This story is by Arlo Sharp and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“It’s laid out in grids,” the one-armed man wept as police officers brought him into the hospital emergency room.
After finding nothing wrong with the man except malnourishment, the ER doctor called me in. I’m the local shrink, the psychiatrist in the small Rocky Mountain town. A homeless veteran, the guy claimed he’d visited other worlds far across the universe where he’d seen and heard incredible things.
I diagnosed schizophrenia and admitted him to the psychiatric ward for treatment. I also prescribed antipsychotic medication and visited him regularly for talk therapy. He often repeated the statement about something laid out in grids, but wouldn’t explain. As if he feared revealing too much.
Which is typical of schizophrenia. A sufferer has delusions of grandeur, and sees and hears things that aren’t real. The hallucinations tend to be grandiose rather than mundane. The schizophrenic doesn’t see or hear ordinary people, fictitious characters, or well-known dignitaries like the president or the pope. He perceives lofty beings such as gods, spirits, or aliens, and they tell him the secrets of the universe, as if he’s been singled out for special revelations. But I couldn’t persuade Bud, as he preferred to be called, to tell me what he meant about something laid out in grids.
When I first heard the expression, I thought of football fields. Then lattices or gridlock, as in the perpetual state of government. But Bud wouldn’t explain. I encouraged him to start writing a journal to articulate his thoughts. For his benefit only, nobody else would see it. He did so, and it helped ease his agitation. Still, he’d often repeat his assertion about grids, shedding tears or barely holding them back.
Three weeks passed. I discovered Bud to be highly intelligent, and I looked forward to our conversations.
Until the day he disappeared.
He’d gone into the shower room, which had no other exit and no windows. And suddenly he wasn’t anywhere. No one saw him leave the room. Guards can be dishonest or mistaken, but security cameras and locked doors do not lie.
Bud was never seen again.
As he had no family the hospital bequeathed me his paltry possessions–his journal, a shabby Army jacket, and a strange-looking metal amulet which twisted back upon itself like the mathematical symbol for infinity. Ancient hieroglyphics were etched upon it.
On the cover of his journal he’d written: “To be opened by Dr. Hindman in the event of my death or disappearance.”
I waited quite some time before reading it. Not sure why. Perhaps I thought he might show up again someday. In any event, when I read what he’d scribbled, it rocked my world.
Doc, since you’re reading this, I’ve likely gone back to the world of grids. Although calling it a world is a stretch. Like describing the Empire State Building as a remodeling project. And even that wouldn’t be accurate. But I’m digressing. Some background is in order.
One day in Iraq, I saved the life of an elderly Sufi mystic. Some gung-ho GI’s wanted to kill him. I cursed and threatened them, and kicked a couple of butts to make them back off.
In gratitude, the old man gave me an amulet with ancient symbols on it. And he taught me a form of Sufi meditation which helped me keep my sanity when I lost my arm. Later I learned he’d been killed by an improvised explosive device. I still mourn for him and hope he lives on somewhere in their version of paradise.
After my discharge, I drifted around the country. Parked my ass wherever anybody had food, liquor, or dope. Not necessarily in that order. I did drugs, dropped acid numerous times. Trying to forget things I saw. And some I did, I’m sorry to say.
I can’t tell you how I visited another world. Possibly a combination of the Sufi meditation, drug use, or some power in the amulet. The old man claimed it dated to the time of Ezekiel, the prophet who saw visions of flaming chariots and wheels within wheels, which some equate to UFO’s having visited the earth in ancient times. I don’t know about that, but one night I went to sleep and woke up somewhere else.
I found myself wandering the deserted streets of a city. Dark and abandoned, as if its inhabitants had departed in a single moment, perhaps for a better place. When I looked upward, I saw where. A vast metropolis in the sky, stretching nearly from horizon to horizon and receding into the distance, as if it went on forever. Gigantic city blocks, massive futuristic buildings with lofty walkways, impossibly tall spires and mile-wide streets, all laid out in neat, geometric grids. Everything consisted of tiny particles like a mist.
I never saw any inhabitants. Possibly no human eye or manmade instrument could. Maybe they’d evolved into pure energy, perhaps of a kind unknown to our electromagnetic spectrum.
I walked the empty streets for years, or decades, possibly centuries. I didn’t experience hunger, thirst, or fatigue. I knew only a heartbroken longing for the place above me, the fabulous city in the sky laid out in grids.
Doc, I’m sure you’re familiar with American artist Norman Rockwell. One of his Christmas paintings shows a shabbily dressed little boy and girl on a dark, snowy night gazing into a brightly lit toy store, wonderment and yearning on their faces. And the certain knowledge they’ll never have any of the beautiful treasures within. That’s how I felt, but worse. Maybe the way a malefactor would feel as he’s turned away from the shining gates of heaven.
Heartbroken, I poured out my soul in supplication, begging whatever powers existed to let me enter that magnificent city and be a part of the wonderful life there. It’s laid out in grids–that phrase recurred in my mind until I could think of nothing else. But something about it eluded me. If I could grasp it, maybe I’d understand more about the place and what wondrous beings created it and laid it out in elegant, symmetrical grids.
Bud awoke from his dream which he believed was real, with profound regret and grief. He wanted nothing but to go back.
After weeks of meditation and drug use, he slept and woke there again. But again, the same story. He stood alone on the abandoned world apart from the fabulous city. Again, he wept and begged entrance into the place. Again, he was ignored.
I fell on my face. Pounded the ground but felt no pain. In that place I had two arms. At last I cried myself to sleep, there under the city laid out in grids.
In my dreams the old Sufi came to me and explained the nature of the city. With that knowledge, I awoke on my pallet in the culvert downtown. Since then I’ve worked on getting back to the place. Meditation and concentration on the amulet will have to do, since I can’t get any more drugs.
Doc, if you’re reading this, perhaps it worked and I’m now dwelling in the city laid out in grids, if dwelling is the proper word, if the proper word exists. And if the builders will let me enter. But they may be so much higher on the evolutionary scale that they’re unaware of creatures like us. However, I’m digressing again. I must tell you what the Sufi mystic revealed to me in the dream. You remember I told you the fabulous city looked to be made of particles like mist? Well, it wasn’t mist.
And I realized I’d been seeing the city at night, their nighttime eons longer than ours. As wondrous as the place looked like in darkness, I can’t imagine what it would look like in their daytime–perhaps an endless, blazing ocean of brilliant light. But I hope to find out.
As for what the city consisted of–Doc, in your wildest dreams can you imagine what incredible god-like beings would lay out their city in grids made up of the very stars of heaven?
That was Bud’s last entry. And I found I believed him. I like to think he voyaged back to the distant world, and the aliens or perhaps gods took him in. I’ve always been a stargazer, and I often stare into the night sky and wonder where the marvelous city could be. Perhaps past the event horizon of the observable universe, so far away its light can never reach here.
I’ve been studying Sufi mysticism and using LSD, dropping acid as Bud called it. And I’ve been meditating on the hieroglyphics carved on his amulet.
And who knows, perhaps someday I’ll also visit that remote corner of the universe where fabulous beings use the mighty suns of heaven as the building blocks of their cities, and lay them out in neat, geometric grids.