red and the red inside is on the red floor inside the house which is all red everything is red inside me inside the ruby. The blue in the cloth is red and the white walls are red and the brown desk is red and the inside me is red and the ruby is inside me so the blue-brown-white-red can’t take the red that is red that is inside the red that is inside me. I hear the red that’s red inside the red inside my red inside me tell my red insides to tell the red insides of “J. Barrett 1049221” he red man nice is who red inside is very inside is his red is inside inside the ruby will be is now I am not with Barrett his is not with me his is inside his red inside is outside he is beautiful. The red inside is inside my inside with me inside the white-red inside is will be forever now also inside. All inside everyone’s inside all inside the red inside me alone not alone with the red inside me inside. I am beautiful now he sister everyone beautiful is all is will be when the throat that is are red are is red also throat mine they are the inside inside me tells the inside to be inside the knife inside red inside mine ruby ruby ruby ruby ruby ruby ruby.
My footsteps brushed up dust as I walked the dirt road. I’ve always been a deliberate man; never late, never early, never too fast or slow: my place, time, and manner are always exact. My life is exactly as deliberate as my gait: I complete with dedication and thoroughness whatever tasks were needed to ensure my well-being and advancement in the collections agency, and nothing more.
Today, I’ve been sent by my firm to collect a specific item—a small ruby—from one H. Elias Hartford, as payment for rather large gambling debts. Hartford had once been a factory owner infamous for his charm and handsomeness, but as he slowly relinquished control of the business in his old age, he gambled away his personal and family fortunes. Now, Hartford owed debts to the types of people he really shouldn’t own debts to, and was therefore required, on pain of a fatal “accident”, to surrender his family’s priceless heirloom ruby.
Tall and dark, like a craggy Caucasian peak, the Hartford estate towered in front of me. It seemed out of place, like a careless giant picked it off some bizarre Transylvanian mountain, and hurled it straight into South Georgia’s sleepy farmland. As I pushed the gates open, I sniffed in distaste at the wild grasses on the grounds, the empty stables with broken doors, and the ramshackle repairs to a once-great mansion. I walked up to the door, and knocked—three quick, impersonal raps to signal my arrival. At once, I heard a great crash from inside, the rooftop-roosting birds erupting into a feathered, cawing mass. The house startled. In a shuddering, pneumonic breath, it recognized its first visitor in months.
The door inched open, and I saw a gaunt, scraggly face. This man, was without a doubt the most hideous-looking creature I had ever had the displeasure of laying eyes on. His face was ill-fitting and pockmarked, it looked as if someone had taken a particularly hairy swatch of arm-skin to be tanned and stiffened, and then sewn that skin onto a small, misshapen skull. The man’s puckered mouth was wet with drool, and his clothes had the stains of a man who hadn’t bathed in months. The man’s elbows were less joint and more knob, marking the midpoint of two bony, veiny, malformed sticks. One of the varicose sticks he called legs was perpetually bent at the knee, giving the man a hunched look. His leg-skin was even more tan and brittle than his face, flaking off everywhere except for the large bruises which littered his thighs.
I composed myself, and asked in my most professional tone of voice: “Would you be Harold Elias Hartford?”
“...Aye”, the man confirmed, his voice as craggy as his stubble-rag of a face. He opened the door wordlessly and walked down the hallway, only his wheezing breaths breaking the silence.
At once he started, stopping me short, and stared at me wide-eyed, like I was some phantasm sent to haunt him for his sins. I stepped slightly to the side, waiting for him to regain his senses, but he only stared harder and more fearfully at the space that I’d since left. I waited, and waited, and waited some more, tried shuffling around and clearing my throat. Nothing would jar the elderly debtor, cut past whatever dementia-caused haze that ensnared him.
I am an extraordinarily patient man, and quite proud of that fact, but not even Christ himself could have withstood five minutes of silent waiting in the presence of Mr. Hartford.
