Source image: Smithsonian Libraries. Modified by Ansellia Kulikku.

Bill woke up, stared into total darkness, and for a half second of hot terror he thought, almost calmly, Oh, here it is. That it had finally happened: he was in one of those black holes of boozed memory loss, actually inside it. Bullshit, of course. He was conscious, albeit with no idea where he was or how he’d got here. Gradually he began to make out very small lights above him, acknowledged that those lights were stars, that the ground beneath him was damp grass, that below that was solid earth, and that this was, yes, the real living world of Earth. With these discoveries made, it was time to roll onto his side, vomit voluminously, and then wipe his face on the ground like an animal, prostrating himself on his elbows. The bright tang of grass cut through the puke stench. And night air! Good, clean, glorious night air that he took in eagerly as he made his way onto his knees.

Taking its time, the world began to calibrate itself around him, tilting all its planes until they finally aligned. Okay, Prospect Park. He’d woken up in Prospect Park, and in this sick-drunk, fucked-up state, the name of the place struck him as hilarious. Prospect Park, in the dark. What prospects. Ha.

Time to piece it together. He’d been at the rooftop barbecue of an eminent former magazine editor—a pewter-haired, old-world fox, more scribbled sketch of a figure than man. There’d been mini lobster rolls, clam chowder served on ranks of porcelain spoons, and everyone drinking the same elaborate geranium-scented cocktails—his insides protested now at the memory—ostentatiously shaken by gym-bunny men in tight white shirts. Later, that party in the garden of a Park Slope brownstone. A small group of young teenage boys staring at him from a garden corner bright with fairy lights, brown eyes steeped in reproach, faces hushed like tiny monks. Shorts and ashy knees, baggy T-shirts and bony elbows.

And then? Fuck knows. But here he was.

He was clothed, at least, although barefoot. The darkness continued softening into gradations. Stars on the ground there—reflected, yes, a lake. He was near the lake. He patted his pockets to find, yes, familiar lumps of keys-phone-wallet. But no shoes. And the part of his mind that should explain to him where and why and when he’d taken his shoes off was miraculously missing.

“Where are my shoes?” he said out loud to the lake, a madman mumble. His feet were stuck all over with black wet bits of grass.

As he got closer to the lake, the dank reek of weeds and duck shit rose up and rolled toward him. But there was the moon on the water, the little rippling sonnet of it. He stood there, hearing the susurrus of the crickets, and thought about how he might possibly be the only human being in the park right now. One man, alone, in a massive dark park. The clock on his phone said 03:33. He also had this thing on it, an app costumed with a quaint rendering of an old-fashioned compass, which quavered and found north when he asked it to. This way, then, northwest. He tried to think of himself as intrepid.

Small pinecones underfoot, pieces of twigs, dry and crumbled leaves, damp cool grass, and then the cold metal serration of something, an upturned beer bottle top, so quick and vicious that he yelped, came down in a clumsy drop, took his foot in his hand, and pulled it toward him for inspection. Like a cookie cutter in dough, the bottle top had left an indented ring on the mound of his flesh and he rubbed it, mute and dumb.

Sitting there, on the damp ground, holding his own naked foot in his hand like some kind of forsaken mental patient, he became aware of a thing glowing against the base of a tree in front of him, a bright shape that he didn’t understand. His vision and his mind ran over and around it, but still the thing didn’t yield itself. He stood and limped closer and the shape became brighter. It had legs, four slender legs tucked beneath its body, like an image of motion suspended, a perfect Muybridge gallop, but the space where its head should be was empty. This was what his mind had struggled with, that missing piece; it was a goat, a baby goat, but also couldn’t be, because it was headless. There was something medieval in the image, but here it was, lying tenderly at the foot of a tree in Brooklyn.

There had been local news items about the mauled corpses of domestic animals. The mutant wildcat theory was popular, he remembered—some ungodly offspring of an escaped zoo beast and a stray. More plausible, and more ghoulish, too, was the psychopath theory, that some sick, sad human being captured the pets of moneyed Park Slope families and dismembered them here in the middle of the night. The headless kid seemed like a warning light. It said the space he moved in was just one layer, that there were so many more layers through which he moved obliviously, and that he’d just trespassed into a domain that was not his, like the sudden opening of elevator doors onto the wrong floor, into the wrong world.

Feeling foolish and afraid, he drew his phone out, held it up, and took a picture. As he did so every tree screamed with the assault of the flash, their branches like lightning rods in its sterile strobe, and he was suddenly hot with shame, as if he’d committed a dreadful impiety. He ran, an undignified scrabble, fueled by a boy’s fear of monsters, sprinting now, belting in bare feet until he hit Prospect Park West. The low stone wall marked park from street like a mythical boundary, separating nature from the realm of emptied trash cans and functioning streetlights and alternate-side parking rules. It was a relief to feel smooth paving stone underfoot, to look up and see stately, pale apartment buildings glazing out placidly over the darkness behind him.

He checked his phone for the photo, wanting to see that headless kid, wanting to know if he’d really seen it. The image was just a blare, a white blare. He stared, just one second, then deleted it.

He retched viscous bile onto the clean sidewalk and wiped some cold streaks of bird shit from his feet. With a stitch in his side, he began to shuffle northeast, to Grand Army Plaza, where beneath the huge, illuminated arch he summoned dignity, and then a cab. There were so many gaps in his memory, stretches of time that he’d efficiently wiped out with vodka over the years, a tidal wave of it sweeping away the substrate. You really could kill time. Killing time drinking was not spending time, was not whiling time away, it was serving it up to oblivion. It felt at times like cheating death, playing death at its own game.

At home, dawn already creeping in like the sick joke it was, he rattled four Advil into his palm, downed them with half a glass of tepid tap water, and then looked at her bedroom door. Shut, which meant Inez was home. Good. He stood there for a moment, as if he expected her to wake up, sense him, and open the door, to sweetly welcome her father home at 5 a.m. He stared at the door a moment longer, turned, and went to bed.

*

Excerpt from the novel Neon in Daylight to be released by Catapult in January 2018.

Hermione Hoby

Hermione Hoby is the author of Neon in Daylight (Catapult, 2018). She grew up in south London and has lived in New York since 2010. She is a freelance journalist who writes about culture and gender for publications including The New YorkerThe Guardian, the New York Times, and The Times Literary Supplement. She also writes the “Stranger of the Week” column for The Awl.

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