I1. Salt and Alcohol

The next morning Dan woke on Faith’s couch. He’d slept oddly on his arms so they were somehow both painful and numb. Faith was unsympathetic. “If you’re awake, it’s time for you to leave.”

“Huh?” Dan managed to sit up. He surveyed the wreckage from last night’s party. Empty liquor bottles cluttered the kitchenette. “How’s Beatrice?”

“BeatBax is waiting for you to leave so she can come out for breakfast.” Faith folded her arms. “In case you don’t remember, you tried to start a fight last night. We don’t appreciate that kind of atmosphere in our apartment.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.”

“That guy,” said Dan. “Henry. Don’t you recognize him? He’s Leo, from high-school, remember?”

“I know,” said Faith. “He’s my cricket dealer. Or, he was, until I found out he has a swastika tattoo. Now I’m not sure I want him around anymore, either.” She pulled Dan by the arm. “C’mon, Dainty. Get outta my house.”

Dan lingered by the door. “Maybe I can come back next week? Beatrice and I didn’t get to finish our cricket together.”

“You want cricket?” Faith took Leo’s bong and pressed it into Dan’s hands. “Here. I’ll tell Leo someone broke it after he left. Take it and get out.”

Dan put the bong on his coffee-table. The bong was a glass cylinder about a foot tall, with two interior chambers both clogged with brown water. From the bottom chamber, a sliding glass tube stuck out at an angle to hold aloft a bowl of powder. Dan resisted the urge to smell the powder to compare it to cricket; he didn’t want to catch a whiff of the murky water.

He decided to separate the glass parts to clean them. He pulled out the sliding tube and immediately wished he hadn’t: the tube was caked in soggy bug bits. He almost set it on the coffee table, but worried water would drip and soak the wood with dank odors. He shuddered and lay the tube on a napkin.

He donned rubber gloves to empty the bong into his kitchenette sink, and he retched at the smell this unleashed. Even without the murky water the glass was opaque because its interior was crusted with dark matter. Looking into the top chamber (wearing a surgical mask which he kept beneath the sink beside the rubber gloves), he saw the bong was built to filter smoke through five slotted glass fingers. How could he possibly clean all the tiny crevices inside the pipe? No wonder Leo never bothered. A cleansing careful enough to preserve the glass parts would lack the force needed to remove crust from the complicated interior. It could never be done. It was a Sisyphean task, a punishment.

So Dan began.

First he filled the bong with tap-water and poured it out. This barely affected the congealed crust, so he tried a hundred more times, but that didn’t help either. Before he resorted to acid or bleach he realized he should be careful with chemicals in the instrument he’d inhale from. He did a few minutes of research and found the proper solution was rock-salt and isopropyl alcohol.

After a quick shopping trip he put the bong in the sink and poured salt in its mouth, then twisted open one of many bottles of isopropyl. He sniffed the alcohol through his surgical mask; it made his nose burn, which he hoped spoke to its pipe-cleaning power.

He filled the bong with isopropyl—or, he tried to. By the time the first bottle was empty he hadn’t even filled the bong’s bottom chamber. He untwisted a second bottle and kept pouring. It seemed impossible that the bong could hold such volume. He heard the sound of trickling liquid, and realized that the bong leaked from two holes in its lower chamber. The first hole was the hole from which he’d removed the sliding tube. The second hole was smaller and meant for plugging and unplugging to control airflow through the pipe. Embarrassed he had not noticed them before, Dan covered the holes with cling-wrap and poured more isopropyl into the bong’s upper chamber. Finally the pipe was filled.

He opened a plastic baggie and lined it with salt, then filled it with the rest of the bottle of isopropyl. He retrieved the bong’s sliding glass tube from the napkin on the coffee-table and emptied its powder into a tupperware container, for later. He placed the glass tube in the salt and alcohol and sealed the baggie. Then he put the first baggie into another baggie to make sure nothing leaked.

Then he stood over the sink and gently shook the bong in his right hand and the baggies in his left. He shook them for fifteen minutes, just looking out the window waiting for the time to pass. 

When he decided to empty the bong he sniffed the salty alcohol and he didn’t know why. He’d already burned nose-hairs on the isopropyl, so he should have known the toxic runoff from the foul process would be even worse.

But the cleaning process worked. The glass was more translucent by two thirds. He refilled the bong and baggies with fresh salt and alcohol, this time vowing to shake them for half an hour.

His arms tired after twenty minutes. For motivation, he imagined the pipe was Leo. “Looks like both of us are full of salt and alcohol, huh, Leo.” The salt swirled in Leo like snowflakes with spikes and jags. “Why don’t you whine about it to your daddy?”

He emptied the bong and baggies, but found that all the easy gunk had been cleaned in the first cycle. The second cycle took only flecks of the remaining crust.

Dan refilled the bong and baggies a third time, but his frustration didn’t provide enough energy to shake them for very long. He was still drunk and hungover and fatigued from the party, so he decided to let the the glass parts soak in isopropyl while he slept through the afternoon. He took off the gloves and surgical mask.

He must have been more tired than he realized, because he slept through the night.

In the morning all the glass was gleaming and clean. Gunk sloughed into the sink with a satisfying sound when he poured out the salt and alcohol. Dan slid the glass tube back into the bong’s lower chamber and retrieved the powder he’d stored in tupperware. He poured the powder into the bowl at the end of the tube.

Cleaning the bong had taught Dan how to fill it with water for smoking. Liquid poured in the top chamber would flow through some strange pressure-system up the five glass fingers to fill the bottom chamber. Only enough water remained in the top chamber to cover the glass fingers’ slots, so smoke would have to bubble through them.

Having prepared everything, and having the rest of Sunday free, Dan sat on the couch and toked up.

Some kind of amoeba bubbled and blopped on the dusty Mountainside. The amoeba was translucent orange and about the size of a man. It wriggled and writhed like it didn’t want to exist.

It had no mouth. It tried to scream.

White specks appeared in its core. Those specks crystallized into flecks, which collected into flakes. The white flakes tore through the jelly of the amoeba’s belly. The amoeba groped with blind pseudopods in impotent expression of its agony.

A shadow passed over the amoeba. The sound of thunder was the wingbeat of an enormous bird landing beside the oozing thing. The sapphire bird in sky-blue robes used compound emerald eyes to watch the white flakes in the amoeba combine into teeth. Molars and canines and worse were instruments of torture tearing through the gelatin of the amoeba’s innards. The amoeba smacked the ground wetly.

“You’re a big one. Congratulations on finding your way to the Mountain.” The bird withdrew its wings into its robes. “But I cannot collect you. The chain has not been pulled. The wheel spins regularly. And in addition, you are not purified. I can see you are not some dead holy person ready to become an arch-Zephyr. You’re a novice smoking beyond their limits, filled with shrieking teeth.”

The amoeba curdled into muscles and nerves for the teeth to tear through. It bristled with pleading eyes which were swiftly blinded by its blood.

“Even I cannot help you now.” The bird marched up the Mountainside. “I’ll send my assistant to take you to Anihilato.”

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