“Sir”, I finally piped up, after five minutes and twenty-two seconds, startling Hartford out of his trance. He turned from his previous location, with his back to me, to facing me directly, his eyes noticeably less calm once he noticed my form.
“What do you want?”, he croaked.
“I haven’t got any money any more, and I can’t get you a job. My brother quit running the factory.”
“Sir, I’m here to collect on the sizable gambling debts you owe to my client.”
“I don’t have anything. All I have that’s worth more than a few cents has already been taken from me.” His response tumbled out of his mouth, as if he’d carelessly dropped the words in his haste to escape a hazy, unpleasant memory.
Despite my growing sympathy for Hartford’s sad (and slightly unnerving) state, I reaffirmed to myself my client’s desire for his ancestral ruby. I’d been told this ruby would fetch my client quite the hefty sum on the gemstone market, being of considerable weight and purity. It was Hartford’s own damn fault for gambling away his fortune anyways.
When I informed Hartford of my client’s desires, he suddenly inflated, possessed with a vigour that belied his age and appearance.
“NO!” he shrieked, swiping in front of himself. I stepped back, almost knocking over what I’m sure was a cremation vase.
I tried to be conciliatory: “Sir, this really is your best option. My client doesn’t desire a long, drawn-out battle, if you don’t repay this debt of your own free will, my client will be forced to sue for your last valuable possession and it will be removed from you by force.”
Hartford ignored my pleas, his eyes darted around wildly, searching for an escape route: “You’ll never take it from me, not alive! By the time all your fancy lawyers have come back, I’ll have moved it! Out the door, hidden, taken from its pedestal in the study!”
He must have realized his folly as soon as he’d spoken, because the minute the words “in the study” had left his cracked lips, he darted in fear towards the back stairwell. Nevertheless, I was quite younger and faster than him, and now determined to return with the ruby. I bowled him over, racing towards the room he had ran towards.
His desk was spartan, full of bills, and devoid of all trinkets but a small, satin pillow which the ruby rested on. I grabbed the ruby—still warm, recently handled—and rushed back down the stairs, past Hartford, who had just now stumbled into the room. He caught my leg as I rushed past, and I fell to the floor. In an instant he pounced, his feeble hands tearing at mine, trying to dislodge his last remaining piece of wealth. When it became clear my hands would not relinquish his gem, he tore at my face with claw-like nails in desperation. Terrified at whatever last thread of sanity I had taken along with his precious ruby, I could only fend off his his rod-like, bony arms. They flailed at me, tore into me; his voice screaming for me to return his treasure. I finally overcame my panic and managed to throw him off, escaping faster than my legs could carry me. Down and out I rushed, fear and adrenaline leaving me deaf to all but the pounding of my own heart. I only slowed once I’d ran past the gate, knowing Hartford’s body was too frail to carry him beyond his own front door.
As I rushed to my carriage, I turned back to the mansion, and saw one of the most sickening things I’ve seen in my twenty-two years on earth. Hartford had fallen hard down his stairwell, and now on the gravel path, his legs collapsed under him. Despite his broken body, he still screamed for the gem, slowly crawling towards me. It was as if I had murdered his wife and children and then violated their corpses in front of him: his blind, unfeeling revenge propelled his body past the limits of mortal men. He shrieked at the top of his wheezy lungs as he pulled himself along—a screaming, writhing, demented slug. The gravel tore into his stomach and legs with every pull, leaving a trail of blood and pulpy flesh.
I couldn’t look away, I knew in my heart he would never stop until he reached me and tore me to pieces, with his teeth if he had to, but yet I could not look away from his gruesome form—now more muscle and blood than man .
All at once, his heart, or lungs, or arms, or brain, or perhaps all of these at once, gave out; and with one last mighty screech he hurled himself at me. He hit the ground, tumbled, and rolled to a stop fifteen feet from my paralyzed form; his corpse mutilated beyond all recognition.